When You See a Rattlesnake Poised to Strike, You Do Not Wait Until He Has Struck Before You Crush Him
There had been claim and counter-claim following the attack on the [permalink id=13526 text=”USS Greer on the 4th September”]. President Roosevelt’s interpretation of events now featured in a radio broadcast to the nation on the 11th:
The United States destroyer, when attacked, was proceeding on a legitimate mission.
If the destroyer was visible to the submarine when the torpedo was fired, then the attack was a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to sink a clearly identified American warship. On the other hand, if the submarine was beneath the surface and, with the aid of its listening devices, fired in the direction of the sound of the American destroyer without even taking the trouble to learn its identity – as the official German communique would indicate – then the attack was even more outrageous. For it indicates a policy of indiscriminate violence against any vessel sailing the seas, belligerent or non-belligerent.
This was piracy-legally and morally. It was not the first nor the last act of piracy which the Nazi government has committed against the American flag in this war. Attack has followed attack.
He went on to announce what became known as the shoot on sight policy:
The time for active defense is now.
Do not let us split hairs. Let us not say: “We will only defend ourselves if the torpedo succeeds in getting home, or if the crew and the passengers are drowned.”
This is the time for prevention of attack.
If submarines or raiders attack in distant waters, they can attack equally well within sight of our own shores. Their very presence in any waters which America deems vital to its defense constitutes an attack.
In the waters which we deem necessary for our defense, American naval vessels and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under the water, or Axis raiders on the surface of the sea, strike their deadly blow — first.
Upon our naval and air patrol — now operating in large number over a vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean — falls the duty of maintaining the American policy of freedom of the seas — now. That means, very simply, very clearly, that our patrolling vessels and planes will protect all merchant ships — not only American ships but ships of any flag — engaged in commerce in our defensive waters. They will protect them from submarines; they will protect them from surface raiders.
Winston Churchill attached great symbolic significance to his first wartime meeting with the United States President. From the very beginning of the war he had been in correspondence with Roosevelt, keeping him abreast of developments and seeking his support. After the war he was to describe the historic meeting with characteristic emotion:
On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr. Roosevelt came aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales and, with his Staff officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck.
This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both.
I chose the hymns myself – “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides had chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave.
Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.
Britain, and her Empire, now stood alone in her defiance of Hitler. Germany was completely dominant in Europe and to many people around the world it seemed futile for Britain to carry on. The Blitz seemed to be the final straw, there could be no doubt that the bombers were inflicting serious damage on Britain. The propaganda message ‘Britain can take it’ seemed to be belied by the dreadful destruction that lay all around. Furthermore there seemed no reason why Hitler should give up. All he had to do was keep battering Britain until she came to terms – and that would be the end of the war, with a new settlement in Europe.
There were plenty in America who agreed with this perspective. There were many in Roosevelt’s government who were heartened by the decision of Churchill to fight on, and saw in the action to neutralise the French fleet at Mers el Kebir, a ruthless determination to see it through. But there were also those who doubted the capacity of the British to carry on. One of the most respected voices was that of the US Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, the man on the spot reporting back to the President:
Secretary of State, Washington DC
From United States Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy
Dateline: London, 27 September
For the President and the Secretary
The night raids are continuing to do, I think, substantial damage, and the day raids of the last three days have dealt most serious blows to Bristol, Southampton, and Liverpool. Production is definitely falling, regardless of what reports you may be getting, and with transportation smashed up the way it is, the present production output will continue to fall.
My own feeling is that… [the British] are in a bad way. Bombers have got through in the daytime on the last three days, and on four occasions today substantial numbers of German planes have flown over London and have done some daylight bombing.
I cannot impress upon you strongly enough my complete lack of confidence in the entire [British] conduct of this war. I was delighted to see that the President said he was not going to enter the war, because to enter this war, imagining for a minute that the English have anything to offer in the line of leadership or productive capacity in industry that could be of the slightest value to us, would be a complete misapprehension.
The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.
The tensions between the Soviet side and the western democracies were now becoming ever more evident. On the face of it the conference would decide the fate of Germany and the where the new boundaries of eastern Europe would lie. In reality much would be determined by the de facto occupation of territory by Soviet troops.
Whatever hopes those attending the conference might have that they could shape the post war world and prevent further wars, new realities were rapidly outstripping their expectations. Thousands of miles away, on the same day, scientists were conducting an experiment, codename Trinity, that would change the course of world history:
Brigadier General Thomas Farrell described the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the atomic research programme:
Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.
Oppenheimer himself later recalled:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
On April 12th Eisenhower and the senior US Army commanders in Europe had been shocked by the horrors of Buchenwald. Late that night there was even more momentous news, their Commander in Chief, the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. His long struggle with the disabling consequences of polio, which he had triumphed over for so many years, had finally come to an end.
At the beginning of the war, when Churchill had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the US President had personally asked to be kept appraised of British Naval developments by him. So began the long and close liaison between the two men. When war broke out in 1939 few would have anticipated that less than a year later Churchill would be Prime Minister and leading the only free country in the whole of Europe.
The two men would communicate on more than 1700 occasions and spend 120 days together in conference as the great drama of the war unfolded. With Roosevelt at the helm America had been transformed: from under half a million men in uniform in 1940, by 1945 she had more than 12 million serving all around the globe, supported by an equally transformed military-industrial powerhouse that armed the free world,
In the House of Commons on 17th April Winston Churchill paid tribute to his fellow statesman and friend:
…I conceived an admiration for him as a statesman, a man of affairs, and a war leader. I felt the utmost confidence in his upright, inspiring character and outlook, and a personal regard and affection for him beyond my power to express today.
His love of his own country, his respect for its constitution, his power of gauging the tides and currents of its mobile public opinion, were always evident, but added to these were the beatings of that generous heart which was always stirred to anger and to action by spectacles of aggression and oppression by the strong against the weak. It is, indeed, a loss – a bitter loss to humanity – that those heart-beats are stilled for ever.
President Roosevelt’s physical affliction lay heavily upon him. It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.
In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, of will-power over physical infirmity, he was inspired and sustained by that noble woman his devoted wife, whose high ideals marched with his own, and to whom the deep and respectful sympathy of the House of Commons flows out today in all fullness.
There is no doubt that the President foresaw the great dangers closing in upon the prewar world with far more prescience than most well-informed people on either side of the Atlantic, and that he urged forward with all his power such precautionary military preparations as peace-time opinion in the United States could be brought to accept. There never was a moment’s doubt, as the quarrel opened, upon which side his sympathies lay.
The fall of France, and what seemed to most people outside this Island the impending destruction of Great Britain, were to him an agony although he never lost faith in us. They were an agony to him not only on account of Europe, but because of the serious perils to which the United States herself would have been exposed had we been overwhelmed or the survivors cast down under the German yoke.
As the saying goes, he died in harness, and we may well say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end all over the world. What an enviable death was his!
He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilised the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.
With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan. And all the time ships, munitions, supplies and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.
For us, it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.