World War II was exploding on the European continent in the year run up to the 1940 US Presidential election. The isolationist, non-interventionist mindset, still strong since WWI, became more of an election issue as the war moved to the forefront. Sending our boys overseas again to fight for European democracy was not a popular idea. To win re-election, Franklin D. Roosevelt would have downplay his foreign policy that contradicted that public sentiment while, at the same time, moving forward with war time preparations.
Though the isolationist view was a held amongst a large portion of the public, both candidates in that election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and his opponent Wendell Willkie, shared the belief that the nation would have to get involved in the war. Both men publicly limited that involvement to materials — not men. Willkie pledged “all aid to the Democracies short of war” and FDR wanted to make America a supplier to the Allied forces — an “arsenal of democracy.” When he was re-elected for an unprecedented 3rd term, the continuation of FDR’s New Deal domestic policy, rather than his foreign policy, is what won the day.
Prior to the election, behind the scenes, the military was already gearing up for war time on FDR’s orders. In the aftermath of WWI, much planning had taken place in the various war departments on how the nation — both militarily and industrially — would be quickly mobilized for battle on that future day — a day the military called M-day.
But, to declare an M-day, a turning point when the whole nation would mobilize for the war effort, the president needed a supportive public. The above board preparations he initiated prior to the election of 1940 had been met with much opposition from his New Deal supporters. They felt that the war effort would weaken the new social initiatives. A publicly declared M-day could mean a lost election for FDR.
Just days after the election, with his position no longer on the line, FDR proceeded with mobilization in a more limited and less public way than an announced M-day would have initiated. Over a short few weeks in November he issued a flurry of executive orders for personnel increases in the Army, especially the Air Corps, federalizing the National Guard, and setting aside public lands for air bases. Defense oriented appropriations from Congress, mostly for Air Defense, began to flow to the Army faster than they could spend them.
The industrial mobilization process still had not gotten up to speed and the supplies that the military needed were not being produced quickly enough. Because the US was not yet at war, the president didn’t have the war time powers to order the mobilization of industry. Instead he had to primarily rely on a free market response.
Even though the isolationist sentiments were still strong at the time France fell to the Axis powers in 1941, the US people began to be sympathetic towards financing more aid to Britain – now viewed as a last serious stand against the Axis powers in Europe. Britain couldn’t afford the weapons and munitions that they needed to defend themselves against the Nazi forces. They didn’t have enough gold — the currency that US neutrality laws required, for the purchase of war materials.
To make US support of Britain possible, FDR proposed the Lend-Lease Act which passed through Congress with the aid, of his once-rival, Wendell Willkie. The act granted authority to the president to exchange war materials needed by the Allied forces for other things, such as land, goods and services. Using this new power, the president obtained several US bases from which to operate once the nation entered WWII, even though, it was still materials — not men, that the US was supplying at the time. The purchases of war goods through the Lend-Lease Act by Britain, China and the USSR created even more demand on US industry.
Although the Army was still implementing a neutral defense strategy rather than planning for the offensive that would commence after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the amount of money for war preparation that had been spent prior to the attack had already surpassed all that was spent during the entirety of WWI. Appropriations for the Army went from $500 million in 1939, to $8 billion in 1940 and then jumped to $26 billion in 1941.
By the summer of 1941, the jobs growth from military expansion and aid to foreign nations along with the number of enlisted men being drafted into the military made it difficult for the public to not notice that M-day had already passed unannounced. For good or bad, the nation’s isolationist sentiments had been overruled by FDR’s executive authority to implement his foreign policy.