December 29, 1940—Two months after campaigning on a promise not to involve America in another overseas war, Franklin D. Roosevelt took an enormous step toward doing just that by urging his countrymen to become an “arsenal of democracy” by shipping arms to Great Britain in its struggle against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.
The military might displayed by these dictatorships was immense, but so, at the time of this foreign-policy “fireside chat,” was the American isolationist movement—a force that crossed partisan, religious and ethnic lines, taking its initial cue from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” reinforced by the nation's disillusionment with WWI.
That movement was also deeply suspicious of FDR's intentions. While normally choosing his words with enough care to allow him wiggle room in case of a policy reversal, Roosevelt felt the necessity, in an October 1940 campaign address in his close race against Republican Wendell Willkie, to make the kind of categorical assertion that his enemies would remember for decades: “I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.”
(That statement makes the short list of Presidential utterances regarded by supporters as unfortunate bows to necessity and by naysayers as blatant lies, along with George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes” and Barack Obama’s “If you like your doctor, you'll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan.")
FDR had just demonstrated, in his precedent-breaking third-term victory, that he still held enormous sway with the electorate. But it would take all his mastery of men to shift America’s diplomatic posture away from isolationism. In solving the immediate problem of confronting Fascism, though, he would shove the nation decisively toward what historians Thomas K. Duncan and Christopher J. Coyne of George Mason University have called “The Permanent War Economy.”
Roosevelt was one of the great Presidential phrasemakers (e.g., “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “rendezvous with destiny,” “date that will live in infamy”). But in this instance, it was Harry Hopkins, his former Secretary of Commerce (and continuing devoted informal adviser), who suggested the most enduring phrase in the radio address, and Hopkins who would help implement the legislation it championed as the President’s unofficial representative to the U.K.
Unlike his predecessor at Downing Street, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill had found in FDR a congenial transatlantic partner in his policy concerning Hitler. The British Prime Minister, then, had no hesitation in spelling out, in a long letter read by FDR on a Caribbean cruise early in December 1940, the dire straits in which his country found itself. A little less than one year after declaring war on Germany—and only a bit more than half a year since Churchill himself had assumed the reins of power—the U.K. was running out of money to pay for war goods.
FDR had arranged a “Destroyers for Bases” swap in early September, but American law still limited the transfer of weapons. His Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had expressed frustration over Congressional foot-dragging in coming to the aid of Britain. (Congress was “doing an immense amount more harm than good and [members] restrict the power of the Commander in Chief in ways in which Congress cannot possibly wisely interfere. They don’t know enough.”)
Churchill’s massive missive catalyzed FDR to push for the Lend Lease Act to get munitions into the hands of Britain and Canada. In one sense, the President was doing what he had been since the start of the New Deal: not consciously implementing a long-range program, but dealing, on an ad-hoc basis, with an immediate problem as realistically as he could. But, even as he attempted to defuse the fears of isolationists at the start of his speech by saying it would not be “a fireside chat on war,” he was pointing toward its ultimate import by labeling it “a talk on national security.”
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he urged. “For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”
By his own lights, his proposal—to pull out all stops, through Lend Lease, to ensure Britain had enough resources to survive against Nazi Germany—was the only feasible way to ensure that America would not become directly involved, as he put it, in “a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.” But in the process, he was uniting the military, big business and labor in a defense-mobilization effort that would survive the end of WWII, through the Cold War and the War on Terror, as the military-industrial complex.
FDR can be best understood now as a crypto-interventionist. He had to proceed carefully because of neutrality legislation passed by Congress in the last decade. But events overseas gave an assist to his persuasive rhetoric: His fireside chat had “particular power and urgency,” noted David McCullough in his biography of Harry Truman, “because German bombers were pounding London” in the Blitz.
The march of Nazism across Europe began to tilt the balance, in the following year, as the President took one unneutral step after another to supply Great Britain and the USSR in their fights against Hitler. It culminated in the fall of 1941, when the U.S. had become involved in an undeclared shooting war in the North Atlantic against Germany.
Had Hitler not declared war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, thereby fulfilling his diplomatic promise to his Axis partner, Japan, the United States would have faced the thorny question of whether to take the last fateful step—a declaration of war—in which FDR’s policies had increasingly inclined the U.S.