United States Rearmament

IN HIS ANNUAL message to Congress on January 4, 1939, President Roosevelt declared that while a threatened war had been averted, it had become increasingly clear that peace was not assured; that throughout the world there were undeclared wars, military and economic, and threats of new aggression, military and economic. The President said that storms from abroad directly challenged three institutions indispensable to Americans: religion, democracy, and international good faith. He warned of what might happen to the United States if new philosophies of force were to encompass the other continents and invade our own; and that we could not afford "to be surrounded by the enemies of our faith and our humanity".

The President declared that the world had grown so small and weapons of attack so swift that no nation could be safe so long as any single powerful nation refused to settle its grievances at the council table. He said that acts of aggression must not be allowed to pass without effective protest; that there were "many methods short of war, but stronger and more effective than mere words" of bringing home to aggressor governments the sentiments of our people. He spoke critically of neutrality legislation that might actually give aid to the aggressor and deny it to the victim.

Eight days later the President, in a special message to Congress, called for immediate steps to strengthen the defense of the United States. He asked Congress to appropriate, "with as great speed as possible", more than half a billion dollars for Army and Navy. equipment, particularly for military and naval aircraft. These planes, he said, would considerably strengthen the air defense of continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Canal Zone. The President likewise recommended the training of additional air pilots and urged that steps be taken to prepare industry for quantity production of war materials. These recommendations, which the President characterized as "a minimum program for the necessities of defense", were substantially enacted into law.

For several years agencies of this Government had been studying the problem of the acquisition of stock-piles of strategic and critical materials not produced in the United States or produced here in quantities below national requirements. These stock-piles were to be for use in case of national emergency.

Secretary of State Hull discussed the problem in a letter of October 21, 1938 to the President. He said that events of the past few weeks had shown clearly the wisdom of adequate handling of the problem of strategic raw materials "with all possible despatch"; that these events indicated how disturbed sources of supply would be in any general war; and that there were insufficient supplies in the United States of a number of raw materials which would be of great strategic importance in the event of a general war, whether or not the United States were involved. The Secretary said further that the Department of State concurred in the view of the War and Navy Departments that it was "highly desirable to adopt a national policy with respect to this problem and to secure early and effective action by Congress"; that it was felt that there should be no further delay in initiating steps which would make available adequate supplies of the materials which were of the most critical importance.

The President approved the recommendation, and there was later enacted, on June 7, 1939, legislation stating that it was the policy of Congress to provide for the acquisition of stocks of "certain strategic and critical materials being deficient or insufficiently developed to supply the industrial, military, and naval needs of the country for common defense . . . in times of national emergency". This legislation authorized the appropriation of $100,000,000, which was gradually appropriated for the purpose.

One hundred thousand tons of rubber were brought into this country as a result of an agreement between the United States and Great Britain, dated June 23, 1939, providing for the delivery by the United States of cotton in return for rubber.

Invasion of Czechoslovakia and Albania

In Europe the uneasy calm that had followed the Munich settlement was soon to be broken. A few days before the signing of the Munich Pact Hitler had promised that once the Sudetenland problem was solved Germany had no more territorial claims in Europe; at the time of the Munich settlement he had said that he was ready to guarantee the new frontiers of Czechoslovakia.

In flagrant disregard of these pledges, German troops invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia on March 14, 1939, thus completing the absorption of that country. Acting Secretary of State Welles, on March 17, condemned this "temporary extinguishment of the liberties of a free and independent people" and declared that world peace and the very structure of modern civilization were being threatened by acts of "wanton lawlessness and of arbitrary force".

Within a month after Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia the forces of aggression struck again. In emulation of the ruthless tactics of his German partner, Mussolini, on Good Friday, April 7, 1939, sent his Fascist legions into Albania and after a few days of military and political maneuvering established Italian control over that country. This "forcible and violent invasion" was condemned by Secretary Hull as a threat to world peace.

These two blows at the world peace structure awoke Europe to a full sense of the danger which threatened it. They were followed by feverish diplomatic and military activity. Great Britain and France pledged assistance to Poland, Greece, and Rumania in the event that the independence of those nations should be threatened by aggression. Diplomatic interchanges began among Great Britain, France, and Russia, with a view to establishing a common front against further aggression.

President Roosevelt's Appeal to Hitler and Mussolini

At this point President Roosevelt addressed personal messages to Hitler and Mussolini in an appeal for the maintenance of peace. The President reminded the European dictators, in messages of April 14, 1939, that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world were living in constant fear of a new war or series of wars; that in such an event all the world-victors, vanquished, and neutrals-would suffer. He said that he could not believe that the world was, of necessity, such a "prisoner of destiny"; he believed, on the contrary, that the leaders themselves had the power to liberate their peoples from the impending disaster.

Accordingly the President asked the dictators if they were willing to give assurances that their armed forces would not attack or invade any of the independent nations of Europe and the Near East. If such assurances were forthcoming, the President said, two important problems would promptly be discussed in peaceful surroundings, and in the discussions the United States would take part. These problems were relief from the crushing burden of armaments and the opening up of international trade on terms of equality for all nations.

The President said that "heads of great governments in this hour are literally responsible for the fate of humanity in the coming years"; that "history will hold them accountable for the lives and the happiness of all".

Neither Hitler nor Mussolini replied directly to President Roosevelt. However, in an address, Hitler said that Germany's neighbors knew that Germany had no aggressive intentions against them; that all states bordering on Germany had received much more binding assurances than those requested by the President.

In an address of April 25, 1939 Secretary of State Hull made a strong plea against resort to war for settling international differences. He declared that there could be no controversy between nations impossible of settlement by the peaceful processes of friendly adjustment. The Secretary said that the world contained ample resources to enable all nations to enjoy economic prosperity and spiritual advancement; that no single nation held a monopoly of material resources, nor was any nation excluded from participation in the means of advancement of mankind unless it excluded itself by adopting a policy of isolation or of armed aggrandizement. Furthermore, no nation could prosper without access to the resources of the entire world, but such access was possible only on the basis of peaceful international cooperation.

Secretary Hull said that he could not believe that any nation had entered irrevocably upon the road to war; that the road to peaceful adjustment still lay open, and he hoped that "at the present fateful juncture of history, all nations will decide to enter upon this road". Yet so long as some nations continued to arm for conquest, all other nations were confronted with the "tragic alternatives of surrender or armed defense". He said that the United States hoped for a fair negotiated peace before rather than after the "senseless arbitrament of war"; that the United States was prepared to make its contribution to world peace. However, if our hopes were doomed to disappointment we were equally prepared to defend successfully our national interests and our cherished institutions. He said that, terrible as are the realities and consequences of war, "sooner or later conditions arise in which peaceful and peace-loving nations prefer armed defense to subjection and slavery".

Neutrality Legislation

It has been mentioned that President Roosevelt in his address to Congress on January 4, 1939 criticized neutrality legislation which might actually give aid to the aggressor and deny it to the victim. This neutrality legislation, enacted in 1935 and amended in 1936 and 1937, contained as its principal feature a rigid embargo on the export of arms to belligerents.

By 1939 it was clear that the arms-embargo provision was exerting an injurious effect on the world peace structure. Germany, which had been furiously arming since the Nazis came to power in 1933, had become the strongest military power in Europe. Great Britain. France, and other states which feared they were to be the next objects of Nazi aggression were rearming swiftly, but their late start handicapped them in attempting to overtake a heavily armed Germany. Accordingly, they turned to the arms industry in the United States as a source of supply, especially for aircraft in which German numerical superiority was particularly marked. With the arms-embargo provision of the Neutrality Act on the statute books this source of supply would be cut off as soon as war should break out. The advantages accruing to Germany from this arms-embargo legislation were thus clear.

In a letter of May 27, 1939 to the appropriate committees of Congress, Secretary Hull urged removal of the arms embargo, and at the same time suggested other provisions to prevent the loss of American lives and American property by belligerent action. The Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives reported out a bill substantially in line with the program outlined in this letter. However, in the House of Representatives an arms-embargo provision was inserted in the bill, which passed the House on June 30. On the following day Secretary Hull urged again the adoption of the proposal of May 27, which he considered not only best calculated to keep the United States out of war in the event that war came, but also, "what is all important at this time, best calculated to make a far greater contribution than could the present law or its equivalent toward the discouragement of the outbreak of war".

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, on July 11, 1939, decided by a close vote to defer action on neutrality legislation until the next session of Congress. Three days later, President Roosevelt strongly recommended to Congress that in the light of world conditions it was highly advisable that Congress should enact the neutrality legislation without delay. With the President's message to Congress there was transmitted a statement by Secretary Hull urging enactment of the program proposed on May 27. The Secretary said further that peace was so precious and war so devastating that the people of the United States and their Government must not fail to make a just and legitimate contribution to the preservation of peace. In the grave conditions then existing in the world, Secretary Hull believed that the first great step toward keeping the United States out of war was to use our influence so as to make a major war less likely.

The Secretary made clear that those who supported the elimination of the arms embargo were convinced that the embargo played into the hands of the nations which had taken the lead in building p their fighting power. The arms embargo worked directly against the interests of the peace-loving nations, the Secretary said, especially those which did not possess their own munitions plants. It meant, he said, that if any country was disposed toward conquest and devoted its energies and resources to establish itself as a superior fighting power, that country might be more tempted to try the fortunes of war if it knew that less well-prepared opponents would be shut off from supplies.

On July 18 a statement was issued by President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull that failure to take action "would weaken the leadership of the United States in exercising its potent influence in the cause of preserving peace among other nations in the event of a new crisis in Europe between now and next January". No further action, however, was taken on neutrality legislation by Congress at that session.

August Crisis

Meanwhile the crisis in Europe was growing more and more acute. In April 1939 Hitler had followed up his absorption of Czechoslovakia with demands on Poland for the return of Danzig and for concessions in the Polish Corridor. Despite a clear warning from Great Britain and France that aggression against Poland meant war, Hitler exercised strong diplomatic pressure on Poland and undertook military concentrations near the Polish frontier. It was clear that he was bent on securing his demands by force if necessary, even though a world war might result.

On August 21, 1939 the situation was rendered even more critical by the announcement in Berlin that Germany and Russia had agreed to sign a non-aggression treaty. President Roosevelt at this juncture again launched an appeal to the European states to keep the peace. He sent a personal message to the King of Italy on August 23, referring to his suggestion of April 14 for an understanding that no armed forces should attack or invade the territory of any other independent nation, and that this being assured, discussions be undertaken to effect progressive relief from the burden of armaments and to open avenues of international trade. President Roosevelt said that if it were possible for the Italian Government to formulate proposals for a pacific solution of the existing crisis along these lines, the earnest sympathy of the United States would be assured. The President concluded his appeal with the statement that the Government of Italy and the Government of the United States could advance the ideals of Christianity; that the "unheard voices of countless millions of human beings ask that they shall not be vainly sacrificed again".

On the following day the President appealed directly to Hitler and to the President of Poland. He asked that the Governments of Germany and Poland agree to settle their controversy either by direct negotiation, by arbitration, or by conciliation through a third party. He also asked that each refrain from any positive act of hostility against the other. In his message to Hitler the President declared that the American people were as one in their opposition to military conquest and domination and in rejecting the thesis that any ruler or any people had the right to achieve their objectives by plunging countless millions into war when such objectives, so far as they were just and reasonable, could be satisfied through processes of peaceful negotiation. (137, 138)
Poland replied immediately and favorably to the President's message, and on August 25 President Roosevelt sent a second message to Hitler conveying to him the Polish reply. The President pointed out that Poland was willing to solve its controversy with Germany by direct negotiation or by conciliation. He declared to Hitler that "countless human lives can be yet saved and hope may still be restored that the nations of the modern world may even now construct a foundation for a peaceful and a happier relationship if you and the Government of the German Reich will agree to the pacific means of settlement accepted by the Government of Poland".

The only official German reply to the President's messages was a note from the German Embassy delivered at the Department of State on the afternoon of September 1, after the German invasion of Poland had already begun. The note stated that Chancellor Hitler had left nothing untried for a friendly settlement but that owing to the attitude of the Polish Government all these endeavors were without result.


In the face of Hitler's determination to proceed with his plan of conquest all efforts at peace failed. On the early morning of September 1, 1939 Hitler sent his military forces into Poland. Two days later France and Great Britain, in compliance with their obligations to Poland, declared war on Germany. The Nazi aggressors had at last brought Europe into a new and terrible armed conflict.

On the evening of September 3, 1939 President Roosevelt delivered a radio address in which he outlined the position of the United States with respect to the European war. He pointed out that the unfortunate events of recent years had been based on force or threat of force, and said that America should seek for humanity a final peace which would eliminate so far as possible the use of force between nations. He warned that although it was easy for us to say that conflicts taking place thousands of miles from the Western Hemisphere did not seriously affect the Americas, we were forced to realize that every word that came through the air, every ship that sailed the sea, every battle fought, did affect the future of America. The President said that the safety of the United States was bound up with the safety of the Western Hemisphere and the adjacent seas; that we must keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas. The President said that this nation would remain a neutral nation, but he could not ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. He said that even a neutral had a right to take account of facts; that even a neutral could not be asked "to close his mind or his conscience". In conclusion, the President said that so long as it remained within his power to prevent it, there would be "no blackout of peace in the United States".

The President took steps at once to prepare the Nation to meet the shock of war. On September 5 he proclaimed the neutrality of the United States and, in accordance with the provisions of the Neutrality Act, placed an embargo on the shipment of arms to the belligerents. A few days later he proclaimed a limited national emergency and issued orders for increasing the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps.

The President summoned Congress to convene in extra session on September 21. In an address to the Congress he recommended that the arms embargo be repealed and that our citizens and our ships be kept out of dangerous areas in order to prevent controversies that might involve the United States in war. Public opinion in the United States rallied in support of this program. After a few weeks of debate there was enacted into law on November 4 substantially the program of May 27, with the addition of provisions prohibiting the arming of United States merchant vessels engaged in foreign trade and prohibiting such vessels from carrying cargoes to belligerent ports. With the repeal of the arms embargo, large shipments of aircraft and other implements of war, much of which had been ordered by Great Britain and France before the outbreak of war, could be shipped to Europe for use in defense against Nazi aggression.

Panama Conference

In accordance with agreements reached at the Buenos Aires and Lima Conferences which provided for consultation in the event of a menace to the peace of the Americas, the Foreign Ministers of the American republics met at Panama following the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939. This meeting was held in order that the American states might consult together regarding measures to preserve their neutrality, to protect so far as possible their economic and commercial interests from dislocation arising from the war, and to keep war away from the American Continent.

Under Secretary of State Welles, who represented the United States at the meeting, declared in an address on September 25, 1939 that the war in Europe constituted "a potential menace to the well-being, to the security, and to the peace of the New World". He said that however much the American republics might desire to insulate themselves from the war's effects, such insulation could be only relative; that there was an overwhelming will on the part of peoples everywhere for peace based on renunciation of force, on justice, and on equality; and that the expression of that will might well be facilitated by the action of the American republics.

The Panama meeting demonstrated in a moment of grave emergency the strong understanding and solidarity among the American republics. Steps taken at the meeting included the establishment of an Inter-American Financial and Economic Advisory Committee to study and recommend measures to cushion the shock of war on the inter-American economy; a declaration setting forth uniform standards of neutral conduct; and the Declaration of Panama, in which the waters adjacent to the American Continent were declared "of inherent right" to be free from the commission of hostile acts by non-American belligerent nations.

Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp.61-70

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