FDR outsmarts them all: Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and the American entrance into World War II

Fascism overseas or a third term? As FDR pondered that, he also had to outwit a nasty isolationist movement at home

By Nicholas Wapshott

Published January 2, 2015 8:30PM (EST)


Excerpted from "The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War II"

Joseph P. Kennedy was not alone in thinking that if Roosevelt won a third term he would take Americans into war. In his opening election address, even vice presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace summed up the difference between the president and Wendell Willkie by saying that the Republicans were the party of appeasement and Roosevelt the man Hitler hoped would be defeated.

Charles Lindbergh concurred. After talking with Senator Henrik Shipstead, he recalled, “We agree that the public does not want war, but that Roosevelt does and is leading us toward it as rapidly as he can.” He reported in his diary that, during a tour of isolationist congressmen on Capitol Hill, Representative Melvin J. Maas predicted that if the president were reelected he “would have us in war within thirty days.”

Lindbergh, as ever, remained pessimistic about the future of America. “I see chaotic conditions ahead—unrest, depressions, labor troubles, violence—even if we escape the war,” he told his diary, and he disliked “the superficiality, the cheapness, the lack of understanding of, or interest in, fundamental problems.” He considered moving to Oregon to remove himself and his family from the danger of civil unrest.

The Battle of Britain should have been of enormous interest to Lindbergh, who correctly predicted that aerial warfare would transform the way wars were fought, even if his calculations about relative air strengths were off. The high-altitude dogfights over the English countryside might have inspired in him an affinity with the courageous pilots on both sides. In the event, however, he had little to say. In a rare comment on the day before the Battle of Britain started, he wrote, “The Germans are losing a few more planes than the English, because they are attacking.”

His lack of understanding of the difference between how the British treated their enemies compared to the Nazis made this plain. “The English save every man who jumps from his plane over England, while all the Germans who jump are naturally put in concentration camps.” There were no “concentration camps” in Britain. Germany’s first camp, at Dachau, opened in 1933, three years before Lindbergh visited Germany, had he asked to see it. Further evidence of his pro-German viewpoint and his disdain for the battle engaged by the British is revealed in his account of a conversation with the motor manufacturer Henry Ford, who, in a similar misjudgment, believed at the height of the Battle of Britain that the United Kingdom and Germany were close to agreeing peace terms.

Lindbergh first met Ford in 1927, when he landed at the Ford plant’s private airport in Detroit in the plane that made him a national hero, The Spirit of St. Louis. To his surprise, when he asked whether Ford would like to be taken up into the sky, the car maker agreed and, although the older man had to sit in a crouching position in the one-seater plane, the flight was a great success. At the end of December 1939, they resumed their acquaintance. There was no doubting Ford’s genius as an engineer, which fascinated fellow engineer Lindbergh. Although Ford was against collective bargaining and pledged that no trade union would ever set up in his plants, he paid top wages for short hours in comparatively humane working conditions. The quality of his cars, in particular the Model T Ford, transformed America.

Ford was anti-Semitic. In his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent—which, being sold nationwide through Ford dealerships, enjoyed a circulation of 700,000—Ford published anti-Semitic tracts, often under his own name. He published the notorious Russian tsarist forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” postulating a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. When challenged over the authenticity of the “Protocols,” Ford stood firm, saying, “They have fit the world situation up to this time. They fit it now.”

Ford’s anti-Semitism was well known. Hitler cited Ford as a major influence in Mein Kampf, published in 1925, and kept a full-sized portrait of the carmaker by his desk in the Chancellery in Berlin. Like Lindbergh, Ford had been awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, in July 1938. In Germany, extracts from the Dearborn Independent were compiled into a best-selling book, The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem. Ford, a lapsed Episcopalian, had no religion, yet he was a pacifist and had opposed America’s entry into World War One, just as he now opposed American entry into the current European war.

Lindbergh got on famously with Ford from the moment they met in 1927, exchanging views on everything from the war to labor relations. “Ford is a great man and a constructive influence in this country,” Lindbergh told his diary. “One cannot talk to him without gaining new ideas and receiving much mental stimulation.”

Lindbergh boasted about his closeness with Ford to Hart and Ackerman, who “thought it would please people to think that I was going around asking various well-known men like Henry Ford their opinion about our attitude toward the war.” Ford needed little encouragement to provide practical help to the isolationist cause. In June 1940, over breakfast at the Ford residence near Dearborn, outside Detroit, Lindbergh persuaded Ford to back an American Legion campaign against American involvement in the war. Later the same month, Ford overruled his son Edsel, who was now running the company, and halted a lucrative federal government contract to produce 6,000 Rolls-Royce engines for British fighter planes and 3,000 engines for American warplanes.

For inspiration, Lindbergh had been reading his father’s isolationist tract, “Why Is Your Country at War?”, and became involved behind the scenes to press Willkie to adopt a sterner line on keeping out of the war. He agreed to give a speech in Chicago, but soon became embroiled in controversy when the organizer, William J. Grace of the Citizens Keep out of War Campaign, reported that Mayor Kelly, who had been instrumental in Roosevelt’s nomination, refused permission to use the 100,000-seat Soldier Field stadium on the date they wanted.

Lindbergh’s suspicions that there was a conspiracy to prevent him from expressing his isolationist views were further roused when Senator Bennett C. Clark, who over the years had been instrumental in asking him to speak, stopped taking his calls. “Perhaps he now thinks the Chicago meeting is dangerous politically,” speculated Lindbergh. Eventually Clark cried off the meeting altogether, claiming, through an assistant, that he was nursing an infected foot.

Eager for Lindbergh to speak in Willkie’s favor in order to attract the aviator’s supporters to his cause, though perhaps not on an official platform which would suggest an endorsement of his views, the Willkie campaign approached Lindbergh to talk about one of their pet ideas: the establishment of an air force independent of the army and navy. Lindbergh declined the invitation. The notion of a separate air force was then taken up by Roy Howard, who asked Lindbergh to be interviewed by one of his journalists on the topic. Lindbergh again demurred, saying he would rather write an article but would need to talk to people in the army and navy. Such an undertaking would likely put their careers in jeopardy, which he was reluctant to do.

Lindbergh was acutely aware of how unpopular he was in some quarters and how toxic his friendship was becoming, so he took heart when, driving through Illinois, he gave a lift to a World War One veteran who did not recognize him. The old soldier said “he couldn’t see any reason to fight for the British Empire” and that “this young fellow Lindbergh” had the right idea. “They call him a fifth columnist, but he ain’t no more fifth columnist than I am,” he said.

On August 4, Lindbergh arrived in Chicago to deliver his speech and was met by Colonel McCormick’s chauffeur, who took him via the Chicago Tribune office to the McCormick home, where he was staying overnight. He then was driven to Soldier Field football stadium (Kelly had relented), where he was introduced to the capacity crowd by the organizer of the meeting, Avery Brundage, an anti-Communist, anti-Semitic admirer of Hitler.

Lindbergh opened by railing against “the agitation for our entry in the war” and the “foreign propaganda [that] was in full swing.” In a swipe at Roosevelt, he said, “We have by no means escaped the foreign entanglements and favoritisms that Washington warned us against,” and, “We have participated deeply in the intrigues of Europe, and not always in an open ‘democratic’ way. There are still interests in this country and abroad who will do their utmost to draw us into the war.”

He claimed Americans were “overwhelmingly against our involvement” and that “people are beginning to realize that the problems of Europe cannot be solved by the interference of America.” He dismissed as alarmist the notion that America could be invaded from Europe and that Hitler had designs on the United States. “If our own military forces are strong, no foreign nation can invade us, and, if we do not interfere with their affairs, none will desire to,” he said.

He insisted he had not been duped on his visits to Germany and that Göring had not flown “airplanes from one field to another so they would be counted again and again.” He resented being called “a Nazi agent” by the press and administration officials. He said he had seen Armageddon coming and “the phenomenal military strength of Germany growing like a giant at the side of an aged and complacent England.” The war was not about democracy, nor Christianity; it was simply “the division of territory and wealth between nations.”

He suggested that America should be realistic about the postwar world. “In the past, we have dealt with a Europe dominated by England and France,” he said. “In the future we may have to deal with a Europe dominated by Germany.” So long as America maintained its military strength, “whether England or Germany wins this war,” war between America and the new Europe could be avoided. The alternative was “a war between us [that] could easily last for generations and bring all civilization tumbling down.”

He advocated rearming and forging a treaty with the Nazis. “If we refuse to consider treaties with the dominant nation of Europe, regardless of who that may be, we remove all possibility of peace,” he said. “Our accusations of aggression and barbarism on the part of Germany simply bring back echoes of hypocrisy and Versailles.”

As Lindbergh reached his peroration, he made fun of a remark attributed to Roosevelt that Europe was America’s last bastion of defense. “What would [our forefathers] think of the claim that our frontiers lie in Europe?” he asked. “What, I ask you, would those soldiers [of the American Revolution] say if they could hear this nation, grown a hundred and thirty million strong, being told that only the British fleet protects us from invasion?” 14 Lindbergh spoke for twenty minutes and, more used to broadcasting than public speaking, found “disconcerting” the fact that “the crowd seemed to want to applaud at every opportunity.”

The following day, Lindbergh traveled to Dearborn to meet with Ford, who asked him whether he would entertain a tour of Europe as a freelance peace ambassador. “[Ford] thought if anyone could help in bringing peace about, I could!” recalled Lindbergh. “I told him I was afraid England would not be willing to accept any terms Germany would be willing to offer.” Nonetheless, “I said I would like nothing better than to take part in ending the war if the opportunity ever arose.”

Sneaking into a movie theater to see how the newsreel covered his Chicago speech, Lindbergh was expecting to be portrayed poorly “because of the Jewish influence in the newsreels and the antagonism I know exists towards me.” “I take the chance that they will cut my talk badly and sandwich it between scenes of homeless refugees and bombed cathedrals,” he wrote.17 He was encouraged to discover that those who hissed whenever his face appeared were matched by those who applauded what he said.

Meanwhile, the presidential election continued apace. Roosevelt appeared to have left the Republicans flummoxed as to how to oppose him. If they were against arming Britain, they were accused of being against the creation of thousands of new American jobs. Willkie, who had never run for elected office, was caught in a bind. A devotee of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, he held views that belied his Midwestern upbringing. His public position was identical to the president’s: he was an internationalist who hoped to keep America out of the war. Like the president, he sympathized with Britain and the democracies and abhorred the dictators. He dared not speculate on whether America might be drawn into war, for on that matter Roosevelt, as the experienced, world-weary incumbent, held an enormous advantage. All appeared to turn on how Willkie set the tone of the campaign in his first major address on August 17: his acceptance speech delivered in his hometown of Elwood, Indiana.

Willkie came out punching. He quoted Churchill, that he had nothing to offer but “blood, tears, toil, and sweat [sic],” and said that Americans could expect the same if he were elected. Weaning the nation off the New Deal’s public spending was sure to be painful, but it was an essential corrective that would restore the economy to health. He challenged the president to a series of “face to face” encounters “to debate the fundamental issues.” But what Willkie said about foreign policy startled the isolationists. It soon became clear that the Republicans had picked a candidate just as committed to countering Hitler as Roosevelt himself. Isolationists soon discovered the truth of historian Ross Gregory’s later assessment of Willkie: “His candidacy denied isolationism the most powerful forum it could have had.”

Willkie made clear from the start that he was no Nazi sympathizer. “The story of the barbarous and worse than medieval persecution of the Jews—a race that has done so much to improve the culture of these countries and our own—is the most tragic in human history,” he declared. He said, “Our way of life is in competition with Hitler’s way of life.” Referring to the “misery and suffering” of the “millions of refugees who desire sanctuary and opportunity in America,” his choice of words was telling. “We are not isolated from those suffering people,” he said. Reminding his radio audience of millions of “all the democracies that have recently fallen,” he said that while “instinctively we turn aside from the recurring conflicts over there [in Europe],” still “we cannot brush the pitiless picture of their destruction from our vision, or escape the profound effects of it upon the world in which we live.”

Directly addressing the isolationists, he announced, “Peace is not something that a nation can achieve by itself. It also depends on what some other country does.” He said that three of his uncles had signed up within a month of Wilson declaring war in 1916 and he welcomed the conscription measure going through Congress. “We must not shirk the necessity of preparing our sons to take care of themselves in case the defense of America leads to war,” he said. He described Germany as “a power hostile to our way of life” and asserted that the capture of the British fleet by Germany would be “a calamity.” “If we had to trade with a Europe dominated by the present German trade policies,” he said, “we might have to change our methods to some totalitarian form. This is a prospect that any lover of democracy must view with consternation.”

He declared himself “in agreement” with Roosevelt’s speech about extending America’s material resources to the opponents of force. “I am glad to pledge my wholehearted support to the President in whatever action he may take in accordance with these principles,” he said.

And yet, quickly rowing back from embracing the whole of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, Willkie “wondered if [the president] is deliberately inciting us to war.” “He has dabbled in inflammatory statements and manufactured panics,” Willkie said, alluding to the president’s fireside chats that persistently warned of the German danger. “He has courted a war for which the country is hopelessly unprepared—and which it emphatically does not want. He has secretly meddled in the affairs of Europe, and he has even unscrupulously encouraged other countries to hope for more help than we are able to give.” Nonetheless, Willkie promised “to out-distance Hitler in any contests he choses in 1940 or after. And I promise that when we beat him, we shall beat him on our own terms, in our own American way.”

Delighted by the slap to the isolationists, Roosevelt commissioned Ickes to take to the radio and point out that Willkie was completely at odds with his own party. In a typically memorable phrase, Ickes dismissed Willkie as the “rich man’s Roosevelt, the simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.” The president laughed out loud when he heard the line and called Ickes to congratulate him.

Within days, the ambiguity of Willkie’s war policy landed him in trouble. When asked by White to help ensure that the destroyers-for-bases deal would be bipartisan, he replied that, though he himself agreed with the deal, he had no power to make Republicans in Congress vote for the measure. On August 30, however, he promised not to oppose the agreement. Yet by September 4, under pressure from isolationists in his party to claim that the deal was nothing less than an illegal act of war, he was obliged, against his better judgment, to condemn the arrangement. At first he appeased his supporters by saying, “We must be extremely careful in these times . . . not to eliminate or destroy the democratic processes while seeking to preserve democracy.” Three days later, he raised the temperature again, calling the deal “the most dictatorial and arbitrary act of any President in this history of the United States.”

Willkie left Lindbergh cold. The aviator listened to his acceptance speech with Anne and noted, “We had hoped for more and felt depressed and disappointed. . . . The nation was waiting for a message it did not receive; it hoped for greatness, and heard mediocrity.” In similar despair, isolationists suggested that the leadership they felt was missing should come from Lindbergh. Douglas Stewart and George T. Eggleston, publisher and editor respectively of Scribner’s Commentator, asked whether he would be prepared to head up “some sort of organization—nationalist, antiwar, etc.” Lindbergh told him that it wasn’t his field and he was unsuited to such advocacy work, but the following week he met at Van Zandt’s office with R. Douglas Stuart Jr., from Chicago’s Defend America First Committee, whom he thought “a fine type of fellow,” then with Frederick Libby of the National Council for Prevention of War. He also met with the arch-isolationist senator and presidential hopeful Burton K. Wheeler. Slowly, Lindbergh was drawn into the political process.

The importance to isolationists in both parties of finding a celebrity like Lindbergh to champion their cause coincided with their growing concern about Willkie. Among the isolationist leading lights encouraging Lindbergh to take a more prominent role were senators Harry Byrd of Virginia and John G. Townsend of Delaware, and William R. Castle, a rich Hawaiian Republican and former US ambassador to Japan. Castle told Lindbergh that “most of his Republican friends are greatly disappointed in Willkie’s campaign to date,” and Lindbergh asked himself, “What is Willkie’s real personal attitude on the war? No one seems to know.” Byrd, an isolationist Democrat descended from one of the socially grand First Families of Virginia, told Lindbergh that if the president proposed war, he would rather resign his Senate seat than vote for it. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, an internationalist who had veered toward isolationism at the outbreak of the war in Europe, was dispatched to seek out Willkie on the campaign trail and urge him “to take a stronger antiwar stand.”

Meanwhile, Roosevelt began edging America into the war. He called Stark to the Oval Office and ordered him without delay to bolster US Navy surveillance of German vessels in the Atlantic. He extended the limit of American operations to the 60th meridian, a line a thousand miles east of the eastern seaboard that stretched from Newfoundland to British Guiana. The US Navy’s snooping was an enormous boost to the Royal Navy’s efforts to track German U-boats and the few surface naval vessels that managed to escape past the patrolling British fleet into the Atlantic. The president told Stark that “loss of contact with surface ships cannot be tolerated” and demanded that all sightings of foreign vessels be reported to base without being encoded, a ruse that allowed eavesdropping Royal Navy ships to learn the exact location of enemy vessels.

As for the election, the president’s strategy was to remain above the fray, not engaging with Willkie and appearing indispensable in face of the European crisis. He told Kennedy, “I am not intending to campaign at all. There is enough to be done right here.”  “Mr. Roosevelt was faced with a dilemma,” wrote Life magazine. “If he went on the road, people would charge him with neglecting his duties as chief executive in time of crisis; and if he stayed in Washington his opponent would tear him to pieces.” The president played to his strength. Just as he had calmed American nerves by remaining cool in the depths of the Great Depression, so he let it be known that he was calmly keeping watch on those threatening America.

Before long, however, he found he was drawn into the campaign. He started traveling, touring armaments, tank, and aircraft plants, ostensibly to encourage production, telling the press that the frailty of the international situation meant that he always needed to be within 200 miles or two hours’ train travel of the White House. “The places visited by me—Arsenals, Navy Yards, private plants, etc.—get a= real enthusiasm and speed-up production during the days following my visit,” he reported to his son-in-law John Boettiger. While insisting on the fiction that he was too busy to give speeches, he made a point of addressing large crowds from the back of the caboose. At first the tactic proved successful; through August and into September, he enjoyed a five to ten point poll lead over Willkie.

Slowly, however, Willkie began to gain. His forceful, energetic speaking style gave the implicit suggestion that he would be a more dynamic president than Roosevelt, who was pictured as calm to the point of complacency. He never missed a chance to call Roosevelt “the third-term candidate,” with the unstated suggestion that Washington’s dying wish was being ignored by Roosevelt’s aristocratic sense of entitlement.

There was another threat to Roosevelt’s easy reelection: Kennedy. The ambassador smoldered about his ill-treatment at the hands of the president and was determined to return home when the Battle of Britain was decided or if Germany invaded Britain, whichever was the sooner. It was important to him, however, not to appear cowardly to American eyes. “Towards the end of [September] it should become clear whether the invasion is a possibility or not,” he told Rose. “By that time there will have been enough concentrated bombing on all of us in London so that certainly nobody in America could think I had left before I had seen a big part of the show.”  He remained as defeatist as ever, telling the dying Chamberlain, “This war won’t accomplish anything. We are supposed to be fighting for liberty and the result will be to turn the last of the Democracies into Socialist, Communist, or Totalitarian States.”

Roosevelt was in two minds about how to handle Kennedy’s pleas to be allowed home. The Washington Star ran a cartoon of Kennedy at the quayside in Britain reading a note from the president saying, “Stay Where You Are.”  Rose wrote to her husband, “The Pres. does not want you home before the election due to your explosive—defeatist, point of view, as you might so easily throw a bomb which would explode sufficiently to upset his chances. I wanted to go to the W.H. as a wife, say I am worried about your health, think you have done enough—guarantee to chloroform you until after the election.” Henry Luce, a pro-British internationalist, wrote to the ambassador in July, urging him to “return to this country immediately and tell what you think about everything.” Sensing that the election was slowly turning in their favor, the Willkie camp concluded that if Kennedy backed their man, the White House would be theirs.

On the president’s specific instruction, Hull again denied Kennedy permission to return, but it was feared in the White House that the ambassador was in such a sour mood he might return anyway. Kennedy told Hull, Halifax, and Welles that he had written “an indictment of President Roosevelt’s administration for having talked a lot and done very little,” to be published coast to coast by his assistant, Eddie Moore, “if by accident” he was not allowed to leave London by November.

Despite Willkie’s backing of the draft, the congressional isolationists fought a rearguard action against the Selective Service Act, Norris claiming that once in uniform Americans “would soon be fighting with somebody,” and Wheeler saying that the measure would “slit the throat of the last democracy still living.” Roosevelt’s Dutchess County thorn, Hamilton Fish, was virulent in his opposition, trying to limit the numbers called up and pressing for voluntary rather than compulsory service. A majority of Republicans voted against the measure, which nonetheless passed both houses of Congress, and Roosevelt signed it into law on September 16. All men aged between twenty-one and thirty-six were to register and would be selected for service by lottery, with the final decision about fitness and claims for deferment decided by local draft boards.

On September 27, the Tripartite Pact, a mutual defense agreement between Germany, Italy, and Japan, was signed, giving birth to the Axis. The British remained anxious at the pace of American help. “Public opinion [in America] has not yet grasped that it will have to make far reaching decisions to finance and supply us and possibly still graver ones next Spring or Summer unless it is to take the responsibility of forcing us to make a compromised peace,” Lothian wrote to Halifax. “Yet owing to size of country and its constitution it is usually impossible to get important decisions taken without at least six months preparation.”

With the Battle of Britain won and the British Isles safe from Nazi invasion, at least for now, there was time before the Germans could regroup and try again. Six months seemed hardly enough time for Roosevelt to persuade the American people that the confrontation between the democracies and the dictators of Germany, Italy, and Japan was their fight, too.

Excerpted from "The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War II" by Nicholas Wapshott. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. Copyright 2015 Nicholas Wapshott. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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