THE PRESIDENCY: Preface to War

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The telephone in Franklin Roosevelt's bedroom at the White House rang at 2:50 a. m. on the first day of September. In more ways than one it was a ghastly hour, but the operators knew they must ring. Ambassador Bill Bullitt was calling from Paris. He had just been called by Ambassador Tony Biddle in Warsaw. Mr. Bullitt told Mr. Roosevelt that World War II had begun. Adolf Hitler's bombing planes were dropping death all over Poland.

Mr. Roosevelt telephoned to Secretary of State Hull at the Carlton Hotel, also to Under Secretary of State Welles, Secretary of War Woodring, Acting Secretary Edison of the Navy. Acting Secretary of the Treasury* John Hanes was roused. Lights went on in all Washington's key executive offices. Before breakfast time, the President was ready with the only gesture he could think of in the face of world disaster: a plea to Germany, Poland, Britain, France, Italy to refrain from bombing "open" cities and noncombatants. Within a few hours the heads of all these nations replied, in a chorus that sounded sickeningly cynical however truly meant: they would each do as Mr. Roosevelt suggested so long as their antagonists did likewise. Mussolini took the occasion to reiterate Italy's neutrality (see p. 21).

That day Franklin Roosevelt's press conference was a grave business. One question was uppermost in all minds. Correspondent Phelps Adams of the New York Sun uttered it: "Mr. President . . . can we stay out of it?" Franklin Roosevelt sat in silent concentration, eyes down, for many long seconds. Then, with utmost solemnity, he replied: "I not only sincerely hope so, but I believe we can, and every effort will be made by this Administration to do so."

No person in the room doubted Franklin Roosevelt's sincerity, but neither was anyone in the slightest doubt as to where lay the sympathy, the potent human partisanship, of this President of the United States. He was against Germany, against the aggressor, against totalitarianism, against Adolf Hitler the dictator and Adolf Hitler the man perhaps mad. His every word henceforth would be weighed in the light of his own injunction, which he now laid upon the Press, to stick rigidly to the facts because "that's best for our own nation—and for civilization." His deeds and those of his subordinates would now be examined for lack of bias as the nation watched his "every effort" to keep the U. S. out of war.

>One deed came immediately: the President announced his acceptance of Hugh Wilson's resignation as Ambassador to Germany. Mr. Wilson had been home from his post since November. The timing of his permission to resign formally could only be construed as a protest against the invasion of Poland. >Secretary of State Hull in effect suspended outstanding U. S. passports, announced that only in cases of "imperative necessity" will passports hereafter be issued to U. S. citizens for travel in perilous Europe.

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