Warfare History Network
Was Franklin Roosevelt planning to intervene on Great Britain’s behalf before Pearl Harbor? Winston Churchill, for one, thought so.
This is a story of what might have been. If Japan had chosen to attack far-off British Malaya on December 7, 1941, instead of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin Roosevelt was prepared to go before Congress and ask—for the first time in American history—for a declaration of war against a nation that had not fired the first shot against us. With the country solidly divided on the issue of getting involved in the war that was already raging in Europe, and with the president’s repeated promises not to send American boys to fight in a foreign war still ringing in congressional ears, the outcome of Roosevelt’s appeal was not preordained. Indeed, there is some reason to think that his appeal would have been rejected by an isolationist Congress, in which case the history of World War II would have been very different.
The circumstances surrounding FDR’s undelivered declaration began in August 1941, in obscure Argentia Harbor inside Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. There, four months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met secretly to thrash out the terms of what came to be called the Atlantic Charter. One of the primary objectives of the English-speaking leaders’ first summit was to come to some agreement regarding the increasingly aggressive and threatening moves the Japanese were making in the Far East. Churchill stressed the urgent need to make a joint declaration to the Japanese to either back off or face the consequences. Having barely escaped invasion by the Nazis a year earlier, the British had been forced out of Greece by the Germans in April, and now found themselves locked in a bitter struggle with General Erwin Rommel’s much-vaunted Afrika Korps in northern Africa. Spread desperately thin, the British were seeking a way to force the Japanese to reconsider attacking Malaya or the Dutch East Indies. That way, as Churchill understood, it was to have the United States agree to declare war on Japan if Malaya was attacked.