It wasn't summer yet, but it was getting there. As the late-spring days of May flew by, the Philadelphia marketplaces began to draw their largest crowds. The May was that of 1793, and there were men in the national capital (the move to the Potomac was seven years off) who would have liked to stroll by the banks of the river or let the crowds nudge them along the cobblestone streets on a fine afternoon—but these were men who didn't have the time. They were spending their hours indoors, preoccupied with an interesting question: Would the newborn United States do what 99.9 percent of its citizens fervently wished and remain out of the European bloodbath then raging? Or would it decide that the 179th or so round of the centuries-long civil war of that continent somehow needed mangled American bodies?
The United States was to face that question again and again through the next two centuries, and it was to answer it always rightly in the first of them and always wrongly in the second. In '93 the main contending parties in Europe were England and France. The reasons for the latest war, or the latest battle in the continuous war, were complex and, from an American standpoint, profoundly trivial. This country was full of people who admired either England or France and became their partisans in verbal warfare at the local tavern, but virtually empty of people who wanted the United States to enter the war. Neutrality was as lusted after as any American political principle has ever been, and the decision before the government was merely how to keep the country as far out of the war as if it had been between unknown bandit kings in some faraway part of Asia instead of between known bandit kings in closer-by Europe.
PROTECTING THE LITTLE SHIPS
As it was to be a century and a half later, a crucial question before George Washington and his "cabinet" was the matter of convoying, the guarding of merchant ships by warships. With unanimous cabinet support, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality: the American people wished to live their own lives in peace; they did not wish to bail out either side in Europe's ongoing insanity; so the nation would adhere to a strict policy of noninvolvement.
That decision was relatively easy; from then on the necessary decisions became more specific and therefore more controversial. The proclamation was really no more than a statement of national feeling; it wasn't a law and it wasn't an edict and it wasn't a regulation. It of course is an interesting question whether such things were needed to keep America out of the war, but it was assumed they might be, which is all that matters here.
If the ultimate disaster were to come about, if America were to enter the bloodbath, it would probably be because of a shooting scrape on the high seas. That was the only place U.S. nationals came very near English and French nationals under conditions in which warfare was possible. And it would probably grow out of Americans' supplying goods to the belligerents. For those interested in ensuring that faraway places didn't become littered with American corpses, an obvious possibility was simply to prohibit American trade with the belligerents. That option Washington and his advisors rejected, for two reasons.
First, they didn't want to deny enterprising fellows the opportunity to make an honest) if bloody, profit. Second—and it is inconceivable to modern Americans—they found no reason to think they had the power to tell people what they could not produce and sell. So, selling to the warring powers wouldn't be prohibited.
But that was only the penultimate question. The ultimate one was: Should the government provide protection for whatever shipments individual Americans chose to send over the bounding main to Europe? The men who were to make that decision had seen enough of war to give them a perspective very different from that of every age's armchair generals and warlovers. Washington was a front-lines general, and if anyone during the Revolution saw more men dying, it must have been some unknown regimental surgeon; Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had served as Washington's Chief of Staff and had seen more bloodshed during his early twenties than most men see the whole of their lives; Secretary of War Henry Knox had been Chief of Artillery, and some said a cannoneer was the most dangerous thing to be during that fighting; Attorney General Edmund Randolph knew more about war than was to be found in books, for he'd been Washington's aide-de-camp; and Secretary of State Jefferson had been governor of a wartime Virginia treated to a British invasion containing about the usual amount of burning, looting, and raping, had escaped Monticello just a few steps ahead of British troops, and had had one of his other plantations largely destroyed by the invaders of His Britannic Majesty.
These were men who didn't take war frivolously, who'd pay any reasonable price to avoid it, and who saw with great clarity that convoying U.S. goods to Europe would almost certainly make it impossible to avoid. Even without convoying of merchant ships by U.S. warships, the prospects for being dragged into a mindless European war were quite good, for the loss of any American lives or cargoes to foreign men-of-war was sure to bring cries for intervention, if only from those whose goods and men were going to the bottom. Since such wealthy men were likely to be influential, their voices might be capable of dealing neutrality a mortal blow. But with convoying, getting into the war was virtually guaranteed. How could it be otherwise, then or later? The European powers would do their best to sink American cargoes going to the opponent; if those cargoes were being guarded by U.S. Navy ships, the first strike against a U.S. cargo would be at the same time a strike against a U.S. naval vessel, which translates into an attack upon the U.S. government, which is confused with an attack upon the American people or the American continent, and the war is on.
THE ADMIRABLE DECISION
In the bright-spring May of '93 the Washington cabinet considered the question of convoying at a meeting called to construct a reply to British complaints over certain French activities on American soil. There was much disagreement during the meeting, with sympathies going in different directions. But on the crucial questions there was thorough agreement: protecting U.S. shipments on the high seas was a wonderfully straightforward violation of U.S. neutrality—the shipments involved were likely to be arms—and a wonderfully effective way to get into the war. Washington and his confreres were men who wanted the new nation to steer clear of the faraway carnage; knowing that a convoy policy would turn an individual-versus-individual into a nation-versus-nation incident, they decided there would be no U.S. warships on the North Atlantic to involve the American people in the quarrel of some manufacturer who chose to make money playing around in European quarrels. It was a free country, and men could make and ship armaments if they chose—but the government would not use the resources and risk the futures of the American people to guard those shipments. If a ship was sunk, whoever owned the cargo would do some grieving, but thousands of wives and sweethearts and children and parents across the 15 states would not be doing any grieving. The cabinet decision was as antiwar as Washington had hoped.
There was shipping to the warring powers, and there were attacks upon that shipping. Just after the fine firm of Washington & Co. made its decision, the attacks came mostly from the British. British Navy ships stopped and seized American vessels in the Atlantic and the Caribbean; their cargoes were confiscated or destroyed and their men tossed into dungeons. Historian Thomas Bailey, who speaks of the "dispatch and ruthlessness" of the British captains, characterizes American seaborn commerce as "paralyzed" once the British got busy. Diplomatic historian Julius Pratt speaks of the English having in mind not so much a direct benefit to themselves as "injury to the shipper." In short, modern historians agree about the ferocity of the British campaign.
This quotation from the key proclamation of the British government, is instructive: "All vessels loaded wholly or in part with corn, flour, or meal, bound to any port in France" were to be seized. That took in a lot of territory. An unspoken part of British policy was even worse: any time that country was short of able-bodied seamen, it simply impressed (kidnapped) them from American ships, with or without a pretended claim that they were really British citizens who had defected to the American merchant service. The British did have an interest in starving the French people, but they had an equal interest in keeping arms from reaching them, so armaments shipments were as eagerly sought as foodstuffs. The English were after whatever could directly or indirectly aid France's war effort.
The French, in this mid-nineties period, were a little better than the British—not because they were any less inherently predatory than their cousins, but because treaties with America signed in 1778 were still in effect, and these gave them hope of American assistance in the war and thus a reason not to antagonize the young nation. Nonetheless, the French retaliated for British seizure of American goods bound for French ports by attacking U.S. ships bound for the national arsenal and granary of Britain, and only in comparison with the British record do the French of this period look fair or pro-American.
Three famous cases of French depredations, famous because they led to important court decisions, give the flavor of that country's disrespect for American neutrality. The sloop Betsy was owned by Americans and, as if to emphasize her neutral status, coowned by citizens of another nonbelligerent nation, Sweden. Unseizable, under international law, she was nevertheless seized by the French. The American/neutral ships Fanny and William were also eminently unattackable—and were just as quickly attacked when they came within sight of French ships. The tribulations of these ships and cargoes, and of less famous ones, produced anti-French feelings of course. But because there were no U.S. Navy ships protecting all the little merchant ships, there was no incident that very many people could be convinced was an attack upon "America" as opposed to some risk-taking merchant, and there was no war. The no-convoy decision was as effective in preventing war with France as with Britain.
There are those who will consider the record and conclude: "That's terrible! Ships seized, men thrown into dungeons, cargoes confiscated—terrible!" And those people would be right—as far as they go. Those who go further will come up with two other thoughts. First, there's no useful sense in which the ships and cargoes seized on the rising and falling waves were "American." They belonged to specific individuals who chose to take immense risks in helping assorted Europeans kill each other off, who got involved to make profits, who did it in spite of the obvious tendency of such trade to lead to war-producing confrontations, who did it in defiance of the desperate will of almost all Americans to stay out of the foreign bloodbath, and who were, therefore, not even worthy of respect from decent people, let alone protection by U.S. Navy vessels. If they chose to take their chances, that was one thing; but if they tried to get the American people to risk war to better those chances, that was something else.
The second thought—for the benefit of those who insist upon seeing such shipping as "American"—is, granted that what was happening to "American" interests was unpleasant, how incomparably less unpleasant it was than the alternative: an all-out war. It's a useful rule of thumb that the bloodiest personal encounters are immeasurably less murderous than even the smallest, politest, and least-lethal wars; the whole point of war is that it is killing systematized and organized in a way that private encounters just can't be and that it is designed to include millions of people who have nothing to do with the dispute at hand.
Because the hero of the Revolution opted against a war, and because he and his advisors were perspicacious enough to see the consequences of convoying, in the early nineties there would be none—and there would be no war. The crisis passed, and the problems of a handful of merchants were not turned into problems for millions of Americans.
ANOTHER CENTURY, ANOTHER STRUGGLE
It was another spring, and the capital was now on the banks of the Potomac instead of the Delaware. The President was now a man stunningly inferior to the chief executive in that earlier spring, and a man surrounded by advisors inferior even to himself. What makes that difference so significant is that the world scenario was so similar to what it had been in the earlier spring. In 1941 there was (a) an ongoing foreign war, (b) a U.S. decision to be made about entering or keeping out of the war, (c) a subsidiary decision about whether Americans would be allowed to deal in war goods with the contending powers, and (d) a further subsidiary decision about whether, if they were allowed to engage in that traffic, there would be convoying. Both proponents and opponents of American entry into the war saw that if there were no convoying all the little American ships on the North Atlantic might be sunk, but the grievances thereby generated would remain essentially private ones.
Considering the desperate urge of the Roosevelt administration to get the United States into the war, they might have found a way even without convoying, but that tool proved to be the most useful one. The decision to enter/not-enter the war turned out to be two decisions: Roosevelt & Co. decided to go in; the American people decided to stay out. With one side of that disagreement controlling both the guns and the propaganda organs of society, the outcome could hardly be in doubt. And "the desperate urge of the Roosevelt administration to get into the war" no longer needs documentation. Historians have long since made conclusive the point that was clear to many Americans who watched the events unfold: the administration made a conscious and very early decision to enter the European bloodbath, and from that point busied itself with telling Americans how hard it was trying to maintain U.S. noninvolvement and with trying to end that noninvolvement. Even professional Roosevelt sycophants admit FDR's war-lust—merely adding that he was doing it for our "own good."
CONVINCING A MAJORITY
An American public 80-percent opposed to entering the war was a real obstacle to the interventionists, but there was every prospect that that obstacle could be overcome through the creation of "incidents" involving U.S. and German forces on the high seas, and convoying was ready made for that purpose. Secretary of War Henry Stimson's comment that the goal was to maneuver Japan into attacking us so that the war would be a "defensive" one applied as well to the North Atlantic. If the Germans could be maneuvered into firing the first shot there, FDR could say that war had "already begun" by an act of the Germans. Roosevelt, Stimson, Navy Secretary Frank Knox, and their various lesser lights were using both the Atlantic and Pacific provocation routes at the same time, and whichever one worked, worked. Ironically, though they devoted their primary attention to the Atlantic, their maneuvering gambit worked first in the Pacific. Nonetheless, the North Atlantic was the important theater, for a long succession of created incidents there inflamed public opinion, allowed the government to speak of war "already existing," lowered the 80-percent opposition rate to a more manageable figure, and allowed Americans to be convinced of the bestiality of the Nazi regime, which was true, and of its intention to and capability of threatening Americans and the American continent, which were ludicrously false.
After the revelations of the Nye Committee, the popular press, and scholars in the 1930's about the genesis of U.S. involvement in World War I, the public was violently antipathetic toward arms merchants, and the sinking of one or ten or ten thousand ships carrying munitions to Europe could not have been successfully used to inflame public opinion. The very word "munitions" had gained such opprobrium that there might have been as much cheering as crying each time such a ship went down. In spite of scatological criticism directed against the revelations about the "merchants of death," those exposures were accurate in the main point they made—that American financial and industrial interests had played at least a major and probably the major role in dragging America into the earlier bloodbath—and the people had learned the lesson well.
If Americans were to be stirred up to demanding or at least tolerating another descent into insanity, it would not be by arranging for the sinking of a DuPont cargo. There would have to be incidents involving the Navy, our boys in uniform, and an attack by the German government upon the American government. Roosevelt might have done something like send Navy ships on scientific expeditions into various provocative parts of the world, but even a very bemused public would have seen through that. No, there had to be some "logical" reason to justify throwing American naval ships out there where the German U-boats could get at them, and only protecting goods on the way to Europe filled the bill. For reasons outlined in the earlier discussion of a more admirable administration, such convoying wasn't logical at all and didn't follow naturally from U.S. citizens' being allowed to trade in war goods, but only convoying could be made to even seem logical.
CLEARLY A HOSTILE ACT
As tourists enjoyed the Washington springtime, FDR and his associates enjoyed themselves indoors, trying to institute the convoying they were sure would bring on war. It wasn't easy, for administration leaders often admitted the obvious: that it would turn individual grievances into a conflagration involving all the American people and should therefore be avoided. Roosevelt himself had said on January 21 of '41: "Convoys mean shooting and shooting means war." Quite right. The deluded citizenry naturally took him to mean that because convoys would surely lead to war they had to be avoided, but of course he meant that because they lead inevitably to war they had to be instituted as soon as possible.
On April 24—a day that perhaps should "live in infamy" as December 7 does, FDR approved convoying, although he labeled it "patrolling." Changing the name of his prowar action, however, did not take care of the legal problem: the Lend-Lease Act, passed earlier in '41, had specifically prohibited convoying, as well as any entry of a U.S. warship into any war zone. This difficulty, which, if one takes law seriously, should have placed Roosevelt in a resort community like Leavenworth or Lewisberg, was taken care of by…ignoring it. The administration had the power. Besides, it wasn't "convoying," it was "patrolling."
Roosevelt's convoy decision was the mirror image of Washington's, not just in its content, but in the intentions behind it. Washington was obviously desperate to keep out of a foreign war; Roosevelt was so desperate to get into one that he was chided for not being more honest about it by an associate, Flenry Stimson, who wanted the war almost as much as he did. When FDR told his April 24 cabinet meeting that patrolling was merely to defend the Americas, his War Secretary pointed out that that was a ridiculous assertion, for the "patrols" were going to report the whereabouts of German ships, not to the Americas, but to the British Navy. In his diary, Stimson was even blunter: "I wanted him to be honest with himself. To me it seems a clearly hostile act to the Germans…he seems to be trying to hide it into the character of a purely reconnaisance action, which it clearly is not."
The summer of '41 was an interesting one in Washington, and the interest was mostly in one topic: Was the Administration convoying/patrolling, or was it not? The spring decision to do so, like most other significant decisions on the road to war, had been kept secret, and all summer long Roosevelt & Co. denied what enterprising newspapermen were discovering through leaks: U.S. naval vessels and personnel were busy doing what the Chief had admitted "means war"—convoying. There were continuing reports of American warships being fired upon, and firing upon, German ships while the Americans were protecting British property. The consistent denials by everyone in power were consistently disbelieved by everyone who had perceived the nature of Roosevelt's intentions vis-a-vis the foreign holocaust. At the end of the summer, Roosevelt got his first dramatic "incident," one which would allow him to move the U.S. another rung or two up the ladder to war.
The Greer was an American destroyer carrying out its Rooseveltian orders of convoying/patrolling in the North Atlantic. On September 4 the Greer, on patrol duty, began trailing a German submarine and broadcasting its position to a British warplane nearby; the plane dropped some depth charges, and then left the area to allow the Greer to keep up the chase alone, which it did. After several hours the sub fired one torpedo at the destroyer and missed; the submarine was then attacked with a series of depth charges from the surface ship; it fired another torpedo; the Greer then lost contact with the sub, but picked it up again a couple of hours later and once again tried to eliminate it with depth charges, with unknown results. This ship had done exactly what convoy/ patrol ships are supposed to do, and initiated aggression against opposition shipping; but that was hardly the story the administration gave the public.
As FDR told it, the Greer was an innocent mail ship attacked in a dastardly way by the Germans. FDR's fireside chats were being used at this time to propagandize in favor of entering the foreign war, and one week after the Greer incident the President went on nationwide radio to tell his story: "She was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. She was then and there attacked by a submarine…I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with deliberate design to sink her." He mentioned that "we have sought no shooting war with Hitler," but that since one seemed to have started, "from now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril." The policy would be one of shoot on sight, and the country was "X" steps closer to war.
On October 17 Roosevelt's incidents policy did even more effective work to inflame public opinion than it had in the Greer case. After all, the Greer wasn't even hit. How much better if an American vessel on convoy/patrol duty were actually torpedoed. On October 17 one was. The U.S.S. Kearny, convoying merchant ships, responded to an attack upon a nearby convoy. The Kearny dropped depth charges in the area of a German sub and was then struck herself by a torpedo. Eleven men were killed.
Roosevelt 10 days later took to the airwaves again and, omitting mention of the Kearny's attack upon the U-boat, castigated the Nazis for their attack. Two sections of the address deserve quotation. In one of them Roosevelt highlighted the underlying purpose of the whole convoy/patrol policy: maneuvering the Axis into firing or even seeming to fire the first shot. The President was well aware of how difficult it was to get Americans war-eager in the absence of such a first shot from the enemy; in World War I, when there'd been no such attack, there'd been massive opposition to U.S. involvement that continued throughout the war. In Congress, 56 members voted against entry into the 1914 round of the European civil war; only one voted against involvement in the 1939 round. The difference, of course, was Pearl Harbor, a direct and substantial attack upon American personnel, and it was a Pearl Harbor in the Atlantic that Roosevelt was seeking. He told the nation: "We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot." If that sounds like a declaration of war, he no doubt meant it that way—but the public wasn't quite ready to follow.
FDR PLEADS HIS CASE
Another portion of the address spotlights the importance of convoying: "America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation." After naming all the states from which the dead sailors came, Roosevelt said, "Hitler's torpedo was directed against every American.…" If the U.S. Navy allowed Hitler to dictate to it, then it "would have to remain respectfully—abjectly—behind any line which Hitler might decree…"Our determination not to take it lying down has been expressed in the orders to the American Navy to shoot on sight." Then there was a closing reference to that nation "whose Navy believes in the tradition of 'Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!'"
This heavy emphasis on the Navy was crucial. How effective would it have been for FDR to have said: "That Morgan-empire ship, engaged in trade for profits, likely to lead to hundreds of thousands of American deaths, belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation"?
Roosevelt was given another convoy incident the night before Halloween, when the U.S.S. Reuben James got into a Greer/Kearny type of fight. Although the incident itself was more serious than either of those—the Reuben James was actually sunk, and the casualties sheet showed 96 men lost—by late October much of the truth about the earlier incidents had leaked out, and claims of innocence were less effective than the first and second time around.
The attack upon Pearl Harbor five weeks later was unfortunate for more reasons that the slaughter of Americans. Because the immediate cause of our entry into the war was an attack in the Pacific, the fact has been obscured that the administration's now-admitted urge to get the U.S. into the bloodletting was heavily Atlantic-based and that convoying was a key tool. There is every reason to believe that the FDR incident-creating activities in the North Atlantic would have taken us into the war by late '41 or early '42 if the Japanese hadn't solved Roosevelt's problem first. By Pearl Harbor-time the administration had accomplished much in its North Atlantic theater of operations—both sides recognized that by '41 the U.S. was a full, though unannounced, belligerent on the side of the British Empire and looking for a chance to jump in formally. By creating conditions in which ships belonging to "every man, woman and child" in the country were attacked, FDR inflamed public opinion, weakened the antiwar movement, swayed Congressional opinion, aided recruitment for interventionist groups, made palatable such interventionist acts as the shoot-on-sight order, extension of convoying farther and farther across the Atlantic, a massive war-oriented tax increase and exploding war expenditures, and increasingly elastic interpretations and then a pro-war amending of the Neutrality Act. The quirk of fate that brought a non-Atlantic war shouldn't be allowed to hide the contrast between the motives and actions of a President who strove to stay out of a European slaughter and one who lusted to get in. Their respective convoy-decisions say it all.
Robert Brakeman is a free-lance writer whose works have appeared in a number of publications, including Canada's Libertarian Option. He currently resides in Florida.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washington, F.D.R., and the Convoys".