The “Number One Enemy”

Mercantile rivalry among nations is often the genesis of armed conflicts, though those profiting from the adventures publicly describe them as defensive wars or waged for altruistic reasons. The former U.S. President William Taft confessed that modern diplomacy is “fundamentally commercial,” but cloaked in “idealistic feelings of humanitarianism and moral obligations."203 Regarding American hostility toward Germany, which plagued Hitler throughout his tenure in office, economic considerations played a major role.

His country drained of gold reserves, Hitler created a novel money system to get the national economy back on its feet. Accordingly capital came to represent human productivity; work itself became money. Currency was no longer a commodity to be speculated upon, loaned at high interest, or wielded to manipulate economic life, but solely a means to facilitate transactions. Germany introduced new principles to international commerce as well. Hitler, in the words of the Canadian historian Helmut Gordon, “was firmly convinced that as long as the international monetary system remains based on the value of gold, nations able to hoard the most gold can force those nations lacking gold to their will...compelling others to accept loans at high interest to dissipate their assets."204Hitler believed that a country’s power of production should determine the strength of her economy, and not the amount of gold in the treasury.

Germany concluded trade agreements with 25 financially distressed countries in southeastern Europe, the Near East, and South America. The treaties based transactions on an exchange of wares without monetary payments. In return for foodstuffs and raw materials, Germany supplied poorer nations with agricultural machinery, locomotives, and manufactured goods.205 This was a barter system, which spared trade partners having to borrow from foreign banks to finance purchases—a relief for countries already in debt during the world-wide depression.

The mutually beneficial arrangement gradually deprived the United States, France, and Britain of markets they had previously dominated. Financial institutions in London and New York, accustomed to providing credit to smaller nations, lost a lucrative portion of their international commerce. British General Fuller wrote that Hitler’s “economic policy of direct barter and subsidized exports struck a deadly blow to British and American trade."206 Lord Forbes, belonging to an English trade commission visiting South America, warned, “We don't want the Germans continuing to conduct their system of an exchange of goods and other disrespectful trade methods right under our nose."207

In 1941, President Roosevelt asked rhetorically, “Will anyone suggest that Germany’s attempt to dominate trade in central Europe was not a major contributing factor to war?"208 Churchill remarked in 1938, “What we desire is the complete destruction of the German economy."209 He told Lord Robert Boothby, “Germany’s most unforgivable crime before the Second World War was her attempt to extricate her economic power from the world’s trading system and to create her own exchange mechanism which would deny world finance its opportunity to profit."210

Addressing newly commissioned officers of the armed forces in May 1942, Hitler explained the challenge Germany’s foreign trade treaties posed for the USA. He described how America enjoyed an abundance of grain and natural resources, plus maintained her own manufacturing industry. Countries wishing to trade with the United States therefore, had little to offer in exchange: “So America began taking gold for her labors, piling up this gold into the billions. Naturally this mineral threatens to become utterly worthless once it’s realized that a new world is forming, one that no longer recognizes the concept of gold, but substitutes the concept of work and human productivity, and from then on begins to trade what is produced through labor without using gold."211

As far as the Germans were concerned, the U.S. Government and corporate America pursued the same goals. In the words of Giselher Wirsing, there was “no longer any force in the United States that could resist the unbridled domination of big business. There appeared to be no more difference between the interests of high finance and those of the state."212 In Roosevelt, America elected a president inordinately concerned with foreign affairs. “Roosevelt was a determined internationalist and interventionist,” observed Congressman Hamilton Fish.213 The New York Timescorrespondent Arthur Krock described FDR as “considering himself absolutely indispensable to mankind."214 A proponent of liberal democratic globalization, the new president strongly believed in the Versailles structure. Hitler’s step-by-step eradication of the post-war order, German competition in European and South American markets, and the Reich’s stand for the sovereignty of nations over the one-world concept made Roosevelt an irreconcilable enemy of Germany.

During the peacetime years, Washington opposed Hitler’s efforts to revise the Versailles construction. In April 1933, Roosevelt told the French ambassador, “The situation is alarming. Hitler is a madman and his advisors, some of whom I know personally, are crazier than he is.” (So far, Ambassador Hans Luther was the only German official the president had met.) FDR told his French guest, “France must not disarm and no one will demand it to."215 A month later, Roosevelt wrote the heads of 54 countries urging disarmament.

The president discussed foreign affairs before an audience in Chicago in October 1937. He told listeners, “The present reign of terror and international lawlessness began a few years ago,” referring to Germany and Italy. Aggressor nations were supposedly “piling up armament on armament. . . . Their national income is being spent directly for armaments. It runs from 30 to as high as 50 percent in most of those cases.” He suggested that such diseased countries should be quarantined, in other words economically boycotted. After publication of the speech, the Reich’s War Ministry notified German military commanders, “Roosevelt’s words may be regarded as America’s formal decision to join the front of the democracies against the fascist states, abandoning the policy of isolation."216 The Reich’s press described FDR’s speech as the “prelude to a huge armaments appropriation planned for the near future” by the Roosevelt administration.217

Upon orders from the White House, U. S. Navy Captain Royal Ingersoll went to London in December to discuss fleet cooperation with the British. The prospect of American naval support against Japan, Italy and Germany strengthened England’s hand in negotiations with Hitler.

The German annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938, initially produced a mild reaction from the American press and from Secretary of State Cordell Hull. This altered abruptly within 24 hours. The German ambassador reported to Berlin that the Anschluss suddenly became “regarded as a breach of treaty, as militarism, as the rape of defenseless little Austria by a neighbor armed to the teeth, and as a product of the policy of might makes right.” As to the probable genesis of the about-face in American attitude, “the president personally became involved and gave both the State Department and the press corresponding guidelines."218 The ambassador warned the Reich’s Foreign Office that were Germany ever to become involved in a conflict against England, “there isn't much left here that could prevent the entrance of the United States into a war against us."219

Roosevelt reached beyond America’s borders – and his authority – during the Sudeten crisis that September. To prevent this crucial revision of the Versailles system, he proposed to British Ambassador Sir Ronald Lindsay that the U.S. and Royal Navies blockade the entire European Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean to cut Germany off from overseas imports.220 Sea blockades are by international law an act of belligerency. FDR was prepared to abandon neutrality and wage war to preserve Czechoslovakia’s claim to the Sudetenland. Chamberlain, wary of Roosevelt’s endeavors to extend U.S. influence into Europe, rejected the idea. “Then Washington began a savage campaign to malign the 'appeasers' who had again backed down before the dictators,” wrote the editor of Germany’s Völkischer Beobachter (National Observer). “Chamberlain and Daladier were branded in the U.S. press as downright traitors to the democratic world cause."221

Washington’s intrigues impeded diplomatic resolution of Germany’s bid for Danzig in 1939. On December 2, 1938, America’s ambassador in Poland, Biddle, met with the Free City’s Commissioner Burckhardt. Biddle, Burckhardt recalled, “declared with genuine glee that the Poles are ready to wage war over Danzig. . . . Never since the torpedoing of the Lusitania has such religious hatred against Germany existed in America like today. Chamberlain and Daladier will be blown away by public opinion. It will be a holy war."222 Roosevelt disrupted negotiations between Germany and England regarding a trade agreement in February 1939, during which Berlin offered far-reaching concessions to improve diplomatic relations, by making London a substantially better offer.223In this way he obstructed another attempt at Anglo-German reconciliation. The following month, Hans Thomsen, Ribbentrop’s chargé de affaires in Washington, advised Berlin, “Roosevelt is personally convinced that Germany is the enemy that must be destroyed, because she is seriously disrupting the balance of powers and the status quo."224

On March 23, the president promised the British to transfer more U.S. Navy warships to Hawaii, thereby freeing the English Pacific fleet for deployment in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. He instructed the American ambassador in London, Kennedy, to shore up Chamberlain’s resolve to guarantee Poland. On FDR’s instructions, the U.S. military attaché in Paris pledged American naval support to protect the French colony of Indochina from the Japanese. In this way, the president gradually increased Anglo-French dependency on the United States, indirectly augmenting his influence over the democracies in their negotiations with Hitler. The April 14, 1939 edition of the Washington Times Herald reported that Roosevelt was warning the English, in the form of an ultimatum, to make no concessions to Germany.225

The American ambassador in Paris, William Bullitt, informed the French government during the summer that if England and France did not come to Poland’s aid in the event of a German attack, then they could expect no assistance from Washington in a general European war. They could on the other hand, reckon with the “full support” of the USA if they declared war on Germany on Poland’s behalf.226 The former French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet later wrote that Bullitt “urged France to take a strong stand against Hitler. I am convinced also that he persuaded Daladier that Roosevelt would intervene (in the war) if he saw that France and England were in danger. . . . Bullitt in 1939 did everything he could to make France enter the war."227 Congressman Fish concluded, “If Roosevelt had refrained from meddling in the European situation by encouraging England and France to believe that we would fight their battles, they would have reached an agreement by peaceful means to settle the Danzig issue . . . (and) avoided the disastrous war."228

On August 17, Hans Herwarth von Bittenfeld, a traitor on the Reich’s embassy staff in Moscow, disclosed information about German-Soviet negotiations to the American diplomat Charles Bohlen. The German government had reassured the Kremlin that there “are no conflicts of interest (between us) regarding the countries from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea” and it was prepared to discuss “every territorial question in eastern Europe” with Stalin. The State Department’s Sumner Welles relayed this intelligence to British Ambassador Lindsay. He in turn forwarded news of the German-Soviet understanding, which implied dire consequences for Poland, to the Foreign Office in London. A Soviet spy there, Herbert King, notified Stalin of the intrigue. The Soviet dictator most likely assumed that the British would forewarn Beck of the danger facing his country, leading him to seek rapprochement with Germany. “But Stalin overestimated British and American fairness,” as a German historian put it.229 Neither democratic government passed this vital information on to Warsaw.

Herwarth also leaked the complete text, including the secret protocol about dividing Poland, of the August 23 agreement Ribbentrop had concluded in Moscow.230 Bohlen likewise communicated it to Washington. Bullitt, fully aware of the text and import of the German-Soviet secret protocol, told a Polish diplomat in Paris, Count Lukasiewicz, that the document addressed only the status of the Baltic States and not Poland.231 As a result, Beck remained doubtful about serious cooperation between Moscow and Berlin.

The result of Germany’s rapid victory over Poland in September, France’s passive strategy of defense, and England’s token commitment to the continental war was a stalemate. On October 6, 1939, Hitler addressed the Reichstag, asking for a peace conference. Chamberlain himself admitted in his diary that the Führer presented some “very attractive proposals."232 Roosevelt however, pressured the British not to allow a “second Munich.” Göring, Hitler’s number-two man, met with the American consul general in Berlin on October 9 and urged that FDR mediate peace talks. Offering to travel to Washington personally to represent Germany in the negotiations, Göring expressed Berlin’s willingness to re-establish Polish and Czech independence as a demonstration of good faith.233 Roosevelt formally refused to arbitrate a cease fire. During a press conference that month, he described the German offer as the product of anonymous subordinates in the Reich’s propaganda ministry and without substance.234

Two American tycoons visited Germany in October, hoping to open the road to negotiations. On the 19th, Göring told James Mooney, a senior executive of General Motors, “If we could conclude a treaty with the English today, we'll throw Russia and Japan overboard tomorrow."235 Göring again offered to reinstate Poland and the Czech state to William Davis, a Texas oil magnate on a semi-official visit to Berlin. Even American newspapers acknowledged that considering Roosevelt’s outspoken hostility toward Germany, for the Germans to nominate him and accept his judgment as arbitrator in a peace conference was a generous concession.236 Upon returning home, Davis was unable to obtain an audience with the president. Hull yanked his passport, to prevent Mr. Davis from returning to Europe and interfering with the progress of the war.237

In Warsaw, Ribbentrop’s staff compiled the pre-war diplomatic correspondence between Warsaw and its missions in Washington, London, and Paris. The Völkischer Beobachter published the content on October 27. Its editor summarized, “The Polish documents prove that Roosevelt’s diplomacy bears a major, if not the greatest measure of responsibility for the outbreak of the English war."238 One letter for example, was from the Polish general staff to Beck. It quoted the American military attaché, Commander Gade, as promising Poland 1,000 airplanes “as soon as the war begins.” The Polish staff officer described Gade as “a man who enjoys the confidence of Roosevelt and is a personal friend of his. . . . He is very unfriendly towards Germany. Personally he is very wealthy."239

Another document the Germans brought to light was a report by Count Jerzy Potocki, the former Polish ambassador in Washington, about a conversation he had had with Bullitt in November 1938: “About Germany and Chancellor Hitler, he (Bullitt) spoke vehemently and with great hatred. . . . The United States, France, and England must rearm tremendously in order to be in a position to cope with German power. Only then, when the moment is ripe, declared Bullitt further, will one be ready for the final decision. . . . In reply to my question whether the United States would take part in such a war, he said, 'Undoubtedly yes, but only after Great Britain and France had made the first move!'"240 Ribbentrop presented the original Polish foreign policy letters to the international press for inspection. The editor of the American edition of the German White Book, which published 16 of the letters in English, concluded, “It is likely that they are authentic documents. This is the opinion of many Washington correspondents, including Sir Willmott Lewis of the London Times, who might be expected to be skeptical of them."241 Roosevelt and Hull publicly claimed that the Polish documents were forgeries.

During this time, the White House focused on persuading Congress to amend the 1937 neutrality law. The law imposed an embargo on the sale of war materiel to belligerents in Europe. Already in September, the president had managed to have the restrictions partially relaxed. As a result, U.S. arms manufacturers sold $4,429,323 worth of ordnance to France that month, and $1,422,800 to England.242 Germany’s share in armaments purchases from America, according to the State Department Bulletin of October 28, 1939, was $49.243 By the close of 1940, Britain had purchased $2.7 billion in arms from the United States. Roosevelt told a cabinet member, “We have been milking the British financial cow, which had plenty of milk at one time but which has now about become dry."244The president speculated on how to keep the British at war “until their supply of dollars runs out."245

GiselherWirsing, editor of Germany’s popular Signal magazine, made this observation about the arsenal of democracy: “The armaments business has grown to one of the worst rackets in American history and has amassed billions in profits through this 'trading in death.' During 1940, there was an enormous increase in dividends. According to an exhibit of the National City Bank in New York, the clear profit of around 2,600 shareholding companies in 1940 amounted to $4,253 million, compared to $3,565 million in 1939."246 Congressman Fish recalled, “Roosevelt’s war cabinet had a great deal of cooperation from the powerful Eastern press, largely for war. . . . Pro-war propaganda was heavily financed by the international bankers, armament makers, and big business, numerically few in numbers but exceedingly powerful in financial resources and control over vast publicity and propaganda."247 Reverend John McNicholas, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, remarked in January 1941, “Ten percent of our people are cunningly forcing the United States into a world conflict, while the majority of 90 percent, which is for peace, stands aside silently and helplessly."248

As Congress eased restrictions on selling weapons to belligerents, America provided logistical support for England to continue the war. Under Washington’s leadership, the Western Hemisphere countries proclaimed a nautical security zone southward from Canada. This zone, 300 to 1,000 miles wide in places, was off-limits to combat operations of warring powers. Hitler ordered his navy to refrain from attacking British merchant vessels inside this belt. It substantially reduced the sea lanes the English Royal Navy had to patrol to guard cargo ships en route to Britain. U.S. warships eventually assisted in protecting convoys, monitoring the movement of German U-boats, and reporting their findings to the Royal Navy.249

During September 1941, Roosevelt decided to become “more provocative,” adding that if the Germans “did not like it they could attack American forces.” He ordered U.S. warships “to attack any U-boat which showed itself, even if it were 200 or 300 miles away from the convoy."250In three separate incidents in September and October, U.S. destroyers on anti-submarine patrol crossed lances with German U-boats. In one occurrence, the USS Greer assisted a British bomber in a depth charge attack against the U-652. Bombarded for four hours, the U-boat finally launched two torpedoes against its assailant.251 The Greer eventually broke off the engagement. Roosevelt told the American public in a September 11 radio address, “I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon the American destroyer without warning and with deliberate design to sink her. . . . We have sought no shooting war with Hitler."252 The Navy Department refused to furnish the Greer’s log to the Senate.253

Hitler instructed his U-boats to avoid confrontations with the U.S. Navy and to fire only in self-defense. According to a Gallup survey, 87 percent of Americans opposed involvement in a European war, and in that day and age Congress still had many representatives who understood their duty to respect the wishes of the majority.254 Roosevelt could not arbitrarily start a war against Germany. Unless the enemy fired the first shot, and Hitler was eschewing incidents, the United States would remain sidelined: a silent partner in the Allied war effort. The president therefore sought what an American historian described as the “back door to war"; to provoke a conflict with Germany’s ally, Japan.

Like Germany, Japan is a country that relies heavily on imports. The European war seriously curtailed her commerce. As a result, the Japanese depended on increased trade with the United States. Supporting China in her war against Japan, Roosevelt imposed various embargoes on the island empire. On October 10, 1940, the secretary of the navy told Admiral James Richardson, commander-in-chief of the fleet, that the president wants U.S. warships deployed “across the western Pacific in such a way as to make it impossible for Japan to reach any of her sources of supply.” 255 Richardson objected that distributing our navy in such a vulnerable manner against a formidable maritime adversary, and in so doing provoking it to belligerency, would be militarily senseless. Roosevelt dropped the idea.

Considering the USSR the greater menace, Tokyo sought an understanding with the United States. In November 1940, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka asked Bishops James Walsh and Pater Drought of the Catholic Missionary Society of Maryknoll, New York, to deliver his peace proposal to Washington. Meeting with the president and secretary of state on January 23, 1941, the emissaries relayed Japan’s willingness to negotiate cancelling her pact with Germany, evacuating her army from China, and respecting Chinese sovereignty.256 At the close of the two-hour meeting, Roosevelt and Hull agreed to consider the proposals. Walsh and Drought heard nothing further from the White House.

In February, Tokyo appointed Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, acquainted with Roosevelt from World War I, ambassador to the United States. Meeting with the president on the 14th, and in over 40 sessions with Hull during the next several months, Nomura was unable to reach a compromise with the administration. Washington was in fact more interested in the action proposal submitted on October 7, 1940, by naval Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum. This memorandum stated, “Prompt aggressive naval action against Japan by the United States would render Japan incapable of affording any help to Germany and Italy in their attack on England. ... It is in the interest of the United States to eliminate Japan’s threat in the Pacific at the earliest opportunity."257

McCollum suggested among other things, that America “completely embargo all U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire,” and pressure the Dutch to “refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.” McCollum cautioned, “It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado.” The author introduced an eight-point program to provoke the Japanese: “If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better. At all events we must be fully prepared to accept the threat of war."258 In November 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson speculated in his diary on how to maneuver Japan into “firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."259

Without Congress' knowledge, Hull delivered an antagonistic ultimatum to Japanese negotiators on November 26. He himself confessed, “We had no serious thought that Japan would accept our proposal.” 260 The terms, had Tokyo agreed to them, would have so substantially weakened Japan’s position in the Far East, especially with respect to China and Russia, that they were unacceptable.261 The Japanese responded by opening hostilities against U.S. and British bases in the Pacific. The infamous air raid on the U.S. naval base at Hawaii, conducted by 350 carrier-based Japanese bombers and fighters, galvanized American public opinion and Congress to enter the war.

The Three Power Pact that Germany had concluded with Italy and Japan in September 1940 was a defensive alliance. It did not obligate the Reich to declare war on the United States, since Japan had struck the first blow. The Japanese for example, had done nothing to assist the Germans in their war against the Soviet Union which had been raging for six months. But U.S. warships were taking part in the battle of the Atlantic. Federal attorneys in fact had determined that Roosevelt’s swap in September 1940 of 50 destroyers in exchange for British bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland not only violated American laws, but by international law put the USA in a technical state of war with Germany.262

The primary influence in Hitler’s deliberations was the situation in the East. During the summer of 1941, the German armed forces had advanced far into Russia, winning impressive victories over the Red Army. Dogged Soviet resistance, overextended German supply lines and a severe winter then forced the invaders onto the defensive. Another factor contributed to the shift of the initiative to the Russians: logistical support from the United States. Less than five weeks after Germany had invaded the USSR, Roosevelt’s emissary, Harry Hopkins, was in Moscow offering aid to Stalin: “The president regards Hitler as the enemy of all humanity and therefore wishes to help the Soviet Union in its war against Germany."263 Without demanding any payment whatsoever, and despite protests from the U.S. Army, Roosevelt prioritized supplying the Russians with immense quantities of war materiel by sea. Stalin confessed in 1943 that without American aid, “we would lose the war."264

Hitler believed that it would only be possible to regain the initiative against this military behemoth were the flow of supplies from the United States curtailed. Unrestricted submarine warfare could sever the nautical lifelines keeping the Soviet fighting forces combat-effective. His U-boat commanders were still under orders not to torpedo American ships and to avoid the expansive security zone of the Western Atlantic. These orders not only prevented the German navy from disrupting the delivery of ordnance to England and Russia, but were demoralizing the U-boat crews. Declaring war on the USA would free the German navy to fight the battle of the Atlantic with the gloves off, and buy the army time for another major thrust against Russia during the 1942 campaign season. Against the advice of Ribbentrop, Hitler declared war on December 11, 1941. This gained Germany a temporary tactical advantage.

The Reichstag convened on the 11th to hear the Führer’s announcement. He recapped the history of his country’s poor relations with Washington, beginning with Roosevelt’s 1937 quarantine speech, through the president’s promises to Poland in 1939, and finally the U.S. Navy’s operations on behalf of Britain. Hitler also offered a personal comparison of his own experience as a combat soldier during World War I with that of FDR, who had then been undersecretary of the navy: “Roosevelt comes from a super-rich family, belonging from the start to that class of people whose birth and background pave the way to advancement in a democracy. I myself was just the child of a small and poor family, and had to struggle through life through toilsome work and by personal industry.

“When the World War came, Roosevelt found a spot in the shade under Wilson and experienced the war from the sphere of those who reaped dividends from it. He therefore knew only the pleasant consequences of the clash of nations and states; those that provide opportunity for one to do business while another bleeds. . . . As an ordinary soldier I tried to do my duty in the face of the enemy during these four years, and naturally returned home from the war as impoverished as I had entered it in the fall of 1914. I shared the fate of millions. Mr. Franklin Roosevelt shared his with the so-called upper ten thousand. While Mr. Roosevelt after the war was already trying his hand at financial speculation . . . I was still lying in a hospital."265

The German U-boat fleet launched its first coordinated operation, Paukenschlag (Pounding), against American shipping on January 13, 1942. During the balance of the month, the Germans sank 49 merchant vessels in the Atlantic and in the North Sea. They tallied 84 steamers during a second nautical offensive in March. By the end of 1942, the U-boats had conducted five major operations, sinking 1,160 ships totaling 6,266,215 tons.266 They targeted both convoys bound for English harbors and those delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk. This brought some relief to the German armies fighting in the East. In the long run however, American wharves built more ships than the U-boats could torpedo. As the 1942 summer offensive against Russia lost impetus, Germany gradually became snared in the “east-west pincers” as Hitler had feared.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!