Book Review: 1940
by Susan Dunn
Yale University Press, 2013
Fans of wily old U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt can still be made uneasy by the wild-eyed accusations of public gadflies like Gore Vidal, mainly because on some subconscious level, those fans recognize that “public gadfly,” in addition to signifying bourbon for breakfast, often also signifies freakishly perceptive – and that in a political context, “wily” almost always signifies corrupt to the eyeballs. Such things sit awkwardly alongside the postwar secular canonization doled out to President Roosevelt, the valiant, afflicted leader of the Greatest Generation who, in order to defeat the menace of Nazi Germany, put the United States on a wartime footing from which, critics like Vidal have charged, it has never subsequently relaxed. Pollster-targeted Americans profess to know FDR, a grave-yet-jaunty civilian Nelson-figure, dying on the bridge of his flagship just as victory is achieved, and they like what they know. They don’t want to hear about a provocateur-in-chief.
Such Rooseveltophiles are clear though unintended targets of Susan Dunn’s latest book 1940, recently published by Yale University Press. The book is a jaunty, immensely readable account of one crucial year in American history, and it’s impressively detailed. As Dunn has demonstrated before (in such books as The Three Roosevelts and especially the regrettably titled Roosevelt’s Purge), she has a knack for finding the perfect quote, the most cutting aside, and the funniest anecdote, and she keeps her narrative moving briskly along.
The crux of that narrative – that a large and vocal segment of the American populace wanted the United States to stay out of the war between Germany and Great Britain – will strike many of Dunn’s younger readers (and perhaps some of her older ones) as bizarre; surely, those readers will ask, there was never any chance that America would simply sit back and let the Nazis take their best shot at conquering all of Europe? And yet, as Dunn relates in detail, that’s exactly what America’s burgeoning crop of isolationist groups wanted, and those groups had a powerful spokesman: world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose fiery rhetoric on the subject fills 1940. Lindbergh, whose trans-Atlantic solo flight had thrilled onlookers in 1927, believed that no European air force was able to mount an attack on the United States, and that no European navy would dare.
Roosevelt’s charismatic Republican challenger in the 1940 election, Wendell Wilkie, struck many a similar note during the campaign, accusing FDR (seeking an unprecedented third term as president) of belligerent posturing and back-door agitating. But as Dunn makes clear, Wilkie was his own man (indeed, if he’d had a less absurd name he might have become president); he’s in many ways the star of the book, capable of compromise, foresight, and off-the-cuff deadpan humor, and when it came to the worsening situation in Europe, he had few illusions:
Hoping to tame the isolationists within his own party by criticizing and rejecting their vision of the United States as an impregnable fortress, detached from the rest of the world, Willkie concluded [a stump speech in boiling-hot Elwood, Indiana] that a British defeat would be a “calamity” for the United States that “any lover of democracy must view with consternation.” He would try as president to maintain peace, he said, but “in the defense of America and of our liberties I should not hesitate to stand for war.”
This frankness contrasts throughout with Roosevelt’s slippery evasions (when asked by a reporter if he was changing his policy from neutrality to belligerency, he laughed that he was too busy to open his thesaurus) on the war-measures he was willing to contemplate. Wilkie had said “Nazism and all it means is a menace to liberty – must and shall be eradicated utterly and its leaders driven from power,” but Lindbergh was making far different allusions to Hitler’s Germany, yelling to an isolationist America First rally in Madison Square Garden in May (right after resigning as a colonel in the US Air Corps Reserve):
“We had no more chance to vote on the issue of peace and war last November than if we had been in a totalitarian state ourselves. We in America were given just about as much chance to express out beliefs at the election last Fall as the Germans would have been given if Hitler had run against Goering!”
As Lindbergh’s speeches eventually made disastrously clear, much of his conviction was fueled by an anti-Semitism that wouldn’t have been out of place in the society of the Nazis he admired, but as Dunn’s book progresses, readers can’t escape the suspicion that at least part of Lindbergh’s allegations was true: many of the steps that brought the U.S. closer and closer to war in 1940 were taken not by voters but by an administration and a president determined to intervene. To such more familiar developments as Lend-Lease and the signing of the Atlantic Charter, there’s also the incident of the American destroyer Greer.
The Greer was delivering mail to Iceland through the North Atlantic on September 4, 1940 when a British patrol plane signaled that there was a German submarine ten miles away. The Greer sped up and went looking for the sub, which evaded but eventually fired on her. The torpedoes missed their mark, but FDR seized on the incident and declared that U.S. warships would no longer tolerate the presence of German or Italian vessels of war anywhere but in their own home waters. Dunn correctly assesses that Roosevelt had “in effect declared naval war on Germany”:
The bottom line: shoot on sight. Fairly certain that Hitler would restrain his U-boats and not respond with full-scale war so long as his Russian campaign remained unsettled, Roosevelt had in effect declared naval war on Germany.
Dunn, as always firmly in FDR’s camp, and perhaps emboldened by the chart-perfect hindsight that tends to be enjoyed by American books about the Second World War, doesn’t hesitate to defend the step. “And yet,” she writes, “this new move was understandable and warranted, given the urgency of the world situation and the mortal threat that fascist aggression posed to American democracy.”
A public gadfly like Vidal might point out that the new move was neither understandable (especially considering the relatively small and unprepared state of the U.S. navy at the time) nor warranted (the Greer was ordered to go looking for trouble, and she emerged without so much as a scratch on her paint); a firebrand like Lindbergh might point out that the world situation in 1940 was hardly urgent for the United States, pulling itself out of the Great Depression and secure on all its borders; and some of Dunn’s readers might point out that fascist aggression in Europe posed no threat whatsoever to American democracy in 1940 – that, indeed, American democracy was far more directly threatened by a president using executive overreach to push the country closer and closer to the brink of war.
Dunn’s 1940 fuels that debate but declines to enter it. In Dunn’s view – and in fact – American intervention against the Axis powers was never a matter of self defense but rather one of moral imperative. Something perhaps wily old President Roosevelt knew better than he let on.