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Conversation with Marc Wortman

Most Americans think the U.S. entered World War II the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Think again, says a New Haven historian.

By Cindy Mindell

NEW HAVEN – The U.S. may have officially entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But the country was by no means idle during the two years prior.

This is the premise of 1941: Fighting the Shadow War, A Divided America in a World at War (Grove Atlantic, 2016), the latest work by historian and New Haven resident Marc Wortman. Combining military and political history, Wortman explores the little-known behind-the-scenes story of America’s clandestine involvement in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The book will be launched on Tuesday, April 19 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.

Wortman was a longtime member of the JCC’s Board of Directors and helped to start its Beckerman Lecture Series. “I’ve long thought of the JCC as a place where the community could gather for really all aspects of our lives,” he says, explaining why he chose the JCC as the venue to launch his new book.

A former columnist for the New Haven Register and an editor at the Yale Alumni Magazine, Wortman has written articles and essays on a wide range of subjects for  Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, Town & Country, The Daily Beast, and many publications. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, History Channel, and numerous other broadcast outlets. ​His other books include The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power (2006) and The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta (2009).

Recently, he spoke with the Ledger about some of the powers and personalities that drove America’s “Shadow War.”


Q: Why are you telling this story now?

A: I had written an earlier book about a squadron of aviators out of Yale University in the First World War. One member of the group, Robert Lovett, came back from the war saying that we hadn’t finished the job. He wrote to his fiancée, saying, “Our children will need to come back here and complete the job.” In the course of writing that book, Yale University had stood out as a real bastion of “war fever:” Yale students were the first who wanted to get into the Great War because the U.S. didn’t go to war until two full years, almost three, into that war. Then, I was aware that, at Yale, prior to Pearl Harbor, the university had completely flipped and was a bastion of isolationism. Yale was where the committee for America First, for which Charles Lindbergh became the leading spokesman, was founded, and I was curious about that flip. What happened that, Yale students who had traditionally wanted to be first into the fight and to be leaders, had become so anti-war?

On top of that, like many people, especially Jews, I was very aware that the war had been raging in Europe for two years, during which Jews were being murdered already in genocidal numbers. Yet the U.S., which could have potentially stemmed a lot of the killing, chose not to intervene. What was it that held America back from taking on a role that, in many ways, it should have been taking on?

I wanted to be able to tell a story that enabled us to see how the experience of that period was lived by both ordinary people and by people who were in the halls of power. A lot of what my book is about is taking characters who are “high” and “low.” I spoke with a woman who, as an eight-year-old, was living on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor and getting a sense of what it was like to be growing up in the shadow of Battleship Row.

Harry Hopkins, in particular, is a real hero of this period and of the book, because he was the President’s alter-ego in paving the way for U.S. support for the British and the Soviets and bringing them together to win the war. Harry Hopkins was deathly ill and braved incredible physical ailments to really save civilization. His importance can’t be overemphasized.


Q: You write that America was playing an increasingly significant, if clandestine, role for years prior to jumping in. In what ways?

A: President Franklin Roosevelt had, from early on, advocated all aid short of war; that was his stated policy. He clearly wanted to keep the British Isles afloat and when the Netherlands and Belgium and then France fell, the shocking reality of that drove him to do far more to aid the British.

The U.S., in the late 1930s and through 1940, essentially had a tiny peacetime military that was geared towards hemispheric issues, nothing even close to comparable to the war machines of the Axis countries – Germany, Japan, and Italy. Roosevelt needed to motivate the country to invest in its military and he tried to do that by both arousing legitimate fears and, in some cases, going beyond that, to try and convince people that Hitler had designs on the Western Hemisphere, in some cases, by trumping up evidence that didn’t exist. He worked with the British Security Coordination, which was a British intelligence and propaganda service in the United States. They would feed things to Roosevelt and others who were in favor of intervention to try and encourage the viewpoint that Germany was planning an invasion of the Western Hemisphere.

At the same time, Roosevelt was pushing the U.S. Navy further and further into the Atlantic and designating more and more of the Atlantic Ocean as zones of U.S. patrol and declaring that these were areas that the U.S. Navy would be in and if it encountered warships, that it would announce their locations. The only power that that aided was the British. So the U.S. was effectively acting as an Atlantic Ocean reconnaissance force for the British, and the Germans were very aware of that.

As the months went on, particularly through 1941, contact and conflict were inevitable between the U.S. Navy and German submarines, particularly. Eventually, something that historians have called “the undeclared war” broke out, which was essentially a naval war at sea. The U.S. had its ships on patrol all the way to within just a few hundred miles of Europe. The U.S. occupied Iceland in the summer of 1941, and this was within the German-declared war zone, so effectively, the U.S. was sending its military personnel and its ships back and forth through U-boat-infested waters and inevitably, attacks took place. Already in April 1941, there was the first U.S. Navy ship encounter with a German U-boat – eight months before Pearl Harbor. In May 1941, U.S. pilots were sent to fly with the RAF, ostensibly to train the British pilots on American-made planes. A plane is a plane; after a couple of hours, you know how to fly the thing. But these American pilots stayed on for months, flying for the RAF. An American pilot spotted and was nearly shot down by the Bismarck, but kept it in sight and eventually the British came in and sank the battleship. These were all elements of active combat that U.S. forces were in months and months before Pearl Harbor. And yet, while these military encounters and this extension of U.S. forces were going on under the command of FDR, the U.S. was debating whether it would go to war at all.

You have this very fraught situation in which you have tens of thousands of people coming out for anti-war, anti-intervention rallies around the country. You have a Congress filled with isolationists. At the very moment when Churchill and Roosevelt were sort of sealing the Atlantic Charter, basically setting forth the mission of a world in which the Nazis were defeated – effectively, a declaration of war by the United States – at that very moment, the U.S. Congress, by literally one vote, agreed to continue to permit conscription. The U.S. draft army was almost ended.

So, you have this incredible struggle going on, effectively over what the future of the entire planet would be. On the one hand, you have FDR and his backers, in early 1941, who were absolutely convinced that Hitler would have to be defeated, and you have, by and large, the American people who wanted nothing to do with it.


Q: FDR is a controversial figure for American Jews, who both supported him at the polls and cursed him for not doing enough to save European Jewry from the Holocaust. After writing this book, what is your opinion of FDR?

A: I think FDR is an incredibly admirable person: as a president, he was a great leader, he was a person who had his heart in the right place. He was a realist and he was a pragmatic politician. There were certain issues that he was willing to lead on and there were issues he was willing to deceive on. He said, “I will lie in order to achieve victory.” He did what he felt he needed to do, what he felt was right for the country and for the world. At the same time, the fate of the Jews was something that he personally had little concern about. Certainly later in the war, when it was quite clear that the extermination camps were operating, there were things that could have been done to reduce the death toll. He had a State Department that was dominated by antisemites. One of them in particular, Breckinridge Long, clearly made efforts to prevent immigration by Jewish refugees.

There was concern that if this was seen as a war to save the Jews the American people wouldn’t support it. There was certainly good cause for FDR to be concerned about that. That’s a side of his realism: he wanted to save the world’s democracies but if it was perceived as a war to save the Jews, he might have lost the opportunity to save the world’s democracies.

On the other hand, throughout 1941, FDR had a kind of Hamlet outlook about him: he understood that the U.S. was going to need to go to war, and yet he insisted that the American people were going to have to push him into the war. So for much of 1941, he was in the process of creating incidents … so that the American people would become aroused and say, “We’re being attacked. We’ve got to go to war.” But he said, “I will not fire the first shot.” We didn’t declare war on Germany until after they had declared war on us. If it were plausible that Britain and the Soviet Union alone, with our material aid, could have defeated Hitler, I think Roosevelt would have continued on that line.


Q: In the book, you talk at length about journalist Philip Johnson, who would go on to become an acclaimed architect, and his admiration for Hitler. How did Johnson develop his political outlook and how did he overcome that stigma in his professional life?

A: I think that Johnson’s Nazi past was largely hidden in plain sight. People in the architecture profession, by and large, have been aware of that past, but he was able to bury it and move on. He was obviously very talented, he was tremendously influential, and some people say he made amends for what he did: he designed Kneses Tifereth Israel, a synagogue in Port Chester, N.Y. and he designed the Soreq Nuclear Research Center in Israel, and I believe he did both without taking a fee. He was also well-known for advancing the careers of many architects, including a number of them who were Jewish, among them, Robert Stern, the out-going dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

I think that, simply, he was a shape-shifter and he could vary his approaches to architecture and to politics almost at break-neck speed.

Johnson came from a philosophical background that valued power and didn’t really have a sense of firm morality as such. The world was in terrible disarray: Europe, like the United States, was politically in an upheaval and in deep turmoil, and there was a great deal of violence. For Johnson, like for many people, to see a powerful figure like Hitler come in and take society and reorganize it to suit his will was the fulfillment of a philosophical vision.

Johnson certainly was not alone. People like Charles Lindbergh saw in what Hitler was doing in Germany a great advance on society. Hitler was protecting something that they valued, which was a kind of Western white elite outlook against these foreign, often alien presences. Lindbergh, in particular, was in real fear of the Slavic people and Asians. Johnson shared some of that same outlook that, through this strong man coming to dominate and organize the world, the things that he valued could be protected. I think Johnson was also very attracted to Hitler’s gargantuan, monumental architectural vision.


Q: What lessons can we learn for today re: intervention, immigration?

A: We think of our times now as so ideologically riven and so full of violence and war. Relative to what our parents and grandparents were going through, we live in calm, peaceful days, and I think it’s important to try to keep that in mind. In times of great conflict and worries and fear, we tend to close our doors on people who are essentially the victims of conflict and war. We should remember the price that was paid – not just by the Jews, but in particular by the Jews – as we think about the people who are seeking safety and asylum. We also need to keep in mind that we live in a world in which we have an important role to play and that we, as a nation, have a tendency at times of economic difficulty in particular to want to turn our back on the world. … The world doesn’t go away just because we back away from the responsibilities that we have taken on and the conflicts don’t end and they will eventually come to harm us if we are not active participants in the world.


Book launch with author Marc Wortman: Tuesday, April 19, 7 p.m., at JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Rd., Woodbridge. For information: (203) 387-2522, ext. 300, jccnh.org.


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