Online: Object of the Month
"I wish the British would stop this 'We who are about to die, salute thee' attitude": Letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Roger Merriman
Assistant Reference Librarian
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
In this letter dated 15 February 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responds to a letter from historian Roger B. Merriman concerning American neutrality in the face of German aggression in Europe.
The Beginnings of World War II
While Germany began the process of rearmament during the 1930s, isolationists in the United States passed the 1935 Neutrality Act which restricted trade and assistance to any country involved in conflict whether they were the aggressors or the victims. In March of 1938, Germany had occupied Austria with little response from England or France. By September of the same year, to avert war, representatives from England, France, Germany, and Italy met at Munich and agreed to Germany's demand for the annexation of the Sudetenland--a province of Czechoslovakia. At the same time, the British government and its friends in America began to pressure Roosevelt to drop his neutral stance and help England and France stop Hitler. A little more than six months after Roosevelt wrote this letter to Merriman, Germany invaded Poland. The United States remained officially neutral, but after the fall of France in 1940 began sending more aid to England.
"We who are about to die, salute thee"
In an attempt to convince Roosevelt to overturn the policy of neutrality, Merriman forwarded to the president an assessment of the German threat written by renowned historian George M. Trevelyan. Like many Britons both in and out of government, Trevelyan saw the United States as the only possible savior for England and Europe and chastised Americans for their isolationist views writing: "If you [the United States] don't want Europe and Africa to be prostrate at the feet of Germany and her allies, with Japan in possession of Asia, you had better be reconsidering your isolation policy before you are indeed 'isolated.'"
In his letter to Merriman, Roosevelt, still heated from a stormy exchange with the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian, vented his frustration regarding the British and their attempt to draw the United States into another war: "What the British need today," he wrote, "is a good stiff grog, inducing not only the desire to save civilization but the continued belief that they can do it. In such an event they will have a lot more support from their American cousins--don't you think so?" Despite their disagreement on this issue, Roosevelt exchanged a letter each year with his former history teacher, Merriman--usually on more benign topics--until 1941. While Roosevelt gave additional aid to England after the fall of France in 1940, he refused to take any direct military action until Germany declared war on the United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The United States could no longer avoid war.
Roger B. Merriman was a prominent historian and Anglophile. He graduated from Harvard in 1896 and continued on to obtain his Ph.D. in history in 1902. As an instructor at Harvard he schooled a young Franklin Roosevelt (Class of 1904) in European history. Merriman was the Gurney Professor of History and Political Science and founding master of Eliot House. From 1904-1945, he was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, serving as corresponding secretary from 1923-1932, and vice president from 1932 until his death in 1945. Merriman's historical interests focused on European history, in particular the Tudor monarchs of England and the Spanish Empire, but his interests kept him abreast of the political and social mood of England and Europe.
Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society
This letter and others like it can be found in a new finding aid, Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This subject guide brings together descriptions and locations of all letters written by presidents found in the Society's manuscript and autograph collections. While the guide emphasizes letters written during each president's term of office, it includes an overview of letters written over the lifetime of each president. The Massachusetts Historical Society is famous for the thousands of letters of Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson held in the Adams Family Papers and the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Papers, but the Presidential Letters guide describes more than 3,500 letters written by all but the three most recent presidents. The guide to Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society will be available soon, (and a link will be provided here).
Sources for Further Reading:
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a large collection of partially processed Merriman family papers, 1695-1902 including the papers of Roger Bigelow Merriman, http://www.masshist.org/findingaids/doc.cfm?fa=fa0122.
Cannadine, David. "Historians as Diplomats?: Roger B. Merriman, George M. Trevelyan, and Anglo-American Relations," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 1999), 207-231.
Mattingly, Garrett. "The Historian of the Spanish Empire," American Historical Review, vol. 54 no. 1 (Oct. 1948), 32-48.
Mitchell, Stewart. "Tribute to Roger Bigelow Merriman," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 68 (1944-1947), 493.
For information regarding Franklin D. Roosevelt see:
Beard, Charles Austin. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948.
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Apprenticeship, Boston: Little, Brown, c1952.
Rauch, Basil. Roosevelt: from Munich to Pearl Harbor: A Study in the Creation of a Foreign Policy. New York: Creative Age Press, 1950.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY holds the Franklin D. Roosevelt papers.