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Resilient Roosevelt understood Axis threat

While the Second World War began in September 1939, the United States did not officially enter the conflict until December 1941.

Before its formal declaration of war, the U.S. was engaged in what American historian Marc Wortman calls a “shadow war” against the Axis powers — Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

Led by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. provided aid to the nations fighting the Axis: Britain, China and, when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union. But Roosevelt, pursuing what he called “aggressive nonbelligerence,” was constrained by both law and public opinion. There was a constant tension between what Roosevelt wanted to do for Britain and the imperatives of domestic politics.

It is this tension Wortman unfolds in his admirable work of popular narrative history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
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While the Second World War began in September 1939, the United States did not officially enter the conflict until December 1941.

Before its formal declaration of war, the U.S. was engaged in what American historian Marc Wortman calls a "shadow war" against the Axis powers — Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

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Led by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. provided aid to the nations fighting the Axis: Britain, China and, when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union. But Roosevelt, pursuing what he called "aggressive nonbelligerence," was constrained by both law and public opinion. There was a constant tension between what Roosevelt wanted to do for Britain and the imperatives of domestic politics.

It is this tension Wortman unfolds in his admirable work of popular narrative history.

Roosevelt understood the strategic implications of modern aircraft and long-range warships. Because of the new military technology, events far from America’s shores could impact America’s security.

Thus Roosevelt believed a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, which was certainly possible in 1940 and the first half of 1941, would be a direct threat to America.

But the American people did not share Roosevelt’s strategic insight. Polls consistently showed overwhelming opposition to American involvement in the European war. And Congress reflected this isolationist temper, passing laws that inhibited Roosevelt’s ability to aid Britain.

Much of Wortman’s narrative details how Roosevelt circumvented these laws, incrementally involving America in the conflict, particularly in the North Atlantic, where German submarines were a menace to shipping.

Roosevelt’s greatest critic was the aviator and national celebrity, Charles Lindbergh, who was the principal spokesman of the America First Committee, a pressure group opposing American intervention in the war.

As Wortman writes, "the more effectively Lindbergh fought against intervention, the more Roosevelt felt the need to use the great power at his disposal to fight back to save democracy."

Wortman depicts the bitter debate between American isolationists and interventionists.

Roosevelt was determined to assist Britain and defeat the Axis powers. But he was reluctant to make a formal declaration of war. He was, after all, a politician in a democracy who had to be sensitive to public opinion, and the American public was solidly against intervention.

But with the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the nation was unequivocally at war, and the public and politicians rallied to the war effort. For America, the "shadow war" was over, and the real, shooting war had begun.

Roosevelt is clearly the protagonist of Wortman’s account.

In an isolationist political culture, facing a hostile Congress, the president maneuvered effectively to succor Britain, knowing that British survival, in the changed conditions of 20th-century warfare, was essential to American security. Roosevelt’s delicate balance between global strategy and domestic politics is superbly depicted by Wortman.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

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