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National Affairs: Challenge

8 minute read

We . . . believe in a civilization of construction and not of destruction. . . . Can we continue our peaceful construction if all the other continents embrace by preference or by compulsion a wholly different principle of life?

That question President Roosevelt last week asked of 2,500 delegates to the eighth American Scientific Congress, meeting in Washington’s big Constitution Hall; and his words, sent out on a worldwide broadcast, collided with reports of destruction as Germany’s armies swept into the Low Countries.

He asked his question in a week in which World War II became concrete and real for U. S. citizens—militarily, diplomatically, emotionally. It was a week in which they read graphic reports of the destructive power of the German air fleet and worried discussions of the U. S. in the air—that with its productive plant working at full capacity, the U. S. was still producing only 351 planes (including commercial planes) a month. It was a week when Adolf Hitler, sending his young men on the errands of total war—his soldiers to invade three peaceful countries without warning, his Fifth Columnists in Belgium and The Netherlands to wreck defenses, sabotage waterworks, jam air-raid alarms, snipe at citizens, seize airports—told them: “The fight beginning today decides the fate of the German nation for the next thousand years!” And it was a week that saw a revolution in U. S. public opinion on World War II, a revolution so swift and sweeping that President Roosevelt’s question had become academic almost as soon as he asked it {see p. 17).

Mood. The days before the news broke had a quality of resigned suspense like that of a sick room in which only the doctors know the gravity of the case. Cutting short a Hyde Park rest, the President hurried back to the White House three days before German parachutists plummeted down near Rotterdam and The Hague. To reporters summoned to a surprise press conference in his private car, he said that nervousness over impending developments in Europe was taking him back to Washington. At the State Department Under Secretary Sumner Welles and Assistant Secretary Adolf Berle worked late, let it be known that the crisis in The Netherlands was the reason. As quietly as a family doctor not yet ready to tell the family the worst, soft-spoken Gordell Hull tiptoed into Washington from a brief rest at Atlantic City, waited for the word from abroad.

It came—at 8:30 on the night of May 9, a telephone call from big, indignant Ambassador John Cudahy in Brussels, who called President Roosevelt at the White House, got Secretary “Pa” Watson, and scooped all journalists with the flat statement that the Germans were marching in that night. Official Washington went through the pattern of crisis that eight months of war had made terrifyingly familiar.

Correspondents knew that the Department’s policy makers would soon collect on the musty second-floor offices—and soon they arrived, Secretary Hull at n p.m., Jay Pierrepont Moffat (Chief of the European Division) in a dinner jacket and black tie, Assistant Secretary Berle to spend the night at his desk. Correspondents also knew that from U. S. diplomats abroad reports would come fast: ¶Dapper, high-strung, Harvard-bred Minister Gordon at The Hague (who had spent most of the two nights before telephoning Washington ) got through an early wire of warning at 2:50 a.m., reported in a later telephone conversation that he could hardly hear himself talk because of anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire.

— Ambassador Cudahy got Secretary Hull at 10:50 p.m., was kept busy phoning for three and a half hours, had just signed off when Embassy maids shouted “Les Alle-mands!” and a bomb dropped on a house some 30 yards away.

Lounging in Chief of Current Information Michael McDermott’s office, listening to dance music on the radio while they waited for releases, newsmen knew that soon President Roosevelt would again condemn an act of aggression (the eighth German aggression that he has deplored), would again extend the Neutrality Act to include Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg (third extension in six months), would again act to freeze the credits in the U. S. of the invaded countries. They knew that the President’s press conference next day would be crowded, grave, unrevealing —and it was, with about 250 correspondents filing to the White House through a bright spring morning, to note in their eleven-minute interview that Franklin Roosevelt seemed imperturbable, and to hear him express his sympathy for Queen Wilhelmina’s defiance of the invaders.

But one great difference marked off last week’s scenes from those that had gone before. Facing the thought of an Allied defeat, pondering on the fate of Dutch possessions near U. S. shores, few U. S. citizens doubted that Europe’s total war was an overwhelming U. S. concern.

Question. After his press conference the President revised his speech. That night he began with his strongest condemnation: “In some kinds of human affairs the mind of man becomes accustomed to unusual actions if these actions are often repeated.

But that is not so in the world happenings of today—and I am proud that it is not so. I am glad that we Americans are shocked, that we are angered by the tragic news that has come to us from Belgium and The Netherlands and Luxembourg.” He praised the ideals of the New World (“We feel that we are building human progress by conquering disease and poverty … removing one by one the many cruelties and crudities and barbarities of less civilized eras”) and saw them menaced by a Hitler victory (“the school of destruction . . . those who seek to dominate hundreds of millions of people in vast continental areas—those who, if successful in that aim will . . . enlarge their wild dream to encompass every human being and every mile of the earth’s surface”).

He rapped at those who believe the Atlantic and Pacific give North and South America a “mystic immunity.” But ambiguous and questioning was his ending: “Is this solution . . . [Pan-American unity] permanent or safe if it is solved just for us alone? . . . Surely it is time for our republics to spread that problem before us … to ask questions, to call for answers. . . . I am a pacifist. . . . But I believe that . . . you and I, in the long run and if it be necessary, you and I will act together to protect, to defend . . . our science, our culture, our American freedom and our civilization.” Thus, like many a Presidential speech on foreign affairs, it clarified little, influenced public opinion far less than events:

Territories. On the isles of Curagao and Aruba in the Dutch West Indies (where 72% of Venezuela’s oil is processed, where a Standard Oil subsidiary operates the world’s biggest refinery), the French training cruiser Jeanne d’Arc landed 150 marines to help guard the refineries against German sabotage. Although the U. S. State Department said the landing was no infringement of the Monroe Doctrine (since it was friendly, temporary and involved no change of sovereignty), the German press screamed menace, the Japanese asked if there would be such landings in The Netherlands East Indies, were pointedly told by The Netherlands that such an act would be unnecessary, in view of fine East Indian defenses.

Last month Secretary Hull spoke quietly for maintenance of the status quo in The Netherlands East Indies, while part of the U. S. fleet (130 surface vessels, 42,500 officers and men, 500 airplanes, an undisclosed number of submarines) maneuvered off the Hawaiian Islands. Last week, as German troops poured into The Netherlands, Japan’s Cabinet met in a special session, came out of it to demand maintenance of the status quo in The Netherlands East Indies. Acting swiftly, Jonkheer Alidius Warmoldus Lambertus Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, Governor General of The Netherlands East Indies, ordered 19 German ships seized, 10,000 male Germans clapped into concentration camps, proclaimed that “any outside help will be refused as unwelcome.” To almost-forgotten Greenland went its first U. S, Consul, James Penfield, 32, while Washington rumor declared that the U. S. would be forced to make a decision within two weeks on the status of the Arctic island, orphan since Hitler’s seizure of Denmark.

The pressure of war, and the even stronger pressure of possible Allied defeat, had already posed—whether the U. S.

liked them or not—new questions. Henceforth the nation must consider the steps which it must take and not take in the cold logic of its own imperative self-interest.

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