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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Photograph courtesy U.S. National Archives

Played by Jon Voight in Pearl Harbor

On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been President for almost seven years and was expected to leave office in January 1941. But just as that September changed the world, so did it change the plans of Roosevelt.

On September 13 he called Congress into special session to revise the Neutrality Act so that belligerents could purchase U.S. arms on a cash-and-carry basis, allowing U.S. allies to purchase U.S. arms even though U.S. ships were barred from war zones. He hoped that this would give enough help to Britain and France to defeat Germany. But his hope was slight. The United States, he knew, could not long remain on the sidelines of the war.

Roosevelt had already begun a long private correspondence with Winston Churchill, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty. Their warm and trusting relationship was the heart of the Western alliance against what would become known as the Axis: Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Throughout his presidency, which began slightly more than a month after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Roosevelt had seen and feared the growth of militant Germany and Japan. When the war did come he began to speak more harshly about Germany and Japan, but a rise in U.S. military spending did not follow.

When Churchill began his confidential correspondence with Roosevelt in September 1939, Roosevelt started getting a private education about the war. Churchill, far more than any domestic advisor, gave Roosevelt the justifications for greatly expanding aid to Britain as part of an overall military buildup.

On June 10, 1940, as France was about to fall, Italian leader Benito Mussolini, declaring war on England and France, attacked France--and Roosevelt threw off the thin veil of neutrality. In one of his “fireside chats” to the nation, he said, “The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” Now U.S. policy was this: The United States would “extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation.”

A month later the Democratic National Convention nominated Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term. Simultaneously running for President and fashioning ways to aid England, Roosevelt sponsored further revisions to the neutrality laws, began the assembly of the “Arsenal of Democracy” with a call for “50,000 planes a year,” won congressional approval for the drafting of soldiers in the summer of 1940, and, in one of the most unusual swaps in history, traded to England 50 overage U.S. Navy destroyers for British naval and air bases in the Western Hemisphere.

Roosevelt won his third election easily and never lost the momentum of aid to Britain. Laws prohibited lending money to Britain, but he gave the U.S. and Congress a parable about how a man lends his garden hose to his neighbor to keep the neighbor’s fire from spreading to the hoseowner’s home. This led to the Lend-Lease Act, which essentially allowed the President to send war matériel to embattled Britain.

Roosevelt also proclaimed a “neutrality zone,” in which the U.S. Navy would patrol for German U-boats. And to guarantee that Germany would not garrison Iceland or Greenland--both in the zone--Roosevelt sent troops to both places. After the damaging and sinking of U.S. ships by U-boats, Roosevelt ordered the Navy to “shoot on sight” and got Congress to authorize the arming of merchant ships.

By 1941 tension was also building in the Pacific. Years of worsening relations with Japan led to negotiations in November 1941 between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and special Japanese envoys over Japan’s expansionism. While the negotiations were going on, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor--on December 7, what Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

Conspiracy buffs long have claimed that Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the attack. There is no historical support for that claim. But there is debate about Roosevelt’s decision to move the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor. What he saw as a deterrence to Japanese aggression was seen by the Japanese as a chance for a surprise attack on a vulnerable base.

Roosevelt deftly balanced many military and political issues. But his attempts to shape the war in China and Anglo-American policy toward France were unsuccessful, as were his dealings with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

When Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met for the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt was visibly frail and in ill health. Early in April he went to his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, where on April 12 he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.


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