The Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini had bided his time since meeting Hitler at the Brenner Pass in March. He was determined to enter the war only if assured of being on the side of the victorious. The collapse of France now seemed imminent and many people believed that Britain would follow soon afterwards. Mussolini wanted the spoils of war without too much risk. He had long wanted to expand his ‘Empire’ and now saw the opportunity to take British dominions in Africa. He told his Armed Forces Chief, Marshal Badoglio:
I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought.
Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, records in his diary:
Mussolini speaks from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia. The news of the war does not surprise anyone and does not arouse very much enthusiasm. I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy.
In America President Roosevelt did not hesitate to call it a “stab in the back”. In an address at the University of Virginia on the same day he made it clear that the United States stood on the side of freedom and would offer material support to those who were oppressed. America itself would speed up the process re-arming in order to be able to defend itself:
The Government of Italy has now chosen to preserve what it terms its “freedom of action” and to fulfill what it states are its promises to Germany. In so doing it has manifested disregard for the rights and security of other nations, disregard for the lives of the peoples of those nations which are directly threatened by this spread of the war; and has evidenced its unwillingness to find the means through pacific negotiations for the satisfaction of what it believes are its legitimate aspirations.
On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
On this tenth day of June, 1940, in this University founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.
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.
It is right that each new generation should ask questions. But in recent months the principal question has been somewhat simplified. Once more the future of the nation and of the American people is at stake.
We need not and we will not, in any way, abandon our continuing effort to make democracy work within our borders. We still insist on the need for vast improvements in our own social and economic life. But that is a component part of national defense itself.
The program unfolds swiftly and into that program will fit the responsibility and the opportunity of every man and woman in the land to preserve his and her heritage in days of peril.
I call for effort, courage, sacrifice, devotion. Granting the love of freedom, all of these are possible.
And the love of freedom is still fierce and steady in the nation today.
Read the whole speech at the Miller Center.