As World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Congress and much of the American public continued to favour neutrality. Convinced that their country’s participation in WWI had been a grave mistake, Americans supported a series of neutrality laws enacted in the 1930s to prevent a repetition of the pre-1917 events that drew the United States into the fighting. Although he was well aware that the public wanted America to stay out of the war, Roosevelt was determined to do all he could to prevent a German victory. Relying on the public’s sympathy for Britain and France, he persuaded Congress to revise the 1935 neutrality act which prohibited loans and arms sales to belligerent nations, in order to allow the two countries to purchase arms on a “cash and carry” basis—that is, on the condition that they pay immediately in cash and transport the arms themselves. He argued that the revision was the best way both to keep the United States out of the war and to guarantee a British-French victory.
After the fall of France in 1940, Roosevelt looked for other means to prevent Britain’s defeat. Raising the spectre of a German invasion of the Western Hemisphere, he convinced Congress to enact the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Although he justified the measure as necessary for national security, the revisionists contend that it was not purely defensive; in fact, they argue, it was a major step in preparing the United States to enter the war in Europe. About the same time, following negotiations with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Roosevelt agreed to transfer 50 World War I-era U.S. destroyers to Britain in exchange for 99-year leases on eight British naval and air bases in the Western Hemisphere. Again, Roosevelt characterized the agreement as a defensive measure, describing it as “the most important action in the reinforcement of our national defense…since the Louisiana Purchase” in 1803. For the revisionists, however, the deal decisively ended American neutrality and made U.S. involvement in the war inevitable. In this view they are in agreement with Churchill, who believed that the exchange set in motion a process that no one could stop. “Like the Mississippi,” Churchill said, “it just keeps rolling along.”