The fall of France was a catastrophe for the West, and an event that threw all the convenient certainties of the Roosevelt Administration into doubt. In 1939, following the declaration of war by Britain, Roosevelt told his cabinet in no uncertain terms: “We are not going in.” America would be neutral in the forthcoming conflict, even though Roosevelt’s sympathies lay with the British.
The worry in some parts of the administration was that American troops, ostensibly committed to fighting Nazism and Italian Fascism, might unwittingly become committed to saving the British Empire, something that there was no appetite for in the USA at all. When US troops later served in Burma under Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, or SEAC, they re-branded the abbreviation ‘Saving England’s Asian Colonies.’
To Roosevelt, the fight against Nazism would be a straight forward division of labour, the British would fight on the seas, the French with their much larger army would fight on the land, and America would finance much of the struggle with loans, as she had done in the First World War. The idea that France could be over-run in six weeks and Britain threatened shortly afterwards was in the realm of the unthinkable, but by June 1940 the unthinkable had occurred. The British Expeditionary Force was left to escape back across the channel and soon German aircraft were bombarding British airfields.
Roosevelt, by December 1940, knew that this new world that he had not bargained for, one where an increasingly belligerent Japan was also ready to make its move for Asian domination, could not be ignored forever. It was through the medium of his famous ‘Fireside Chat’ radio broadcasts, designed at the height of the Great Depression to re-instill some faith in the American people that they were cared for and protected, that he gave his famous Arsenal of Democracy speech. (Hear the speech below.) He used it to explain to isolationist America that the time for avoiding conflict was coming to an end. Roosevelt did not directly advocate joining the war, but knew that only American industrial output could win it.
* For a free six part study course on German History 1890-1945, sign up for the Explaining History Newsletter here.