Tags: sphinx | franklin roosevelt | isolationists | wwii | nicholas wapshott

FDR, the Isolationists, and the Road to WWII: Excerpt from 'The Sphinx'

By    |   Thursday, 13 November 2014 02:50 PM

Excerpted from The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II by Nicholas Wapshott

Kristallnacht would change President Roosevelt’s views on U.S. involvement in the war. Roosevelt was already battling with Joseph Kennedy, the ambassador to England and the publicity about Charles Lindbergh’s ties to the Nazis. While Kennedy was taking umbrage at being excluded from the arrangements, Lindbergh returned to Berlin, where, after touring a Junkers plant, he went to a stag dinner at the American embassy given by the new US ambassador to Berlin, Hugh Wilson. Among the guests was Göring, who leapt toward him. “I noticed he had a red box and some papers in his hand,” Lindbergh recalled. "He shook hands, handed me the box and papers, and spoke a few sentences in German. I found that he had presented me with the German Eagle, one of the highest German decorations, ‘by order of the Führer.’” Lindbergh failed to grasp that by accepting a Nazi decoration he had been fatally compromised. Anne, however, immediately understood how an award from Hitler would play in America. Returning from the party, Lindbergh showed off the Nazi bauble to his wife, who “gave it but a fleeting glance and then—without the slightest trace of emotion—remarked: 'The Albatross.'"

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As soon as Lindbergh’s German honor was reported in the press, Ickes turned the knife. In an address to the Cleveland Zionist Society, he asked, “How can any American accept a decoration at the hand of a brutal dictator who, with that same hand, is robbing and torturing thousands of fellow human beings?” The Nazi government’s objections to Ickes’s remarks were so vehement that they threatened to break off all diplomatic relations with the United States. Roosevelt was unmoved, telling under-secretary of state Sumner Welles, “It would not hurt us if Germany should sever diplomatic relations. So what?”

Lindbergh’s association with leading Nazis became even more embarrassing when, on the night of November 9, hell broke loose in Germany. Two days before, a seventeen-year-old Pole, Herschel Grynszpan, had shot dead a German diplomat in Paris in protest at the way in which 17,000 Jewish Germans, including his own parents, were expelled from Germany but left in diplomatic limbo, neither allowed to remain in Germany nor, through lack of permits, to enter Poland. The murder provided a pretext for the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to demand “spontaneous demonstrations” by the general population, while the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered his troops to attack Jews and their businesses.

On what came to be known as Kristallnacht, after the broken glass strewn in the streets, thousands of Jews were set upon and dozens were killed. About two hundred synagogues were set alight, eight hundred stores were looted and burned, and Jews became subject to a punitive tax. Decrees banned Jews from cinemas, theaters, and other places of entertainment. Jewish students were barred from universities. Jews had their passports revoked, meaning that they could not leave Germany. Jewish ghettoes were established in cities. Twenty thousand Jews were dispatched to concentration camps. Reaction around the world to Kristallnacht and its immediate aftermath was intense. “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the United States,” Roosevelt told reporters on November 15, before ordering Ambassador Wilson home from Berlin. “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in this twentieth-century civilization.” Chamberlain’s condemnation, however, was slow in coming. Anxious to keep the British reputation for fairness intact, the better to support Britain when war came, Roosevelt asked Kennedy to urge the prime minister to issue a condemnatory statement without delay. Again Chamberlain was found wanting; instead of making an outright condemnation, he suggested that somewhere should be found for German Jews to live outside the Third Reich. Roosevelt complained to Herbert C. Pell, the American ambassador in Lisbon, “Our British friends must begin to fish or cut bait.”

Kennedy was disturbed by the attacks on Jews because he feared this might draw America into the war. He confided to Lindbergh on November 12, “This last drive on the Jews in Germany has really made the most ardent hopers for peace very sick at heart. . . . Isn’t there some way to persuade [the Nazis] it is on a situation like this that the whole program of saving western civilization might hinge?”

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Before returning to America for Christmas, Kennedy told American reporters in London that he was urging the president to take a more isolationist line than he was likely to follow. “I am going home to face the President and tell him what I think,” he declared, “and what I think won’t please him.” Not for the first time, Roosevelt’s inner circle urged the president to fire him. Farley told Morgenthau that Roosevelt was “terribly peeved with Joe. . . . When Joe comes back, that will probably be the beginning of the end.” Lindbergh’s response to Kristallnacht was one of puzzlement. “I do not understand these riots on the part of the Germans,” he told his diary. “They have undoubtedly had a Jewish problem, but why is it necessary to handle it so unreasonably? My admiration for the Germans is constantly being dashed against some rock such as this.” He asked himself, “By bringing up the Jewish issue and forcing German Jews into other countries, do the Germans hope to create an international anti-Jewish movement? Or is it simply an inherent German hatred of the Jews?”

Trying to make sense of Kristallnacht, he noted, “Germans all seem to be anti-Jewish. I did not talk to a single person who I felt was not ashamed of the lawlessness and disorder of the recent demonstrations. But neither did I talk to anyone who did not want the Jews to get out of Germany.” He concluded that “the Jew, according to the German, is largely responsible for the internal collapse and revolution following the war. At the time of the [Weimar] inflation the Jews are said to have obtained the ownership of a large percentage of the property in Berlin and other cities—lived in the best houses, drove the best automobiles, and mixed with the prettiest girls.” In a Berlin movie theater, he saw the racial caricatures used to demonize Jews and recorded, without comment, how the Nazis depicted “the typi- cal, old-country type of Jew with a long black beard, a black gown, a caricatured Jewish nose, and a hand stretched out, obviously to receive money.” Among those sickened by Kristallnacht were Anne Lindbergh and her mother. It was clear to Anne that the move to Berlin was now impossible. American newspaper reports that Lindbergh had befriended the Nazi top brass and was scouting out homes in Berlin damaged his already battered reputation. “With confused emotions we say goodbye to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, who wants to go and live in Berlin, presumably occupying a house that once belonged to Jews,” wrote The New Yorker. When Kennedy heard that Lindbergh had decided not to live in Berlin, he expressed his regret, “because I think you are probably the only contact the United States now has on speaking terms with Hitler.”


Coming so fast after the Munich agreement, public revulsion at Kristallnacht allowed Roosevelt to step up his circumvention of the neutrality laws and defy isolationists in Congress. In November, a Gallup poll reported that 94 percent of Americans condemned the Nazi treatment of Jews and 61 percent approved of a boycott of German goods. Shortly after Munich, Gallup had found that 77 percent thought German claims on the Sudetenland unjustified and 60 percent thought the agreement more likely to lead to war than peace. Ninety-two percent found unbelievable Hitler’s claim that the Sudetenland would be his last territorial demand. Roosevelt was slowly winning the war for public opinion.

It was typical, however, that Roosevelt should continue deliberately to confuse perceptions about his privately held military intentions by leaving in place Harry Woodring, an isolationist, as secretary of war, while quietly promoting George C. Marshall as his principal agent of rearmament. At a White House meeting on November 14, Roosevelt ordered Marshall to prioritize air power to defend the Americas “from the North Pole to the South Pole,” with the aim of establishing a 20,000-plane air force and annual warplane production to increase to 24,000.

Marshall was puzzled about where at short notice he could find the hundreds of thousands of trained pilots, air crews, and maintenance teams to keep these new planes in the air. As he was to discover, the president intended the aircraft to be flown not by Americans but by British and French pilots. The same applied to Roosevelt’s insistence that warships be constructed with haste. He wrote to Claude Swanson,71 secretary of the navy, “Navy Yards doing construction should be ordered—not requested—to put as many people to work on new ships as it is possible to use at any given time—two shifts or even three shifts where they are possible.” Again, British sailors would man the new ships.

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While today Kennedy stands accused of letting his ambitions lead him to promote a policy that, in hindsight, was unhelpful to his British hosts, Lindbergh’s sin was far greater. His failure to question what he saw at German airfields led to the democracies overestimating the Nazis’ air strength. According to Lindbergh’s estimates, the Luftwaffe had 10,000 planes and was building 800 more a month. The true figure was very different.

Even two years later, Germany’s air strength was nowhere near as high. In 1940, Germany had 4,665 warplanes: 1,711 bombers, 414 dive-bombers, 354 escort fighters, 1,356 pursuit planes, and 830 reconnaissance and other planes. German plants were making just 125 fighters and about 300 bombers a month, while Britain by that time was making 325 fighters a month. Yet Lindbergh’s mantra that the Luftwaffe outgunned the democracies ten to one was repeated by everyone from Chamberlain to Roosevelt.

Excerpted from The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II by Nicholas Wapshott. Copyright (c) 2015 by Nicholas Wapshott. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Kristallnacht would change President Roosevelt’s views on U.S. involvement in the war. Roosevelt was already battling with Joseph Kennedy, the ambassador to England and the publicity about Charles Lindbergh’s ties to the Nazis.
sphinx, franklin roosevelt, isolationists, wwii, nicholas wapshott
Thursday, 13 November 2014 02:50 PM
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