This past December, the United States commemorated the 75th anniversary of Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Most commentators rightly played down any conspiratorial suggestion that Franklin Roosevelt had deliberately provoked that particular attack, although they agreed that the U.S. had been putting heavy diplomatic pressure on Japan in the months leading up to it. What virtually nobody mentioned in this context was that, during that exact time period, FDR had been attempting to provoke quite another war, and with enormous success. For much of 1941, and entirely without congressional approval, the United States was in a de facto state of active conflict with Germany.
By late 1940, Great Britain was the last major country resisting Nazi Germany, and British and Canadian naval forces were struggling to defend the North Atlantic trade routes against U-boat attacks. FDR wanted to lend his support, but was very conscious of the passionate antiwar sentiment at home. As late as August 1941, the House of Representatives came within a single vote of refusing to grant FDR’s request of extending the Selective Service Act of 1940—the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history—beyond its original term of 12 months. Soldiers drafted under its provisions were making loud threats of desertion, about going “over the hill in October”—hence the popular graffiti OHIO, seen widely around military bases.
Any advance toward war had to be very cautious. In March, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which was framed to suggest that it would never lead to actual U.S. combat in the ongoing European conflict. Much more aggressive, though, was U.S. conduct on the high seas. In April, the Navy began patrols tasked with identifying German vessels west of Iceland, and reporting their presence to the British. Meanwhile, British warships were repaired at U.S. docks. The Navy increasingly took over escort duties for convoys in the Western Atlantic, after which protection would be handed over to the British or Canadians. The problem was that there was no clear point at which German forces could tell whether the handoff had occurred. Seen through a periscope at night, one camouflaged destroyer looks very much like another.
It was almost as if the administration was trying to ensure that a ship flying the Stars and Stripes would be sunk.
For several months, U.S. warships were regularly engaged in the cat-and-mouse pursuit of German U-boats, in close collaboration with the Anglo-Canadians. In September 1941, the U.S. claimed the right to escort any convoys in which a single U.S. ship was present. On September 4, a German U-boat under heavy attack by British aircraft responded by attacking what it plausibly thought was a British destroyer, which turned out to be the USS Greer. The Greer in turn tried to sink the German vessel with depth charges. In his speech on the incident, on September 11, President Roosevelt was shocked—shocked!—at such a wanton display of Nazi aggression, and he ordered the Navy to “shoot on sight” any German ship that threatened an American.
That same September 11 also marked the ground breaking of the War Department’s vast new headquarters, the Pentagon.
U-boats claimed two more U.S. warships that October, first the Kearney (with 11 dead), and then at Halloween the Reuben James (with 100 fatalities). Congress responded by dismantling the legal framework set up to defend neutrality. U.S. merchant ships were to be armed and were allowed to enter war zones—a provision that could only be enforced with the aid of warships. By this point, the only open question was whether a formally declared war with Germany could be delayed until the start of 1942.
Knowing as we do the outcome of these events, war with Germany seems quite inevitable, and historians congratulate FDR for his heroic willingness to lead his country into the necessary struggle. Yet the President was acting outside the framework of law and the Constitution, and doing so because he knew that his actions were absolutely unacceptable to a sizable majority of the electorate. In order to achieve his goals, he engaged in systematic provocation and deception, and when speaking about particular episodes made assertions that he knew to be false, or ludicrously exaggerated. If matters had worked out differently, FDR was setting himself up for impeachment.
That undeclared Atlantic war of 1941 has left an unsavory heritage. We can trace its legacy through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and to the Central American conflicts of the 1980’s. It also echoes through many other clandestine struggles that particular administrations felt were too important to be put to a vote. Governments have learned the lesson that sometimes the American people have to be taken into war by whatever means the White House deems necessary.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. He is the author of several books, including Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World (Basic Books).