A Note From The Editor (Vol. 4 no. 2)Keith Stimely
Few discussions of the specific topic “Roosevelt and the Origins of World War II” pay much attention to events before 1 September 1939. At most some preliminary words are uttered about the development of Roosevelt’s thoughts and policy in the 1930s: his increasing concern, once the New Deal became firmly ensconced and especially after he was re-elected in 1936, with events in Europe and Asia as crisis followed crisis; his worries about the rise of “the dictatorships” (non-Soviet variety only); his somewhat hesitant public switch beginning in 1937 away from neutrality of sentiment and toward a more activist consideration of America’s role in the world; his efforts thereafter to “educate” a rather unreceptive American public into appreciating this role and its possible future consequences. If Roosevelt’s difficult position in the late 1930s of trying to push along public opinion on international affairs faster than it wanted to go could be termed, as one pro-Roosevelt historian has put it, “leadership in isolation,” then the events in Europe leading toward war could be described, in the standard view, as “crisis in isolation” — from America; the war just happened, a European affair which Roosevelt could not appreciably influence, though he had certainly seen it coming, doing his best to warn both his own people and European leaders.
It remains the case that for most historians, thus for their students and the history-reading public at large, the real story and starting point of the origins of the war relative to Roosevelt must be that of America’s involvement in the war: how this country got in once the conflict in Europe began. This story, actually three stories — of the 1939-41 “Battle against Isolation” within; of the “undeclared war” of navies on the Atlantic as Roosevelt did his best to evade neutrality and help out England (and, after June 1941, Russia) even to the point of intervening militarily to frustrate German attempts at interception, and of the deterioration of Japanese-American relations in the Pacific leading to Pearl Harbor — has received a considerable amount of treatment from both mainstream and revisionist historians. So too has the more generalized story of German-American and Japanese-American relations in the decade preceding 1941. But, with a few exceptions, it is just toward 1941 — precisely, 7 December and 11 December 1941 — that such studies aim, including those claimed specifically to be about Roosevelt’s role in the origins of World War II. This — the full-fledged, declared shooting war for America — is the war that is meant. With what started in Europe two years earlier, and the prelude to it, there was — so the consensus goes — not much, if any, real Roosevelt involvement. It is not an issue.
So the dearth of treatment has made it seem. In fact, the issue of President Roosevelt’s active part in the origins and partial responsibility for the outbreak of European war in 1939 is very real, very much alive, and very interesting. And it is not new, though it has been suppressed. Several early post-war studies — the exceptions mentioned above — written mostly in the decade after 1945 and either singular essays or parts of larger works, focused on just this question. That these were exclusively revisionist in nature says something about the nature of the issue. It has not been one that mainstream, pro-Roosevelt, historians are too enthused about. For them, there is either no story here — or one they would not feel comfortable telling. Since the appearance of the early revisionist efforts, which slipped easily and not accidentally into obscurity, this subject has been ignored and allowed to disappear into the murky backwaters of a forgotten branch of the stream of history.
We hope to begin remedying this situation with this, the first “theme” issue of The JHR. The subjects of the three essays presented here have long deserved careful consideration. It is hoped that they will help to stimulate more interest and new research in this particular topic. It is certain that their importance cannot be ignored by honest and curious historiography.
Mark Weber in “President Roosevelt’s Campaign To Incite War in Europe” explores the meaning and historical importance of Polish diplomatic documents which were captured by the Germans in Warsaw, selections from which were published in the German press, in a White Book and in other official or semi-official editions. These documents, which bear heavily on the roles of Roosevelt and his ambassador-at-large William C. Bullitt in encouraging strident Anglo-French-Polish defiance of Germany’s program for a peaceful revision of the unfair Versailles territorial/ethnological provisions, are of the utmost importance in understanding what Roosevelt was thinking, doing and trying to do in Europe in the prelude to war. What emerges is a Roosevelt who was no innocent bystander merely sending private, occasionally public, messages of concern to European leaders from time to time, all in the quest for peace. Instead the documents make clear the picture of a Roosevelt actively meddling in European affairs at every turn, promising, cajoling, threatening — all toward the vigorous promotion of an anti-German front, ultimately toward war. Though well known and readily available, the documents have been ignored, downplayed, or rejected by all mainstream historians, largely on account of their published origination as a German propagandistic “colored book.” Denounced by American officials immediately upon release as inauthentic — forgeries concocted by the Germans — most historians have not seen fit to question the official denials and look for themselves, with the aid of much relevant evidence made available since the war, into the matter of their authenticity. It is the signal contribution of Mark Weber that he has uncovered and here marshals for the first time all the evidence which points toward the documents being, in fact, authentic; in his words, the question is now “beyond doubt.” He goes beyond merely demonstrating this, presenting lengthy selections from the documents newly translated by himself (including some parts never before translated into English), and fitting their significance in to the overall context of Roosevelt’s policy. The conclusions presented in this well-rounded and pathbreaking essay are clearly ones that historians of Roosevelt foreign policy will not be able to ignore.
In “President Roosevelt and the Origins of the 1939 War,” excerpted from Der erzwungene Krieg by David L. Hoggan, we present for the first time in English the pertinent conclusions reached in what after 22 years remains the most thorough — and most radically revisionist — volume ever published on the general subject of the war’s origins. Dr. Hoggan’s treatment of Roosevelt in the book is incidental to his main theme, which is German-Polish and Anglo-German relations and how and why these led to war in 1939; his explication of Roosevelt’s role in the crucial years 1938-39 nevertheless constitutes the most formidable (and formidably documented) narrative presentation on the subject ever to appear. It is an excellent companion piece to Charles C. Tansill’s early essay “The United States and the Road to War in Europe” (which appeared in Harry Elmer Barnes’s anthology Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace), heretofore the standard treatment in English. Dr. Hoggan’s treatment, with its in-depth emphasis on the last year before war, and its use of many sources not available to Tansill, effectively expands upon and updates the earlier work. It is our regret that space considerations prevent publication here of the extensive footnotes. These will, however, appear in the complete published edition of Der erzwungene Krieg as The Forced War, forthcoming from the Institute for Historical Review. Should any monograph reprint of Dr. Hoggan’s article be producedand if the reception justifies it the entire contents of this issue will be published in an expanded book format — the notes for the article will also of course appear therein.
The Weber and Hoggan essays deal with Roosevelt and secret origins of European war, 1938-39; the third essay here deals with Roosevelt’s secret interventions in European war, 1940. Until recently these have not been well-known — though they have been hinted at, sometimes luridly, ever since the New York Times published in June 1940 a terse announcement from the American embassy in London to the effect that an employee of the embassy had been arrested and detained by the British on the grounds of (British) national security. Tyler Catewood Kent, code-clerk, was caught with approximately 1,500 documents in his possession which had been copied or abstracted from highly secret communications passing through the embassy. A fervent anti-interventionist, Kent became convinced by what he saw coming across his desk that President Roosevelt was lying to the American people about commitments to Britain and other commitments relative to the war. He determined to collect the evidence — which included communications between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (at a time when Churchill was merely First Lord of the Admiralty) — so that it could be presented to certain anti-interventionist senators and expose Roosevelt’s secret operations to the light of day. As more details became public, the “Kent Case” became a cause celebre among certain anti-Roosevelt publicists and historians. Kent himself was released and returned to America in 1945. Once the facts of the “Case” were well-established with the passing of wartime secrecy, attention focused on the contents of the “Kent Documents” which had been seized from him at the time of his arrest. Not until 1972 were they released, an event which prompted a number of historical monographs on the subject (see the bibliography on p. 203). Not until 1983 has Tyler Kent himself written his own account of what he saw, what he did, why he did it, what happened to him, and what he thinks about it all in retrospect. His essay was written especially for The JHR. Mark Weber provides a concise introduction, highlighting the most important revelations contained in the documents, which he examined at the National Archives.