Harry Truman addresses a crowd

Episode 1 – An Epidemic of World Lawlessness

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series – Season 3

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About the Episode

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt inherits a nation amidst The Great Depression, but around the world, fascist powers gain footholds. FDR begins to shape foreign policy through a series of addresses that connect the American people to the president in an unprecedented way, threading the needle between readying the nation for war and appeasing isolationists.

This week’s episode, hosted by Museum Historian Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz and produced by Digital Content Manager Bert Hidalgo, examines the lead-up to World War II through the lens of American policy as FDR attempts to prepare a nation for war.

Referencing the dangers the Axis powers contained and threatened humanity as a whole, the title for this week’s episode comes from FDR’s 1937 speech following reports of brutality by Japanese troops in China.

Catch up on all episodes of “To the Best of My Ability” and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The Presidency and domestic and foreign policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933-40
  • The Empire of Japan
  • The Great Depression
  • FDR’s “fireside chats”
  • The 1940 Draft

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Featured Historians

Dr. Jeremi Suri

Dr. Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor at the University’s Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Dr. Suri is the author and editor of ten books on contemporary politics and foreign policy, most recently Modern Diplomacy in Practice. His other books include The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, Henry Kissinger and the American Century, Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, and Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy (with Robert Hutchings).

Robert Citino, PhD

Robert Citino, PhD, is the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. Dr. Citino is an award-winning military historian and scholar who has published ten books including The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942, and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich, as well as numerous articles covering World War II and twentieth-century military history. He speaks widely and contributes regularly to general readership magazines such as World War II. Dr. Citino enjoys close ties with the US military establishment and taught one year at the US Military Academy at West Point and two years at the US Army War College.


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Archival Audio - FDR October 5, 1937: Quarantine Speech

War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot insure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the dangers of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement, but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down.

America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Before December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt walked a very tight line. The US was exhausted from World War I and suffering an economic depression on a global scale. Rising powers in Europe and Japan threatened America on two fronts. Roosevelt knew exactly what was at stake, liberty. The free world stood threatened by fascism.

On the Home Front, a powerful isolationist movement opposed the US entering another war. Still, Roosevelt readied himself and a nation for that very possibility.

Across the Pacific, Japan was expanding its territory. Roosevelt responded with the principal weapon at his disposal: economic sanctions. By the 1940s, however, the Axis powers were in full steam, and it would take more than sanctions to put a stop to them.

Archival Audio - FDR Taking the Oath of Office

“I Franklin Delano Roosevelt do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability: FDR and the Road to Pearl Harbor” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This is part 1, “An Epidemic of World Lawlessness.” I’m your host, Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz. This week, President Roosevelt is in a conflicted position, following a policy of neutrality that ran counter to his internationalist instincts, as fascism rampages across the globe.

Joining us is Dr. Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Rob Citino the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at The National WWII Museum.

We begin with Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933.

Archival Audio - FDR, Washington, DC - First inaugural address

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

The Great Depression has halted the American economy and unemployment stands at nearly 20% of the workforce. America was not the only country affected. This economic downturn was a global event. Dr. Jeremi Suri explains the resulting social and political positions the world found itself in during the 1930s.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

So the 1930s was a period of democratic decline and democratic crisis across the globe. Almost without exception. Authoritarian regimes, dictatorial figures, and paramilitary groups were growing in popularity and in access to power across Europe, across East Asia, in parts of the former British Empire in south America. And even within the United States and Canada. These groups and these dictatorial authoritarian figures gained prestige and they gained popularity because of The Great Depression. During The Great Depression across all of these societies, rich and poor, economic decline occurred in a way that undermined stability for citizens of all kinds. Professional classes that had lived relatively prosperous lives and felt that they were secure. We're talking about lawyers, professors, doctors in these societies found that their incomes evaporated. Their institutions disappeared. And they went from being middle class, to being poor, to being near starvation very quickly. And across even the most advanced societies, the United States, Germany, France, you saw people dying of malnutrition, which is almost unheard of in our society today.

Those conditions are exactly the reason why all these democracies were in crises periods. Because those conditions of depression created an urge for some simple solution, for someone who would help people get back control over their lives. And militaristic dictatorial figures, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini being just two examples, were figures who promised first of all that they would take control. They would take control of society. They would make the trains run. They would put people back to work. And they also had an explanation. The Jews were responsible, or the Americans were responsible, or the Chinese were responsible if you were in Japan. They had scapegoats.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
One nation with a growing militaristic faction was Japan. By 1931, Japan had seized control of a Chinese province, Manchuria. Dr. Rob Citino explains this aggressive and imperial Japanese expansion.

Dr. Rob Citino
Most Americans knew very little about Japan. And I think it's safe to say knew zero about Manchuria, where it was, what it was exactly, but of course, it's a massive province in northeastern China, filled with raw materials. And the Japanese occupy Manchuria in 1931.

Now, a little bit of explanation is required. There are railroads that run through Manchuria, and the Japanese had already been given permission to guard those railroads prior to 1931. But they turned that foothold in Manchuria into out and out conquest and occupation of the province. They detach it from China. They give it a new name, Manchukuo, it's called. And it's supposedly independent, it's actually a Japanese puppet, the League of Nations, the international body par excellence condemns Japan for that action.

And Japan responds as other dictatorships will by thumbing its collective nose at the League of Nations and walking out. There's attacks on the Chinese port of Shanghai, the Japanese pick up other portions near the inner-Mongolian border, sort of expanding their foothold in Manchuria, creating buffer zones now to protect Manchuria. And it's clear that Japan's drive for autarky, this self sufficiency, will not stop until it's swallowed up all or a majority of China with its hundreds of millions of people and its vast Asian landmass.

In 1937 of course, if we're to talk about a true turning point, Japan attempts to expand its holdings in Manchuria into full blown conquest, an invasion of China proper, we might say. The famous Marco Polo Bridge incident leading to a Japanese invasion.

And now Japan is fighting all out war with an extremely high level of terror against civilians. It's the sort of fascist way in warfare in the 1930s. And I think FDR looks at that situation as simply intolerable. As a two ocean trading nation, which is what the United States was, and still is, no president is going to stand by and watch someone swallow up China. And no matter who had been president, there would have been I think, issues there. But this goes back to Roosevelt's ideals as a man of treaties and a man of his word, and a man of international cooperation. It simply runs counter to, we might say, Roosevelt's idea of an international New Deal.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

While the political situation declined internationally, Roosevelt was faced with an isolationist movement in America. Exhausted from WWI and depleted from The Great Depression, the appetite to get involved in foreign affairs was at an all-time low. Roosevelt, nonetheless, towed a line with the American people in his speeches that encouraged a “policy of peace.”

Dr. Rob Citino

FDR was a masterful politician and could weld together coalition's of southern whites and urban African Americans in a way that really hasn't been done before, since. So you have to give him credit as a master politician, but one area he had to tread very lightly on was rearmament, bold foreign policy, thoughts of war against these aggressors and those who are breaking treaties.

So I mean, I think FDR is swimming against the current. Look, he's not the only person who stands for internationalism at the time or the sanctity of treaties. But by and large, that's kind of a conservative proposition elsewhere. FDR is very much a man of the left. He's many things but he is certainly no conservative. And so I think in FDR, you can see the United States of America kind of beginning a counter punch or sort of counter revolution against this fascist wave that had really inundated Europe and the Western world in the 20s and 30s.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Roosevelt approached the American people with characteristic political tact. In his 1936 speech in Chautauqua, NY he declared “I hate war.” But in 1937 after witnessing the reports of brutality from Japanese troops in China, Roosevelt warned “It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading.”

Dr. Jeremi Suri

The challenge he has of course, is he comes of age as a politician during a time when the United States is deeply isolationist in its sentiment. So Roosevelt on this issue as on so many others is slippery, very slippery. He never renounces his internationalism, he never hides it. But he also argues that his internationalism will be exclusively in the service of the American nation. He fuses internationalism and nationalism. That's the way to think about The New Deal. So quite specifically, as soon as he becomes president, Franklin Roosevelt pulls out of the London Financial Conference and says, "We are not in the United States going to let our currency or our wealth during The Great Depression be dictated by international agreements or international negotiations." He's going to use his knowledge of the international system he argues, to reinforce American interests at home.

And he'll use that then to argue also for hemispheric policy. He pioneers the idea of a good neighbor policy to Latin America. He argues this is an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, keeping the Europeans out. But it's also doing this in a non-militaristic way. So it's international and it's nationalist at the same time.

So that's the way to think of FDR. He's balancing these two things. On almost all issues, FDR's brilliance was his ability to take opposite positions. And not to sort of avoid them, but to find a synthesis, a place where he could get the best of both worlds. And that's what he was trying to do around this tension between internationalism and isolationism.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Congress still passed strong Neutrality Acts throughout the 1930s, barring the US from selling or transporting arms to belligerent nations and making no distinctions on whether the nation was the aggressor or the defender.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

These acts were very popular. There were always gripes by different business figures about the limitations they place. But if you look at the American public as a whole, these were largely very popular acts.

Franklin Roosevelt recognized this. He signed these acts. He didn't veto them, nor did he ask for a filibuster of them. He recognized this is where American opinion was going. He tried to find creative ways around them. And his creative end runs were often then closed off by the next set of Neutrality Acts. So you could argue there was a cat and mouse game going on between the executive and Congress.

And it wasn't that Roosevelt was trying to be a bad president or trying to be a warmonger. Particularly after 1937, he was trying to help the countries like Britain and France which he believed were countries that we had an interest in seeing survive and stand up against the fascists so we wouldn't have to get into the war. If they did this, that would limit our activity. But members of Congress didn't want us even doing those things to help those countries, which is why you have the Neutrality Acts.

Dr. Rob Citino

Americans who are interested in foreign policy, already a minority of the population, and of that minority of the population, I think most of them are more interested in European foreign policy. Most Americans at the time and are of still have European heritage and I think, look at Hitler as a real serious threat if they're following. What Japan is doing in Manchuria or in Inner Mongolia is a little more difficult for Americans to fixate upon.

So I would not say that the Japanese threat, that Japan's activities in the Pacific Rim are necessarily weakening the isolationist movement. I think Hitler is going to be doing that. But that's still a couple years up the road. Roosevelt gets various pieces of legislation passed such as neutrality acts, we'll say, we won't trade, buy or sell with any country at war. And that mingles in with his economic policies of embargoing, various raw materials to Japan. But if you put it all together, it's a game that's by and large being played in Washington and the other capitals, amongst ambassadors. I don't think most Americans are paying attention to the Japanese war in China. Some horrible photos, atrocities, the famous rape of Nanjing story that Americans know pretty well, today. They're in the papers. And I think people say, "Oh, that's horrible." In the manner of Americans in 1994, reading news about Rwanda.

Archival Audio - FDR June, 1940, “The hand that held the dagger...”

On this tenth day of June, nineteen hundred and forty, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.

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.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

In May and June of 1940, Germany invades Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, reaching Paris on June 14th to find that French troops had left the city. On June 22nd, the French government signs an armistice and Germany begins its occupation of France. Earlier in June,  Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, declared war on France and Britain.

France's capitulation rocks Americans, but isolationism remains the majority view. By fall of 1940, Roosevelt has two tasks: selling the American people on preparing for war, and winning an election.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

Well, the 1940 election is a really interesting election because you have in a sense, two globalists running, right? The Republican candidate Wendell Willkie is himself a globalist. The Republican party had many isolationists in it. Robert Taft the great senator from Ohio is one of them. Burton Wheeler as well from Montana. There are all kinds of isolationists in Congress. But in fact, the Republican candidate at this time is an internationalist.

And the war emerging in Europe and Asia is an issue, but it's still off-stage at this time. The election in 1940 is really about Roosevelt. It's really a mandate on him. Do you like him, or do you not like? By 1939, 1940, many of the New Deal programs that kind of run their course. The American economy had improved enormously from where it was in 1933 when Roosevelt became president, but we were not back to where we were in the 1920s. Unemployment rates were higher, consumption for the average American was lower.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Willkie, who was largely an unknown candidate, rose to prominence in the Republican party because of his outspoken support for providing aid to Britain, a sign that isolationism was in decline.

Dr. Rob Citino

Roosevelt does a number of things in that fall of 1940. There's the transfer of the fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor to show the Japanese we mean business. There's the reinstatement of the draft. And then of course, there's the decision to run for a third term. So Roosevelt's doing a lot of things at once, and let's just say the master politician is also the master calculator. And he put all these things together and figured out I think, a way to make it happen. He knows America has to prepare.

And by now, more Americans agree with him. The German destruction of France in May and June of 1940 came as such a shock. These are great powers and one of them just flicked the other one away like it was a non-entity. And Hitler now seems to be for the long term as the master of Europe. I think more Americans are willing now at least to rearm the country. And that's the draft.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

So it's one of the most extraordinary decisions in 1940 on the eve of the election is to create what comes to be known as the Selective Service in September of 1940. So really, just a little more than a month before the election. The first peacetime draft in American history, which is extraordinary to think about. We of course had a draft during the Revolutionary War. We had the Conscription Act and a set of different draft measures during the Civil War. And then there was a draft during World War I, but those were all war time drafts. This is the first time the United States is not at war, and a draft is created.

Roosevelt had been talking about this for a little while. The argument for creating the draft in the summer of 1940 gained popularity because of the fall of France. When Germany overruns France, the concern now is that the United States has to be prepared. Roosevelt sells conscription, not as a mechanism to get into war. As a mechanism to prevent war. If we show the Germans, and the Japanese, and others that we are ready to fight, they won't mess with us. That's really how he sells this. He says this is a measure not to go to war.

It also benefits from a circumstance where again, the United States has come out of depression, but we still have high unemployment. So this also provides opportunities for young men who had the highest unemployment rate in the country at the time. So it serves dual purposes.

It's not wildly popular. Again, the isolationists in Congress, Senator Robert Taft and others oppose this. But it has a fair amount of support among the American public. The American public is probably split on it. So it doesn't really affect the election very much. Roosevelt is able to take advantage of the circumstances. But I think it's a watershed moment, and we shouldn't lose that. In fact, sometimes our focus on the election leads us to neglect this other decision that might have turned out to be more important than the election itself.

Dr. Rob Citino

Did Roosevelt calculate all this? While he calculated it well enough to win 38 of the 48 states at the time in the election against Wendell Willkie, a Republican who breaking tradition with his own party did not run on any kind of isolationist platform. So neither candidate in the 1940 election was an isolationist. And I think that says a lot about the changed American mood.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

In part two, “A Day of Infamy,” a boiling point has been reached. Roosevelt attempts to support democracies abroad with the “Lend-Lease” law while a militaristic government seizes power in Japan spelling trouble for the US.

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz. This episode was produced by Digital Content Manager Bert Hidalgo and Director of Distance Learning Chrissy Gregg. Special thanks to our guests Dr. Jeremi Suri and Dr. Rob Citino. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives.

If you liked this episode and would like to discover more, please look up “To the Best of My Ability” on your favorite podcast platform or go to nationalww2museum.org/war/podcasts.

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