Not So Neutral: America’s War Efforts before Pearl Harbor

In November 1941, Demaree Bess argued that it was time for Americans to stop pretending that we were staying out of the war in Europe, because we were already deeply involved.

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Seventy-five years ago, Americans were watching their country heading into a war without declaring war. In 1939, the Neutrality Acts that prohibited the U.S. from supplying arms, ammunition, or financial aid to belligerent countries were replaced by the Lend-Lease agreement, which enabled the U.S. to loan, or give, armaments to Great Britain.

America had become the supply line that enabled Great Britain to resist Hitler, sending billions of dollars of aid in weapons, ships, and other vital needs — hardly the actions of a neutral country.

Yet we were not at war.

The U.S. had also reached an agreement with the government of Greenland to build bases and station troops there to extend America’s protection of Lend-Lease ships. American soldiers were, technically, within a few miles of the war zone.

Yet we were not at war.

In 1940, America had more than a million American men in uniform and being trained in Army camps. Congress approved funding for a 70 percent increase in America’s combat fleet, enough to create a “two-ocean” navy.

Yet we were not at war.

President Roosevelt saw the inevitable threat from the Axis powers but didn’t have enough public support for an official declaration of war. Nonetheless, as Demaree Bess points out in “Put Up or Shut Up” — published just two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor — the U.S. had been deeply involved in the war for a while, and it was time for Americans to stop pretending otherwise.

Put Up Or Shut Up

By Demaree Bess

Excerpted from an article originally published Nov. 22, 1941

My work in Europe was to cover the war there as a reporter for The Saturday Evening Post. I stress that word reporter because there are not too many of us left. Some of the foremost American newspaper and magazine writers have been transformed by events, or by their personal convictions, into propagandists. It is not for me to criticize them: a man who becomes converted to any cause is privileged to propagandize on its behalf.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the American people today could use more reporting and less propaganda. The function of a propagandist is to present his cause in the best possible light, while the function of a reporter is to get the facts. In search of the facts, I have covered both sides of this war as thoroughly as it was possible for me to do. I have visited both England and Germany during each of the three war years: 1939, 1940, and 1941. I watched the German army enter Paris, and since that time I have visited practically every country on the continent.

I mention these experiences because they are my credentials. Whatever information I possess has not been obtained by remote control from “secret sources” or mysterious documents or “confidential reports” to Hitler or Churchill. The only facts in my possession are those which I have observed with my own eyes or obtained from men on the spot whose judgment I trust. The only bias of which I am conscious is a pro-American bias. It is on this basis that I venture to point out how the war stands in its third winter, and how we Americans stand in relation to it.

The first and foremost fact about the war in Europe, so far as Americans are concerned, is that we are definitely in it. It is only in the United States that any doubts still continue on this matter. Every European, whether he is German or British or neutral, understands well enough that we have adopted the European war as our own, and Europeans are bewildered by evidence that some of us still shirk looking this plain fact in the face.

We Americans can appreciate our position most clearly if we accept, without further equivocation, the fact that no matter how gray this war may be, we have got ourselves into it, for better or for worse. As Hugh Johnson recently pointed out, we have even sent the first unit of our expeditionary force across the ocean to Iceland, where our soldiers are serving in cooperation with the British command.

We have taken too many belligerent actions against Germany to be able, as some of our isolationists still propose, to tell the Nazis, “Let’s forget everything; all we want now is to mind our own business.” No nation can make war its business, as we have done, without being forced to face the consequences of victory or defeat.

Some of our political leaders have repeatedly assured us that we can win the war without actually fighting it. That assurance sounded like a fairy tale when it was first advanced, and it sounds even more fabulous to anyone who, like myself, has just returned from the battlegrounds.

Every move which we have made thus far in this war has served merely to enable other nations to continue to fight on the defensive. It doesn’t seem to be generally known in this country that we have sent most of our warplanes and munitions to the Near East, and not to the British Isles. We have arranged to fly our own planes across the center of Africa, and to send our own munition ships around South Africa into the Red Sea.

But this sort of thing cannot go on forever. The British have accomplished everything which they hoped to do. They have consolidated their defenses in the British Isles, and they have managed to hold and even to extend their defensive positions in the Near East. They have played a waiting game, because they could not do anything else. What were they waiting for? They were waiting for us.

The time is now rapidly approaching when we Americans will have to put up or shut up. That is not an expression of personal opinion or a piece of propaganda; it is a cold fact. This European war, with all its infinite complications and appalling prospects, has been dumped into our laps. We are confronted now with a fact which should have been apparent to us from the outset — that no nation can get itself into a war, as we have done, without expecting to fight that war.

So where does that leave us? It still leaves us the most fortunate people in the world. We are fortunate, in the first place, because the war is not going to ruin us, no matter how it comes out. Whatever our nightmare mongers may tell us, no power or combination of powers can emerge from this cataclysmic conflict in any position to destroy the United States.

We are fortunate, in the second place, because we are the only people who still have a clear voice in shaping our own destiny. All the peoples of Europe already have had their destinies shaped for them, either by their own decisions or by circumstances beyond their control.

We still can choose, but our choice is not so wide as it was in 1939, or even in 1940. Since that time we have got into the European war, and this fact cannot be exorcised by any political hocus-pocus. Our choice today is confined within narrower limits.

From both Germany and Britain the same question will soon be directed to us: “What are you Americans going to do now?” And because of our own actions, we are now restricted to only two possible answers.

We can reply, “We are going to do just what we have been doing, edging bit by bit into the war without getting fully into it.” If that is to be our answer, then we must accept the probability that the war in Europe will end at best in stalemate and at worst in German victory. And since we have openly challenged the Germans, a German victory would mean a humiliating defeat for us.

The only other answer we can make now is, “We are going into an all-out shooting war against Germany.” If that is to be our answer, we must realize that American soldiers probably will go into action first in Africa and Asia, in those Near Eastern regions where American reinforcements will be most urgently required.

If we make this maximum choice, we should understand the price we will have to pay. The cost will be incalculable in both lives and treasure. And we shall have accepted the burdens of Europe, not for a year or a few years, but for generations.

Read the complete article, “Put Up or Shut Up.”

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  1. Of course, this article is correct. We were not neutral; however, we were not ready to officially enter the war. Like other nations, we were militarily depleted by WWI and recovering from the Great Depression. Many Americans still needed to be convinced that America’s interests were served by entering WWII. But we thoroughly supported Great Britain with vast amounts of supplies. Only fringe elements within the U.S. supported the Axis, but it included some well known names. There was no possibility the U.S. would not enter this war. “Neutrality” was almost a laughably technical stance, a fig leaf to buy us some time.

  2. THIS writer keeps saying, Yet, AMERICA was not at WAR”!!! There was a WORLD WAR going on, only a DUMMY would not STRENGTHEN THIER MILITARY!! Where do they find these journalists?? COMMUNITY COLLEGES??


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