At 2:50 a.m. on September 1, 1939 the President was asleep at the White House when the phone by his bedside rang. William Bullitt, America's Ambassador to France, was calling from Paris with grim news. The German army was invading Poland. World War II had begun.
Two days later, Great Britain and France, who had pledged to defend Poland if Germany attacked, entered the swiftly widening conflict. The war - the most destructive in human history - would transform America and the world.
Should America Intervene?
"This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well...Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience."
- Franklin Roosevelt, radio address, September 3, 1939
When war erupted, Americans were divided about how to respond. They sympathized with the victims of aggression. But, remembering the horrors of World War I, most wanted to stay out of the conflict. Isolationists argued America should look to its own defenses rather than aid other nations. And neutrality laws passed by Congress during the 1930s prohibited American arms sales to warring nations. The country's military was also woefully unprepared. All these factors placed limits on FDR's ability to act.
In the dark months that followed, Roosevelt demonstrated his belief that America's security depended on the defeat of the Axis Powers. His actions sparked a great national debate. Should the United States remain wholly neutral? Or should it find ways short of war to assist nations resisting Hitler?