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article number 357
article date 07-03-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Go From Depression into World War II
by Frederick Lewis Allen and Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

The years went by but unemployment went right on, the WPA went right on.

The years of the New Deal brought their delights and distractions—streamlined cars, “Three Little Pigs,” Mae West, “Stormy Weather,” the Dionnes, bingo, monopoly, Jack Benny, the royal abdication, ski trains, “Snow White,” café society, Charlie McCarthy, “Begin the Beguine,” swing, and a host of others—but underneath all of this there remained the uncertainty and misery of joblessness for millions.

The photograph below is of unemployed men sitting on the sunny side of the Public Library in San Francisco; and it was taken, not during the time of the Great Nosedive, but in February 1937—over four years after the New Deal moved into Washington.


The NRA, the AAA, regulatory laws, pump-priming, deficit spending, Roosevelt’s battle with the Supreme Court—none of them brought a conclusive answer to the overwhelming economic and political problem of our age.

And now the storms that had been gathering abroad—breaking in Manchuria (1931), Ethiopia (1935), the Rhineland (1936), Spain (1936), China (1937), and Austria (spring of 1938) — began more and more ominously to darken the American sky.

When in September 1938 Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia, and Neville Chamberlain went to meet him at Berchtesgaden and at Godesburg and at Munich, the sense of menace spread more widely among Americans, and H. V. Kaltenborn’s precise analyses of the crisis won breathless radio listeners.


As you will note in the headlines above, another storm broke during those days—a hurricane which hit New England on September 21, 1938, and played tricks like the one at the right, photographed in Saybrook, Connecticut.



As the war clouds loomed larger, the American public that watched them with growing apprehension wanted none of war. The prevailing feeling was that:
- American participation in World War I had been, if not a mistake, at least a painful disappointment;
- that while Hitler was an evil force in the world, he would not directly threaten America—nor would the Japanese;
- that while we might feel deep private sympathy for the victims of aggression, this was none of our business as a nation;
- that we should be ready to defend ourselves and especially should build up our air force, but should take every precaution to wall ourselves away from war behind our Neutrality Acts.

We had our own troubles to attend to—the job of climbing out of the Depression—and for this, we felt, peace was essential. Below is a scene at a World Youth Congress which met at Vassar College in August 1938—when the Czech crisis was approaching—to discuss world peace and how to maintain it.


On Sunday, April 30, 1939, New York opened its World’s Fair, with the flags of all nations (or almost all) whipping in the breeze, and with hopeful speeches about international amity resounding over the loud speakers. In the picture, the round object in the background at the left is the Perisphere; the Trylon is the slender spire to the right of it, under the gay flags. These two structures symbolized the “Theme” of the Fair.


It was a wonderful fair, with fantastic modern architecture, waterfalls coming down off buildings, lights shining upward at night upon the bright green of young trees; with fountains, and fireworks, and a General Motors Futurama, and incredible industrial exhibits, and an aquacade where girls swam in patterns to waltz music; with bands playing “Roll Out the Barrel,” and a baby panda, and razzle-dazzle sideshows in the Amusement Center . . .

. . . and Holland beer to drink by the Zuiderzee (see the coasters), and busses that piped a merry phrase from “The Sidewalks of New York.”


Sixty nations took part; the only conspicuous absentee was Germany. (At that moment Hitler had more pressing business to attend to: it was in the spring of 1939 that he overran Czechoslovakia, in defiance of the Munich agreement.)

The Japanese had an exhibit; in the picture below, taken in Tokyo the year before the festivities started at Flushing Meadows, a drawing of it is being shown to Ambassador Joseph C. Grew.


The Russians had a massive building topped with a stainless steel figure of a workman; here, in the Soviet exhibit, was the bas-relief of Stalin.


The French had an especially charming big pavilion, with a luxurious terraced restaurant looking out over the “Lagoon of Nations”; below, you see the dedication of this pavilion, with the French Ambassador raising the French flag in a snowstorm on January 13, 1939, surrounded by French officials and Grover Whalen and his aides.


Not yet had France been overrun by the Nazis—nor Poland, nor Norway, nor Holland, nor Belgium, all of which were exhibitors. (And there was a majestic Italian building, with a figure of Italia, seated, on its summit and a waterfall coming down its front.)

Yet sometimes the hopeful words spoken about peace at Flushing Meadows sounded a little like whistling in the dark. For there was the Czechoslovakia building standing uncompleted, a warning of things to come.

* * *

When the late Clarence Day, Jr., ill with arthritis, began in 1931 to write some modest recollections of his headstrong and conservative father, nothing could have amazed him more than to be told that “Life I With Father” would be a big best seller years later, that the play made from it by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse would run over seven years in New York and have two other companies playing it on the road, and that the movie rights would be one of the big prizes of Hollywood competition.

The play opened in November 1939 with Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay as the elder Days.


Below is a scene from another successful comedy of 1939, “The Philadelphia Story,” with Katharine Hepburn, who was the star not only of the stage version but also of the screen one.


When Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which was produced in October 1939, they treated its leading character—a noted lecturer and wit whose manners were deliberately insulting—with at least one eye upon Alexander Woollcott. And though the part was taken at first by Monty Woolley, Woollcott was happy to have a chance to play it later.

Here he is as Sheridan Whiteside, the dinner-guest who was compelled by an accident to make a long visit and to occupy a wheelchair and who was mighty disagreeable about it.


The next picture is of a scene from another comedy that made people laugh while the storm clouds were slowly rising: “Arsenic and Old Lace.” It shows the two nice Brooklyn sisters whose elderberry wine was so very, very special, with their daft brother who thought he was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.


But the theatre was not simply a place of amusement and escape; the storm clouds rolled there too. Robert E. Sherwood had been shocked from the outset by Nazi-Fascist behavior, and as early as March 1936 his play about it, “Idiot’s Delight,” had appeared.

After the war began in 1939 he became one of the most eloquent American enemies of aggression. It was ironical, in view of subsequent developments, that he should have chosen for the locale of “There Shall Be No Night”—a scene from which, as played by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne—not Poland, but Finland, which had been attacked late in 1939 by Russia.


But by the time the play was produced in April 1940, the war nearer at hand had ceased to be a “phony war”; Hitler had invaded Denmark and Norway and was about to push across Holland, Belgium, and France, to menace Britain, and to deepen American fears; and those who saw “There Shall Be No Night” could apply its lesson where they willed.

It was a great time for radio commentators, foreign correspondents, and columnists who knew Europe. Here is Walter Lippmann, enlightening columnist . . .


. . . and Raymond Gram Swing, whose gentle, urgent radio voice became familiar to millions.


Among the opinion-makers, Dorothy Thompson had been a correspondent in Germany and hated Hitler eloquently . . .


. . . and Elmer Davis who was not pulled into regular radio work for CBS till 1939, retailed the news, with comments, in Hoosier tones which were persuasively American.


From 1933 on, refugees came in a steady stream to our shores from Europe. At first they were mostly such Jews as could manage to get out of Germany; then they were other anti-Nazis and lovers of freedom, both from Germany and from other countries; after the spring of 1940 they included many French.

These people were of all types and species: sympathy-winning and disarming, hard and greedy; quick to accomodate themselves to our American ways, pathetically out of place here.

They included, to our great advantage, some of the ablest men and women of Europe: writers like Thomas Mann and the Zweigs; musicians like Stravinsky and Serkin; architects like Gropius; artists like Grosz, Chagall, and Leger; men of science like Fermi—to say nothing of the man whose influence on scientific thinking the world over had been equaled by no man of his generation—Albert Einstein.

We show Einstein, conferring during the war with Captain Geoffrey E. Sage (seated) and Lieutenant Commander Frederick L. Douthit of the U.S. Naval Training School at Princeton, New Jersey.


Had the news from Europe made people jittery, or was what happened on an October evening of 1938 merely a sign that the radio was a more convincing medium than had been supposed?

On October 30, Orson Welles put on the air a dramatization of “The War of the Worlds,” by H. G. Wells, and did it by simulating an actual news broadcast. Bulletins told of Martians landing in New Jersey, laying the land waste with diabolical weapons, planning general destruction.

Despite the explanatory introduction and the fact that this was a scheduled broadcast, listeners swamped newspapers with panicky calls, rushed to interrupt church services with the news that the world was coming to an end, ran out of their houses to seek an obscure safety.

The ‘New York Times’ received 875 calls, and in Newark 15 people were treated for shock. There were similar reactions the country over. And all without their having seen this picture of Orson Welles that was taken after the broadcast.


As world news became more disturbing, a curious up-surge of emotional patriotism became noticeable in America. This had nothing to do with party, political credo, isolationism, or interventionism. It was spontaneously evident in the work of many novelists, poets, artists, photographers.

Deeply though they might feel that America was wanting in this respect or that, they realized anew that they loved, and wanted to celebrate, its grandeur, its gifts of opportunity, its friendliness—in short, its democracy. A poet had only to string a lot of place names together to make people feel that he was Walt Whitman invoking the American spirit.

The new mood caused Irving Berlin’s forgotten “God Bless America” to be resurrected into wide popularity; and when Paul Robeson, the great Negro actor and singer, sang “Ballad for Americans” on CBS’s “Pursuit of Happiness” program on November 5, 1939, the audience shouted applause, for full twelve minutes. The ballad was a favorite at party conventions in the summer of 1940.


Charlie Chaplin too felt the anti-Nazi urge; and having always worn as a comedian a small, abrupt mustache similar to the one which Hitler had made famous, he saw his opportunity to portray a comic Hitler. After long preparation, the result was “The Great Dictator,” produced in 1940.

In the nature of things the film was better in the less ambitious scenes where Chaplin’s gift for absurd pantomime could have full sway than in the passages of noble propaganda; but there was some satisfaction in the fact that the movie was banned in Fascist Europe.

We show Chaplin as the Dictator, at the end of an office as long as Mussolini’s, with the double cross, his symbol, on the wall behind him.


* * *

Early in the summer of 1939—that summer when the submarine ‘Squalus’ sank off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the New York World’s Fair was in full swing, and people were learning about the Okies from ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ and movie-goers were seeing “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” and in Europe, Hitler was preparing for his September sweep over Poland—there were royal visitors to America.

The President, who was much less concerned with keeping America neutral than with trying to make her weight felt against Hitler, did all he could to make the visit both martial and folksy.

When the King and Queen of England arrived in Washington, a procession of sixty baby tanks preceded them; when they went to Hyde Park, there was a picnic at which the King ate hot dogs and drank beer—the consumption of a hot dog being clearly the way to the great heart of America.

The picture below was taken at Hyde Park: at the left, Mrs. Roosevelt; then King George VI; then Mrs. James Roosevelt, the President’s mother; then Queen Elizabeth; then F.D.R.—all of them apparently enjoying themselves without visible strain.


In September 1939 the war that everybody had been half expecting in Europe, and that so many people had worked and hoped and prayed to avert, at last broke.

In the next pictures we show the front page of the extra published by the New York ‘Herald Tribune’ on September 1, the day when the Germans took off into Poland; and of another extra for September 3, when Britain made her reluctant but unavoidable entry into the war. Somethings to think about over the Labor Day weekend of 1939.


The next photograph is of passengers on the ‘Conte di Savoia,’ an Italian liner which arrived in New York on September 29, crowding to go through immigration inspection—a tiny fraction of the throng of Americans who were driven home before the flames that licked across Europe.


In June 1940 France fell—and at once the Nazi threat to America’s safety loomed larger. Within a few weeks both political parties held their conventions and put forward their candidates. The identity of the Democratic one was not exactly a surprise.

Roosevelt had been coming to feel that no other man could align the United States against Hitler as he could, and had decided to defy precedent and run for a third term; so the convention proved a rubber-stamp affair, with Henry Wallace as the chief’s choice for Vice President.

But the Republican choice was astonishing. Prepared to nominate Taft or Dewey or some other politician, the party was swept off its feet by a burst of enthusiasm for a business man—Wendell Willkie of the Commonwealth and Southern utility group. He proved a refreshingly attractive and dynamic candidate, if usually hoarse. We show him, riding in an ancient victoria at a frontier celebration at Cheyenne during the campaign.


And below, we remind you of the variety of Willkie and Roosevelt buttons of 1940.


To taste the flavor of the 1940 campaign, read the signs carried by this crowd of more than 10,000 people who were unable to get into the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium for the Willkie rally there on the night of October 15, 1940.


But this enthusiasm was of little avail against the great vote-getter. On Election Day, Roosevelt received 27 million votes to Willkie’s 22 million; 449 electoral votes to Willkie’s 82. And the third term began.

From 1939 until Pearl Harbor there was a new and deepening political division in the United States—and very confusing it was to people who had been used to thinking of one another as New Dealers or Roosevelt-haters, Republicans or Democrats. For a sort of Paul Jones took place, and the new line-up cut clear across the other groupings.

It was isolationists vs. interventionists. At the outset the isolationists had a big majority; but the tide ran against them. One reason for this was that the more substantial isolationists had some strange bedfellows, such as Father Charles E. Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith. Here is Father Coughlin.


In the view below, taken in 1936, Smith is at the left, with old Dr. Francis F. Townsend (of the Townsend Plan) flanking Father Coughlin on the other side.


Among the isolationists were the Christian Fronters and Christian Mobilizers, with gangs which beat up Jews; and also an assortment of small home-grown fuehrers, like the leader of the “Silver Shirts of America,” William Dudley Pelley, whom you see in the next picture.


More embarrassing still, there was Fritz Kuhn with his subversive German American Bund, an avowedly “100 per cent American and Christian” outfit. You see Kuhn, speaking at a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1939—and looking the part.


Below are members of another and more pathetic anti-war group: the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses, convening in 1940.


As for the Communists—whose two chief leaders, William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, appear below, whispering together on the platform at a Lenin memorial meeting in 1940—they were on-again-off-again, faithful to Soviet policy.


Until August 23, 1939, they were ardently anti-Nazi. Then Russia signed up with Hitler and they became isolationist, saying that the Allies were engaged in an “imperialist” war. When on June 21, 1941, Hitler attacked Russia, they made a right-about turn and joined the interventionists.

The Communists were few but active, had many fellow-travelers, and thus affected defense production—first impeding it, then speeding it.

Few of the interventionists wanted America to go to war. Most were for “aid short of war”; the mouth-filling name of their chief organization was The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.

Later the more militant of them organized Fight for Freedom. Here is a platform group at a Fight for Freedom rally in New York in October 1941: Wendell L. Willkie (standing), Herbert Agar (left), William S. Knudsen, Mayor F. H. LaGuardia of New York, and the attractive actress Carole Landis.


These are the emblems of France Forever, British War Relief, and Fight for Freedom—familiar sights to many in 1940 and 1941.


Below is a huge rally held by America First, the chief isolationist organization, in May 1941, at Madison Square Garden, with Charles A. Lindbergh speaking.


Events . . .


. . . and Roosevelt were both on the side of more and more intervention.


In September 1940 Congress passed the Selective Service Act and the draft began. Below is Secretary of War Stimson, blindfolded, drawing the first Order Number late in 1940—a matter of intense interest to millions of registrants, each of whom knew his own Serial Number by heart.


Beginning when France fell, in 1940 a great “defense” boom got under way in America, and new boards and government departments proliferated bewilderingly. Here is one of many—the Economic Defense Board of 1941. Seated: Secretary Morgenthau, Vice President Wallace, Secretaries Stimson and Wickard. Standing Secretary Knox, Assistant Secretary of State Acheson, Secretary Jones, and Attorney General Biddle.


We offer in the next four pictures one exhibit of the herculean job of building for arms production that was done in 1940 and 1941 while domestic goods were still being produced in unconverted factories. The first shows the ground being broken for the Chrysler Tank Arsenal. Note the date: November 8, 1940.


The next picture shows engineers and draftsmen planning details; date, January 30, 1941.


On April 22, 1941, they are installing heavy machinery in the already erected building. (You can see assembly lines in the distance.)


And in the picture below, General Grant tanks, completed, are being loaded on railroad cars for shipment. And the date of this last picture? September 25, 1941 — less than eleven months after the first one!


In many such plants, the miracle of war production was already under way some time before Pearl Harbor.

* * *

What happened next upset all calculations. As the predicament of the Allies became more and more grave, American opinion, with Roosevelt leading it, had swung toward more and more intensive aid to Britain, and then Russia, and toward a stiffer and stiffer attitude toward Germany.


By the fall of 1941 we were virtually conducting an undeclared war against Germany in the Atlantic Ocean.

We also refused flatly to countenance Japan’s imperial aggressions; and when in November 1941 the Japanese sent a special envoy, Saburu Kurusu, to Washington, there were scant hopes of a reconciliation.

But nevertheless almost all eyes were turned toward the Atlantic, not the Pacific; toward Germany, not Japan. Below are Kurusu (left) and the Japanese Ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, waiting to talk with our Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, at the State Department on November 17, 1941.


Through the lengthening shadows of afternoon—and of a passing era of our history—the two Japanese envoys walked on either side of Secretary Hull to the White House to talk with President Roosevelt.


The negotiations continued, fruitlessly, Kurusu remaining in Washington. Already word had gone out from Tokyo setting in motion the machinery for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we had no knowledge of that, and our attention was still turned chiefly in the other direction—toward Germany.

And then, on Sunday, December 7, came the blinding event. . .

The Japanese bombs struck Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. You see the U.S.S. ‘Arizona’ keeling over under the impact of the blows.


Here is the wreckage-strewn Naval Air Station, with an explosion in the background sending flames and smoke high into the sky.


Before the United States could get round to declaring war, the Japanese followed their bombs with an almost simultaneous declaration that a state of war existed between Japan and the United States “as of dawn” of that day.

Congress replied on the next day, December 8, by voting to declare war against Japan. The vote was 82 to 0 in the Senate; 388 to 1 in the House.

Before the United States even had to face the question whether this would mean war with Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini both declared war on us on December 11; we replied with counter-declarations, this time unanimous (except for one member of the House who answered the roll-call but refrained from voting).

Under such circumstances all argument between interventionists and isolationists ceased. The United States went to war unitedly—if reluctantly. The choice was inescapable.

When the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the twenty-three years and twenty-six days of the interwar period came to an end. During that time we, as a people, had often been guilty of myopia, irresponsibility, intolerance, and inanity.

Struck by an economic storm, we had managed to ride it out, but no more; we had not conquered chronic unemployment—that negator of open opportunity—until deficit spending for armaments came to our rescue. Yet on the other hand our fits of intolerance had been fleeting.

In the economic storm we had not yielded ourselves up to any tyrant; and on the whole we had been patient, humane, and loyal to the democratic decencies. When the test of war came, we were to show that despite our self-indulgences and our follies, we still had the skill and the will to produce astonishingly and to fight victoriously. All in all, perhaps we had not done so badly.

Would we be able—looking back, later, over the record of our interwar achievements and idiocies—not simply to apply successfully the old maxim of a great schoolmaster, “To err is human, to make the same mistake twice is foolish,” but also to gain the broader and more essential perspective needed to do the harder thing: to avoid making different mistakes springing from the same sort of myopia, the same sort of evasions and obsessions?

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