Author’s web-page introduction to NAVAL HISTORY February 2004 cover feature: FDR’s UNDECLARED WAR
Unknown to Congress and the American people, months before Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy secretly hunted Axis warships in the North Atlantic. Seven decades later, that simple but unassailable fact continues to elude the public, masses of written scholarship, and most historians. However, now declassified by the National Archives, the once secret documents – including operational plans and orders originating with the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-chief-Atlantic Fleet – confirms that the U.S. Navy throughout most of 1941, was clearly belligerent.
But does this new knowledge make FDR complicit in a plot to bring America into World War Two through the disaster at Pearl Harbor? Readers may draw their own conclusions, but because of another infamous day – September 11, 2001- it is again evident that the first duty of the people’s President is to protect the American people. Thus, contemporary readers may draw analogies between the events leading to December 7, 1941 with those of September 11, 2001, and conclude that this lesson from the past is as instructive now as it was then.
(The unknown correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill authorizing a top-secret convoy of 20,000 British troops to Singapore on three American transports.)
A series of “Triple Priority” telegrams between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill that would result in FDR breaking the Neutrality Act, began only two weeks after the Atlantic Conference in August 1941. As a result, FDR approved the transport of British troops to war in American ships, even as the United States remained technically at peace.
There was much to be concerned about. Churchill’s first message to FDR on September 1, 1941 revealed doubts about maintaining Britain’s strategic Middle East situation: “Would it be possible for you to lend us twelve United States liners and twenty U.S. cargo ships manned by American crews from early October until February…I know from out talks that it will be difficult to do, but there is a great need for more British troops in the Middle East.” Churchill ended plaintively. “It is quite true that the loan of these liners would hamper any large dispatch of U.S. forces to Europe or Africa, but as you know I have never asked for this in any period we can reasonably foresee in the near future.”
From mid to late January 1942, as Singapore lay under siege, the U.S. Navy landed 20, 000 British troops from America’s three most important former ocean liners. A globe-circling voyage – the longest of the war – but unknown for decades. How it happened, and why it remains unknown today. The July 2002 PROCEEDINGS (U.S. Naval Institute) history feature.
An August 1941 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill yielded more than the Atlantic Charter. The leaders set plans to move British troops to the Middle East in three former U.S. ocean liners. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the orders changed, and the mighty liners became “the ghost ships of Task Force 14.”
British Heritage magazine special issue: ‘Britain atWar, September 2000
It was easily the most closely guarded and enduring secret of World War II. Thousands of books, articles and reminiscences by the generals, admirals and civilian leadership masterminding the war were all silent on the subject. The usually loquacious Winston Churchill said nothing about it in his six volume History of the SecondWorld War. The 12,000 men and women who were there, sworn by an oath to king and country, neither spoke nor wrote anything for three decades after the war. They remained silent until the mid 1990s.