Conspiracy: Did FDR Deceive the American People in a Push for War?

By Mallary A. Silva
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy…” is one of the most recognized speeches in United States history.1 Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke firmly and directly on December 8, 1941 of a Japanese “premeditated” attack on American soil. He called for war with hopes of “victory” and “triumph.”2 His direct and solid tone quickly ascended into a fervent promise to secure American lives from the “treachery” of Pearl Harbor.3 The House of Representatives acknowledged the will of the American people with their applause and cheers, leading to a declaration of war on Japan.

FDR’s passion was evident by the finale of his speech; and how could his excitement be contained? According to historians such as Richard Hill and Robert Stinnett, war had been FDR’s desire, and “… the Japanese assault was the event they had long feared, the ‘incident’ that would allow Roosevelt to drag an unwilling country into war.”4 And today, the suggestion that President Roosevelt deceived the public in order to enter the war in Europe is supported by government-documented evidence.

The question regarding FDR’s prior knowledge of Pearl Harbor is complex due to the numerous questions that formulate it. The question of his knowledge prior to the attack has lead to extensive research by the Naval Intelligence in the 1940s, specifically in decoding. An in-depth analysis of FDR’s actions and motives leading up to the “day of infamy,” has also been under a microscope in hopes of revealing a manipulated entry into World War II.

Roosevelt delivers the 'Day of Infamy' speech to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941

Roosevelt delivers the 'Day of Infamy' speech to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941. Photo: U.S. National Archives.

Did FDR provoke the Japanese into an act of aggression so as to lead American’s willingly into intervention in Europe? This question, based on knowledge and provocation, has caused numerous debates focusing on the events prior to Pearl Harbor. The common denominator to both components of this theory is the idea of FDR’s deception of the American public, by both his possible knowledge and provocation in order to obtain entry into war by means of Pearl Harbor.

Some historians and experts view FDR as a martyr who faced the obstacle of the isolationist attitude of America in order to save Europe. Other historians and conspiracy theorists perceive FDR as a Fascist or master of deceit.5 Whichever viewpoint one chooses, an understanding of the events directly after World War I are essential. The massive casualties of the First World War made Americans isolationist.

President Wilson’s broken promise of neutrality in regards to the conflict in Europe caused immense distrust between the American public and their government, influencing the World War I generation to resist another foreign war.6 Not only did American’s feel as if a European conflict was not their problem, but the Great Depression left Americans with enough to deal with within their own nation.

The conquests which occurred in Europe are also essential to understanding the importance of Pearl Harbor. Almost unanimously, historians target Pearl Harbor as the event leading to U.S intervention into World War II. Hitler had already conquered Austria, parts of Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and was on a path of ultimate conquest in an attempt to emulate the Roman Empire.7 Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a Tripartite Treaty on September 27, 1940, declaring that if one country was a victim of aggression the others would be called to arms on the side of that victimized country.8 I specifically stated, “…when one of three Contracting Parties is attacked by a power at present not involved in the European War…”9 The United Sates fell into this category. Britain and France were in danger and also involved; nonetheless eighty-one percent of Americans were against involvement.10 The only of pro-interventionist sentiment was that if Britain fell to Nazi Germany, in which case sixty-two percent acknowledged intervention would be necessary.11

FDR’s attitude toward Nazi Germany and Hitler was well articulated. The British Ambassador to the United States noted that Roosevelt believed Hitler’s expansion and ideology to be a threat. He acknowledged the predicament FDR was in, with regards to the isolationist mentality of U.S. citizens, “ …[Roosevelt] is strongly anti-German and is revolted at what the German Government are doing…at the same time he fully appreciated the limitations which public opinion places on his policies and action.”12

Germany was the prime target for FDR’s concern pre-Pearl Harbor and a military focus, “War plans drawn up at Roosevelt’s direction had given priority to defeating Germany.”13 Although intervention may have been necessary, FDR would have been from the the isolationist attitude of the public and even Congress.

Paranoia through the U.S was present; the remnants of World War I were far from forgotten. FDR, much like Wilson, ran a campaign promising neutrality in regards to the conflict stirring in Europe, which critics would later say, was, “deliberately disingenuous.”14 Roosevelt’s consistent public effort to not send “our boys” to war and his outspoken belief that it was possible for America to maintain neutrality is thought by some historians to be an act of appeasement for the general population.

Without the consent of the people and Congress he did not have the ability to enter into a foreign war.15 Those against FDR were harsh in their assumptions of him. The Chicago Tribune classified him as coming from “… a stock that has never fought for this country and now he betrays it.”16 His oppositionists were not the only ones acknowledging the President’s flaws. FDR’s reputation for appeasement was familiar even to his family. Eleanor Roosevelt described her husband as disliking “being disagreeable.”17 Understanding FDR’s chameleon approach is why many of his critics and conspiracy theorists believed him to be deceitful, “Perhaps…he might even create and “‘incident’” to force the country into another unwanted war.”18

Roosevelt began to show signs of hypocrisy by speaking publicly about neutrality followed by acts of intervention. The Lend-Lease bill FDR passed in the spring of 1941 caused controversy for numerous reasons.19 It was one of the first signs of intervention by the U.S in the foreign conflict without technically intervening. This law permitted the President to supply other nations with war materials if it meant U.S national security was in jeopardy.20 The drawback of this bill was it granted FDR too much power; some saw it as a fascist move, too absolute.21

This was the first significant shift in FDR’s foreign policy regarding the conflict in Europe. FDR’s critics would use the Lend-Lease bill as an example of his desire to enter the war. This struggle between FDR’s actions of wanting to intervene and his promise of neutrality cause debate over the existence of possible motives from FDR to allow an “incident” to occur on American soil, so as to gain American’s approval for intervention.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the U.S’s declaration of war on Japan, many speculated that FDR manipulated the U.S. into war with Germany, Hitler being the prime concern. This theory is what many historians call FDR’s “backdoor approach” to the war in Europe through Asia.22 Due to the Tripartite Treaty, it was known if the U.S. caused an act of aggression on Japan, it was inevitable there would be a war with Germany and Italy.23 Therefore, FDR’s promise of retaliation against Japan would lead the U.S directly into war with Germany.

This “backdoor approach” has lead to conspiracy theorists claiming that FDR purposely aggravated and provoked the Japanese to “fire the first shot” so as to gain America’s approval to enter into war overseas.24 This hypothesis, which author Robert Stinnett has researched thoroughly, derives from a Memorandum written by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum who was involved with U.S Naval Intelligence.25

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