Saturday, 21 December 2013

America’s anti-interventionist prophets of doom

This is not about Syria, much, but about the first year or so of that earlier and incomparably bigger war where anti-interventionists were (similarly) not just against any direct involvement of American forces, but also against supplying arms. In those days of 1939 to ’41 there wasn’t of course any fear of such arms falling into the hands of Islamists, but there was, as today, a fear on the part of some that sending arms would be just a step on the road to direct intervention.

The pro-arms side argued that enabling Britain to defend itself would serve US interests by reinforcing an obstacle between Nazi Germany and the US. The anti-arms side countered that Britain was doomed in any case, and that any arms sent would be arms wasted at a time when the US defences were desperately weak and in need of urgent build-up.

If the prophets of doom had won the argument, their prophecy would most likely have been self-fulfilling.

Lynne Olson’s recent book, Those Angry Days, is an engrossing history of the time. She gives a number of examples of its doomsayers.

General George Marshall, Army chief of staff, argued in 1940 that if Britain were defeated after America sent arms needed at home, “the Army and the Administration could never justify to the American people the risk they had taken.” On June 24 General Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark urged Roosevelt to stop all aid to Britain. Roosevelt rejected the suggestion (Chapter 9).

A majority in Congress were also against sending arms. Senator Key Pittman, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Britain to surrender to Hitler, saying “it is no secret that Great Britain is totally unprepared for defence,” and that “nothing the United States has to give can do more than delay the result.”

Churchill commented “Up till April [US officials] were so sure that the Allies would win that they did not think help necessary. Now they are so sure we shall lose that they do not think it possible.”

By 1941 there had been some shift in military thinking. Admiral Stark now believed American security required Britain’s survival, and pressed Roosevelt  to start US Navy escorts of convoys to Britain. General Marshall also supported escorts, but more as a way of strengthening America’s hemispheric defence and of buying time, rather than to ensure Britain’s survival. Similarly he supported Lend-Lease as a spur to US industrial capacity which would serve American defence even if Britain were defeated (Chapter 19).

Lynne Olson writes that “throughout 1941, Marshall received much of his military intelligence from staffers who were both anti-British and antiwar.” She gives the example of General Stanley Embick, who had openly aligned with the National Council for Prevention of War. A few weeks before Embick was to retire, Marshall had him included in War Department strategy discussions and White House meetings where Embick spoke not just against American entry into the war, but against any military or economic aid for Britain. Subsequently Marshall made Embick his senior military adviser.

Another example was Colonel Truman Smith, friend of isolationist campaigner Charles Lindbergh, and at the same time General Marshall’s main expert on Germany. According to Olson, “like most of his colleagues in Army intelligence, Smith made no secret of his belief that Germany would soon overpower Britain and that America should abandon what Smith saw as its hopeless attempt to save the country.” Smith circulated pessimistic intelligence reports about Britain’s chances of survival that charged Churchill’s government with “disastrous interference” in British military affairs. Smith also passed on military information to prominent anti-interventionist campaigners.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox experienced similar attitudes, and described to Secretary of War Henry Stimson “how he had to fight against the timidity of his own admirals on any aggressive movement … how all their estimates and advice were predicated on the failure of the British.”

I recommend the book. For more see Gene’s recent Harry’s Place post, After Kristallnacht.

Also related, Conflicting ideas, a post by Peter Ryley looking at recurring standpoints in debates on war and intervention down the years.

Cartoon by Dr Seuss, first published in PM Magazine, October 1st 1941. From UC San Diego Library Special Collections and Archives.

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