Posts tagged Franklin Roosevelt

August 10, 1941: The Atlantic Conference


Eighty-two years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met (August 9-14, 1941) for the first time as heads of state.  The two had met only once before—back in 1918, when Roosevelt was a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Churchill a young Member of Parliament.  This new meeting would forever after be known as the Atlantic Conference.

The location, a tightly guarded secret, was Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the site of a new American naval base leased from the British as part of the destroyers-for-bases deal.  [Note that I write “the British” instead of “the Canadians.”  You might be surprised to know that Newfoundland was at the time still a British dominion, and did not vote to join Canada until March 31, 1949! For a time, the base, Naval Station Argentia, was the largest American military base outside the U.S.  Its importance earned it the nickname “the Gibraltar of the Atlantic.”]

Churchill arrived at Placentia Bay on the morning of August 9, 1941, aboard HMS Prince of Wales, a British battleship.  Roosevelt awaited him aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta.

Roosevelt and Churchill

The goals of the two leaders heading into this all-important first meeting were poles apart.  At the top of Churchill’s list was an American declaration of war against Germany, or at the very least vastly increased military assistance.  Roosevelt’s expectations were much more modest.  He hoped to use the conference to help dislodge the implacable isolationist sentiment gripping much of the country, and even more of the Congress.

Both parties came away only partially satisfied.  American isolationist sentiment remained as implacable as ever.  On August 12, while the conference was underway, a bill to extend the military draft passed the House of Representatives by a single vote.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt did agree that the U.S. Navy would henceforth escort British ships sailing from the coast of North America to a point two hundred miles east of Iceland.  This move alone freed up “over fifty destroyers and corvettes” for use in Britain’s home waters in Churchill’s estimation.  Moreover, the military leaders of the two countries were able to further their staff discussions, providing greater coordination.  Finally, Roosevelt promised to be more provocative in challenging the German Navy on the high seas, hoping to perhaps create an “incident.”

Churchill, for his part, had to be content with these developments, as well as an offer for increased aid (FDR promised to ask Congress for another $5Billion in lend-lease aid).  All these fell far short of his original goal, but half a loaf was better than none.

Finally, the conference could not fail to have an important symbolic impact as well. Felix Frankfurter, writing to FDR afterward, observed:

“We live by symbols.  And you two in that ocean . . . in the setting of that Sunday service, gave meaning to the conflict between civilization and arrogant, brute challenge; and gave promise more powerful and binding than any formal treaty could, that civilization has brains and resources that tyranny will not be able to overcome.”

Ironically, the most far-reaching outcome of the Atlantic Conference grew out of a suggestion Roosevelt made at his initial meeting with Churchill: to issue a joint declaration of principles.  This joint statement—really no more than a mere press release—soon became known as the Atlantic Charter.  In the words of one historian “it seized men’s imaginations and framed their hopes.”  Issued on August 14, 1941, its eight points had the universal appeal of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points (issued in 1918), with the important distinction that it was a joint, rather than unilateral, declaration.  These eight “common principles” for the postwar world included: no territorial expansion; liberalization of international trade; freedom of the seas; international labor, economic and welfare standards; freedom from fear and want; and most importantly, restoring self-determination to all countries occupied during the war by the Axis powers

The Atlantic Charter would ultimately influence the formation of NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  Adherents to the Atlantic Charter would later (January 1, 1942) sign the Declaration by United Nations, which became the basis of the current United Nations.

Admiral Harold Stark, CNO, and General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, stand behind FDR and Churchill

Although the Atlantic Conference has been best remembered for the Atlantic Charter, the emotional high point of the event, agreed by all, was a joint religious service held on the quarterdeck of the Prince of Wales on Sunday morning, August 10.  All the conferees, along with hundreds of sailors from both countries, attended.  In his magisterial history of World War II, The Grand Alliance, Winston Churchill described the scene:

“This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck—the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and Americans sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in prayers and hymns familiar to both.”

August 10, 1941 service aboard the Prince of Wales

Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He later told his son Elliott “If nothing else happened while we were there, that would have cemented us.”  FDR may have been particularly moved by the choice of hymns (personally chosen by Churchill himself) which included Roosevelt’s personal favorite, the Navy Hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

O hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea.*

It is a powerful hymn, one I heard many times while one of my sons was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The closing words of the hymn, along with Churchill’s final observation: “Every word seemed to stir the heart.  It was a great hour to live,” would prove to be particularly poignant. Exactly four months later—on December 10, 1941, the Prince of Wales would be sunk by Japanese dive and torpedo bombers off the coast of Malaya; nearly half of its officers and sailors who had attended services that sunlit morning would be dead.

*= At President Roosevelt’s funeral on April 14, 1945,  in the East Room of the White House, the opening hymn was the Navy Hymn.

In Memoriam: Odd Nansen (12/6/01–6/27/73)


Odd Nansen’s grave marker

Odd Nansen died forty-nine years ago today, age 71.

The anniversary of his death always seems like an appropriate time for remembrance and reflection. (See my previous observations on this date in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016).

Recently I finished reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  In it, Goodwin describes the difficult, often painful, and yet highly productive, marriage between Franklin and Eleanor, and how bereft she felt at Franklin’s sudden death in Hot Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.

In her nationally syndicated newspaper column “My Day”* written just two weeks later, on April 26, 1945, Eleanor quoted a little verse sent to her by a friend she had not seen in a long while: “They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind: In those whom they have blessed they live a life again.”  According to Goodwin, those simple lines inspired Eleanor to make the rest of her life worthy of her husband’s memory.  “As long as she continued to fight for his ideals, he would continue to live.”

Eleanor, an awkward and often lonely child, certainly proved herself worthy of her husband’s memory.  In December 1945, she accepted President Truman’s invitation to join the American delegation to the new United Nations.  In doing so, she was “setting forth on a new journey into the field of universal human rights that would make her ‘the most admired person in the world’—and an important figure in American public life for nearly two more decades.”

What better way, on the anniversary of Odd Nansen’s death, to honor his memory, than to continue the fight for his ideals, and thus prove ourselves worthy of his legacy as well.

Odd Nansen with Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN. Roosevelt was accepting the first UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award (1954)

*Eleanor wrote about Fridtjof Nansen several times in her My Day column, but that is a matter for a future blog.

National Oatmeal Day


I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc.  And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.

But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin.  And that got me thinking about oatmeal.

We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.

Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either.  It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge.  In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day.  Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and  hours of cooking just to make it palatable.

Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms.  As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”

Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures.  In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience.  “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious.  He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble.  The boy certainly has character.”

One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat.  Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment.  [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]

But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big plate­fuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”

I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II.  Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either.  Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.

Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it.  “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day.  “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal?  It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!”  Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper.  “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . .  Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.”  History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.

Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once.  Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia.   Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “Sought an audience with Roosevelt today, but have not yet heard anything.  Everything is so damn slow and difficult.  I wonder if I should just go over to the White House and ring the bell.”

Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war).  It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person.  They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.

And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day.  This year it was April 30.  I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by.  I’ll be more vigilant next year.

But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.

April 15, 1945: Roosevelt Buried


Franklin D. Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving president in U.S history, was buried at Springwood, his family home in Hyde Park, New York.  Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA at 3:35 pm. on April 12 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  He was 63.

Roosevelt, who shook off a debilitating illness which left him at age 39 totally and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, had the burden of guiding the country through two of the most cataclysmic events in its history: the Great Depression and World War II.  Through it all the U.S. emerged stronger, more prosperous, and freer, than at any time in its history.

Like Lincoln, Roosevelt died within weeks of realizing the final fruits of the war he had led, with “the unbounded determination of [its] people” since its inception.  Like Churchill, his contemporary (whom I have written about here), he was a complex man, whose complexities, accomplishments and contradictions have fascinated and challenged historians and biographers ever since.   In all events, historians and political scientists consistently rank Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln as the country’s three greatest presidents.

On the centennial of FDR’s birth, George Will wrote:

“Anyone who contemplates this century without shivering probably does not understand what is going on. But Franklin Roosevelt was, an aide said, like the fairy-tale prince who did not know how to shiver. Something was missing in FDR. . . .   But what FDR lacked made him great. He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might end up badly. He had a Christian’s faith that the universe is well constituted and an American’s faith that history is a rising road. . . .  Radiating an infectious zest, he did the most important thing a President can do: he gave the nation a hopeful, and hence creative, stance toward the future.”

Roosevelt almost never had a chance to fulfill his historic role.  On February 15, 1933, between his first election to the presidency and his inauguration, Roosevelt gave an impromptu speech in Miami, Florida.  In the crowd was Giuseppe Zangara, who fired off five shots at the president-elect.  FDR was not hit, but Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was standing next to him, was fatally shot, and four other bystanders injured.

Winston Churchill almost met a similar fate as well, when, on December 13, 1931, while visiting New York City, he exited a cab in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and looking left, saw no traffic.  He forgot that in America, unlike England, cars drive on the right.  He proceeded to step in front of an oncoming car approaching from the right and was hit and dragged several yards. [Churchill later wrote: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.”]  He escaped with a serious scalp wound and two cracked ribs.

The great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was fully mindful of these two events when he later observed:

“One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami.  Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.”

Recently I described the German invasion of Norway, beginning with a famous speech from FDR (here).  Norway was immensely grateful for both the inspiration Roosevelt gave to resistance fighters in Norway with his remarks, and for the hospitality the Roosevelt family extended to Crown Princess Märtha (the King’s daughter-in-law) and her family.   She and her children (including the current King of Norway, Harald V) initially stayed in the White House upon arriving in the country, and lived out much of the war in nearby Maryland, and where she was a frequent guest at the White House.

After the war, the Norwegian government dedicated a statue to Roosevelt, prominently displayed in Oslo harbor, adjacent to City Hall, close to Akershus Castle and other important landmarks of World War II.  Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication.

Statue of FDR in Oslo

April 9, 1940: Norway Invaded


“If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway.  If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 16, 1942*

In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, 1940, German naval, air and airborne forces invaded Norway.  In a well-coordinated attack, the Germans seized airports (including Fornebu, outside Oslo, where Odd Nansen had been designing air terminals) and attacked all major seaports along Norway’s coast.

Norway was woefully unprepared.  Neutral during World War I, Norway expected to maintain its neutrality during World War II as well, a neutrality which obviated, in its eyes, the need for significant armed forces.  Moreover, what little navy, army and air force Norway possessed had suffered through years of austerity and neglect brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Hitler, anxious to deny Norway’s ports to the British (whom Hitler suspected might be planning their own invasion) and determined to assure access to Sweden’s iron ore (which could only reach Germany through the Norwegian port of Narvik in the winter, when all Swedish harbors were ice-bound), Hitler authorized preliminary planning for Operation Weserübung in December 1939.

Luckily, the Royal Family and members of Norway’s parliament (the Storting) fled Oslo ahead of advancing German forces, but this left a leadership vacuum just when the surprised, shocked and confused populace needed guidance the most.  Vidkun Quisling, a traitor, attempted to seize the reins of power, and in a radio broadcast attempted to cancel all mobilization orders, and observed that resistance was futile.

German soldiers marching into Oslo

Nevertheless, within a few days the Norwegian Army—really a militia of citizen-soldiers—rallied and put up stiff resistance as German forces moved inland.  Though a country of less than three million, Norway ultimately held out longer than France, Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark before capitulating on June 10, 1940.

Thereafter, as in most occupied countries, some people chose to collaborate, joining the fascist Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) party in hopes of preferment or better jobs.  Many joined in, or stood by, when the Norwegian police rounded up the country’s Jews in the fall of 1942.  [It should be said that at this early stage of the war, the designs of the Nazis were not as apparent as they would become by 1943 and 1944.  As Odd Nansen’s friend, Sigrid Helliesen Lund—herself recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations—related: “[P]eople forget that many others were also in danger then, for whom transport to safety seemed even more urgent.  It would have been critical for members of the resistance, if they had been captured.  Many Jews were seized only because they were Jews, not because they had been involved in the opposition movement.  At that time, we didn’t realize what was likely to happen to the Jews after they were taken.  The pretty word was ‘internment.’”]

Many, on the other hand, fought back.  Thousands of young men tried to escape to England (a crime punishable by death) to join the armed forces.  Many manned the fishing smacks and small boats used to ferry men out of Norway, and resistance forces and equipment into Norway—a link that was to be immortalized thereafter as “the Shetland  Bus.”  Many created underground newspapers dedicated to bringing outside news from the BBC to the country’s inhabitants.  Many joined resistance networks.

Shetland Bus Memorial, Scalloway, Shetland Islands

 I have previously described the incredible sacrifice of Norway’s merchant sailors (here).  I have written (here) about Hjalmar Svae, who stole a German boat to escape to Britain, only to have the engine quit within miles England’s coast. When the current carried him back to occupied Denmark he was seized and condemned to death (which he avoided by escaping from jail).  I have also written about Jens Christian Beck (here), who similarly escaped the clutches of the Gestapo, later trained with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), only to drown on his first parachute jump when, weighed down with equipment, he was mistakenly dropped over a deep lake in the mountains of Norway on October 10, 1943.  In From Day to Day I describe the British raid on the Lofoten Islands in March 1941, and quote “a contemporary who wrote that the decision of three hundred young people to follow the British ‘after only a few minutes in which to make their decision tell[s] more about the fighting spirit of the Norwegian youth than any words can do.’”

Perhaps the final word on the Norway’s contribution to World War II can be attributed to someone who saw and trained many young men from many different Allied nations.  Major George T. Rheam, described as “the founder of industrial sabotage,” ran Brickendonbury Manor, in Herfordshire, England, also known as SOE Station XVII, where the SOE taught its sabotage techniques to operatives and resistance fighters from every Allied nation.  [It was Rheam who trained Joachim Rønnenberg’s team for their mission to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, but that is another story for another time.]

Brickendonbury Manor

M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE, described Rheam as “a large man with a large mind,” who did not suffer fools gladly. While his students might think him dour, behind his “stiffish manner” lay a keen sense of humor and an intense sympathy for the European exiles with whom he often worked.

“Of these,” Foot writes, “he once said in retrospect, he thought on the whole the Norwegians impressed him the most, for bravery, for readiness to run risks, and for steadiness in facing the dangers of sabotage.”

Not a bad tribute to the 40,000 Norwegians who, like Odd Nansen, were imprisoned during the war, to the 28,000 who escaped Norway and enlisted in the Allied military services, to the over 10,000 who died, either in the conflict, the resistance, or in prison, and to the countless others who suffered or risked their lives during the occupation.

[*Remarks delivered at the handover ceremony of the HNoMS King Haakon VII, gifted by the U.S. to Norway at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, 1942. During her war service King Haakon VII sailed 85,000 nautical miles and escorted 79 convoys without mishap. On June 26, 1945 King Haakon VII successfully berthed in home waters in Kristiansand for the first time.   In 2005, His Majesty King Harald V of Norway visited the Washington Navy Yard to view events including a reenactment of President Roosevelt’s “Look to Norway” speech, honoring the United States and Norway’s long-term alliance. The ceremony marked the centenary of diplomatic relations between Norway and the United States since Norway’s independence in 1905.]

HNoMS King Haakon VII

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