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Quietly getting America ready for war — and a globalist role

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941.
ap file photo
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941.

Borrowing a phrase used to describe the politically momentous period following Napoleon’s return from Elba, historians often have referred to the frantic period of New Deal legislation at the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency as the Hundred Days. Now Susan Dunn, Williams College professor and mainstay of the FDR history factory, identifies yet another Hundred Days, this one when the 32nd president quietly prepared an unwitting America for war.

Dunn describes this period, between November 1940, when Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term, and March 1941, when he signed the landmark Lend-Lease Act, which allowed him to supply military aid to allies, as “the most vital and consequential period of his presidency.’’

Until then, Roosevelt had quietly prepared for war while publicly speaking of neutrality. He used the phrase “total defense’’ and signed legislation for a peacetime draft. And in Boston Garden he made his position clear and at the same time obscured it: “I shall say it again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’’ To speechwriter Sam Rosenman he explained his crafty elocution: “If somebody attacks us . . . then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?’’

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Dunn is no FDR apologist and her sharp eye — and criticism — extends to Wendell Willkie, whom Roosevelt defeated in that 1940 election: “Political opprobrium triumphed over [the two candidates’] internationalist principles, democratic ideals, and staunch anti-fascism,’’ she explains. “Neither candidate gave voters an honest, realistic picture of the challenges both knew lay ahead.’’

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But Roosevelt did fill critical Cabinet positions with Republicans; Henry Stimson, who had been Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state, became secretary of war, and Frank Knox, who had been Willkie’s running made, became secretary of the Navy. Under the guise of defending the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt also sent destroyers to Britain (emphasizing the bases he got in return).

“It was,’’ Dunn writes, “the agenda of a commander in chief whose responsibility was to defend the country and prepare for war, of a president who desired peace but grasped the evils of Nazism, of an opportunistic candidate hungering for an election victory in November and, finally, of a many-minded man whose capacity to keep examining options was virtually inexhaustible.’’

Amid national and White House debate about a war the country was not (yet) fighting, and as Winston Churchill increased his pleas and pressure, Roosevelt, arguing that the “best immediate defense of the United States is the success of Great Britain in defending itself,’’ began providing arms to Churchill and saying that Britain should return them when the war was over.

This book is more narrative than analysis, providing intimate glimpses of Roosevelt in the White House, cruising the Caribbean, and at Warm Springs. It provides generous and inviting detail of the political context in which FDR operated, from newspaper reports to church sermons to White House speechwriting sessions. Its principals range from Cordell Hill to Carole Lombard. In the foreground is FDR himself, warning, as he put it in a Fireside Chat on Dec. 29, 1940, “Frankly and definitely there is danger ahead — danger against which we must prepare.’’

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But he was performing a delicate balancing act. In that same address he said, “Our national policy is . . . to keep war away from our country and our people.’’ And it was then that he declaimed, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.’’

Dunn argues: “Since industrial output was likely to prove as critical to the outcome of this war as it had been for all military conflicts stretching back at least to the American Civil War, the United States was claiming preeminence, assuming leadership of the democracies even while its mobilization was stumbling, with demand outpacing supply as far as the eye could see, and without an American soldier having set foot on any battlefield.’’

The result was national prosperity — and a growing sense of national purpose.

Dunn rightly calls this “a decisive, irreversible shift in national consciousness,’’ transforming America from isolationist into internationalist, though the actual intervention would not come until after December 7, 1941. But what Roosevelt had done — part legislation, part education — was vital to America’s posture in the world once Pearl Harbor came.

“He educated Americans about the challenges the nation faced; laid out his intentions and policies and the causes and values behind them; and underscored the sacrifices he would ask his fellow citizens to make in order to achieve the goal of defeating Germany,’’ she writes. “All of these had previously been only half spoken.’’ Much of this had only been half explained, and Dunn’s achievement is to make the view of FDR’s accomplishment clear.

A BLUEPRINT FOR WAR:

FDR and the Hundred Days That Mobilized America

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By Susan Dunn

Dunn rightly calls this [sense of purpose] “a decisive, irreversible shift in national consciousness,’’ transforming America from isolationist into internationalist.

Yale, 264 pp., $27.49

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David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.