February 7, 2024

1941. President Roosevelt Sounds the Alarm on Hitler

Roosevelt Declares a State of Unlimited National Emergency

From LIFE magazine, June 9, 1941, pp. 31-32:



On the day after President Roosevelt's historic East Room broadcast of May 27, a U. S. shortwave listening post heard the BBC in London re-broadcast a recorded excerpt from his speech. Back across 3,000 miles of ocean came the serene voice, the measured diction in which an estimated 85,000,000 people around the world had listened to the night before. It was followed immediately by another voice, shrill, frenzied, guttural, rising and falling in geysers of ungrammatical German as Adolf Hitler addressed a recent Nazi meeting. Then came a third voice, that of the British announcer, saying: "We leave it to you listeners to judge which voice is the voice of calm and strength and which is that of hysterical violence."

As Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie can testify, the quality of a man's voice and speech has much to do with his ability to sway mass emotions. In this respect, President Roosevelt has entered his battle with Adolf Hitler possessed of a mighty weapon. But without ammunition, the biggest of guns is worth nothing. More than voices and perhaps even more than arms, it is ideas which will decide the Roosevelt-Hitler duel.

This week LIFE is able to present in dramatic juxtaposition the ideas with which the President and the Führer are contesting for the minds and hearts of the world, and especially for those of the American people. The immediate issue between them is whether, in the present crisis, Americans shall act with whole-souled vigor and conviction or whether they shall continue to be plagued by what Hitler has named as his weapons: "mental confusion, contradiction of feeling, indecisiveness, panic." Four days before President Roosevelt sounded his stirring call to action from the East Room, LIFE's special correspondent in Europe, ex-Ambassador John Cudahy, went to Berchtesgaden for an exclusive interview. There Hitler presented to him boldly and baldly the ideas with which he hopes to divide, lull and scare the American people into inaction.

As published here, the Hitler interview documents the passage in the President's speech in which he declared: "There is, of course, a small group of sincere patriotic men and women whose real passion for peace has shut their eyes to the ugly realities of international banditry and to the need to resist it at all costs. I am sure they are embarrassed by the sinister support they are receiving from the enemies of democracy in our midst—the Bundists, the Fascists and the Communists. . . . It is no mere coincidence that all the arguments put forward by these enemies of democracy . . . are but echoes of the words that have been poured out from the Axis bureaus of propaganda. Those same words have been used before in other countries—to scare them, to divide them, to soften them up. Invariably, those same words have formed the advance guard of physical attack."


A dozen photographers' floodlights beating down on him from every side of the East Room blinded the President to everything but his microphone-littered desk as he entered the East Room and sat down. After they dimmed, he could see, on the east wall, the portrait of George Washington which Dolly Madison carried away when she fled from the British advancing to burn the White House in 1812. He could also see the pretty faces of two Latin American diplomatic ladies, Señoritas Maria Elena Dávila and Erma Castillo Nájera, niece and daughter of the Mexican ambassador, in the front row of his little audience. The ladies and their escorts were there for a reason. The President had summoned the representatives of the 20 other American republics and of Canada to be present because his speech was to be a supreme warning and appeal for unity to the whole Hemisphere.

Sitting among the diplomats in a blue-gray tulle dress, Mrs. Roosevelt was having some solemn thoughts which she duly reported in her column. "I looked at the President," she wrote. "Like an oncoming wave, the thought rolled over me: 'What a weight of responsibility this one man at the desk, facing the rest of the people, has to carry. Not just for this Hemisphere alone, but for the world as a whole! Great Britain can be gallant beyond belief, but in the end, the decisive factor in this whole business may perhaps be the solidarity of the Hemisphere and, of necessity, the President of the United States must give that solidarity its leadership!'"

For a half hour before broadcast time the President, fortified with cigarettes and ice water and completely at ease, sat at his desk cheerfully submitting to photographers' demands that he look up, look down, smile, read, look solemn. Then, after the guests had filed briefly by for a handshake, came time to speak. In the back row Playwright Robert Sherwood, who with Justice Sam Rosenman had collaborated in writing the speech, nudged Songwriter Irving Berlin each time the President drove home a strong point with a life of his voice and a beat of his clenched left fist. These points:

On Hitler: He definitely intends to conquer the Western Hemisphere.

On defense: To forestall attack, the U. S. must and will take military action without further notice to prevent Germany from acquiring bases in Greenland, Iceland, Dakar, the Azores and Cape Verde Islands.

On freedom of the seas: The U. S. insists on it. All measures necessary to insure delivery of U. S. goods to Britain will be taken.

On duty: All citizens are expected to take loyal part in the common defense from this moment forward.

On arms production: The U. S. Government will use all its powers to see that neither capital nor labor interferes with it.

On war aims: "We will not accept a Hitler-dominated world. And we will not accept a world, like the post-war world of the Nineteen Twenties, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow. We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom."

The President ended by announcing that he had proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency.

It was a strong and stirring speech. But many a listener who clicked off his radio with conviction that the nation was now on a virtual war basis and that action would follow swiftly was bewildered by events of the next few days. No defense strikes were ended. Wheeler, Lindbergh & Co. talked on unhindered. (Said Lindbergh: "If we say our frontier lies on the Rhine, they [the Germans] can say theirs lies on the Mississippi"—which by a strange coincidence was the same geographical figure Hitler employed in his interview with Mr. Cudahy.) The President roused vast excitement by calling a special press conference, only to send reporters away scratching their heads over the purely negative news that he did not intend to order convoys, that despite his insistence on freedom of the seas he did not intend to ask repeal of the Neutrality Act, that his emergency proclamation meant nothing until he implemented it with specific executive orders.

The fact remained, nonetheless, that the President had publicly committed the nation to a fateful course of action, had made plain what he intends to do. How he intends to do it is, as he several times informed the press conference questioners, what Adolf Hitler would like very much to know.