The Pacific Ship and Shore Historical Review

Copyright © 2001

The Crisis Years: 1940 and 1941
-- Heber A. Holbrook

July 4, 2001



   Nov.  25, 2003

     The years of 1940 and  1941 were  so full of events that had an impact upon the world as we then knew it that it boggles the mind.  This is a reminder, if only to myself, of some of them  which seem particularly worth recalling during this 60th anniversary of the year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Parts of this article first appeared in The Pacific Ship and Shore Historical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, of July 1991,  and in The Pacific Ship and Shore Newsletter of June 1995.

     In the summer of 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in shoring up his administration for the upcoming Presidential election that year, in which he was going to be running for an unprecedented third term in office, and to win broader support for the U. S. policies of containing the Axis powers then on the loose in the world, appointed a new Secretary of the Navy and a new Secretary of War, both Republicans. Both men had apposed Roosevelt right up to the moment that Adolph Hitler had attacked Poland in 1939.
     The new Secretary of the Navy was Frank Knox, a newspaperman of national repute, and who himself had been selected by the Republicans to be their nominee for Vice President back in 1936. The new Secretary of War was Henry L. Stimson, a veteran statesman who had served in the cabinets of three previous presidents, and who was the originator of the United States Foreign Policy that had been the governing force of the nation since World War I, and which was the basis of the diplomatic positions of the United States in the wars then raging in Europe and Asia.

     It is well to recall that the "Axis Powers" in Europe were then Germany, Italy,
and Russia.  Between the three of them they had gobbled up three quarters of Europe.
     Ethiopia--the oldest monarchy in the world--had been swept away by Benito Mussolini's Italian troops in 1935 after the slaughter of warriors whose only weapons were still the spears and shields of their ancestors. Then Czechoslovakia fell to Germany in 1939. Then Poland had been carved up between Hitler and Stalin Then Norway, Belgium, Holland and the low countries had been overrun and were occupied by Hitler's troops.
Then France, fortress France, indestructible France, had fallen to Hitler. By July of 1940 German troops occupied Paris.

     However, even though Hitler and Stalin had been  partners of convenience for the carving up of Poland, Stalin demurred when Hitler suggested that Russia jump into the war against England, and Hitler then began to worry in earnest about what the Russian Bear would do if Germany should show signs of weakening.

     But that did not seem likely. That fall in "The Battle of Briton" England was all but been beaten down by the German airforce's bombers, and an invasion of England by Germany was on the drawing boards.
     Meanwhile out in far off Asia, Japan in 1940 after the fall of France,  had landed "peace-keeping" troops in Saigon, the capitol of French Indo-china, with the permission of Hitler, who was calling the shots as France's new ruler. It was the Germans who now had the say, at least in the short term, as to what was to become of French Indo-china, a vast Asian-populated domain which Japan was dead set on being the one to

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel

replace the French, an idea which was being supported by the Germans, the new title holder to the property by right of conquest, if it could be held.

    During the summer of 1940 Secretary Knox paid a visit to Hawaii to meet with the Commander of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral James O. Richardson and the other admirals on duty in the Pacific.
     Admiral Richardson was beginning to be a problem for the Washington political administration. Ever since Richardson's appointment to head the Fleet the year before, President Roosevelt had had to listen to him complain about having the Pacific Fleet stationed in Hawaii instead of on the West Coast of California, and Roosevelt was running out of patience with his new Fleet commander.
    One of the admirals that Secretary Knox conferred with during his Pacific visit was Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the head of the Cruiser Scouting Force of the Fleet. No doubt the Secretary had met the Admiral before, during Kimmel's Washington days as the Navy's comptroller and spokesman in congressional hearings at budget time, and Frank Knox, 66 years old, peripatetic owner of the Chicago Daily News, not to mention having been the  vice presidential candidate for the Republicans four years earlier, had supported the build-up of the Navy in the troubling times of the late 1930s.
     Secretary Knox returned to Washington, perhaps convinced that Admiral Richardson would have to be replaced. In any case, Admiral Kimmel was soon marked for an unexpected and rapid rise in his career.

     Meanwhile the autumn months of 1940 saw two momentous events take place, both of profound impact

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