1941: Fighting the Shadow War

As someone interested for nearly seven decades on the Pearl Harbor attack, I am always interested in books that describe the social, political, and economic history of the 1930s and 1940s focusing on the United States and our soon-to-be Allies as well as the Axis powers. Hence, I elected to review Marc Wortman’s 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) with the initial thought that here is just another volume about America’s entry into the World War II. I was wrong.

Wortman attended Brown University, obtained a doctorate from Princeton University, and was a senior editor of Yale University’s alumni magazine. He has published three other books, including The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2006) and, just recently, 1941: Politics, Espionage and the Secret Pact between Churchill and Roosevelt (London: Atlantic Books, 2018). Wortman, who has also taught literature and writing at Princeton University, is characterized as an independent historian and freelance journalist.

The account of America’s entry into the World War II has been told many times previously, commendably in this millennium by a number of academic historians as well as interested laypersons; Wortman himself acknowledges it is “an oft-told story,” p. 1. Many of these authors have undertaken research in newly available declassified archival materials, the personal papers of notable persons from this era, and sometimes conducted enlightening interviews with individuals who witnessed events of this time period. Among the works “competing” with Wortman’s 1941: Fighting the Shadow War (2016) and what might be considered a “companion volume,” 1941: Politics, Espionage and the Secret Pact between Churchill and Roosevelt (2018), are three books by Lynne Olson: Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour (New York: Random House, 2010), and Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (New York: Random House, 2014) – all of which illuminate pre-Pearl Harbor 1941. Other worthy volumes include Michael Fullilove’s Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), and William M. Christie’s 1941: The America That Went to War (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016). Three other books that focus on shorter periods within 1941 are Susan Dunn’s Blueprint for War: FDR and the Hundred Days that Mobilized America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), Craig Shirley’s December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World (New York: Thomas Nelson, 2013), and Evan Mawdsley’s December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

For readers looking for a detailed account of the prewar period in Britain and dealings with the United States should examine the monumental tome by Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). My review of this volume appeared in Naval History Book Reviews 66, March 17, 2017. 6 pp. www.navyhistory.org/2017/03/book-review- britains-war-into-battle-1937-1941/?utm_source=NAVAL+HISTORY+BOOK+REVIEWS+MAR+2017%3A+Volume+66&utm_campaign=NHBR+Vol+66+%28MAR+17%29&utm_medium=email This book provides a better contextual account of  Winston Churchill as a person and the beginning of World War II than several recent Churchill films: “Darkest Hour” (2017) with Oscar winner Gary Oldman in the title role, although “Churchill” (2017) with Brian Cox is notable; there are nearly a dozen motion picture that feature Winston Churchill, see www.ranker.com/list/best-movies-about-winston-churchill/ranker-film

Initially, let me examine Wortman’s approaches to the topic and summarize his views of the period before examining some issues and provide comparisons to other works. Structurally, the book provides a general map of the North and South Atlantic regions illustrating the progressive extension of American naval patrols into the Atlantic and German combat zones; an “Introduction” delineating the time periods September 1, 1939 to December 7, 1941; and 29 numbered chapters of varying length (generally, ca.10-15 pages each, plus an “Epilogue: Rendezvous with Destiny.”  “Acknowledgements” are made to Robert Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948) –  a revised edition appeared two years later; a fellowship from the New York Public Library; and a variety of archival collections that aided in his research: FDR Presidential Library for Roosevelt’s Papers and those of Harry Hopkins; Coe College (Iowa) for the William L. Shirer Papers – Coe was Shirer’s alma mater; Yale University Library for the Charles A. Lindbergh Papers and Henry  L. Stimson Diary; Library of Congress for the Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Papers; Harvard University for the Theodore Roosevelt Collection; the FBI for the Philip Cortelyou Johnson Reports; and National Archives and Records Administration, as well as other archival sources. These are frequently cited primary sources as well as newspapers and periodicals and 18 secondary sources. In addition, Wortman provided “Endnotes” with 340 entries, “Picture Acknowledgments” – there are 19 black-and-white images scattered throughout the narrative, and a 21-page “Index.” A careful examination of the “Acknowledgements” and “Endnotes” indicates clearly that he has carefully consulted archival resources, some of which have only recently become available. The papers of American journalist William L. Shirer, originally a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the International News Service, then hired by Edward R. Murrow for the CBS radio team of journalists known as “Murrow’s Boys,” who was stationed in Germany before the war and later in France and England, are especially informative; see Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (London: Hamish Hamilton, New York: Knopf, 1941) and later editions. Furthermore, the FBI reports on pro-Nazi propagandist Philip Cortelyou Johnson’s activities also help to provide an organizational framework for Wortman’s book.

I’ll not provide a chapter-by-chapter review of each of the 29 chapters – these are individual essays that often move quickly from one topic to another and include flashbacks — but I’ll group and summarize the more significant events on a year to year basis. Wortman provides substantial context so that 1941 isn’t the focus of the narratives until Chapter 12. The reader quickly learns that some American military and political leaders unofficially worked on strategic plans with the Allies against Nazi Germany before 1939 and during the early stages of the European war before America’s entry into the conflict in December 1941. Wortman commences with a discussion of Germany’s invasion of Poland, and the relationships of Johnson’s pro-Nazi stance and Father Charles Edward Coughlin, an anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and pro-Hitler propagandist and harsh critic of FDR. Coughlin founded of the National Union for Social Justice and the Social Justice weekly newspaper. The Kriegsmarine U-30 attack on the liner Athenia and other events led to Churchill’s elevation to Prime Minister and his quest for American destroyers. At that time FDR opposed “aggressor nations” and he gradually shifted to a policy of “aggressive non-belligerence.” Interestingly, both Churchill and Roosevelt as former “Naval Persons,” embraced Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea power Upon History, 1660-1783 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1890; reprinted many times since). The Churchill-Roosevelt coded correspondence during World War II is also a valuable source: 1,161 C to R messages and 788 R to C messages. The recently published David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnow’s The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), does not provide useful insights that Wortman might have missed. In the main, Stalin communicated more than 600 times by coded telegram and letter, but the actual letters have been available since 1957, published by the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Russian and English in 1957. Wortman covers the creation of the Neutrality Zone in the Atlantic and, briefly, the fate of the heavy cruiser Graf Spee in the South Atlantic and Hitler’s Western Atlantic Strategic Mission designed to keep America neutral.

Even with the loss of Paris to the Nazis in early 1940, there was little public support in the United States to enter the war against Germany. William Shirer in Paris actually reported the surrender to America before the German public was informed. Philip Johnson had helped to found the pro-Nazi “American Fellowship Forum” in 1939. During 1939 and 1940, anti-war speeches were made in America by Retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler (1,200 speeches!) and by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (TR’s eldest son). In May 1940 a Canadian, William Stephenson, was dispatched to the United States by British MI6 to establish the British Security Organization (BSO) in America and a British espionage network throughout the Western Hemisphere. Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, worked with him. The BSO was quite successful and influenced the Americans including Robert Sherwood, FDR’s speechwriter.  German industry relied upon South American trans-Atlantic trade and a report to FDR authored by Nelson Rockefeller in August 1940 led to the US establishment of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) which invented a bogus Nazi coup plan in Bolivia to keep the Bolivian government in the Allied sphere. Much more is recounted in the following volumes not cited by Wortman (the Internet references are to my reviews of these volumes):  Sir William Samuel Stephenson The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45 (New York: Fromm International, 1999) H-NET REVIEWS/H-DIPLO (Diplomatic History), 17 pp.  3 December 1999. networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/30102/kolb-stephenson-british-security-coordination-secret-history-british ; María Emilia Paz Salinas Spies: Strategy, Security, and Spies: Mexico and the U.S. as Allies in World War II (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997) H-NET REVIEWS/ PCAACA (Popular Culture and American Culture Associations), 9 pp. 12 June 1998  networks.h-net.org/node/13784/reviews/14025/kolb-paz-strategy-security-and-spies-mexico-and-us-allies-world-war-ii ; Friedrich E. Schuler  Mexico Between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican Foreign Relations in the Age of Lazaro Cardenas, 1934-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998) H-NET REVIEWS/H-PCAACA (Popular Culture and American Culture Associations), 11 pp. 17 October 1998 networks.h-net.org/node/13784/reviews/14054/kolb-schuler-mexico-between-hitler-and-roosevelt-mexican-foreign; and Alan Harris Bath Tracking the Axis Enemy: The Triumph of Anglo-American Naval Intelligence (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1998) H-NET REVIEWS/H-DIPLO (Diplomatic History), 5 pp., 25 June 1999 networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/30092/kolb-bath-tracking-axis-enemy-triumph-anglo-american-naval-intelligence

Wortman moves to a discussion of China, Japan, and America 1937-1940, recounting the USS Panay incident of December 12, 1937 when Japanese bombers and fighters attacked the ship on the Yangtze River in China. The Japanese inference was that America was “reluctant to respond militarily” which strengthened their resolve to conquer China. The Nazis took over Czechoslovakia while the US maintained its neutrality but, at the same time, the British initiated purchasing requests for B-17 bombers. The Blitzkrieg against England and the U-boat wolfpack war in the Atlantic against British-bound convoys convinced Churchill that British maritime losses were “unsustainable,” leading ultimately to the so-called “Lend-Lease Act” (interestingly designated HR-1776: “An Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States”); reviewer’s comment: note the word “Further”) sending 50 old American four-pipe destroyers to England for six bases in then British Caribbean nations. The US also made “gifts” of flying boats and support ships to Britain, not a part of HR-1776. The German and Italians viewed these actions as hostilities against the Axis and might have played a role in the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi cross-Channel invasion of England. The Axis Tripartite Pact added Japan as an Axis ally and the Americans placed a limited embargo on the export of US goods and raw materials to Japan. This was countered by the movement of the US Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and America began a military draft lottery in October 1940. Wortman’s timeline reverts to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and Charles Lindberg’s visit to Germany’s military aviation facilities and his piloting a zeppelin, the Hindenburg – an event covered by newsman Shirer. Lindberg actually thought about moving to Berlin in 1938 but the “time wasn’t right” and he continued his antiwar and pro-Nazi speeches, gave a major “America First Committee” talk in Boston, and wrote an article for the Readers’ Digest (November 1939).

By 1941, the push for American isolationism continued with a campaign initiated to defeat FDR at the polls, but Shirer had just returned to America and began a lecture tour giving pro-FDR lectures in advance of the June publication of Berlin Diary. Propagandist Johnson abandoned his dalliance with fascism and the Third Reich while FDR speeded up aid to the Allies, revised the Neutrality Act, announced the “Four Essential Freedoms,” as America became the “Arsenal of Democracy” (a phrase coined by Harry Hopkins). At the same time America was keeping Britain financially afloat as the UK’s cash reserves were exhausted. Gallup polls supported aiding Britain and the US increased its national defense budget in 1941 by 400%.  FDR established a six-man War Council on April 10. Transatlantic scientific cooperation between America and Britain increased and included the engineering of bomb fuses and purification of uranium – preludes to the creation of the Manhattan Project.

Since September of 1939, more than 70 Axis and Danish ships had been seized in North and South American harbors, and Churchill pleaded for their release and impressment into convoy duty to aid Britain — these were turned over in June. Iceland, a key to North Atlantic defense, was occupied by British and Canadian troops, releasing British forces to fight in Europe. In addition, on April 10, the destroyer USS Niblack on its way to Reykjavik dropped depth charges on what was thought to be a U-boat (it wasn’t) the same day that FDR expanded the Neutrality Zone eastward to the 26th Meridian. In January Hitler had authorized the planning for Operation Barbarossa –the invasion of Russia – launched on June 22. SS Einsatzgruppen began to round up Communist Party officials, Jews, and other “undesirables” for extermination, and FDR sent Harry Hopkins to Russia to negotiate a Lend-Lease for the new ally.

During the first six months of 1941 on the Axis side in the Atlantic, the Kriegsmarine sank 756 merchant ships and damaged another 1,450. In May, the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sortied into the North Atlantic to intercept convoys and sunk the British battle cruiser Hood and damaged the battleship Prince of Wales. However the Bismarck  itself was later sunk by British torpedo aircraft from Ark Royal following a sea chase – an American “volunteer” piloted a PBY flying boat that assisted in locating Bismarck.

America had been unwilling to “fire the first shot” in the Atlantic conflict but, beginning in April, aviators were joining the “American Volunteer Group” or AVG later renamed “Flying Tigers” under Claire Chennault in China against Japanese invaders. A very long and very informative Chapter 20 details the story of Japanese extremists controlling the army and political machinations against Admiral Yamamoto who was a proponent of naval aviation. The plan to attack Pearl Harbor was initiated on January 7, 1941 and involved the Japanese Embassy in Hawaii, including Takeo Yoshikawa’s role as an expert on the US fleet who, while a Deputy Consul, spied on ship movements at Pearl Harbor. He memorized observations but did not use photography or send cables in J-19 cypher; however, FDR regularly received Magic intercept translations and reports from American Ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo. Hirohito and the Privy Council authorized the occupation of resource-rich French Indo-China which was seen by the Americans as a threat to the Burma Road; hence, FDR initiated embargoes on aviation fuel shipments to Japan. In August, the United States sent 165 B-17 bombers – half of all of the American air fleet at that time – to the Philippines while the Japanese General Hideki Tojo consolidated his power as army minister.

The events of the first six months of 1941 set the stage for a conference between Churchill and FDR in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, where on August 14th they issued a joint “statement” at the Argentia Naval Station that would be published as The Atlantic Charter. FDR had arrived on American heavy cruiser USS Augusta and Churchill on the battleship Prince of Wales – the latter, along with the battlecruiser Repulse, would be sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10th in the South China Sea. The US had increased its escorting of North Atlantic convoys with 14 convoys of 675 ships, while at the same time the U-boat fleet had tripled in size in a twelve-month period.  In September, a British Hudson flying northwest of Ireland spotted U-652 and warned the destroyer USS Greer; the USS Kearney was damaged during an attack by U-568 on October 16 with eleven US military casualties; and the destroyer Ruben James was sunk on October 31st.

Wortman appropriately states that “the shadow war in the Pacific was a photographic negative of the undeclared war in the Atlantic” (p. 308). On November 26th the Kidō Butai sailed from Japan into the North Pacific toward Hawaii with six carriers, three cruisers, eight tankers, and 23 submarines with eight mini-submarines. Harry Hopkins was hospitalized for most of November while Japanese-American “negotiations” took place in Washington, and FBI Hawaii bureau chief Robert Shivers remained concerned about activities by the Japanese Consulate in Hawaii and tapped their telephones. Chapter 29: “East Wind Rain,” a rather abbreviated account of the Pearl Harbor attack, focuses heavily on personal accounts of American personnel, notably on personnel from the Utah and Arizona. The “Epilogue” recounts that “everything had changed” with the Japanese attack, notably: Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh abandoned their pro-Nazi position and he went to Detroit to advise the Ford Motor Company on engineering designs for American bombers; the feuding Long Island Republicans (TR, Jr.) and Upstate New York Democratic Roosevelts (FDR) “buried the hatchet”; while in Maryland, Philip Johnson became an interrogator of German POWs.

Journalist and historian Marc Wortman has written a highly-readable and engaging account of American politics and social issues prior to the Pearl Harbor attack – less so about military events. He provides a holistic review of the major issues of intervention versus isolation in 1941 that lead to the transformation of America from isolationist into internationalist in the months following Franklin Roosevelt’s election in November 1940 to an unparalleled third term in the White House. Wortman demonstrates how FDR and his top aides worked decisively after that election to provide massive American aid to Great Britain to support its isolated fight against Hitler. By early 1941 Americans had no consensus on the issue of US involvement in the European war against Hitler and Mussolini, or whether the US should more forcefully confront Japanese actions in the Pacific.

However, the roles of some colleagues are, perhaps understated, as in the cases of Henry Stimson, Harry Hopkins, Dean Atchison, and the War Council. Stimson, Secretary of War (1940-1945) under FDR and Truman and oversaw the Manhattan Project, appears as a bystander in the book. Hopkins, the civilian who had oversaw the Public Works Administration efforts to build employment during the Depression, and administered the Lend-Lease program was also the crucial go-between for FDR with Churchill and Stalin. Acheson’s roles in formulating the legal analysis that enabled the lease of bases for destroyers deal and the role of American communists in their shifting from being pro-war to anti-war and back to pro-war are downplayed.

Wortman mined significant archives and documents, especially the writings of journalist William Shirer that helps structure his book. Isolationists Father Coughlin, Philip Johnson, and Charles Lindbergh do not fare well in the narrative and Wortman clearly documents the fact that prior to December 7, 1941, the United States had long been involved in a “shadow war.” As noted, he has provided little materials on the Axis activities in Latin America nor on the far-right German-American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Bund; Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, AV) founded in 1936 and dissolved in 1941 (Wortman apparently delved into the FBI records on this aspect). Pro-Nazis Johnson and Lindbergh are characterized as “really bad persons” but are resurrected as pro-Americans by the end of 1941. On the military front, little is said about key maritime and North African events. Atlantic naval activities, notably the British encounters with the Graf Spee and the Bismarck barely touch upon the roles of the US Navy in tracking and surreptitiously reporting the locations of the to the Royal Navy. Little is said about Magic and Enigma or codes used by the Axis and Allies.

This is a fine book and, to my mind, is among the best recounting the pre-Pearl Harbor days and months. Wortman joins a distinguished group of scholars: Roosevelt historian Susan Dunn has just written Blueprint for War: FDR and the Hundred Days that Mobilized America (2018), adding more detail to Roosevelt’s strategy and tactics. American author and journalist Lynne Olson has written six books on the history of World War II, most relevant here: Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2014) and Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (2008) parallel Wortman’s volume. Evan Medley, professor of history at the University of Glasgow is the author the very detailed December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War (2011) chronicling far-flung events that document in less than two weeks the war changed on just nearly every front.


1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War
By Marc Wortman, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY. (2016).

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D. Kolb is a Golden Life Member at the US Naval Institute, an independent scholar, and “accidental archaeologist.” He is the Associate Editor for Archaeological Ceramics at the Society for Archaeological Sciences and served as senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities for 24 years.
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