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Morton: Interventionist FDR railed on isolationism

On this day (Oct. 28) in 1940, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a rousing political speech in Madison Square Garden in which he attacked the Republican Party for its “isolationism.”

By October 1940, Nazi Germany had rather easily overrun Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. During the period of Aug. 8, 1940, to Oct. 31, 1940, Germany was engaged in what is usually referred to as The Battle of Britain.

When FDR gave his blistering attack, Britain, under Winston Churchill’s inspiring leadership, was fighting alone for its very existence. The Republicans earlier had opposed repeal of most of the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s – acts that had prevented the U.S. from sending military aid to any belligerent – opposed the Sept. 3, 1940, defense agreement between Britain and the U.S., in which the U.S. sent 50 overaged destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases on British naval and air bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

The GOP also had only reluctantly, after earlier opposition, agreed to the Sept. 16, 1940, passage of the Selective Training and Service Act (America’s first peacetime compulsory draft).

In this Madison Square Garden speech, the president reminded the American people that America already was involved in “an undeclared naval war” in the North Atlantic Ocean with Germany, as “wolfpacks” of German submarines attempted to stop the flow of military supplies to Britain.

Roosevelt, of course, was an “interventionist” (i.e. one who realized that it was inevitable that the U.S. soon would be involved in the raging European War). Since the mid-1930s, Roosevelt had to contend with a growing isolationist movement. The isolationists believed it had been a big mistake for the U.S. to have gone to war in 1917 “to make the world safe for Democracy,” and, therefore, should not repeat that mistake again.

Up until the fall of France in June 1940, most likely a majority of Americans were isolationists or at least noninterventionists. It was during this pre-Pearl Harbor period that FDR displayed superior political acumen in getting passage of any measures that even hinted at compromising U.S. neutrality.

The Oct. 28 Madison Square Garden speech was, of course, a political one delivered just a few days before the Nov. 5, 1940, presidential election, in which he was seeking, and would win, a third term as president. In this speech, FDR viciously attacked several Republicans by name, but interestingly not his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, who was a fellow “interventionist” whom he actually admired.

In this Oct. 28 campaign speech and in earlier pronouncements, the president especially directed his wrath against prominent Republican isolationist Sens. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert Taft of Ohio, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy (for his seemingly pro-Nazi statements that Germany would surely win the war then raging and that sending aid to Britain would deplete America’s military arsenal that would be needed for defense at home), and Charles Lindbergh, and his wife, Anne Morrow, who had published a book in early October 1940 titled “The Wave of the Future.” In it, she claimed that political dictatorship was “the wave of the future.”

FDR particularly criticized the Lindberghs for their admiration of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany and for their blatant anti-Semitism. Roosevelt is most often given credit, most Americans believe rightly so, for successfully leading the country through, if not out of, the Great Depression, and successfully through World War II to glorious victory.

However, as noteworthy as those accomplishments were, FDR’s finest hour might well have been his pre-war campaigns, against seeming overwhelming odds, of preparing the country militarily and psychologically for war and for delivering desperately needed aid to Britain during its hour of greatest need.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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