Germany's attack on Poland and the start of World War Two presented a serious problem to Americans in September nineteen thirty-nine.
The United States -- by law -- was neutral. And few Americans had any desire to fight in another world war. But Americans did not like Germany's Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. They hoped for victory for Britain, France, and the other Allied powers.
President Franklin Roosevelt made this clear in a radio talk to Americans soon after the war began.
He praised the British and other allies. Finally, the president called on Congress to change the neutrality laws that prevented him from sending arms to the Allies to help them fight the Nazis. Congress agreed to change the laws so foreign nations could buy American arms.
In the months that followed, Hitler and his allies won one victory after another. German and Soviet troops captured Poland quickly in September nineteen thirty-nine. Then Soviet forces invaded the small Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In late November, they attacked Finland. Fighting between Finland and the Soviet Union continued through the winter, until Finland accepted Russia's demands.
Fighting grew even more fierce the following spring, in early nineteen forty.
Germany attacked Denmark and Norway, defeating them easily. In May, Nazi forces struck like lightning through Belgium and Holland. Within one day, they were in France. British and French forces were unable to stop the Germans from moving deep into northern France. The British forces finally were forced to flee from the European continent in small boats. They sailed from the French town of Dunkerque back to Britain.
German soldiers marched through France. And Italian forces joined them by invading France from the south. Soon, Paris fell. A German supporter, Marshal Petain, took control of the French government. And France -- beaten and crushed -- was forced to sign a peace treaty with Hitler.
Now it was just Britain alone against Hitler and his allies. Only the English Channel separated the British people from a German army that seemed unbeatable.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign. The British people turned to a new leader, Winston Churchill. Churchill would prove to be strong and brave in the long months ahead.
The British would need strong leadership. Hitler wasted no time in launching a fierce air attack on Britain. Throughout the summer, German and British planes fought above the English Channel.
All this military action had an important effect on American popular opinion. War and neutrality were no longer just ideas to be discussed in a classroom or political debate. Now they were real concerns, real events. Fascist troops led by a dictator in Berlin were defeating one friendly democracy after another. And Soviet forces were on the march, too.
Most Americans still desired neutrality. But how long could America remain at peace. And was peace worth the cost of just sitting by and watching friends like France and Britain be bombed and invaded.
Other issues melted away as Americans began to consider what to do about the darkening world situation.
Some Americans, led by newspaper publisher William Allen White, called for the United States to help Britain immediately. But other groups, like the America First Committee, demanded that the United States stay out of another bloody European conflict.
The struggle between those who wanted to help Britain, and those who wanted to remain neutral, did not follow traditional party lines. Some of the closest supporters of Roosevelt's foreign policies were Republicans. And some members of his own Democratic Party opposed his policies.
Even so, foreign policy was one of the main issues in the presidential election campaign of nineteen forty. The Democrats, once again, nominated Franklin Roosevelt for president.
The Republicans had several popular candidates who were interested in campaigning against Roosevelt. At first, it seemed that these candidates would fight it out in a bitter nominating convention in Philadelphia. But to everyone's surprise, a little-known candidate named Wendell Willkie suddenly gained a great deal of support and won the nomination.
Wendell Willkie was a tough candidate.
He was friendly, a good businessman, and a strong speaker. He seemed honest. And he seemed to understand foreign policy. Most important, Willkie had a progressive record on many social issues. He was not the kind of traditional conservative Republican that Roosevelt had defeated so easily in his first two campaigns.
Instead, Willkie could claim to represent the common man just as well as Roosevelt. And he offered the excitement of a change in leadership.
While Willkie and Roosevelt began campaign battles with words, German and British planes were fighting real battles with bullets over the English channel. Winston Churchill sent a desperate message to Roosevelt. The British prime minister said Britain could not fight alone much longer. It needed help immediately.
Roosevelt did not want to take steps toward war just before an election. But neither could he refuse such an urgent appeal from the British.
Roosevelt and Willkie discussed the situation. Willkie agreed not to criticize Roosevelt when the president sent fifty ships to the British navy. He also supported Roosevelt's order for American young men to give their names to army officials so they could be called if fighting began.
In this way, Roosevelt and Willkie tried to keep America's growing involvement in the war from becoming a major political issue in the election.
President Roosevelt won the election of nineteen forty. Roosevelt won twenty-seven million votes to twenty-two million for Willkie. This made Roosevelt the first and only man in American history to win a third term in the White House.
Soon after the election, President Roosevelt received a letter from Winston Churchill. The British prime minister wrote that Britain urgently needed more arms and planes to fight Germany.
Roosevelt agreed. He went to the Congress to plead for more aid to Britain. He said the United States should change its neutral policy, because Britain was fighting a common enemy of democracy. Roosevelt also said the United States could avoid war if Britain was strong enough to defeat Germany by herself.
Congress agreed, after a fierce debate, to increase aid to London. And in the weeks and months that followed, the United States moved closer and closer to open war with Germany.
In March nineteen forty-one, Roosevelt allowed British ships to come to American ports to be fixed. In June, the United States seized ships under German control. It also took over German and Italian funds in American banks.
Open fighting could not be prevented with this increase in tension between Germany and the United States. In September nineteen forty-one, a German submarine fired at an American ship. The ship was not damaged. But a number of American troops were killed in other naval incidents that followed.
By the end of nineteen forty-one, the United States and Germany were almost at war. Even so, most Americans continued to hope for peace. In fact, few Americans could guess that war was just days away. The first blow would come -- not from Germany -- but from Japan.
That will be our story next week.
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION, a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Your narrators have been Harry Monroe and Jack Weitzel. Our program was written by David Jarmul.