Letter from President Roosevelt to Chancellor Adolf Hitler Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On March 15, 1939, Nazi German forces invaded Czechoslovakia, initiating a military campaign that would continue with invasions of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France by the end of 1940. On April 14, 1939, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a message to German chancellor Adolf Hitler, appealing to him to refrain from further aggression. Roosevelt argued that the Nazi expansion threatened to start a new war in Europe, and he called upon Hitler to agree not to attack any other sovereign nation in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. In the interest of the hundreds of millions of people potentially affected by German expansion in Europe, Roosevelt implored Hitler to work with the United States and its allies to promote world peace.

Summary Overview

On March 15, 1939, Nazi German forces invaded Czechoslovakia, initiating a military campaign that would continue with invasions of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France by the end of 1940. On April 14, 1939, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a message to German chancellor Adolf Hitler, appealing to him to refrain from further aggression. Roosevelt argued that the Nazi expansion threatened to start a new war in Europe, and he called upon Hitler to agree not to attack any other sovereign nation in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. In the interest of the hundreds of millions of people potentially affected by German expansion in Europe, Roosevelt implored Hitler to work with the United States and its allies to promote world peace.

Defining Moment

The ascension of Hitler to the role of German chancellor in 1933 (and then Führer, or “leader”) had tremendous implications for the international community. Hitler spoke of rescuing Germany from its crippled post–World War I condition to a strong state that would last for a thousand years. As Hitler created an internal order compliant with his ideology, he also looked outward from the boundaries imposed on his country after World War I, sending troops into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936.

In 1937, Hitler made clear that his ambitions were to expand Nazi Germany well beyond its post–World War I borders. In 1938, Germany annexed Austria, in an event known as Anschluss, protecting Germany on its eastern border. Later that year, the German military moved south, annexing the portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland (whose three million Sudeten Germans supported joining Germany). That move helped topple the democratic Czech government in Prague. With British leadership appeasing Hitler instead of moving forcefully to stop him, Czechoslovakia became part of the Nazi sphere of influence. By 1938, Hitler had also launched his most infamous campaign—the persecution, imprisonment, and finally genocide of Jews that subsequently became known as the Holocaust.

In the United States, Americans expected Roosevelt to focus on the Great Depression rather than on European matters. In addition to the Depression, the devastation of World War I remained on Americans' minds. The majority opposed US intervention against Hitler and Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini (who had invaded and occupied Ethiopia in 1935–36). Despite these political limitations, however, Roosevelt sought to maintain the United States' status as an important transatlantic leader. Many of his speeches focused on the need to support American allies in Europe during the growing crisis. Shortly after Hitler formalized the annexation of Czechoslovakia, Roosevelt looked to build upon his transatlantic policy by directly contacting Hitler in an attempt to end the growing tensions in Europe.

Author Biography

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born on June 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1903 after only three years. After studying law at Columbia University, Roosevelt practiced law in New York before entering politics as a state senator in 1910. Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson, serving in that role from 1913 to 1920. In 1921, he was diagnosed with polio, a crippling disease that limited his mobility. In 1928, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, earning reelection in 1930. In 1932, he won the presidency, gaining reelection three times thereafter, during which time he oversaw the country's recovery from the Great Depression and most of World War II. On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died from a stroke while on vacation in Georgia.

Historical Document

His Excellency Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the German Reich, Berlin, Germany

You realize, I am sure, that throughout the world hundreds of millions of human beings are living today in constant fear of a new war or even a series of wars.

The existence of this fear--and the possibility of such a conflict--are of definite concern to the people of the United States for whom I speak, as they must also be to the peoples of the other nations of the entire Western Hemisphere. All of them know that any major war even if it were to be confined to other continents, must bear heavily on them during its continuance and also for generations to come.

Because of the fact that after the acute tension in which the world has been living during the past few weeks there would seem to be at least a momentary relaxation--because no troops are at this moment on the march--this may be an opportune moment for me to send you this message.

On a previous occasion I have addressed you in behalf of the settlement of political, economic, and social problems by peaceful methods and without resort to arms.

But the tide of events seems to have reverted to the threat of arms. If such threats continue, it seems inevitable that much of the world must become involved in common ruin. All the world, victor nations, vanquished nations, and neutral nations, will suffer. I refuse to believe that the world is, of necessity, such a prisoner of destiny. On the contrary, it is clear that the leaders of great nations have it in their power to liberate their peoples from the disaster that impends. It is equally clear that in theirown minds and in their own hearts the peoples themselves desire that their fears be ended.

It is, however, unfortunately necessary to take cognizance of recent facts.

Three nations in Europe and one in Africa have seen their independent existence terminated. A vast territory in another independent Nation of the Far East has been occupied by a neighboring State. Reports, which we trust are not true, insist that further acts of aggression are contemplated against still other independent nations. Plainly the world is moving toward the moment when this situation must end in catastrophe unless a more rational way of guiding events is found.

You have repeatedly asserted that you and the German people have no desire for war. If this is true there need be no war.

Nothing can persuade the peoples of the earth that any governing power has any right or need to inflict the consequences of war on its own or any other people save in the cause of self-evident home defense.

In making this statement we as Americans speak not through selfishness or fear or weakness. If we speak now it is with the voice of strength and with friendship for mankind. It is still clear to me that international problems can be solved at the council table.

It is therefore no answer to the plea for peaceful discussion for one side to plead that unless they receive assurances beforehand that the verdict will be theirs, they will not lay aside their arms. In conference rooms, as in courts, it is necessary that both sides enter upon the discussion in good faith, assuming that substantial justice will accrue to both; and it is customary and necessary that they leave their arms outside the room where they confer.

I am convinced that the cause of world peace would be greatly advanced if the nations of the world were to obtain a frank statement relating to--the present and future policy of Governments.

Because the United States, as one of the Nations of the Western Hemisphere, is not involved in the immediate controversies which have arisen in Europe, I trust that you may be willing to make such a statement of policy to me as head of a Nation far removed from Europe in order that I, acting only with the responsibility and obligation of a friendly intermediary, may communicate such declaration to other nations now apprehensive as to the course which the policy of your Government may take.

Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions of the following independent nations: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, the Arabias, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iran.

Such an assurance clearly must apply not only to the present day but also to a future sufficiently long to give every opportunity to work by peaceful methods for a more permanent peace. I therefore suggest that you construe the word “future” to apply to a minimum period of assured non-aggression-ten years at the least-a quarter of a century, if we dare look that far ahead.

If such assurance is given by your Government, I shall immediately transmit it to the Governments of the nations I have named and I shall simultaneously inquire whether, as I am reasonably sure, each of the nations enumerated will in turn give like assurance for transmission to you.

Reciprocal assurances such as I have outlined will bring to the world an immediate measure of relief.

I propose that if it is given, two essential problems shall promptly be discussed in the resulting peaceful surroundings, and in those discussions the Government of the United States will gladly take part.

The discussions which I have in mind relate to the most effective and immediate manner through which the peoples of the world can obtain progressive relief from the crushing burden of armament which is each day bringing them more closely to the brink of economic disaster. Simultaneously the Government of the United States would be prepared to take part in discussions looking toward the most practical manner of opening up avenues of international trade to the end that every Nation of the earth may be enabled to buy and sell on equal terms in the world market as well as to possess assurance of obtaining the materials and products of peaceful economic life.

At the same time, those Governments other than the United States I which are directly interested could undertake such political discussions as they may consider necessary or desirable.

We recognize complex world problems which affect all humanity but we know that study and discussion of them must be held in an atmosphere of peace. Such an atmosphere of peace cannot exist if negotiations are overshadowed by the threat of force or by the fear of war.

I think you will not misunderstand the spirit of frankness in which I send you this message. Heads of great Governments in this hour are literally responsible for the fate of humanity in the coming years. They cannot fail to hear the prayers of their peoples to be protected from the foreseeable chaos of war. History will hold them accountable for the lives and the happiness of all--even unto the least.

I hope that your answer will make it possible for humanity to lose fear and regain security for many years to come.

A similar message is being addressed to the Chief of the Italian Government.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT.

Glossary

accrue: to happen or result as a natural growth; to be added as a matter of periodic gain or advantage

cognizance: awareness, realization, or knowledge

impend: to be imminent; about to happen; to threaten or menace

Document Analysis

In 1939, recalling the devastation of World War I, Americans were overwhelmingly against engaging in another major international conflict. Nonetheless, as Hitler and his Nazi German forces continued their expansion efforts, the nations of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East teetered on the brink of war. Limited by American isolationism yet cognizant of the implications of Hitler's actions, President Roosevelt wrote this communication directly to Hitler, appealing for the German leader to halt his campaign, embrace the notion of world peace, and join the international community.

Roosevelt wrote this letter a few weeks after the German annexation of Czechoslovakia but at a time during which it appeared Nazi troops were stationary. Roosevelt hoped his letter would convince Hitler to move no further. The continued advancement of the German military, Roosevelt writes, threatened a large number of sovereign nations on three continents. If Germany continued to show such hostility, Roosevelt warns, his actions would inevitably lead to a second world war.

Roosevelt tells Hitler that he had advised him in the past to pursue his nation's social, political, and economic interests using peaceful means. However, Hitler quite clearly had been utilizing the “threat of arms,” a policy that only promised war. To his credit, Roosevelt says, Hitler had said in the past that he had no desire for Germany to enter another war. However, Czechoslovakia had already lost its sovereignty by force. War, Roosevelt says, was nearly at hand.

Despite Hitler's imperial endeavors, Roosevelt argues that he still has time to change course. By virtue of its geographic isolation from Europe and its official neutrality on European matters, the United States could act as an intermediary and return Hitler's Germany to diplomatic circles. Roosevelt adds that the United States would help Germany address its concerns through the League of Nations instead of through military means. However, Roosevelt cautions, the United States would only be willing to do so if Germany makes certain provisions—specifically, declaring that Germany would not attack the other twenty-four sovereign European and the seven sovereign Middle Eastern nations within Germany's scope of interest. This pledge would cover not only the present but also the foreseeable future, Roosevelt states. In light of the relief this agreement would bring to the region, Germany would undoubtedly be able to negotiate and address interstate issues on the international stage rather than through war. Every major government in Europe, Roosevelt adds, is prepared to vigorously defend their respective citizens from German aggression, and Hitler has the power to avoid such a conflict.

Essential Themes

President Roosevelt and other American leaders did not plan to enter a new European war as long as the United States was not immediately threatened by Hitler and Mussolini. However, Roosevelt also was certain that the country retained status as an international political, economic, and military power. Thus, he believed that US neutrality could prove an effective tool in defusing the crisis in Europe. Therefore, his letter to Hitler contained language that promised Germany fair and equitable treatment if Hitler and Mussolini halted their military campaigns.

Roosevelt's approach to Hitler was tempered but, in his words, “frank.” Hitler's actions had been aggressive and militaristic in nature, and many more sovereign nations, from England to Portugal, the Soviet Union, and Iran potentially lay in Hitler's scope. Roosevelt warned that if Hitler continued down an aggressive path, Europe would suffer physical and economic devastation.

Roosevelt gave Hitler an opportunity to avoid this fate by offering the United States as mediator. Had Hitler agreed to embrace peace, the United States would have been better able to advocate for Germany in the League of Nations. Roosevelt's letter represents the American attempt to quell political and military tensions in Europe during a time that the United States wished to maintain its neutrality, before what became an inevitable war on a global scale.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” WhiteHouse.gov. White House, 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
  • Hauner, Milan. “Could Prague Have Defied Hitler?” World Policy Journal 21.1 (2004): 91–95. Print.
  • MacGregor Burns, James, and Susan Dunn. The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America. New York: Grove, 2002. Print.
  • McCullough, Tony. “FDR as Founding Father of the Transatlantic Alliance: The Roosevelt Doctrine of January 1936.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 8.3 (2010): 224–35. Print.
  • Schoenl, William. “Jung's Evolving Views of Nazi Germany: From 1936 to the End of World War II.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 59.2 (2014): 245–62. Print.
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