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War!:  To the Brink of War

To the Brink of War in Europe

"If Great Britain goes down the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the high seas...It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun."

     - Franklin Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, December 29, 1940

In December 1940, FDR received sobering news from Winston Churchill. Britain was nearly bankrupt and could no longer pay for U.S. weapons and supplies. Roosevelt responded with a proposal to "lend" or "lease" war materials to the British. Isolationist critics raged that FDR was twisting words, but Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, FDR extended Lend-Lease aid to the Soviets.

During 1941 FDR also helped protect supply ships bound for England by drastically enlarging America's "security zone" to include much of the North Atlantic. Expanded American military patrols carried the risk of armed encounters with German submarines. By the fall, America was involved in a dangerous undeclared naval war with Germany. Many feared it would draw the United States into the conflict.

To the Brink of War in Asia

"I tell American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship."

     - Franklin Roosevelt, radio address, July 4, 1941

While FDR struggled to assist the British and Soviets, he also confronted a growing crisis in Asia. During the 1930s, Japan began expanding its borders, occupying Manchuria and then mounting a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. In September 1940, after the fall of France, Japan seized part of French Indo-China and signed a mutual defense pact with Germany and Italy.

America had long opposed Japanese aggression. In July 1941, when Japan moved to occupy all of French Indo-China, FDR sharpened that opposition. He froze Japan's assets in the United States and banned Japanese purchases of American oil. Without this oil, Japan's military would soon grind to a halt.

Japan's leaders faced a choice - end their aggression or confront the United States. During the summer of 1941, they began secret preparations for war.

To learn more about the artifacts shown above, visit our Digital Artifact Collection.

Atlantic Charter Conference

On August 3, 1941, the White House informed the press that FDR was leaving Washington for a fishing cruise.

In fact, the President was headed for a top-secret meeting with Winston Churchill aboard two warships in the North Atlantic. FDR used the conference to signal support for Britain in its battle with the Axis Powers. The conference lasted from August 9-12. At its conclusion, Roosevelt and Churchill issued the "Atlantic Charter" - a joint declaration of principles that helped rally the Allied nations.

The Atlantic Conference gave the British people hope that the United States would at last join them in fighting Hitler. But when isolationists claimed FDR had made "secret commitments" to Churchill to intervene in the European war, Roosevelt publicly denied the charges.

Undeclared War in the Atlantic:  The Greer Incident

During 1941, the U.S. Navy began patrolling the North Atlantic to protect vital supply lanes to Britain. These patrols carried the risk of armed conflict.

On September 4, 1941, a German submarine fired a torpedo at the American destroyer USS Greer. A week later, FDR announced on national radio that U.S. warships "in waters we deem necessary for our defense" would no longer wait for German submarines to fire first. The press labeled this the "shoot-on-sight" speech. It marked a major change in American policy.

In his speech, Roosevelt didn't mention that, before the attack, the Greer trailed the German U-boat, signaling its location to a British warplane that dropped depth charges near it. This omission has sparked criticism from some historians who say FDR misled the public in order to move America closer to war.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum Home Page   National Archives and Records Administration
Lobby Foundations of a Public Life A New Deal FDR's "Act of Faith" The Promise of Change America, 1932: A Nation in Fear Temporary Exhibit Gallery War!  Lower level FDR's Death and Legacy First Lady Behind the scenes Legacy To the Brink of War Memorandum, Franklin Roosevelt to Wayne Coy, August 2, 1941. Map of the North Atlantic with Franklin Roosevelt's notes, July 11, 1941. Atlantic Charter telegram, August 14, 1941.