Roosevelt’s policy towards Britain between May 1940 and December 1941 experienced distinct discernible developments and changes. These developments and changes of Roosevelt’s policy towards Britain were caused by the various domestic and foreign policy factors that will be outlined below.
The United States had adopted a largely isolationist foreign policy following its involvement in the First World War, isolation that many of its voters apparently wished to maintain. The Americans had not joined the League of Nations leaving Britain and France to ineffectively resist the aggressive foreign policies of Germany, Italy and Japan. Although few could doubt Roosevelt’s sympathy towards Britain there seemed little prospect of the United States joining the Second World War on Britain’s side even if Winston Churchill could persuade the Americans to provide material aide and military equipment. However circumstances and the forging of a strong relationship between the United States and Britain ensured that the United
States regarded Germany as the main enemy rather than Japan, even though the attack on Pearl Harbour provided the immediate context for American entry into the Second World War.
In domestic political terms Roosevelt regarded 1940 as a pivotal year for his presidency, for it was a year in which he sought to win an unprecedented third term in the White House. Since his first presidential election victory in 1932 the Roosevelt administration had reduced the devastating economic consequences of the Great Depression via the New Deal programme. Roosevelt had kept the United States strictly neutral at the start of the Second World War even though he was personally inclined to support Britain and France. However, isolation seemed to be an almost sacrosanct feature of foreign policy amongst American voters and any moves towards joining the war had to carefully taken to maintain the administration’s popularity.
Roosevelt was concerned enough about Japanese intentions in the Pacific to start a rearmament programme yet hoped that diplomacy would avert war in that region (Stafford, 1999 p.3). The British government held the belief that if they stayed in the war long enough that the United States would eventually join the war on their side (Hobsbawm, 1994 p. 38). American industry meanwhile was happy to make and sell arms to Britain and France whose own rearmament programmes had not hit top gear prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Roosevelt was aware that American exports would be vital for Britain’s ability to survive and eventually win the war. Most experts might have expected that the Second World War would turn out to be a long drawn out stalemate with the French army and Royal Navy keeping the Germans in check.
In such a situation the biggest factor would have been German attacks on American shipping carrying supplies to Britain. In the event the Nazis-Soviet Pact and the rapid German victories of 1939-40 changed the military and strategic balance dramatically. The disastrous Anglo-French campaign in Norway led to the replacement of Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill as Prime Minister on the very day, 10 May 1940 that the Germans launched their offensive against France and the Low Countries. As the defeat of France became inevitable, the qualities of Winston Churchill in keeping Britain fighting alone came to the fore. Churchill perhaps more than any other person kept trying to persuade Roosevelt to change American policy towards Britain and to a great extent succeeded (Parker, 1989, pp.44-45).
With Churchill as Prime Minister the remote prospects of Britain making a deal with Germany diminished further. The Roosevelt administration were concerned that if Britain was defeated or forced into a peace deal that the most powerful ships of the Royal Navy could be used by Germany or Japan and pose a significant danger to American economic and military interests. For Roosevelt and the United States as a whole, the consequences of Britain’s defeat could have been catastrophic. It was in Roosevelt’s best interests to keep Britain in the war and prevent outright German victory.
Britain’s lonely fight was portrayed as the stand of liberal democracy against Nazi tyranny (Townshend, 2005, p.142). American military and naval experts regarded Britain’s survival as strategically vital for the effective defence of the United States itself. Britain was also seen as a strategic stepping stone for liberating Western Europe from German occupation should the American government decide it wanted to intervene to do so (Hobsbawm, 1994 p. 39).
Britain’s determination to survive was shown even before the Battle of Britain by the Royal Navy action at Oran to prevent French ships being used by the German navy. Although Churchill had not found the decision to attack a former ally easy he had been prepared to make such a decision to ensure Britain’s survival. Roosevelt could therefore contemplate increasing support for Britain as it had a government that was ruthless and determined in fighting on when many governments in similar circumstances would have sued for peace (Kennedy, 1976, p.301).
Churchill had ordered that the French navy be neutralised at all cost (Churchill, 1948, II p 205)Oran persuaded Roosevelt that Britain was worth supporting as much as any of Churchill speeches or letters could have done. Churchill went out of his way to forge strong relations with Roosevelt, as gaining American support was the key not only to survival, yet eventual victory as well. Churchill regarded an Anglo-American alliance as the only means of defeating the Axis powers, whose aggressive policies would ensure that the United States would have to fight eventually. American isolation was as unrealistic as Anglo-French appeasement policies had been at averting war. (Jenkins, 2001, p.624).
After the defeat of France the British Army was in a bad state and would have little prospect of defeating a German invasion force if it had landed. Without the successful evacuation from Dunkirk, the situation would have been worse. All that stood between survival and defeat was the Royal Navy and the RAF. The Royal Navy had large numbers of ships that could be used to repel German invasion forces, yet had to take them off convoy escort duties and thus increasing the strain on Britain vital supplies (Deighton, 1980, pp. 85-86). Churchill’s speeches in the summer of 1940 were not only used to rouse the defence of Britain they were used to gain support from the American government and the American people.
Churchill appealed to the United States for help as together Britain and the United States could overcome the Axis powers and restore democracy and freedom to Europe. The White House and Roosevelt believed that the threat of Germany’s invasion of Britain in June 1940 was real enough to contemplate offering Britain assistance (Colvin, 2003, pp.262-3). From the start of his premier-ship Churchill decided that it was in Britain’s best interests to keep Roosevelt informed of Britain’s military and naval weaknesses to gain support whilst assuring Roosevelt that Britain would survive and not waste that support. Churchill used the fondness that Roosevelt had gained for Britain as an official in the United States Navy during the First World War to good affect (Stafford, 1999, pp.6-7).
Churchill had an astute understanding of how the American political system worked that allowed Roosevelt to increase the United States support for Britain between May 1940 and December 1941 without seeming to break American neutrality. That neutrality was believed by Roosevelt to be untenable in the long-term, even if increased support and stronger naval and military links with Britain effectively ended isolation and meant that confrontation with the Germans in the North Atlantic would become increasingly likely. Churchill did not demand that Roosevelt should immediately bring the United States into the war on Britain’s side as that would never been approved by a Republican controlled Congress and would almost have certainly led to his defeat in the presidential election of 1940. The German failure to crush the RAF during the Battle of Britain lifted the immediate threat of invasion.
Although Britain could only survive if its trading links with the United States were maintained. The importance was clearly shown as it allowed Britain to produce aircraft to replace the losses incurred in France and during the Battle of Britain (Jenkins, 2001, pp.632-33). Roosevelt who was given constant reminders from Churchill about the dire state of Britain’s position decided to step up United States aid to Britain through the Lend-Lease Act. The Lend-Lease Act struggled through Congress and was not passed until March 1941 due to strong opposition from isolationist Republicans (Stafford, 1999, p.62). To assist the Royal Navy, Roosevelt gave them fifty moth balled First World War vintage destroyers for convoy escorting duties in return access to British naval and airbases.
These destroyers were more than just symbolic of Roosevelt’s commitment to aiding Britain’s survival. They replaced some of the Royal Navy’s losses from the Norwegian campaign and the evacuation of Dunkirk and to make up for the Royal Navy concentrating its ships in home waters to deter the threat of German invasion. Roosevelt further reduced the burden upon the Royal Navy by ordering the United States Navy to unofficially escort merchant shipping entering or leaving United States territorial waters. Roosevelt felt more confident in offering Britain increased support after securing his re-election. Churchill was not only thankful for that support, he was certain he and Roosevelt had forged a strong friendship between Britain and the United States (Jenkins, 2001, p. 664)
Whilst these unofficial convoy duties antagonised the Germans neither Roosevelt nor Hitler at that point wished to go to war openly. Hitler made the mistake of assuming that Britain was no longer capable of defeating Germany. Churchill in his meetings with Roosevelt and letters to him stressed that Germany was a far greater threat to Britain and the United States than Italy or Japan. Churchill thought that is was sensible that Britain and the United States should recognise their common values and beliefs, the reasons why Britain was in the Second World War and the motivation for the United States in ensuring that Britain survived fighting alone. Churchill was very influential in the drafting of the Atlantic Charter that set out the Anglo-American vision for the post-war world. Churchill enjoyed the conferences with Roosevelt and used them to gain further assistance from the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt afforded Churchill much respect and hospitality and as much assistance as it was possible to give Britain.
The Atlantic Charter gave the emerging Anglo-American alliance its strategic and ideological basis. Their first conference off Newfoundland aboard the battleship Prince of Wales during August 1941 meant that Roosevelt had committed the United States to a formal alliance with Britain. Such an alliance at some point would formally involve entering a war in which she actively supported Britain and since June 1941 the Soviet Union (Stafford, 1999, pp.68-70). Although the alliance between Britain and the United States would turn out to the closest, it was the alliance with the Soviet Union that Washington considered the most important for winning the war (Jenkins, 2001 p. 662).
Despite the Atlantic Charter’s aims of promoting liberal democracy both Britain and the United States were content to ally themselves with the Soviet Union as they regarded defeating Germany as a priority, with the United States capable of sustaining the war waging capacities of its two new allies. The strategic situation in Europe meant that the United States government had to shift its outlook of the world, its isolation had only ever been from Europe as it had always asserted its rights to intervene in Latin America and Pacific.
Roosevelt and his administration despite any public announcements to the contrary regarded the United States as having to join the war as being almost inevitable. Once Roosevelt had reached that conclusion, with a large amount of input from Churchill and British intelligence, then supplying Britain with material aid whilst forming an increasingly close military and political alliance were the next logical steps to take. Churchill had written to Roosevelt in May 1940 that he hoped that the United States would carry on supplying ‘stuff just the same’ once Britain ran out of money (Parker, 1989 p.58).
Roosevelt did not want the United States to be as unprepared for war as Britain, France and the Soviet Union had been. Military and lack of resources had hampered Britain and France; with Britain being fortunate enough to be an island making it more difficult to invade. Roosevelt was comfortable with Lend -Lease equipment going to Britain and later the Soviet Union as they would not survive but win the war if the United States gave them the equipment and resources to do so. Roosevelt and the United States government believed it was gambling on helping and receiving payment after the war than only supplying the weapons and materials that Britain could afford (Hobsbawm, 1994, pp.39-41).
Lend-Lease was recognition of the United States industrial and economic power that allowed it an unrivalled production capacity. Britain on the other hand had a declining economy; the cost of the First World War and the consequences of the Great Depression had reduced its wealth. British armaments production and shipbuilding capacity had declined markedly during the inter-war years. Lend-Lease provided Britain with the ships and aircraft to maintain the North Atlantic convoys and allow equipment and men from the United States to reach Europe and North Africa whilst keeping the Soviet Union supplied (Kennedy, 1976, p.303).
Lend-Lease had been vital in shoring up the British war front once Britain could no longer afford supplies from the United State. It allowed the relationship between Britain and the United States to be tightened whilst unofficially keeping the United States out the war. Lend-Lease amply demonstrated the generosity of the American government and the confidence that Roosevelt had in final victory to the tune of $30 billion between 1941 and 1945 (Gardiner & Wenborn, 1995, p.465).
Roosevelt would change United States policy towards Britain between m1940 and 1941 due to the benefits that the United States could gain from a closer relationship. Roosevelt was not particularly comfortable in dealing with foreign policy, although he was astute when it came to dealing with domestic policy, Roosevelt did have a couple of attributes that can explain why he changed policy towards Britain. Firstly, he had an admiration for Britain, specifically the Royal Navy and British intelligence. Secondly, Roosevelt was a man that revelled in secrecy and intrigue, something he held in common with Churchill (Stafford, 1999, p.6).
Roosevelt had been impressed by the way the outnumbered Royal Navy had seized the initiative from the Italians after the Taranto raid in November 1940. Similarly the way in which the British Army had defeated the numerically superior Italian Army in North Africa impressed him. Roosevelt was impressed by the British intelligence’s ability to predict the next steps of the Germans and Italians, an impression that Churchill was careful to foster (Parker, 1989, p.55). The high quality of British intelligence was due to the breaking of the German enigma codes that had forewarned Churchill of invasions of Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, although it had not allowed the British to stop those invasions. Churchill was willing to share that information with the Americans and had tried to warn the Soviet Union of the German invasion without telling either the source of that information (Stafford, 1999, p.52).
Roosevelt was impressed by the information that Churchill had at his disposal during the Newfoundland Conference. The conference had the benefit of creating not friendship between both countries (Jenkins, 2001, pp.664). Roosevelt committed the United States to defeating Germany first even if Japan entered the war. Churchill certainly warned that Japan could do so soon, although Roosevelt seems to have been reluctant to heed that warning and other warnings provided by United States Navy code-breakers. The subsequent attack on Pearl Harbour (inspired by Taranto) brought United States entry into the war (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.41).
Therefore, several factors influenced Roosevelt into changing policy towards Britain. Roosevelt had favoured supporting Britain and France from the start of the war yet not all in the government or the United States public had wanted to end American isolation from Europe. The defeat of France strengthened Roosevelt’s arguments for helping Britain and preventing total German victory in Europe. The possibility of the Germans gaining control of the Royal Navy and Britain’s weakness prompting Japanese expansion in the Pacific persuaded more people in the American government to actively support Britain.
The rapid exhaustion of Britain’s currency and capital reserves meant that Roosevelt was faced with the choice of allowing Britain’s vital supplies or no longer supporting its war effort with disastrous consequences. Churchill may have constantly requested help from the American’s yet he stressed the values and aims that both countries shared as much as only wanting a short-term alliance that only lasted the length of the war. Britain’s survival alone against the odds meant that Roosevelt could justify providing military support whilst the Lend-Lease scheme allowed the façade of isolation to remain intact. Churchill and Roosevelt were able to form a strong friendship that assisted the formation of a close long-term alliance.
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