F.D.R.: There Will Be No Blackout of Peace in America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In September 1939, the rising threat against American allies in Europe and China prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rethink the perceived benefits of the so-called Neutrality Acts passed earlier in the decade. Roosevelt concluded that the language contained in the acts failed to distinguish between the aggressors and the victims of the aggressors in conflicts such as the one that was developing. Such vagueness, he argued, gave a passive form of aid to aggressors such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. Therefore, Roosevelt delivered a message to a joint session of Congress, calling for the repeal of the Neutrality Acts and replacing them with a return to the much clearer tenets of international law. Such a move, he argued, would better position the United States and others to address the threats at hand and promote peace in the European and Pacific theaters.

Summary Overview

In September 1939, the rising threat against American allies in Europe and China prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rethink the perceived benefits of the so-called Neutrality Acts passed earlier in the decade. Roosevelt concluded that the language contained in the acts failed to distinguish between the aggressors and the victims of the aggressors in conflicts such as the one that was developing. Such vagueness, he argued, gave a passive form of aid to aggressors such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. Therefore, Roosevelt delivered a message to a joint session of Congress, calling for the repeal of the Neutrality Acts and replacing them with a return to the much clearer tenets of international law. Such a move, he argued, would better position the United States and others to address the threats at hand and promote peace in the European and Pacific theaters.

Defining Moment

Over a decade after the Treaty of Versailles brought an end to World War I, Germany reemerged from its crippled economic and political state under the nationalistic fervor of new chancellor Adolf Hitler. Upon assuming power in 1933, Hitler set about his long-stated goals of expanding Germany's geographic domain. He began by sending troops into the Rhineland, a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, and annexing Austria. In March 1939, the Nazis moved from the Sudetenland into the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by Poland in September. Several years earlier, fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini had sent his own troops into Ethiopia, and the Italian occupation was ongoing. The Spanish Civil War had ended in early 1939 with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, bringing dictator Francisco Franco to power. On the other side of the world, prior to joining forces with Germany and Italy, Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1933 and by the latter 1930s was using its puppet state there to advance both toward Beijing (a close trading partner of Europe and the United States) and into the South Pacific.

Weary from World War I and still reeling from the Great Depression, the United States remained on the sidelines. A majority of Americans felt that the growing crisis was a European matter and that neutrality was the better course of action. The prevailing opinion was that the United States should eschew offering any support to any of the combatants and instead focus on ensuring its own security and integrity and that of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. This attitude was bolstered by the Neutrality Act of 1935, which was introduced after a congressional panel concluded that the United States was drawn into World War I because it had offered support to its European allies. The Neutrality Act, and its subsequent amendments throughout the decade, placed a strict embargo on any supplies or aid sent to any of the combatants of the 1939 war.

Although the isolationists prevailed in the 1930s, a growing number of Americans advocated for greater participation in the war, even if this meant American troops landing in Europe. At the core of the interventionists' collective philosophies was the notion that democracy was in jeopardy and that if traditional allies such as Great Britain and France were to fall, the United States and its democratic institutions would then face a very real and imminent threat to its continued existence.

On Capitol Hill, debate began over whether the Neutrality Act was both hampering the United States' ability to defend its interests abroad and undermining the president's authority regarding the country's security. Rumors and rhetoric dominated the country. In June 1939, Roosevelt, himself under the impression that the war in Europe had tremendous implications for American interests, went on a CBS radio program to give clarity to the US position on the war.

Author Biography

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated from Harvard College in 1903 and began studying law at Columbia University. Although he did not finish his law degree, Roosevelt passed the bar exam in New York and practiced law before being elected as a state senator in 1910. Because of his strong leadership and organizational skills, he was appointed assistant secretary of the navy by President Woodrow Wilson, a post he held from 1913 until 1920.

In 1921, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio, a crippling disease that limited his mobility. Nevertheless, he was elected governor of New York in 1928 and reelected in 1930. In 1932, he was elected president of the United States. As a presidential term limit was not instituted until 1951, he was reelected three times, making him the longest-serving president in US history. During his four terms in office, Roosevelt oversaw the country's recovery from the Great Depression and its military participation during most of World War II. He died in office on April 12, 1945, after suffering a stroke while on vacation in Georgia.

Historical Document

TONIGHT my single duty is to speak to the whole of America. Until 4:30 o'clock this morning I had hoped against hope that some miracle would prevent a devastating war in Europe and bring to an end the invasion of Poland by Germany.

For four long years a succession of actual wars and constant crises have shaken the entire world and have threatened in each case to bring on the gigantic conflict which is today unhappily a fact.

It is right that I should recall to your minds the consistent and at times successful efforts of your government in these crises to throw the full weight of the United States into the cause of peace. In spite of spreading wars I think that we have every right and every reason to maintain as a national policy the fundamental moralities, the teachings of religion and the continuation of efforts to restore peace—for some day, though the time may be distant, we can be of even greater help to a crippled humanity.

It is right, too, to point out that the unfortunate events of these recent years have been based on the use of force or the threat of force. And it seems to me clear, even at the outbreak of this great war, that the influence of America should be consistent in seeking for humanity a final peace which will eliminate, as far as it is possible to do so, the continued use of force between nations.

It is, of course, impossible to predict the future. I have my constant stream of information from American representatives and other sources throughout the world. You, the people of this country, are receiving news through your radios and your newspapers at every hour of the day.

You are, I believe, the most enlightened and the best-informed people in all the world at this moment. You are subjected to no censorship of news, and I want to add that your government has no information which it has any thought of withholding from you.

At the same time, as I told my press conference on Friday,it is of the highest importance that the press and the radio use the utmost caution to discriminate between actual verified fact on the one hand and mere rumor on the other.

I can add to that by saying that I hope the people of this country will also discriminate most carefully between news and rumor. Do not believe of necessity everything you hear or read. Check up on it first.

You must master at the outset a simple but unalterable fact in modern foreign relations. When peace has been broken anywhere, peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.

It is easy for you and me to shrug our shoulders and say that conflicts taking place thousands of miles from the continental United States, and, indeed, the whole American Hemisphere, do not seriously affect the Americas, and that all the United States has to do is to ignore them and go about our own business.

Passionately though we may desire detachment, we are forced to realize that every word that comes through the air, every ship that sails the sea, every battle that is fought does affect the American future.

Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and with American policy.

This will be followed by a proclamation required by the existing Neutrality Act. I trust that in the days to come our neutrality can be made a true neutrality.

It is of the utmost importance that the people of this country, with the best information in the world, think things through. The most dangerous enemies of American peace are those who, without well-rounded information on the whole broad subject of the past, the present and the future, undertake to speak with authority, to talk in terms of glittering generalities, to give to the nation assurances or prophecies which are of little present or future value.

I, myself, cannot and do not prophesy the course of events abroad—and the reason is that because I have of necessity such a complete picture of what is going on in every part of the world, I do not dare to do so. And the other reason is that I think it is honest for me to be honest with the people of the United States.

I cannot prophesy the immediate economic effect of this new war on our nation but I do say that no American has the moral right to profiteer at the expense either of his fellow-citizens or of the men, women and children who are living and dying in the midst of war in Europe.

Some things we do know. Most of us in the United States believe in spiritual values. Most of us, regardless of what church we belong to, believe in the spirit of the New Testament—a great teaching which opposes itself to the use of force, of armed force, of marching armies and falling bombs. The overwhelming masses of our people seek peace —peace at home, and the kind of peace in other lands which will not jeopardize peace at home.

We have certain ideas and ideals of national safety and we must act to preserve that safety today and to preserve the safety of our children in future years.

That safety is, and will be, bound up with the safety of the Western Hemisphere and of the seas adjacent thereto. We seek to keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas.

For that we have historic precedent that goes back to the days of the administration of President George Washington.

It is serious enough and tragic enough to every American family in every State in the Union to live in a world that is torn by wars on other continents. Today there affect every American home. It is our national duty to use every effort to keep them out of the Americas.

And at this time let me make the simple plea that partnership and selfishness be adjourned; and that national unity be the thought that underlies all others.

This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.

I have said not once but many times that I have seen war and that I hate war. I say that again and again.

I hope the United States will keep out of this war. I believe that it will. And I give you assurances that every effort of your government will be directed toward that end.

As long as it remains within my power to prevent it, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.

Document Analysis

Roosevelt begins by telling listeners that war did indeed come to Europe when German troops arrived in Poland. This war is not a mere regional conflict between a few states with interests in Poland, he argues, but a major conflict that affects every nation, regardless of its geographic distance from the battlefield. Americans cannot simply “shrug [their] shoulders” and dismiss the war as an issue that will not affect the Western Hemisphere, he says. He acknowledges that every American, including Roosevelt himself, abhors the idea of war and wishes that it would not come to the shores of the United States. However, he points out, the geography of the European conflict does not minimize the potential threat facing Americans; when peace in one region has been broken, he says, “peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”

Roosevelt next addresses the issue of American neutrality. He warns Americans not to believe rumors, misinformation, and rhetoric without first gathering all the facts, reminding his audience that they have the benefit of news that is free from censorship or propaganda, as well as a transparent government that they themselves control. In light of the freedom and rights established for every citizen in the Constitution, Roosevelt says, Americans can and should expect that information about the war will be shared as soon as it is received. Among the issues about which he believes Americans should be fully informed is the nation's long-standing policy of neutrality. Many parties, he warns, might suggest that the invasion of Poland should induce the United States to forgo its neutrality and involve itself in the conflict. Roosevelt says that he and his administration continue to be bound by the Neutrality Act and that it is his expectation that the United States will be able to remain neutral as the war continues.

Despite this, Roosevelt acknowledges that he cannot say with certainty that the war will remain in Europe and that the United States can continue to remain on the sidelines. Such matters are unpredictable and subject to frequent change. Still, he says, the United States should continue to advocate for peace while preparing for the possibility of war, and it is the “national duty” of the country and its citizens to do their part to keep the war away from their coastlines. In the meantime, he promises, he and the rest of the government will continue to be a constant proponent of peace and international law during a period of widespread war.

Essential Themes

Roosevelt's address came two days after the German military swept into Poland, an act that would inevitably start a major international war. The purpose of the radio speech was twofold. First, Roosevelt looked to emphasize the significance of this war—namely, that it indeed had implications for the United States, even if it was taking place across the Atlantic Ocean. Second, he looked to position his administration and the American government as an unbiased resource for truth about the war and the United States' position regarding the conflict.

Because his address took place two days after the invasion of Poland and immediately after Great Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand had declared war on Germany, President Roosevelt took to the airwaves during a period of enormous uncertainty and fear. Roosevelt warned every American not to dismiss the significance of the war or its implications for the United States. He said that the country would continue to remain true to its stated neutral position, but the unpredictable nature of war prevented him from making certain statements about future policy.

While most Americans had previously dismissed the coming war as a purely European affair, Roosevelt said, it was time to accept the fact that the war affected the United States too, as any threat to international peace was a threat to all nations throughout the world. The invasion of Poland had thrown the international community into near chaos, and Roosevelt warned that the subsequent declaration of war would almost certainly generate an atmosphere of rhetoric and propaganda. He assured Americans that he and his administration would continue to respect the open and honest principles of information dissemination enshrined in the Constitution. Roosevelt promised Americans that he would continue to proclaim the nation's neutrality and comply with the Neutrality Act. However, the unpredictability of war meant that the United States might be forced to abandon this policy in the future. In the interim, Roosevelt said, the United States should continue to embrace and advocate for international peace, in accordance with its “spiritual values” and “the spirit of the New Testament.”

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Natl. Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
  • Burns, James MacGregor, and Susan Dunn. The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.
  • Crawford, Kenneth G. “Goodby Neutrality.” Nation 15 Apr. 1939: 423–24. Print.
  • Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey. “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” WhiteHouse.gov. White House, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
  • Taliaferro, Jeffrey W. “Strategy of Innocence or Provocation? The Roosevelt Administration's Road to World War II.” The Challenge of Grand Strategy: The Great Powers and the Broken Balance between the World Wars. Ed. Taliaferro, Norrin M. Ripsman, and Steven E. Lobell. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. 193–223. Print.
  • “World War II Timeline.” National Geographic. Natl. Geographic Soc., 2001. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
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