Our opponents are miserable worms. I saw them
IT WASN’T A DAY to expect catastrophe.
Across Western Europe, May 10, 1940, dawned bright and clear. Then, with a whine accelerating to a scream, swarms of German Stuka divebombers swooped out of the skies over Holland and Belgium and unloaded their bombs. The skies turned from blue to white as thousands of parachutes opened and German paratroopers descended to earth to seize key bridges and installations. The supposedly impregnable Fort Eben Emael fell in a matter of hours. Dutch and Belgian troops, stunned into impotence, dropped their rifles and surrendered—beaten by an enemy they barely had time to see, let alone fight.
After seven months of what the French called la drôle de guerre and
the British the Phony War, the war declared back in September 1939
between Germany and the Allies had finally turned real.
With drill-like precision, German shock troops crossed the Meuse
River and grabbed key bridges for a thrust deep into French territory. On
May 14 hundreds of German tanks began pouring through the gap at
Sedan and into the open countryside. Entire divisions of the French army
were cut off. Back at headquarters, generals ordered their troops to hold
positions, only to learn that German panzers had already bypassed them.1
That same afternoon, French and British Royal Air Force bombers set
out to blow up the crucial bridges across the Meuse. German antiaircraft
fire and fighters shot down more than half in what was the bloodiest
single day in RAF history. Yet the Meuse bridges remained unscathed.
That same afternoon, German bombers devastated the ancient Dutch
city of Rotterdam, killing a thousand civilians and rendering thousands
more homeless. It was the world’s first taste of what massed modern
bombers could do to a helpless civilian population.
German tank columns, meanwhile, were pressing on toward Paris.
Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, a mechanized tidal wave of planes, tanks, and armored
cars, was sweeping aside everything in its path.
Winston Churchill had been prime minister less than five days when
he was awakened at 7 a.m. by a phone call from his French counterpart.
“We have been defeated,” Paul Reynaud said in English. Churchill
rubbed his eyes, but said nothing. Reynaud then repeated, “We are
beaten; we have lost the battle.”2 Churchill flew to Paris that day to see
what could be salvaged from imminent defeat. But he paused to send a
telegram across the Atlantic to the White House and President Franklin
D. Roosevelt. It read in part:
As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. If
necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid
of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and
the force of the United States may count for nothing if they are
withheld too long.3
Sitting four thousand miles away, Roosevelt could read the headlines
in the Washington Post: dozen french cities bombed. He was also getting
private reports from his ambassadors in Paris and London, reports
of Allied consternation and confusion, and imminent collapse.
Churchill’s telegram seemed to burn a hole in his desk in the Oval
Office. “You may have a completely subjugated, Nazifi ed Europe established
with astonishing swiftness,” it went on, “and the weight may
be more than we can bear.”4 If France fell, and then possibly Britain,
the entire balance of power in the world would change. The United
States would face a hostile continent across the ocean—with a oncemighty
British Empire rendered impotent almost everywhere else.
Roosevelt drummed his fingers and thought. For years his political
instincts had told him to stay away from what was happening in Europe.
He had come into office in 1933 to deal with a domestic crisis,
the economic depression left unsolved by Herbert Hoover. Unemployment
had stood at 25 percent. Industrial production had fallen by
a third; one- half of the nation’s wealth had been wiped out. His job
had been tackling breadlines, closed factories, and a budget out of balance
by $2.5 billion. Dabbling in foreign affairs had seemed a distraction.
In addition, the Democratic Party he headed had been badly burned
by European entanglements under Woodrow Wilson. It was led by men
disillusioned by the failure of Wilson’s promises regarding the First
World War, “the war to end all wars,” and what had seemed then to be
a Carthaginian peace imposed on Germany at Versailles. Having once
been determined to save the world, American progressives were now
just as determined to turn their backs on it.
Contrary to later myth, the Republican years of the twenties were
not the heyday of isolationism. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and
Hoover had remained actively engaged in European affairs. Their representatives
attended disarmament conferences, mediated disputes over
war reparations, helped to rebuild a broken Germany, and provided
famine relief to a starving Soviet Union.
Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats rejected this legacy of engagement.
It was a Democratic Congress that passed two Neutrality Acts in
1935 and 1936, prohibiting American companies from selling any war
equipment to any belligerent in an armed conflict, and a Democratic
president—Franklin Roosevelt—who signed them both.5
Roosevelt had also encouraged Senator Gerald Nye (a Republican)
and his young legal counsel Alger Hiss in their sensational investigations
into the conduct of American armaments manufacturers in the
First World War. The Nye Committee blasted companies like DuPont,
General Electric, General Motors, Colt Arms, Electric Boat (makers of
submarines), Curtiss, Boeing, and Sperry Gyroscope as “merchants of
death.” It even blamed their “lies, deceit, hypocrisy, greed, and graft” for
getting the United States into the war in the fi rst place.6
Nye’s proposed solution was nationalizing the armaments industry.
That didn’t happen, but companies like DuPont got the message. The
Wilmington, Delaware, firm had supplied America’s armed forces with
gunpowder since the American Revolution. Now it slashed its
munitions- making division to less than 2 percent of operations.7 Other
companies drew the same lesson: Supplying America with arms was
business you did not want.* (Airplane makers like Curtiss and Boeing
and Glenn Martin had little choice. Military contracts were the only
way they could survive during the Great Depression. Boeing, however, felt
the full force of the government’s revenge. In 1934 its leading executives,
including Pratt & Whitney founder Fred Rentschler, found themselves
banned from the industry for five years—unprecedented for an act of Congress. A
disgusted Bill Boeing quit the company he had founded back in 1917 from a barn on
the shore of Lake Union. His partner Phil Johnson had to find work manufacturing
trucks in Seattle, then moved to Canada to operate the airline that would become Air
That didn’t matter much, because the defense budget was moribund.
Cuts President Hoover had imposed on the War and Navy departments
with the onset of the Depression became self- sustaining. “Niggardly
appropriations for the operation and maintenance of the Navy put
naval operations in a veritable straitjacket,” one historian would write
of those bleak years.8 Ships were scrapped or mothballed; fleet exercises
were curtailed by a lack of fuel and support vessels. Building and fortifying
facilities ceased, especially in the western Pacific. The naval base
at Pearl Harbor, which was supposed to anchor a chain of fortified
Pacific naval stations stretching from Midway to Guam and the Philippines,
became a lonely outpost in a vast and empty sea.
From the fourth-biggest military force in the world in 1918, the
United States Army shrank to number eighteen, just ahead of tiny Holland.
By 1939 the Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force,
consisted of some seventeen hundred planes, all fighters and trainers,
and fewer than 20,000 officers and enlisted men.9
In the late thirties, as tensions grew in Europe between the totalitarian
powers and the liberal democracies, the United States remained
reluctant to break its neutrality and take sides. Roosevelt and his special
White House aide Harry Hopkins did not admire men like Hitler and
Mussolini; quite the opposite. But their overriding goal was peace in
Europe, in order to keep America out of war. If that meant appeasement
of Hitler’s incessant demands, then so be it. When Roosevelt
learned in October 1938 that Neville Chamberlain had handed over a
large chunk of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich, he sent a congratulatory
telegram: “Good man.”10
But soon after the surrender at Munich, Roosevelt’s mood began to
change. He realized Hitler’s thirst for power was not going to be assuaged,
ever. This would inevitably mean war, and once again America
would find itself one ocean away from a Europe in flames. “If the
Rhine frontiers are threatened,” he told friends in January 1939, “the
rest of the world is too”—including the United States.11
So after years of avoiding foreign affairs, Roosevelt began taking
small, cautious steps, like a man feeling his way along in the dark.
In 1936 the Washington Naval Treaty, which had sharply limited the
future growth of the U.S. Navy in the name of arms control, expired.
Roosevelt let it lapse. He then ordered the Navy to launch its first
major shipbuilding program in more than twelve years (one of the ships
to come out of it was the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise). In 1938 the
Army Air Corps got the biggest authorization for buying planes in its
history.12 Roosevelt began talking about an American air force on a par
with those of Britain, France, and Germany.
The Army and Navy Munitions Board, which decided what kinds
of weaponry America would make, became an executive office of the
president—a bureaucratic consolidation that showed the commanderin-
chief’s new interest in military matters. He also authorized the
transfer of American capital ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the
first significant shift in the country’s naval dispositions since the close
of World War I.
Then when Europe went to war in September 1939, Roosevelt
joined forces with Nevada senator Key Pittman to call for a bill modifying
the Neutrality Act. Starting in November, the United Kingdom
and France were free to purchase munitions from American companies
on a “cash- and- carry” basis.
All well and good for Britain and France. But what about munitions
for America? Reports that summer had it that Hitler’s Luftwaffe had
reached a combined strength of nearly 8,500 fighters and bombers—
most of them advanced types less than three years old. The Army Air
Corps had barely a fi fth of that number, and most were out of date. When
it came to the other ingredients of modern mechanized warfare— tanks,
armored cars, antiaircraft guns, and troop- carrying trucks— Americans
were even more hopelessly behind.
Brigadier General George Patton learned this when he took charge
of the Army’s Second Armored Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, the
summer of 1939. Patton had 325 tanks— at a time when the Germans
had more than 2,000— but no reliable nuts and bolts to hold them together.
Patton asked the quartermaster for the necessary nuts and bolts;
they never reached him. In desperation he ordered them at his own
expense from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.13
All of this is hardly surprising, considering that the Army had just six
working arsenals for manufacturing weapons. Eighty- five percent of
the machinery in those arsenals was over ten years old, and much of it
predated the start of the century. Some went back all the way to Gettysburg
Then in August 1939, on the eve of war in Europe, the Army held
major war games at Plattsburgh, New York, to find out what it could
do. Fifty thousand men were put on the field—but more than two- thirds
were part-time National Guardsmen. They quickly lost their direction
as units haplessly bumped into each other. Without radios to issue orders,
soldiers began wandering in search of offi cers to give them. Some
stumbled on lines of Good Humor trucks parked in a field: The Army
had been forced to hire them to serve as decoy tanks because there
weren’t enough real tanks or armored cars to go around. “The U.S.
Army,” Time magazine said, summing up, “looked like a few nice boys
with BB guns.”14
No wonder, then, that on September 1, when Ambassador to Russia
William Bullitt called the White House to say that Germany had invaded
Poland, Roosevelt’s response was, “God help us all.”
Neither the collapse of Poland nineteen days later nor Germany’s
unleashing of its U-boats to prowl the Atlantic nor the fall of Norway
and Denmark in April 1940 had roused the rest of the country to
thinking about its own defense. After Poland fell, Roosevelt dared to
appoint a War Resources Board of industrial leaders to consider what
might be needed if America did have to prepare for a modern war.
The board sat for six weeks before public outrage forced him to disband
Right up to May 13, 1940, Roosevelt was still unwilling to challenge
a Congress, and a vast majority of Americans, who were deeply
opposed to getting involved in another shooting war, anywhere and
under any circumstances. He began thinking about retirement. Two
terms as president were enough, he was telling friends; time to retire to
Hyde Park and write his memoirs. In January he told Treasury Secretary
Henry Morgenthau he didn’t want to run again, “unless things get
very, very much worse in Europe.”16
On May 14 they very much did. Roosevelt realized he had to act.
Less than twenty-four hours after getting Churchill’s telegram, Roosevelt
summoned Morgenthau and Army Chief of Staff General George
Catlett Marshall to his office. For the past months, the pair had been
locked in a brutal battle over the Army budget. In 1939 defense spending
topped $1 billion for the first time since 1918. The armed forces
had grown to 334,000 men from 291,000. Still, Marshall knew that was
barely a quarter of the 1.2 million the British and French had mobilized
to stop the German invasion— and they were losing the war.
All the same, the Treasury secretary wanted another $6 million cut
out of the Army’s appropriations for 1940. He was worried about the
United States reaching its debt limit. Marshall was worried about the
United States’ survival. He had pleaded and begged to have the money
Now Roosevelt wanted some answers. What were they finally going
to do about the 1940 Army appropriation?
Morgenthau weighed in again with his arguments about fiscal prudence,
hammering again and again on the point of the debt limit. Then
Marshall stood up and said, “Mr. President, can I have three minutes?”
Roosevelt nodded yes.17
From Virginia Military Institute to West Point to General Pershing’s
staff during the Great War, George Marshall had dedicated his life to
the Army. He was a soft- spoken, taciturn man, known to be smart and
serious but hardly eloquent. Now he gave the speech of his life. France
was about to collapse. Then it might be Britain’s turn. The United
States would be facing the Nazi empire alone.
America simply didn’t have enough planes, enough soldiers, enough
tanks or artillery or machine guns, he said, to fight a war with Germany.
“If five German divisions landed anywhere on the coast,” Marshall
told the president, “they could go anywhere they wished.”18 If, meanwhile,
trouble heated up in the Pacific over Japan’s ambitions there, the
situation would be even more hopeless.
It was time, Marshall concluded, for the president to get serious
about arming America for war. He had to get together a group of industrialists
to draw up a plan for defense preparation and production.
There was not a day to spare. They should be brought to Washington
that same week.
“If you don’t do something,” Marshall concluded, “and do it right
away, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the country.”19
Roosevelt was convinced. Within hours he sent an urgent message
to Congress, asking that the $24 million appropriation for the Army be
expanded to $700 million. He said, “This nation should plan at this
time a program that will provide us with 50,000 military and naval
planes.... I should like to see this nation geared up to the ability to turn
out at least 50,000 planes a year.”
The country was stunned. Charles Lindbergh, a key figure in the
opposition to getting entangled in Europe and self- appointed guru on
all things relating to aviation, dismissed the numbers as “hysterical chatter.”
Republican leader Senator Vandenberg of Michigan warned that
“it would take more than appropriations to make a national defense.”
The president of the Air Transport Association of America said it was
“fooling the people” to raise unrealistic hopes about how many planes
could be made and when they could be delivered.20
Meanwhile, Secretary Morgenthau called a meeting of American
airplane executives at the White House for May 18. He wanted to
know what they thought they could produce in terms of warplanes, and
Morgenthau’s visitors included executives from Glenn Martin of
Baltimore and Lockheed of California, as well as Douglas, North
American, and Consolidated. They had taken one kick after another
from Roosevelt’s administration, from stripping away their airmail
contracts to divesting them of their civilian airline routes, the so-called
big breakup of 1934. With the Depression in full swing, they had only
a thin trickle of military orders, fifty or sixty planes at a time; it was all
that kept them alive. In 1938 they had barely supplied the Army Air
Corps with ninety planes a month.21 Now the White House was telling
them they wanted planes by the thousands.
What kind of planes do you want? they asked. Morgenthau could
not tell them. They wanted to know exactly how many were needed
and when the delivery date would be. Again the Treasury secretary
drew a blank. The executives went home, more confused than ever.22
Meanwhile, news from Europe grew steadily worse. On May 20 the
Germans reached the Channel. The British army in France was cut off.
Unless they were able to retreat to the closest port still not in German
hands, Dunkirk, they would have to surrender. Churchill began to plan
for a German invasion. Britain’s odds of surviving, which Roosevelt
had privately set at fifty-fifty, now looked like running to zero.
On the seventeenth, Churchill had drafted one last telegram to
Roosevelt. In it he warned the president that if Britain lost the war, it
might mean that Germany would seize the Royal Navy, the single
greatest armed force in the world. “I could not answer for my successors,”
he wrote, “who in utter despair and helplessness would have to
accommodate themselves to the German will.” In other words,
Churchill was saying, if Britain lost, Roosevelt would fi nd himself facing
a German fleet large enough to patrol in force right off America’s
A man of many gifts and strengths, on policy matters FDR was a
procrastinator. He preferred to put off decisions— or at least to keep
news about them from going public— as long as possible, especially the
big ones. But on May 23 he sensed his options had run out. He called
the one person whose advice in this hour he trusted, the person he
believed could fi gure out a way to get America ready for a war it didn’t
want and hadn’t yet been declared, but which now seemed inevitable.
Bernard Baruch was a wealthy financier and longtime Democratic
fundraiser, and Roosevelt’s point man in dealing with Wall Street and
big business since the beginning of the New Deal. More relevantly,
Baruch had been head of the War Industries Board that had coordinated
the effort to arm America during World War I—for which the
Nye Committee had ruthlessly raked him over the congressional coals.
But as assistant secretary of the Navy, the young Franklin Roosevelt
had watched Baruch pull that war production effort back from the
brink of chaos in the summer of 1917 and impose some rational order
on a process that had baffled and frustrated both the American military
and American business alike. Now Roosevelt wanted Baruch to do it
Baruch turned him down. He knew no modesty, and he had anticipated
this moment for a long time. Back in March 1939, his friend
Winston Churchill had warned him, “War is coming very soon.”24 Baruch
had briefed the short- lived War Resources Board on what it had
to do to get America’s major corporations involved in war production.
He had drawn on his experience of securing the right raw materials,
organizing the multitude of contracts needed to produce ships, trucks,
guns, uniforms, and ammunition, and getting them shipped from points
around the country to America’s armed forces.
But the sixty-nine-year-old financier sensed that putting it together
this time was a task too complicated even for him. In the previous war,
Baruch’s War Industries Board had managed to build mountains of war
materiel. The problem was, almost none of it was ready in time to fight
the war. Three million American soldiers had had to fl y French airplanes,
carry British rifles, and crouch behind British machine guns. Of
the 10,000 75mm artillery pieces the War Department ordered, only
143 ever reached the front—and not one American- made tank.25
The pressures of time, materials, and distribution had been immense
then, when America’s economy was strong and growing. They would
be far worse now for an American industrial base that had deteriorated
for a full decade. In addition, the country needed to build a modern air
force as well as a two-ocean navy—and fleets of transport ships to bring
it all into action.
Someone else, Baruch told Roosevelt, would have to take charge.
The president wanted to know whom he should call. “Who are the
three top industrial production men in the United States right now?”
“First, Bill Knudsen,” Baruch replied. “Second, Bill Knudsen. Third,
When Roosevelt announced his plans for 50,000 planes a year, Hitler
branded the number a fantasy. He scoffed, “What is America but
beauty queens, millionaires, stupid records, and Hollywood?”27
He was about to find out.
Excerpted from FREEDOM’S FORGE by Arthur Herman Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Herman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.