Our Own Democracy Is Threatened

With Adolf Hitler continuing his Nazi advance across Europe and threatening to topple Britain, Senator James F. Byrnes, a Democrat from South Carolina, took to the airwaves to join the debate over America’s potential involvement in the war. Byrnes said that Britain stood on the brink of collapse at the hands of Germany. If defeat were to occur there, he said, the United States would be the last defender of democracy and an almost certain target for Hitler. He advocated a bill providing aid to Britain, arguing that this bill would help that nation continue its fight against Germany and keep the war in Europe. If England were to fall, he said, war would be upon the United States, whether its citizens wished it or not.

Summary Overview

With Adolf Hitler continuing his Nazi advance across Europe and threatening to topple Britain, Senator James F. Byrnes, a Democrat from South Carolina, took to the airwaves to join the debate over America’s potential involvement in the war. Byrnes said that Britain stood on the brink of collapse at the hands of Germany. If defeat were to occur there, he said, the United States would be the last defender of democracy and an almost certain target for Hitler. He advocated a bill providing aid to Britain, arguing that this bill would help that nation continue its fight against Germany and keep the war in Europe. If England were to fall, he said, war would be upon the United States, whether its citizens wished it or not.

Defining Moment

Two decades after the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, Germany—identified in the Versailles treaty as the main aggressor in that conflict—looked to reemerge from under the punitive economic, military, and political sanctions imposed upon it by that treaty. Germans did so by embracing the nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic ideals and policies of Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Upon assuming power in 1933, Hitler launched a domestic campaign to purify the German race by ridding the country of non-German elements (such as Jews, Gypsies or Romanies, and Eastern Europeans), and he looked to expand Germany’s geographic domain to accommodate his plan for the expansion of the German people as a master race to rule over Europe.

Hitler’s efforts on this latter front began with sending troops into the Rhineland (a region of western Germany that had been demilitarized under the Versailles treaty) and peacefully annexing Austria. In 1939, the Nazis moved into Czechoslovakia and then Poland, which prompted France, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia to declare war; rapid German invasions of Finland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg followed. In June of 1940, France capitulated to Germany, and pro-Germans French officials installed a puppet government based in Vichy. Meanwhile, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini led his own troops into the African nation of Ethiopia. On the other side of the world, Japan (which would ultimately join forces with Hitler and Mussolini) invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria, setting up a puppet government there and advancing both toward Beijing and into the South Pacific.

With virtually every corner of the world save the Western Hemisphere living under wartime conditions, nations looked to one another for alliances, partnerships, and aid. After France fell to Hitler, the last viable opponent for Germany was Great Britain (Russia, to the east, had entered into a nonaggression pact with Germany in 1939). British prime minister Winston Churchill launched a major public-relations campaign designed to convince the United States to support his nation against Germany. German bombers, meanwhile, began sorties over London and other key targets in England in the Battle of Britain during the fall of 1940. Offshore, German U-boats, or submarines, started sinking merchant ships en route from the United States to British ports.

Chastened from World War I, the United States remained on the sidelines. A majority of Americans simply felt that the growing crisis in Europe was not their concern. Neutrality, they felt, was the best course of action. Although the isolationists prevailed in the 1930s, as the war progressed, a growing number of Americans advocated for greater participation, even if it meant American troops landing in Europe. At the core of the interventionist position was the notion that democracy itself was in jeopardy and that, if Britain were to fall, a very real and imminent threat to the United States and its democratic institutions existed. On January 17, 1941, South Carolina senator Joseph F. Byrnes took to the airwaves to expound on this point and advocate for American support for Britain.

Author Biography

James Francis Byrnes was born on May 2, 1882, in Charleston, South Carolina. Educated in public schools, Byrnes did not attend college, but became a court stenographer in 1900 in the South Carolina Second Circuit Court in Aiken. In 1908, he became the solicitor for the Second Circuit, holding that post until 1910, when he was elected to the US House of Representatives. After six terms, Byrnes ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1925. In 1930, he ran again, this time successfully. Byrnes held his seat until 1942, when he was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be director of the Office of War Mobilization. After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Byrnes was appointed President Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1947. In 1951, Byrnes was elected governor of South Carolina. He retired in 1955 and died on April 4, 1972.

Historical Document

THERE is nothing altruistic about the determination of the United States to aid those nations now defending themselves against the forces of aggression. We are moved by reasons more impelling. We know that our own Democracy is menaced by the forces that now seek to destroy those Democracies across the Atlantic. One conquest only whets the dictators’ desire for more power. If Great Britain falls, the United States will stand practically alone on the brink of the precipice.

Because of the threat against the security of this nation and hemisphere, a Bill providing aid for Great Britain, drafted not in the White House, but in the Congress, has been introduced. It is apparent that it will meet the opposition of many of those persons and groups who opposed lifting the embargo in 1939, and opposed drafting an Army in 1940.

They argue that the Bill gives to the President too much power. If speed were not essential, we might proceed differently. We might have Congress pass separately upon each step in the granting of aid. But there are four hundred and thirty-five members of the House and ninety-six members of the Senate. From our experience, we know that what is called legitimate debate would cause Congress to consume from thirty to forty-five days in passing each Bill. These delays would be beneficial to Hitler. They might be disastrous to us.

If power must be lodged with some person, certainly those of us who believe in Democracy can agree that it should been trusted to the person recently selected by a majority of the voters of this country to be President and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy.

Over the radio and from platforms, it is argued that it is none of our business whether Britain stands or falls. If this be true, then it was inexcusable for the Congress to draft men for the Army in time of peace, and unanimously to appropriate millions of dollars for equipment and for a two-ocean Navy.

Let us face the facts. The reason we are feverishly working to provide an Army and Navy is to defend ourselves against the Axis powers. If we could be certain that Britain would defeat Hitler we could and would stop appropriating money for military purposes. But we cannot be certain of it. We are certain only that each day Britain holds Hitler we are better able to defend America. If Britain can hold Hitler for a year, we can hold him forever. Self preservation, therefore, demands that we now give Britain aid instead of sympathy.

Well meaning people believe that by wishing war away, they can keep war away. Not one of the nations whose people today lie crushed beneath the German war machine wanted war. In the Fall of 1937, I was in Germany. I saw more men in uniform than I had seen since 1918. In many cities I saw marching troops, generally singing, “Germany Over All.” In Berlin I witnessed the first blackout rehearsal against air raids. On the streets of London three days later

I saw a peace parade. Instead of guns the marchers carried banners, with such inscriptions as “We did not raise our boys for cannon fodder”, “Beware of warmongers”, “Peace on Earth.” They were carried by sincere peace-loving people. But while the British prayed for peace, Hitler prepared for war. As a result, today the women of Britain lift their eyes to the skies in fear as well as prayer, and instead of casualties among soldiers, we read of the slaughter of women and children.

There is another group of people who believe that we can rely upon the statement of Hitler that he has no dreams of world conquest. But we cannot forget a long and gory list of broken pledges.

On September 26, 1938, Hitler, speaking of Poland, said: “We are all determined and also convinced that our agreement will bring about lasting and continuous pacification. We are two peoples. They shall live.”

Less than one year after he made that statement, Hitler ordered his war machine to crush Poland.

On the same day that he discussed Germany’s relations with Poland, Hitler said: “We have guaranteed to all contiguous neighbors the inviolability of their territory so far as Germany is concerned. This is not a phrase—that is our sacred will.… We want nothing of France, absolutely nothing.”

Less than two years later, France lay prostrate beneath Hitler’s merciless heel.

On two different occasions Hitler reassured uneasy neighbors with these words: “The new Reich has endeavored to continue the traditional friendship with Holland.… We have given guarantees for the states in the West.”

On the morning of May 10, 1940, Hitler’s legions invaded Belgium and The Netherlands.

On October 6, 1939, Hitler issued a message designed to reassure other neighbors of Germany. He said: “Germany has concluded non-aggression pacts with the Baltic States. Her interests there are exclusively of an economic character.”

Every Baltic State that has not yet been invaded today fears invasion.

In the face of such evidence what nation could be so gullible as to believe in the sincerity of the totalitarian leadership? Helpless nations lie along the trail of Hitler’s broken promises and violated pledges.

Great Britain is sorely pressed. But Great Britain fights on, and who can say that the gallant spirit of that democracy has not been lifted glorious heights by the realization that other democracies eventually would realize the true significance of the struggle and would come to Britain’s assistance with ships, with planes, with tanks and other material?

Those who oppose this Bill offer one argument that is designed to strike fear into the hearts of American fathers and mothers. They contend that it will cause us to send American youth to fight in Europe. The President and the Congress of the United States have no intention of sending an American expeditionary force to Europe. Even if we were willing to send men, the Military leaders of Britain say they do not want them.

Another argument is that we should not extend aid to Great Britain because that country has owed us large sums of money since the first World War. Greed is an attribute of the dictators, not a part of the creed of democracies. Assuredly Great Britain is in debt to us—but events are proving that we, too, are indebted to Great Britain for having held at bay the madmen who seek, not only wealth, but the power to dominate the World. Free men do not stamp the dollar mark upon their liberty.

Admittedly there is danger in any course we pursue. But if we aid Britain, and the theater of war remains in Europe, our own cities will stand intact, stalwart witnesses to the progress recorded by our way of life. Our citizens will sleep amid the serenity that comes from the realization that no bombs will crash through the roof. Our industrial workers will not find it necessary to abandon their machines and take refuge in bomb-proof shelters. Our children will not crouch in terror while hostile airmen hurl death-dealing explosives at their hiding-places. So long as Great Britain is able to hold Hitler at bay, America can arm and contribute its share to the all-important task of holding him, without suffering any of the ravages of modern war.

On the other hand, if we fail to aid Britain and next Summer the British should succumb to Hitler’s assaults, and the British fleet fall into the hands of Hitler, all this will be changed. With the German fleet in the Atlantic and the Japanese fleet in the Pacific every individual, every institution in this hemisphere, will be in peril. We would stand alone, friendless, in a world ruled by madmen. If that day should come and Hitler’s armies invade Canada, there would be among us those who would argue that it was none of our business, and we should not by opposition endanger American lives. If Hitler should invade Mexico they would argue that it was not our war, and that some years ago the Mexican Government was unfriendly to us, just as they today argue that a century and a quarter ago we were at war with Britain. We can credit them with good intentions, but to please them, we cannot sacrifice the lives and the liberties of the American people.

Democracy was born because men wearied of tyranny. Liberty was won because men were willing to offer their lives on freedom’s altar. We have built on this continent a democratic citadel, wherein free men may dwell. This citadel was conceived by men who loved freedom, who consecrated their lives to its achievement, and it has been handed down to men who cherish their heritage.

Democracies have demonstrated over and over again that they can live and let live. They cherish and foster the spirit of neighborliness. They are committed to the theory that a small, God-fearing democracy has as much right to exist unmolested as has its larger neighbor. Might does not mean right in the democratic code of ethics. Democracies cannot be motivated by greed and remain democracies.

Dictators are innately selfish. Greed is their motivating force. Hitler has declared they cannot ever reconcile themselves with nations of different conceptions of Government. Dictators cannot live at peace with each other. It is merely a sinister coincidence that the countries now united in aggression against the democracies are fighting side by side. Under other conditions they might be at each other’s throats. Two tyrannical hearts cannot beat as one when interests are at variance. Nor can they live together amicably when spoils are to be divided. Should the democracies fall, the dictators will fight among themselves to determine who shall reign supreme. The death of democracy will in reality mean the birth of chaos.

The blood of heroic Americans need not be shed. Humming machines in American factories can and will enable Britain to hold the enemy and give us time to arm. This is a cause in which capital and labor can unite whole-heartedly. This is a cause which can be won if America does its duty.

All democracies made the same error while this storm was gathering. All of us delayed too long in perfecting our defenses. Many nations are paying in bondage for this error. Great Britain was unprepared, but the sheer heroism of its people has stood off Hitler’s armies for long months. We cannot let Great Britain down. If we do—Hitler may never let us up.


altruistic: unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others

precipice: a situation of great peril; a cliff with a vertical or overhanging face.

inviolability: incapable of being violated; incorruptible; prohibiting violation; secure from destruction, violence, infringement, or desecration

stalwart: strong and brave; valiant; strongly and stoutly built

citadel: any strongly fortified place; stronghold

Document Analysis

Byrnes uses his radio address to make clear to his listeners that a grave threat is facing the United States. Great Britain is the last defense against the growing power of Adolf Hitler’s military, he argues. It is imperative that the United States recognize this threat and act quickly to combat Germany, he says. The bill he has sponsored, Byrnes says, would empower Britain to continue its fight against the Nazis as well as keep the war in Europe. If Britain falls, however, the next target for Hitler would be the United States, and Germany’s dictator would stop at nothing to destroy America’s democratic ideals, he warns.

Byrnes argues that Great Britain is on the brink of defeat at the hands of Germany. Each time Nazi Germany defeats an enemy, he says, victory only whets Hitler’s appetite for new conquests. With France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and other nations falling to the German blitzkrieg, Britain represents the last undefeated American ally in Europe. There is a very real threat posed by Germany, he says—once Britain is defeated, it stands to reason that the United States would be Hitler’s next target.

It is therefore essential that Congress pass a bill to give Britain the aid and supplies it needs to combat Hitler’s forces, Byrnes argues. Any delay in passage only works to Germany’s advantage and would prove “disastrous” to the United States. Byrnes acknowledges that isolationists would argue against such a measure, as they had opposed lifting the embargo on aid to any European war combatants (the Neutrality Acts passed in the 1930s). Even in the face of isolationism, however, Congress has been able to reinstate the draft, along with funding measures to create a “two-ocean” navy. Byrnes says that these accomplishments illustrate leaders’ shared—if understated—fear of a threat of war against Germany.

The facts, Byrnes says, speak for themselves. The Axis powers had advanced throughout Europe. Hitler, Byrnes argues, was always preparing for war, even when the rest of the world looked to reestablish peace after World War I. Hitler had told nations like Poland that he wanted to coexist peacefully, then followed such promises with invasion and occupation. One by one, European nations had fallen victim to the Nazi war machine, Byrnes says, and the current battleground is Britain. British troops and civilians were fighting gallantly and proudly, he adds, and have not even asked the United States to send troops—only supplies and material aid.

Of course, Byrnes acknowledges, there is a concern that American troops could be called into service. Then again, there is also a much greater concern that American cities, factories, and infrastructure will become the target of German bombers once Britain falls. With the Atlantic dominated by the German Navy and the Pacific controlled by the Japanese, the walls would close in on the United States.

This threat is very real, he adds, but can be addressed by bolstering British aid. Doing so will help the British push back against the Nazis, keeping them contained on the European continent. The British are bravely continuing the fight against Hitler’s onslaught. The United States, Byrnes argues, should reward their bravery by giving Britain aid. If the United States does not do so, the threat of democracy’s collapse at the hands of dictatorship would become a reality, Byrnes says.

Essential Themes

By the fall of 1941, there was an ongoing and often heated debate in the United States over whether or not the country should in some way—either by supplying allies or sending American troops—break its neutrality regarding the growing war in Europe. As demonstrated in this radio broadcast, Senator James Byrnes believed the answer was yes, as war was on America’s doorstep. It was time, he believed, for the United States to take quick and reasonable steps to stop Hitler’s advance by providing aid and supplies to Great Britain.

Throughout his address, Byrnes argued that Hitler had an unquenchable thirst for conquest—from the start, he had looked to accomplish his international political goals through war. Germany had already defeated France and Poland, along with many other nations, and had its focus on Britain. Byrnes believed that once Britain fell, Germany would next threaten the United States. Americans, he suggested, appreciated this threat, even if they were not fully concious of that appreciation—they had allowed for the country’s defense budget to grow significantly and for the reinstatement of the draft even before Hitler’s blitzkrieg was launched westward. Byrnes insisted it was time to take an important further step in addressing this threat.

Byrnes acknowledged that Americans were fearful of the idea of intervention in Europe. He advised his listeners that a much greater fear existed that American cities and factories would become the targets of German bombers. Thus, the United States had to help Great Britain, whose military and civilians fought bravely to defend against and repel Nazi attacks. Success in this arena meant that Hitler would be driven back and contained in Europe. Failure, he said, meant that the Axis powers would continue to advance. Isolationists, Byrnes said, hoped to “wish” away the war; however, he continued, the Axis would not disappear without a fight. Americans could use this legislation to support Britain—the last viable American ally in Europe—and avoid sending troops. Otherwise, they could wait until Britain fell and directly face the Nazis and Japanese when they moved, undeterred, closer to the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • “Byrnes, James Francis, (1882–1972).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. US Congress, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
  • “James F. Byrnes Room.” Clemson Libraries. Clemson University, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
  • Kelly, Anthony. “Taking the Blitz to America.”History Today 62.6 (2012): 21–27. Print.
  • Whittington-Egan, Richard. “The Blitz Revisited.”Contemporary Review 288.1681 (2006): 250–51. Print.
  • “World War II Timeline.” National Geographic. Natl. Geographic Soc., 2001. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.