Franklin D. Roosevelt

The peace treaty following World War I left many Americans bitter and disillusioned. They believed that an idealistic United States had gone to war to "make the world safe for democracy," but the Old World had only been interested in empires and markets. During the early 1930s a combination of popular writing and congressional hearings reinforced the notion that bankers and munitions makers had been the real reason the United States had entered the war. Add to these ingredients the worst depression in the nation's history, and it is not difficult to understand why a vast majority of Americans embraced isolationism in the 1930s. Moreover, a strong pacifist movement composed of people horrified by the butchery of the Great War added to the feeling that the United States should stay out of foreign affairs. While many people recognized the danger of fascism, the vast majority of Americans essentially said, "Let the Europeans fight it out. We have no business getting involved."

Franklin Roosevelt initially welcomed this attitude, since it allowed him to concentrate on what he considered his -- and the nation's -- most pressing problem, securing economic recovery. But as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy began to march in the mid-1930s, Roosevelt recognized that the United States could not sit idly by, that whether the United States wanted to or not, it would be involved. From 1937 on, Roosevelt led a political battle at home to ease the restrictions Congress had imposed in various Neutrality Acts.

After Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began, American public opinion started to shift. While most of the country still wanted to avoid getting involved in the fighting, sentiment was growing to extend material aid to the Allies. Roosevelt also tried to mediate, and he thought he had gotten Benito Mussolini to agree not to bring Italy into the war. But Mussolini wanted war, and had already promised Hitler he would intervene. Just as the president was getting onto the train to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was to deliver a major foreign policy address, he learned that Italy had declared war on France.

At Charlottesville, Roosevelt went further than he had done before, promising that the United States would extend aid to England, then undergoing massive bombing by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, in the Battle of Britain. In essence, this speech marks American re-entry into the larger world; the United States would no longer be a neutral, but a non-belligerent.

For further reading: Hans L. Trefousse, Germany and American Neutrality, 1939-1941 (1951); Robert A. Divine, The Reluctant Belligerent: American Entry into World War II (1965); Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 (1979).


President Newcomb, my friends of the University of Virginia...

Every generation of young men and women in America has questions to ask the world. Most of the time they are the simple but nevertheless difficult questions -- questions of work to do, opportunities to find, ambitions to satisfy.

But every now and again in the history of the republic a different kind of question presents itself -- a question that asks, not about the future of an individual or even of a generation, but about the future of the country, the future of the American people....

There is such a time again today. Again today the young men and the young women of America ask themselves with earnestness and with deep concern this same question: "What is to become of the country we know?"

Now they ask it with even greater anxiety than before. They ask, not only what the future hold for this republic, but what the future holds for all peoples and all nations that have been living under democratic forms of government -- under the free institutions of a free people.

It is understandable to all of us, I think that they should ask this question. They read the words of those who are telling them that the ideal of individual liberty, the ideal of free franchise, the ideal of peace through justice is a decadent idea!

They read the word and hear the boast of those who say that a belief in force -- force directed by self-chosen leaders -- is the new and vigorous system which will overrun the earth. They have seen the ascendancy of this philosophy of force in nation after nation where the free institutions and individual liberties were once maintained.

It is natural and understandable that the younger generation should first ask itself what the extension of the philosophy of force to all the world would lead to ultimately. We see today, for example, in stark reality some of the consequences of what we call the machine age.

Where control of machines has been retained in the hands of mankind as a whole, untotaled benefits have accrued to mankind. For mankind was then the master: The machine was the servant.

But in this new system of force the mastery of the machine is not in the hands of mankind. It is in the control of infinitely small groups of individuals who rule without a single one of the democratic sanctions that we have known.

The machine in the hands of irresponsible conquerors becomes the master; mankind is not only servant, it is the victim too. Such mastery abandons with deliberate contempt all of the moral values to which even this young country for more than 300 years has been accustomed and dedicated.

Surely the new philosophy proves from month to month that it could have no possible conception of the way of life or the way of thought of a nation whose origins go back to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

And conversely, neither those who sprang from that ancient stock nor those who have come hither in later years can be indifferent to the destruction of freedom in their ancestral lands across the sea.

Perception of danger to our institutions may come slowly or it may come with a rush and shock as it has to the people of the United States in the past few months. This perception of danger -- danger in a world-wide arena -- has come to us clearly and overwhelmingly. We perceive the peril in this world-wide arena -- an arena that may become so narrow that only the Americans will retain the ancient faiths.

Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.

Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare, the helpless nightmare of a people without freedom. Yes, the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, hand-cuffed, hungry and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.

It is natural also that we should ask ourselves how now we can prevent the building of that prison and the placing of ourselves in the midst of it.

Let us not hesitate -- all of us -- to proclaim certain truths. Overwhelmingly we, as a nation, and this applies to all the other American nations, we are convinced that military and naval victory for the gods of force and hate would endanger the institutions of democracy in the Western World -- and that equally, therefore, the whole of our sympathies lie with those nations that are giving their life blood in combat against those forces.

The people and Government of the United States have seen with the utmost regret and with grave disquiet the decision of the Italian Government to engage in the hostilities now raging in Europe.

More than three months ago the chief of the Italian Government sent me word that because of the determination of Italy to limit, so far as might be possible, the spread of European conflict, more that two hundred millions of people in the region of the Mediterranean had been enabled to escape the suffering and the devastation of war.

I informed the chief of the Italian Government that this desire on the part of Italy to prevent war from spreading met with full sympathy and response on the part of the government and the people of the United States, and I expressed the earnest hope of this government and of this people that this policy on the part of Italy might be continued. I made it clear that in the opinion of the Government of the United States any extension of hostilities in the region of the Mediterranean might result in the still greater enlargement of the scene of the conflict, the conflict in the Near East and in Africa, and that if this came to pass no one could foretell how much greater the theatre of the war eventually might become.

Again, upon a subsequent occasion, not so far ago, recognizing that certain aspirations of Italy might form the basis of discussions between the powers most specifically concerned, I offered, in a message addressed to the chief of the Italian Government, to send to the Governments of France and Great Britain such specific indications of the desires of Italy to obtain readjustments with regard to her position as the chief of the Italian Government might desire to transmit through me.

While making it clear that the government of the United States in such an event could not and would not assume responsibility for the nature of the proposals submitted nor for agreements which might thereafter be reached, I proposed that if Italy would refrain from entering the war I would be willing to ask assurances from the other powers concerned that they would faithfully execute any agreements so reached, and that Italy's voice in any future peace conference would have the same authority as if Italy had actually taken part in the war as a belligerent.

Unfortunately, unfortunately to the regret of all of us, and to the regret of humanity, the chief of the Italian Government was unwilling to accept the procedure suggested, and he has made no counter-proposal. This government directed its efforts to doing what it could to work for the preservation of peace in the Mediterranean area, and it likewise expressed its willingness to endeavor to cooperate with the government of Italy when the appropriate occasion arose for the creation of a more stable world order, through the reduction of armaments and through the construction of a more liberal international economic system which would assure to all powers equality of opportunity in the world markets and in the securing of raw materials on equal terms.

I have likewise, of course, felt it necessary in my communications to Signor Mussolini to express the concern of the government of the United States because of the fact that any extension of the war in the region of the Mediterranean would inevitably result in great prejudice to the ways of life and government and to the trade and commerce of all the American republics.

The government of Italy has now chosen to preserve what it terms its "freedom of action" and to fulfill what it states are its promises to Germany. In doing so it has manifested disregard for the rights and security of other nations, disregard for the lives of the peoples of those nations which are directly threatened by the spread of this war; and has evidenced its unwillingness to find the means through pacific negotiations for the satisfactions of what it believes are its legitimate aspirations.

On this 10th day of June 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.

On this 10th day of June 1940, in this university founded by the first great American teacher of democracy we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.

In our unity, in our American unity, we will pursue two obvious and simultaneous courses; we will extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.

All roads leading to the accomplishment of these objectives must be kept clear of obstructions. We will not slow down or detour. Signs and signals call for speed -- full speed ahead.

Yes, it is right that each new generation should ask questions. But in recent months the principal question has been somewhat simplified. Once more the future of the American people is at stake.

We need not and we will not, in any way, abandon our continuing efforts to make democracy work within our borders. Yes, we still insist on the need for vast improvements in our own social and economic life.

But that, that is a component part of national defense itself.

The program unfolds swiftly and into that program will fit the responsibility and the opportunity of every man and woman in the land to preserve our heritage in days of peril.

I call for effort, courage, sacrifice, devotion. Granting the love of freedom, all of these are possible.

And the love of freedom is still fierce, still steady in the nation today.

Source: Samuel Rosenman, ed., Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, vol. 9 (1938-1950), 259.

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