The decision to run for a third term was difficult for Franklin D. Roosevelt to make. He knew running would be unprecedented. The previous eight long years in office made the thought of retreating to his lifelong home in Hyde Park, New York, and his new presidential library quite attractive.
On the other hand, he was profoundly concerned about worldwide events. Germany's Hitler was relentlessly overrunning Europe, and the nation's relationship with Imperial Japan continued to deteriorate.
In the end, Roosevelt felt he owed it to the country to serve the best way he could, and the best thing for the country then was a vigorous, seasoned leader.
The current European war and its implications of dark times ahead convinced many Americans that Roosevelt should stay on. Others were convinced that Roosevelt's third term would signal America's acquiescence to a dictatorship. Still others were disturbed by Roosevelt's apparent dismissal of tradition — no president had ever run for a third term. Nevertheless, he was re-elected and then inaugurated in January 1941.
A dark horizon
Roosevelt conferred with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard a cruiser anchored off Newfoundland, in August 1941. The two statesmen crafted a proclamation that became known as The Atlantic Charter. They vowed not to pursue gains, "territorial or otherwise;" to honor the right of every country to determine its own form of government; to ensure freedom of the seas; and to carry on peaceful global trade.
Roosevelt delivered a speech on January 6, 1941, in which he declared that all people are entitled to freedom of speech, worship, want, and fear. The speech became famous and those fundamental rights came to be called the Four Freedoms.
On March 11 of that year, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the government to supply war matériel to any country at war with the Axis powers. Britain became the main recipient.
Ominously, Germany, Italy, and Japan had inked a mutual aid pact in 1940. Relations with the Japanese Empire became progressively edgy. Beginning in 1941, the United States attempted to stem Japanese predation in Southeast Asia by cutting back trade with Japan, and posting periodic warnings. Roosevelt characterized that tack as "babying the Japanese along."
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, two Japanese diplomats met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull in Washington, D.C. While they conferred, faraway Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, became the target of a sudden attack of Japanese aircraft that mauled the U.S. Pacific Fleet lying at anchor there.
President Roosevelt stood before a riveted Congress the following day and asserted that December 7 was "a date which will live in infamy." Almost immediately, the United States declared war against Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. In turn, the U.S. declared war on those nations.
In later years, allegations were voiced that Roosevelt should have been held accountable for negligence at Pearl Harbor — even for engineering America's entry into the war — but historians differ over the soundness of those assertions. Roosevelt was, nevertheless, responsible to a considerable degree for the swift expansion of American military power.
He was a dynamic world leader who stood against everything the Axis powers stood for. He was heavily involved in diplomatic duties. There was no dissension within the United States regarding foreign policy, and the wartime presidential election was again focused largely on domestic themes.
Most Americans understood that their country faced a grave state of affairs, spanning both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They comprehended the notion of a two-front war. The U.S. Navy had been mangled by the assault on Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, the draft had provided the U.S. Army more than a million men who then received at least a year's combat training.
The president faced a watershed decision following Pearl Harbor — where to commit limited forces first. Understandably, numerous West Coast residents were convinced that Japan was the obvious initial enemy. On the Eastern seaboard, however, many others held that Germany ought to be whipped first.
In December 1941 and January 1942, Roosevelt conferred with Churchill in the White House. The two statesmen agreed that the United States needed to repair, refit and expand its navy before a telling counterpunch could be thrown against Japan.
A distressing fact was that German scientists were actively fashioning new weaponry that might mean big trouble for the Allies. In addition, the British and Soviets understandably desired to see Germany beaten as quickly as possible.
Early in the war, the Soviets asked for a "second front" against the Germans in Western Europe. For those reasons, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that Germany, the most powerful enemy nation, must be tackled first.
Roosevelt proposed the name "United Nations" for the alliance that fought Germany, Italy, and Japan, but "Allies" became the preferred term, which was used during World War I. That alliance comprised the foundation for the United Nations organization that FDR helped found, in 1945.
North African invasion
Churchill believed the Allies should first attack the Germans in Africa or in other places where they were relatively weak. Therefore, the Allies landed in North Africa on November 7, 1942. It was the most ambitious landing operation in history up to that date. Following commencement of the landings, Roosevelt spoke by radio to the French people, in French.* He averred that the Allies had to push the Germans out of French territory within the region.
The Big Three
President Roosevelt was the first commander in chief to depart the United States in wartime. In spite of his disability, he traveled abroad on numerous occasions during the war for conferences with Allied leaders. He met with Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco, in early 1943.
Following their discussion, the two leaders proclaimed that unconditional surrender was the sole criterion by which the Axis nations could lay down their arms. In other summits, FDR took up the issues of war and peace with both Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin of the U.S.S.R. They came to be called the "Big Three." Roosevelt also conferred with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of China in 1943.
In November 1943, the Big Three met at Teheran, Iran. During and after that conference, Roosevelt strove to persuade Churchill and Stalin to agree on major war goals. At Teheran, for example, he declined to dine with Churchill before they met with Stalin. The president did not want Stalin to conclude that he and Churchill had arrived at a separate accord.
On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt made one of the more controversial domestic decisions of his presidency when he published Executive Order 9066. The order called for the internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent to camps in the West.
In a manner not unlike many of his policies, the order divided national opinion, provoking critics even within his administration. While proponents of national security were enthusiastic, the policy also drew sharp rebukes from civil libertarians, and also FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pointedly — and publicly — opposed the internment. When the order was challenged on constitutional grounds, however, it was upheld by the Supreme Court.
FDR also has come under attack by latter-day critics who assert that he was aware of the Holocaust (Shoah), and neglected to do anything to prevent it. But in fact, he did, establish the War Refugee Board in 1944 by Executive Order No. 9417 to "rescue the victims of enemy oppression ... in imminent danger of death...." In effect, it was a way to address the overwhelming evidence of the mass extermination of Jewish people throughout Germany and other parts of Europe.
*Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to deliver a radio address in a foreign tongue.