History Lesson

When America Said No to War

A foreign war with thousands murdered and an America unwilling to intervene—Marc Wortman on what Obama can learn.

Today we know the Second World War as the “good war." Even before the war in Europe began on September 1, 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expected America would become embroiled in the horrific conflict in Europe and possibly in Asia. But his many opponents did all they could to make sure America would never fight what they tagged derisively as "Roosevelt's war." Whether President Obama succeeds in persuading Congress to authorize a strike in Syria or not, he might look back to his predecessor’s bitter struggle. It's a reminder of how much we have forgotten that going to war should not just be the commander in chief's decision.

After the Nazi's blitzkrieg sweep across Western Europe, Americans watched anxiously as one small nation after another fell to the German Army’s and their Axis allies’ attacks. They also learned of atrocities being carried out in Germany and conquered nations against civilians, especially Jews and other ethnic minorities, much like the terrible images of gassed and murdered Syrians. Finally, America’s closest ally, the British, pushed off the Continent, dug in on the beaches in anticipation of an imminent cross-channel invasion while losing thousands of young men aloft as up to 1,500 German bombers a day incinerated London.

All the while, FDR was performing a political high-wire act at home. He was convinced that ocean moats would never keep the Axis powers out of the Western Hemisphere. But he faced an American people, like today, weary of foreign wars after the losses 20 years earlier of the Great War among the same Old World enemies. Few at home felt ready to offer up more blood and treasure to quell another in an apparently endless string of European wars. And, like today, many Americans were still anxious about their economic status as the nation haltingly pulled out of the Great Depression.

In seeking to send American military aid to the foundering British, Roosevelt encountered furious opposition in the streets, press, and the Capitol. Although FDR's opponents on the issue of war came at him from nearly every political angle, Republicans formed the largest bloc. They tarred the question of America's response to Hitler with an anti–New Deal brush—something I'm sure Obama can relate too among the anything-he-likes-I-don't crowd on the right. Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio summed up the tenor of the opposition, shrugging off Germany’s lightning sweep to the Channel in May 1940, “There is a good deal more danger of infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circles in Washington than there ever will be from the activities of the ... Nazis.” Western Democrats, too, cared little for FDR or the New Deal. His attempt to boost farm wages, called the Agricultural Adjustment Act, supposedly "plowed under" every fourth acre. Montana's Senate Democrat Burton K. Wheeler warned when a proposal to aid the British came to the floor in early 1941 that “it will plow under every fourth American boy.”

Nonetheless, FDR drummed up just enough support in the summer of 1940 to institute the first peacetime draft in American history. In September, FDR evaded Congress altogether and granted 50 warships to Britain in a constitutionally questionable exchange of bases for destroyers.

But those moves to prepare America's weak defenses and prop up the Allies set off a firestorm that nearly blew up his chances for reelection to an unprecedented third term. FDR’s Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, an internationalist Wall Streeter turned isolationist crusader as voting day neared, rode ominous ads decrying the president’s warmongering to pull even with FDR in key states like his home state New York. Democratic and labor bosses, even the New York Times’ editors, deserted Roosevelt.

FDR won by his smallest popular-vote margin, but the victory cost him dearly in his ability to intervene in the increasingly terrible wars in Europe and Asia. Even as Hitler swallowed up Greece and the Balkan nations, a Gallup poll in April 1941 found an astonishing 83 percent of respondents opposed to going to war.

Ever the poll watcher, Roosevelt told one of his speechwriters, Sam Rosenman, “It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.”

To the chagrin of his more bellicose advisers like Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Secretary of War Henry Stimson—and a nightmare for the British people under siege—FDR refused to get ahead of popular sentiment. Sending anything more warlike than a progressively increasing amount of American military aid and advisers was not in the cards. Like today, he promised Americans no boots would hit the ground on foreign soil. To underline America's lack of stomach for war, in the summer of 1941 while he met in secret in the waters off Newfoundland in his first summit with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the House of Representatives could muster just a single-vote margin on a bill to extend the terms of the wave of new army conscripts, due to start heading home from their service in just a few months.

Unable to move the country toward intervening in the war more than “sidewise” and a “bite” at a time, FDR was certain that whether England fell or not, Hitler and the U.S. were on a collision course. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came and war was declared, the shock was in some ways a relief. That day's destruction and death brought clarity to the murky domestic political situation in finally mobilizing popular opinion and Congress for war.

As President Obama seeks congressional approval and national and international support for action in Syria, he would do well to recall Roosevelt’s struggles—and patience. FDR and his friends and a large portion of the American people recognized that American national security and interests would be best protected by intervening in the world war. In hindsight, they were right. Many people were frustrated, exasperated, and deeply scared that the president remained unwilling to send the nation into war when the American people were not ready to line up behind him. But FDR maintained an idealism about the need to win strong popular support before he attacked another nation. It was not just about sticking to the constitutional requirements. It was about the type of nation America was—and should be still.

In a letter written during this period to a friend, Helen Reid, Roosevelt articulated this core belief. “Governments such as ours cannot swing so far or so quickly," he wrote. "They can only move in keeping with the thought and will of the great majority of our people ... Were it otherwise the very fabric of democracy ... would be in danger of disintegration.” The willingness of the people to fight lay at the very heart of the American nation. In the years since the last time Congress declared war, we have allowed presidents wide latitude to ignore this essential strength of the republic with terrible consequences. Then as now, the American people remain the ultimate arbiters of when our nation goes to war.