PROLOGUEOur opponents are miserable worms. I saw themat Munich.—Adolf Hitler
IT WASN’T A DAY to expect catastrophe.Across Western Europe, May 10, 1940, dawned bright and clear. Then, with a whine accelerating to a scream, swarms of German Stuka divebombers swooped out of the skies over Holland and Belgium and unloaded their bombs. The skies turned from blue to white as thousands of parachutes opened and German paratroopers descended to earth to seize key bridges and installations. The supposedly impregnable Fort Eben Emael fell in a matter of hours. Dutch and Belgian troops, stunned into impotence, dropped their rifles and surrendered—beaten by an enemy they barely had time to see, let alone fight.
After seven months of what the French called la drôle de guerre andthe British the Phony War, the war declared back in September 1939between Germany and the Allies had finally turned real.With drill-like precision, German shock troops crossed the MeuseRiver and grabbed key bridges for a thrust deep into French territory. OnMay 14 hundreds of German tanks began pouring through the gap atSedan and into the open countryside. Entire divisions of the French armywere cut off. Back at headquarters, generals ordered their troops to holdpositions, only to learn that German panzers had already bypassed them.1That same afternoon, French and British Royal Air Force bombers setout to blow up the crucial bridges across the Meuse. German antiaircraftfire and fighters shot down more than half in what was the bloodiestsingle day in RAF history. Yet the Meuse bridges remained unscathed.That same afternoon, German bombers devastated the ancient Dutchcity of Rotterdam, killing a thousand civilians and rendering thousandsmore homeless. It was the world’s first taste of what massed modernbombers could do to a helpless civilian population.German tank columns, meanwhile, were pressing on toward Paris.Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, a mechanized tidal wave of planes, tanks, and armoredcars, was sweeping aside everything in its path.Winston Churchill had been prime minister less than five days whenhe was awakened at 7 a.m. by a phone call from his French counterpart.“We have been defeated,” Paul Reynaud said in English. Churchillrubbed his eyes, but said nothing. Reynaud then repeated, “We arebeaten; we have lost the battle.”2 Churchill flew to Paris that day to seewhat could be salvaged from imminent defeat. But he paused to send atelegram across the Atlantic to the White House and President FranklinD. Roosevelt. It read in part:As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. Ifnecessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraidof that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice andthe force of the United States may count for nothing if they arewithheld too long.3Sitting four thousand miles away, Roosevelt could read the headlinesin the Washington Post: dozen french cities bombed. He was also gettingprivate reports from his ambassadors in Paris and London, reportsof Allied consternation and confusion, and imminent collapse.Churchill’s telegram seemed to burn a hole in his desk in the OvalOffice. “You may have a completely subjugated, Nazifi ed Europe establishedwith astonishing swiftness,” it went on, “and the weight maybe more than we can bear.”4 If France fell, and then possibly Britain,the entire balance of power in the world would change. The UnitedStates would face a hostile continent across the ocean—with a oncemightyBritish Empire rendered impotent almost everywhere else.Roosevelt drummed his fingers and thought. For years his politicalinstincts had told him to stay away from what was happening in Europe.He had come into office in 1933 to deal with a domestic crisis,the economic depression left unsolved by Herbert Hoover. Unemploymenthad stood at 25 percent. Industrial production had fallen bya third; one- half of the nation’s wealth had been wiped out. His jobhad been tackling breadlines, closed factories, and a budget out of balanceby $2.5 billion. Dabbling in foreign affairs had seemed a distraction.In addition, the Democratic Party he headed had been badly burnedby European entanglements under Woodrow Wilson. It was led by mendisillusioned by the failure of Wilson’s promises regarding the FirstWorld War, “the war to end all wars,” and what had seemed then to bea Carthaginian peace imposed on Germany at Versailles. Having oncebeen determined to save the world, American progressives were nowjust as determined to turn their backs on it.Contrary to later myth, the Republican years of the twenties werenot the heyday of isolationism. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, andHoover had remained actively engaged in European affairs. Their representativesattended disarmament conferences, mediated disputes overwar reparations, helped to rebuild a broken Germany, and providedfamine relief to a starving Soviet Union.Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats rejected this legacy of engagement.It was a Democratic Congress that passed two Neutrality Acts in1935 and 1936, prohibiting American companies from selling any warequipment to any belligerent in an armed conflict, and a Democraticpresident—Franklin Roosevelt—who signed them both.5Roosevelt had also encouraged Senator Gerald Nye (a Republican)and his young legal counsel Alger Hiss in their sensational investigationsinto the conduct of American armaments manufacturers in theFirst World War. The Nye Committee blasted companies like DuPont,General Electric, General Motors, Colt Arms, Electric Boat (makers ofsubmarines), Curtiss, Boeing, and Sperry Gyroscope as “merchants ofdeath.” It even blamed their “lies, deceit, hypocrisy, greed, and graft” forgetting the United States into the war in the fi rst place.6Nye’s proposed solution was nationalizing the armaments industry.That didn’t happen, but companies like DuPont got the message. TheWilmington, Delaware, firm had supplied America’s armed forces withgunpowder since the American Revolution. Now it slashed itsmunitions- making division to less than 2 percent of operations.7 Othercompanies drew the same lesson: Supplying America with arms wasbusiness you did not want.* (Airplane makers like Curtiss and Boeing and Glenn Martin had little choice. Military contracts were the only way they could survive during the Great Depression. Boeing, however, felt the full force of the government’s revenge. In 1934 its leading executives, including Pratt & Whitney founder Fred Rentschler, found themselvesbanned from the industry for five years—unprecedented for an act of Congress. Adisgusted Bill Boeing quit the company he had founded back in 1917 from a barn onthe shore of Lake Union. His partner Phil Johnson had to find work manufacturingtrucks in Seattle, then moved to Canada to operate the airline that would become AirCanada.)That didn’t matter much, because the defense budget was moribund.Cuts President Hoover had imposed on the War and Navy departmentswith the onset of the Depression became self- sustaining. “Niggardlyappropriations for the operation and maintenance of the Navy putnaval operations in a veritable straitjacket,” one historian would writeof those bleak years.8 Ships were scrapped or mothballed; fleet exerciseswere curtailed by a lack of fuel and support vessels. Building and fortifyingfacilities ceased, especially in the western Pacific. The naval baseat Pearl Harbor, which was supposed to anchor a chain of fortifiedPacific naval stations stretching from Midway to Guam and the Philippines,became a lonely outpost in a vast and empty sea.From the fourth-biggest military force in the world in 1918, theUnited States Army shrank to number eighteen, just ahead of tiny Holland.By 1939 the Army Air Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force,consisted of some seventeen hundred planes, all fighters and trainers,and fewer than 20,000 officers and enlisted men.9In the late thirties, as tensions grew in Europe between the totalitarianpowers and the liberal democracies, the United States remainedreluctant to break its neutrality and take sides. Roosevelt and his specialWhite House aide Harry Hopkins did not admire men like Hitler andMussolini; quite the opposite. But their overriding goal was peace inEurope, in order to keep America out of war. If that meant appeasementof Hitler’s incessant demands, then so be it. When Rooseveltlearned in October 1938 that Neville Chamberlain had handed over alarge chunk of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich, he sent a congratulatorytelegram: “Good man.”10But soon after the surrender at Munich, Roosevelt’s mood began tochange. He realized Hitler’s thirst for power was not going to be assuaged,ever. This would inevitably mean war, and once again Americawould find itself one ocean away from a Europe in flames. “If theRhine frontiers are threatened,” he told friends in January 1939, “therest of the world is too”—including the United States.11So after years of avoiding foreign affairs, Roosevelt began takingsmall, cautious steps, like a man feeling his way along in the dark.In 1936 the Washington Naval Treaty, which had sharply limited thefuture growth of the U.S. Navy in the name of arms control, expired.Roosevelt let it lapse. He then ordered the Navy to launch its firstmajor shipbuilding program in more than twelve years (one of the shipsto come out of it was the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise). In 1938 theArmy Air Corps got the biggest authorization for buying planes in itshistory.12 Roosevelt began talking about an American air force on a parwith those of Britain, France, and Germany.The Army and Navy Munitions Board, which decided what kindsof weaponry America would make, became an executive office of thepresident—a bureaucratic consolidation that showed the commanderin-chief’s new interest in military matters. He also authorized thetransfer of American capital ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic, thefirst significant shift in the country’s naval dispositions since the closeof World War I.Then when Europe went to war in September 1939, Rooseveltjoined forces with Nevada senator Key Pittman to call for a bill modifyingthe Neutrality Act. Starting in November, the United Kingdomand France were free to purchase munitions from American companieson a “cash- and- carry” basis.All well and good for Britain and France. But what about munitionsfor America? Reports that summer had it that Hitler’s Luftwaffe hadreached a combined strength of nearly 8,500 fighters and bombers—most of them advanced types less than three years old. The Army AirCorps had barely a fi fth of that number, and most were out of date. Whenit came to the other ingredients of modern mechanized warfare— tanks,armored cars, antiaircraft guns, and troop- carrying trucks— Americanswere even more hopelessly behind.Brigadier General George Patton learned this when he took chargeof the Army’s Second Armored Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, thesummer of 1939. Patton had 325 tanks— at a time when the Germanshad more than 2,000— but no reliable nuts and bolts to hold them together.Patton asked the quartermaster for the necessary nuts and bolts;they never reached him. In desperation he ordered them at his ownexpense from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.13All of this is hardly surprising, considering that the Army had just sixworking arsenals for manufacturing weapons. Eighty- five percent ofthe machinery in those arsenals was over ten years old, and much of itpredated the start of the century. Some went back all the way to Gettysburgand Antietam.Then in August 1939, on the eve of war in Europe, the Army heldmajor war games at Plattsburgh, New York, to find out what it coulddo. Fifty thousand men were put on the field—but more than two- thirdswere part-time National Guardsmen. They quickly lost their directionas units haplessly bumped into each other. Without radios to issue orders,soldiers began wandering in search of offi cers to give them. Somestumbled on lines of Good Humor trucks parked in a field: The Armyhad been forced to hire them to serve as decoy tanks because thereweren’t enough real tanks or armored cars to go around. “The U.S.Army,” Time magazine said, summing up, “looked like a few nice boyswith BB guns.”14No wonder, then, that on September 1, when Ambassador to RussiaWilliam Bullitt called the White House to say that Germany had invadedPoland, Roosevelt’s response was, “God help us all.”Neither the collapse of Poland nineteen days later nor Germany’sunleashing of its U-boats to prowl the Atlantic nor the fall of Norwayand Denmark in April 1940 had roused the rest of the country tothinking about its own defense. After Poland fell, Roosevelt dared toappoint a War Resources Board of industrial leaders to consider whatmight be needed if America did have to prepare for a modern war.The board sat for six weeks before public outrage forced him to disbandit.15Right up to May 13, 1940, Roosevelt was still unwilling to challengea Congress, and a vast majority of Americans, who were deeplyopposed to getting involved in another shooting war, anywhere andunder any circumstances. He began thinking about retirement. Twoterms as president were enough, he was telling friends; time to retire toHyde Park and write his memoirs. In January he told Treasury SecretaryHenry Morgenthau he didn’t want to run again, “unless things getvery, very much worse in Europe.”16On May 14 they very much did. Roosevelt realized he had to act.Less than twenty-four hours after getting Churchill’s telegram, Rooseveltsummoned Morgenthau and Army Chief of Staff General GeorgeCatlett Marshall to his office. For the past months, the pair had beenlocked in a brutal battle over the Army budget. In 1939 defense spendingtopped $1 billion for the first time since 1918. The armed forceshad grown to 334,000 men from 291,000. Still, Marshall knew that wasbarely a quarter of the 1.2 million the British and French had mobilizedto stop the German invasion— and they were losing the war.All the same, the Treasury secretary wanted another $6 million cutout of the Army’s appropriations for 1940. He was worried about theUnited States reaching its debt limit. Marshall was worried about theUnited States’ survival. He had pleaded and begged to have the moneyrestored.Now Roosevelt wanted some answers. What were they finally goingto do about the 1940 Army appropriation?Morgenthau weighed in again with his arguments about fiscal prudence,hammering again and again on the point of the debt limit. ThenMarshall stood up and said, “Mr. President, can I have three minutes?”Roosevelt nodded yes.17From Virginia Military Institute to West Point to General Pershing’sstaff during the Great War, George Marshall had dedicated his life tothe Army. He was a soft- spoken, taciturn man, known to be smart andserious but hardly eloquent. Now he gave the speech of his life. Francewas about to collapse. Then it might be Britain’s turn. The UnitedStates would be facing the Nazi empire alone.America simply didn’t have enough planes, enough soldiers, enoughtanks or artillery or machine guns, he said, to fight a war with Germany.“If five German divisions landed anywhere on the coast,” Marshalltold the president, “they could go anywhere they wished.”18 If, meanwhile,trouble heated up in the Pacific over Japan’s ambitions there, thesituation would be even more hopeless.It was time, Marshall concluded, for the president to get seriousabout arming America for war. He had to get together a group of industrialiststo draw up a plan for defense preparation and production.There was not a day to spare. They should be brought to Washingtonthat same week.“If you don’t do something,” Marshall concluded, “and do it rightaway, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the country.”19Roosevelt was convinced. Within hours he sent an urgent messageto Congress, asking that the $24 million appropriation for the Army beexpanded to $700 million. He said, “This nation should plan at thistime a program that will provide us with 50,000 military and navalplanes.... I should like to see this nation geared up to the ability to turnout at least 50,000 planes a year.”The country was stunned. Charles Lindbergh, a key figure in theopposition to getting entangled in Europe and self- appointed guru onall things relating to aviation, dismissed the numbers as “hysterical chatter.”Republican leader Senator Vandenberg of Michigan warned that“it would take more than appropriations to make a national defense.”The president of the Air Transport Association of America said it was“fooling the people” to raise unrealistic hopes about how many planescould be made and when they could be delivered.20Meanwhile, Secretary Morgenthau called a meeting of Americanairplane executives at the White House for May 18. He wanted toknow what they thought they could produce in terms of warplanes, andhow many.Morgenthau’s visitors included executives from Glenn Martin ofBaltimore and Lockheed of California, as well as Douglas, NorthAmerican, and Consolidated. They had taken one kick after anotherfrom Roosevelt’s administration, from stripping away their airmailcontracts to divesting them of their civilian airline routes, the so-calledbig breakup of 1934. With the Depression in full swing, they had onlya thin trickle of military orders, fifty or sixty planes at a time; it was allthat kept them alive. In 1938 they had barely supplied the Army AirCorps with ninety planes a month.21 Now the White House was tellingthem they wanted planes by the thousands.What kind of planes do you want? they asked. Morgenthau couldnot tell them. They wanted to know exactly how many were neededand when the delivery date would be. Again the Treasury secretarydrew a blank. The executives went home, more confused than ever.22Meanwhile, news from Europe grew steadily worse. On May 20 theGermans reached the Channel. The British army in France was cut off.Unless they were able to retreat to the closest port still not in Germanhands, Dunkirk, they would have to surrender. Churchill began to planfor a German invasion. Britain’s odds of surviving, which Roosevelthad privately set at fifty-fifty, now looked like running to zero.On the seventeenth, Churchill had drafted one last telegram toRoosevelt. In it he warned the president that if Britain lost the war, itmight mean that Germany would seize the Royal Navy, the singlegreatest armed force in the world. “I could not answer for my successors,”he wrote, “who in utter despair and helplessness would have toaccommodate themselves to the German will.” In other words,Churchill was saying, if Britain lost, Roosevelt would fi nd himself facinga German fleet large enough to patrol in force right off America’sAtlantic shore.23A man of many gifts and strengths, on policy matters FDR was aprocrastinator. He preferred to put off decisions— or at least to keepnews about them from going public— as long as possible, especially thebig ones. But on May 23 he sensed his options had run out. He calledthe one person whose advice in this hour he trusted, the person hebelieved could fi gure out a way to get America ready for a war it didn’twant and hadn’t yet been declared, but which now seemed inevitable.Bernard Baruch was a wealthy financier and longtime Democraticfundraiser, and Roosevelt’s point man in dealing with Wall Street andbig business since the beginning of the New Deal. More relevantly,Baruch had been head of the War Industries Board that had coordinatedthe effort to arm America during World War I—for which theNye Committee had ruthlessly raked him over the congressional coals.But as assistant secretary of the Navy, the young Franklin Roosevelthad watched Baruch pull that war production effort back from thebrink of chaos in the summer of 1917 and impose some rational orderon a process that had baffled and frustrated both the American militaryand American business alike. Now Roosevelt wanted Baruch to do itagain.Baruch turned him down. He knew no modesty, and he had anticipatedthis moment for a long time. Back in March 1939, his friendWinston Churchill had warned him, “War is coming very soon.”24 Baruchhad briefed the short- lived War Resources Board on what it hadto do to get America’s major corporations involved in war production.He had drawn on his experience of securing the right raw materials,organizing the multitude of contracts needed to produce ships, trucks,guns, uniforms, and ammunition, and getting them shipped from pointsaround the country to America’s armed forces.But the sixty-nine-year-old financier sensed that putting it togetherthis time was a task too complicated even for him. In the previous war,Baruch’s War Industries Board had managed to build mountains of warmateriel. The problem was, almost none of it was ready in time to fightthe war. Three million American soldiers had had to fl y French airplanes,carry British rifles, and crouch behind British machine guns. Ofthe 10,000 75mm artillery pieces the War Department ordered, only143 ever reached the front—and not one American- made tank.25The pressures of time, materials, and distribution had been immensethen, when America’s economy was strong and growing. They wouldbe far worse now for an American industrial base that had deterioratedfor a full decade. In addition, the country needed to build a modern airforce as well as a two-ocean navy—and fleets of transport ships to bringit all into action.Someone else, Baruch told Roosevelt, would have to take charge.The president wanted to know whom he should call. “Who are thethree top industrial production men in the United States right now?”he asked.“First, Bill Knudsen,” Baruch replied. “Second, Bill Knudsen. Third,Bill Knudsen.”26When Roosevelt announced his plans for 50,000 planes a year, Hitlerbranded the number a fantasy. He scoffed, “What is America butbeauty queens, millionaires, stupid records, and Hollywood?”27He was about to find out.
Excerpted from FREEDOM’S FORGE by Arthur Herman Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Herman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.