Italy's invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the Spanish Civil War crystallised Roosevelt's belief that Europe was disintegrating. He vowed to maintain American neutrality and not get dragged into any war. Of more direct relevance in any event was Japan, which was building up its Asian empire. China was making moves towards unification, but in 1937 the Japanese invaded the country. American popular support was with the Chinese resistance, but the administration did no more than vaguely condemn the action of the Japanese. America was not prepared to promise military support to Britain if they imposed sanctions against Japan, and so their Chinese invasion carried on unchecked. In September 1939 Germany's invasion of Poland resulted in Britain and France declaring war. America upheld its position of neutrality, but Roosevelt began to rebuild military and naval strength.
Congress repealed legislation, allowing Britain and France to buy war materials in the United States. America was becoming the 'arsenal of democracy'5 , as its factories began producing as they had in the years before the Depression. France's surrender in June 1940 meant Britain now stood alone against Nazi Germany. Roosevelt set up a National Defence Advisory Commission to plan defence production. Churchill asked America for arms, but Roosevelt feared that congressional assent would not be forthcoming. And, more importantly, he had an election to win. The Republicans nominated Wendell L. Wilkie of Indiana, a charismatic businessman. He claimed that Roosevelt would soon have the nation at war if re-elected. Roosevelt denied this and still retained popular support. He received 27 million votes to Wilkie's 22 million, winning the Electoral College by 449 to 82. But he received only 54.8 percent of the vote as against 60.8 percent in 1936, and more than ever before he needed his pluralities in the cities.
In July 1941 Roosevelt sent troops to Iceland to ensure Britain maintained its flow of munitions from America. Senator Robert Taft argued that the president had no constitutional right to send troops without congressional approval, for there had been no threat of attack on the U.S., nor threat of such an attack. Though only one senator supported Taft's protests, the president was stretching his authority to its limits and in so doing moving American forces to the edge of the war. Meanwhile, in Asia, a military coup overthrew the government in Japan. This government was dedicated to the achievement of a &ldquonew order in Greater East Asia”. In September Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact. Japan eyed British, French and Dutch colonies in the area, and in July Japan had invaded French Indochina. The United States and Japan entered into negotiations, but these stalled over the issue of China. On December 7th, 1941, while discussions continued in Washington, the Japanese launched a devastating attack on the fleet and air force in Hawaii. The Japanese crippled the Pacific fleet, destroyed nearly 200 planes and killed nearly 2,500 men. Roosevelt asked Congress to recognise that a state of war existed with Japan. Germany and Italy in turn declared war on the United States.
America in World War II
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want…- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear…- anywhere in the world.
President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, 19416
I repeat that the United States can accept no result save victory, final and complete. Not only must the shame of Japanese treachery be wiped out, but the sources of international brutality, wherever they exist, must be absolutely and finally broken
President Roosevelt following the attack on Pearl Harbour7
The atom bomb was no &ldquogreat decision.” It was merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness
Roosevelt set up the War Production Board (WPB) to convert the economy to a war basis. The attack on Pearl Harbour produced a surge of national unity.
Ironically, many Americans now lived better than they had since the depression, due to the stimulation of the economy. For Roosevelt, the 1942 elections saw Republicans gains in the House and the Senate. This resulted in an ever more conservative Congress, which proved harder for the president to deal with.
The problem at hand, however, was winning the war. Military strategists decreed that Germany must be defeated first, as this would leave Japan exposed to far superior forces. Having secured North Africa, American and British troops under General Dwight D. Eisenhower had regained the Mediterranean for shipping by May 1943, leaving the way open to launch an assault on Nazi-controlled Europe. Sicily was invaded and Mussolini was overthrown. Fierce fighting, with Germans reinforcing the Italian army, eventually saw all of Italy fall to the Allies. On June 6th, 1944, D-day occurred when American and British troops landed along the beaches of Normandy. Paris was liberated on August 25th, and the Allies had moved into Germany by September.
In Asia, the Japanese sought to force the American Pacific Fleet into a final engagement before it could recover from Pearl Harbour. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 involved aircraft carriers from both sides deploying planes- the ships themselves never fired at or came within sight of each another. Crucially, the Japanese had not destroyed any aircraft carriers during the Pearl Harbour attack, and the Americans strength in this area saw them win the battle. Another battle several months later saw the Americans destroy four Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, and the Japanese never again had the strength to take the long-range offensive. The Japanese no longer risked moving larger forces around, which allowed the Americans to simply leapfrog over the larger Japanese bases. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the American navy in the Philippines completed the destruction of Japanese naval striking power. In number of ships engaged, this was the greatest naval battle of all history. General MacArthur's troops meanwhile pressed on toward Manila, while Nimitz's forces were making their way toward Japan from the central Pacific. Japan itself was now under naval blockade and ever more devastating attacks.
Roosevelt did not want to run again for president but as a 'good soldier' he agreed to. He defeated Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York. In a campaign overshadowed by the war, Roosevelt received 25.6 million popular votes and 432 electoral votes as against 22 million and 99 for Dewey. The election, though the closest of his triumphs, was a categorical confirmation of Roosevelt as America's chosen leader for the peace. Even before Pearl Harbour Roosevelt had outlined his broad ideas on the post-war settlement, essentially national self-determination, equal access to trade and raw materials, and a lasting peace to be achieved through a permanent system of general security. But he would not live to see out his fourth term. On April 12th 1945 President Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral haemorrhage, and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman.