Roosevelt viewed Hitler as a mad gangster whose victories posed a direct threat to the United States. But most Americans remained desperate to remain out of the conflict. “What worries me, especially,” FDR wrote to Kansas editor William Allen White, “is that public opinion over here is patting itself on the back every morning and thanking God for the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.” After a tumultuous debate, Congress in 1940 agreed to allow the sale of arms to Britain on a “cash and carry” basis—that is, they had to be paid for in cash and transported in British ships. It also approved plans for military rearmament. But with a presidential election looming, Roosevelt was reluctant to go further. Opponents of involvement in Europe organized the America First Committee, with hundreds of thousands of members and a leadership that included well-known figures like Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and Charles A. Lindbergh.
In 1940, breaking with a tradition that dated back to George Washington, Roosevelt announced his candidacy for a third term as president. The international situation was too dangerous and domestic recovery too fragile, he insisted, for him to leave office. Republicans chose as his opponent a political amateur, Wall Street businessman and lawyer Wendell Willkie. Differences between the candidates were far more muted than in 1936. Both supported the law, enacted in September 1940, that established the nation’s first peacetime draft. Willkie endorsed New Deal social legislation. He captured more votes than Roosevelt’s previous opponents, but FDR still emerged with a decisive victory.
During 1941, the United States became more and more closely allied with those fighting Germany and Japan. America, FDR declared, would be the “great arsenal of democracy.” But with Britain virtually bankrupt, it could no longer pay for supplies. At Roosevelt’s urging, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized military aid so long as countries promised somehow to return it all after the war. Under the law’s provisions, the United States funneled billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Britain and China, as well as the Soviet Union, after Hitler renounced his nonaggression pact and invaded that country in June 1941. FDR also froze Japanese assets in the United States, halting virtually all trade between the countries, including the sale of oil vital to Japan.
Walt Disney’s program cover for the October 1941 “Fight for Freedom” rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which demanded American intervention in the European war.
Those who believed that the United States must intervene to stem the rising tide of fascism tried to awaken a reluctant country to prepare for war. Interventionists popularized slogans that would become central to wartime mobilization. In June 1941, refugees from Germany and the occupied countries of Europe joined with Americans to form the Free World Association, which sought to bring the United States into the war against Hitler. The same year saw the formation of Freedom House. With a prestigious membership that included university presidents, ministers, businessmen, and labor leaders, Freedom House described the war raging in Europe as an ideological struggle between dictatorship and the “free world.” In October 1941, it sponsored a “Fight for Freedom” rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden, complete with a patriotic variety show entitled “It’s Fun to Be Free.” The rally ended by demanding an immediate declaration of war against Germany.