Copyright © 2001 Thomas Fleming. All rights reserved.
The Big Leak
Blazoned in huge black letters across the front page of the December4, 1941, issue of the Chicago Tribune was the headline:F.D.R.'S WAR PLANS! The Washington Times-Herald, the largestpaper in the nation's capital, carried a similarly fevered banner. Inboth papers Chesly Manly, the Tribune's Washington correspondent,revealed what President Franklin D. Roosevelt had repeatedlydenied: that he was planning to lead the United States intowar against Germany. The source of the reporter's informationwas no less than a verbatim copy of Rainbow Five, the top-secretwar plan drawn up at FDR's order by the joint board of theUnited States Army and Navy.
Manly's story even contained a copy of the president's letter orderingthe preparation of the plan. The reporter informed the Tribuneand Times-Herald readers that Rainbow Five called for thecreation of a 10-million-man army, including an expeditionaryforce of 5 million men that would invade Europe in 1943 to defeatAdolf Hitler's war machine. To all appearances the story wasan enormous embarrassment to President Roosevelt. When he ranfor a third term in 1940, the president had vowed that he wouldnever send American soldiers to fight beyond America's shores.
Neither Roosevelt admirers nor Roosevelt haters, who by thistime were numerous, were likely to forget his sonorous words,delivered at the Boston Garden on October 29, 1940, at the climaxof his campaign for an unprecedented third presidentialterm: "While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give youone more assurance. I have said this before but I shall say it againand again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into anyforeign wars." In Buffalo three days later he made an even moreemphatic declaration: "Your president says this country is notgoing to war."
The Rainbow Five leak also made a fool or a liar out of SenatorAlben W. Barkley of Kentucky, the Senate Democratic majorityleader. On August 9, 1941, the president and England's primeminister Winston Churchill had met in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland,to affirm Roosevelt's determination to give Englandall aid short of war. They had issued a declaration of humanrights, the Atlantic Charter, as a rallying cry for the struggleagainst dictatorship. Manly had written a story based on anotherleak, reporting plans for an American expeditionary force.Barkley had risen in the Senate and denounced Manly for writinga "deliberate and intentional falsehood." Manly and the Tribunenow demanded a public apology from Barkley. ColonelRobert R. McCormick, the fiercely antiwar owner of the Tribune,reminded readers that in 1919, the paper had leaked theverbatim text of the Versailles Treaty, revealing Woodrow Wilson'sabandonment of a peace of reconciliation to Europe's revenge-hungrypoliticians.
In Congress, antiwar voices, most but not all Republicans, rosein protest. For more than two hours, unnerved House Democraticleaders delayed consideration of the administration's $8.24billion arms bill, a key element in the expansion of the army andnavy to fight the war designed by Rainbow Five. Heretofore thiscontroversial legislation had been disguised as a purely defensivemeasure. Republican congressman George Holden Tinkham ofMassachusetts declared that the nation had been "betrayed" andreceived unanimous consent for his motion to put Manly's storyinto the Congressional Record. "The biggest issue before the nationtoday is the Tribune story," said Republican congressmanWilliam P. Lambertson of Kansas. "If it isn't true, why doesn'tthe president deny it?"
In the Senate, Democrat Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, aleading critic of Roosevelt's policy of supporting the foes of Germany,Italy, and Japan, declared that the story proved everythinghe had been saying. On a radio program in early 1941, the sharp-tonguedWheeler had accused the president of having a "NewDeal ... foreign policy" that would "plow under every fourthAmerican boy." Americans of the time immediately got the sarcasticreference to a controversial 1930s federal program thatpaid farmers to plow under crops to create artificial shortagesand bolster prices.
Roosevelt had denounced Wheeler's metaphor as "the rottenestthing that has been said in public life in my generation." The senatorwas unbothered by this presidential outburst. He had wonreelection in 1940 by 114,000 votes. FDR had carried Montanaby only 54,000 votes. Moreover, the western Democrat was notthe only person to resort to such rhetoric. Antiwar folk artistsPete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other members of the groupknown as the Almanac Singers (forerunners of the Weavers) hadrecently issued a record featuring the song "Plow Under." Duringthe 1940 presidential campaign, beetle-browed John L.Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers Union, arguably themost powerful labor leader in the country, had urged his followersto vote against Roosevelt, lest he "make cannon fodder ofyour sons."
Although Hitler had crushed France and the rest of Europe exceptfor Great Britain and was now rampaging through Russia, mostAmericans felt no strong desire to stop him. Disillusion with theAmerican experience in World War I permeated the nation. Thesoaring idealism with which Democrat Woodrow Wilson had ledthe country into that sanguinary conflict "to make the world safefor democracy" had ended in the vengeful Treaty of Versailles.Thanks in large part to that document, Europe's statesmen hadcreated a world in which democracy soon became ridiculed anddictatorships of the left and right ran rampant. Worse, America'sdemocratic allies, England and France, had welshed on repayingbillions of dollars loaned to them to defeat Germany.
All this had been scorched into American hearts and minds inhearings conducted in the mid-1930s by progressive RepublicanSenator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, who purported to provethat profit-hungry munitions makers and bankers, not Wilsonianidealism, had propelled America into World War I. As a result ofthese hearings, which the Roosevelt administration had made noattempt to contradict, Congress passed a series of neutrality actsthat forbade Americans to loan money or send armaments to anybelligerent. These laws had won huge majorities in both the Senateand the House of Representatives and Roosevelt had signedthem without a word of disapproval.
If it was difficult for the president to whip up any enthusiasmfor fighting Germany, arousing alarm about the threat fromJapan seemed next to impossible, except in California, whereJapanese (and Chinese) phobia had been endemic for a hundredyears. Tokyo was clearly on the march to dominate Asia. Since1937 Japan's war with China had given her control of virtuallythe entire Chinese coast, enabling Tokyo to cut off all supplies forChina's armies except along a tortuous path through the mountainsof south China, known as the Burma Road.
In 1940, Japan's rulers had allied their nation with Fascist Italyand Nazi Germany in the Tripartite Pact. This venture createdwhat some newspapers called "a Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis,"though no one had a clear idea of how the alliance worked. Thepact had emboldened Japan to occupy the northern half ofFrench Indochina (Vietnam) in a bloodless coup that the defeatedFrench accepted as a fait accompli. In 1941 Tokyo seized thesouthern half of the colony. But Indochina and the rest of Asiawere 7,000 miles away in a world that remained murkily mysteriousand remote to most Americans.
A majority of those polled favored aid to embattled China andGreat Britain, but other polls revealed that 80 percent were opposedto declaring war on Germany or Japan as long as theycommitted no hostile acts toward America. Many viewed withgreat uneasiness Roosevelt's escalating belligerence with Germany.U.S. Navy ships were convoying war supplies destined forEngland as far east as Iceland. This policy had already producedthree clashes between U-boats and American destroyers.
If the Tribune story caused consternation in Congress, its impactin the War Department could be described as catastrophic. GeneralAlbert C. Wedemeyer has provided the most vivid recollection."If I live to be a hundred," he told this writer in the springof 1986, "December fourth, nineteen forty one, will still seemlike yesterday." (He was an erect six feet five and mentally alert ateighty-nine.) Although only a major in the War Plans Division,Wedemeyer, a 1918 graduate of West Point, had already beentabbed by his superiors as a man with a bright future. In 1936they had sent him to Berlin, where he spent two years studying atthe German War College. When Roosevelt ordered the preparationof Rainbow Five, the forty-four-year-old major was given thetask of writing it.
General Wedemeyer recalled the atmosphere he encounteredwhen he walked into the War Department's offices at 7:30 A.M.on December 4. "Officers were standing in clumps, talking in lowtones. Silence fell, and they dispersed the moment they saw me.My secretary, her eyes red from weeping, handed me a copy ofthe Times-Herald with Manly's story on the front page. I couldnot have been more appalled and astounded if a bomb had beendropped on Washington."
For the next several days Wedemeyer almost wished a bombhad been dropped on him. He was the chief suspect in the leak ofRainbow Five, which within the closed doors of the War Departmentwas called the Victory Program. He had strong ties toAmerica First, the largest antiwar group in the nation, with800,000 vociferous members, including Charles Lindbergh andretired General Robert E. Wood, chairman of Sears, Roebuck.Both Wedemeyer and his father-in-law, Lieutenant General StanleyD. Embick, were known to be opponents of Roosevelt's foreignpolicy, which they thought was leading the United Statesinto a premature and dangerous war.
This was a full year before anyone realized Adolf Hitler mighttry to exterminate Europe's Jews. Embick and Wedemeyer viewedthe world through the realistic eyes of the soldier. They had nouse for Hitler's Third Reich and its anti-Semitic policies. Butmany other European countries, notably Soviet Russia, practicedanti-Semitism, either covertly or openly. The New York TimesMoscow correspondent had pointed out that Josef Stalin hadshot more Jews in his late-1930s purges of supposedly disloyalCommunists than Adolf Hitler had thus far killed in Germany.
Embick and Wedemeyer did not believe the United Statesshould fight unless it was attacked or seriously threatened. Theyscoffed at Roosevelt's claim that Germany planned to invadeSouth America, acidly pointing out that if the Nazi leader were toland an army in Brazil, his reputed prime target, the Germanswould be farther away from the United States than they were inEurope. Both men also knew that America was not prepared totake on the German and Japanese war machines.
At the same time, Wedemeyer and Embick (who was descendedfrom German-Americans who had emigrated to America beforethe Revolution) were men of honor, true to their oaths of allegianceas officers of the United States Army. (Admiral WilliamLeahy, Roosevelt's military chief of staff, praised Embick's "superlativeintegrity.") Although they disagreed with the president'spolicy, there was no hesitation to obey his orders. "I never workedso hard on anything in my life as I did on that Victory Program,"Wedemeyer recalled. "I recognized its immense importance,whether or not we got into the war. We were spending billions onarms without any clear idea of what we might need or where andwhen they might be used. I went to every expert in the Army andthe Navy to find out the ships, the planes, the artillery, the tankswe would require to defeat our already well-armed enemies."
One conclusion Major Wedemeyer drew from this research wasparticularly alarming. There was a gap of eighteen months betweenthe present U.S. military posture and full readiness to wagea successful war. To discover this secret splashed across the frontpages of two major newspapers for the Germans and Japanese toread was dismaying enough. But it was the "political dynamite"in the revelation that Wedemeyer dreaded even more.
His civilian boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, told reportersthat the man who had leaked Rainbow Five was "wantingin loyalty and patriotism," and so were the people who hadpublished it. Wedemeyer was summoned to the office of JohnMcCloy, assistant secretary of war. He was not invited to sitdown. He therefore stood at attention. "Wedemeyer," McCloysnarled, "there's blood on the fingers of the man who leaked thisinformation."
Frank C. Waldrop, at that time the foreign editor of the WashingtonTimes-Herald, has contributed another recollection of thatemotional morning in the War Department. He visited the scenein pursuit of a story that had nothing to do with Rainbow Fiveand encountered a friend on the War Plans staff, Major LaurenceKuter. "Frank," a white-lipped Kuter said, "there are people herewho would have put their bodies between you and that document."
J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was summoned to theoffice of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and urged to launchan investigation. Hoover called in the chief of naval operations,Admiral Harold R. Stark, and Rear Admiral Richmond KellyTurner, who had been in charge of preparing the navy's portionof the Victory Program, and began interrogating them. Hooverasked if there was any dissatisfaction with the plan among navalofficers. Turner, exhibiting his talent for political infighting, causticallyinformed Hoover that all the navy's officers consideredRainbow Five an "army" plan, "impractical of consummation"and "ill-advised." This was Turner's way of saying the navywanted to fight Japan first, not Germany.
Later in this tumultuous morning two FBI agents appeared inWedemeyer's office and examined the contents of his safe. Theireyes widened when they discovered a copy of the Victory Programwith everything that had appeared in the newspapers underlined.The sweating Wedemeyer explained that he had justdone the underlining to get a clear idea of how much had been revealed.The two agents began an interrogation of Wedemeyer andother army and navy officers that continued for months.
Several army staff officers said they strongly suspected Wedemeyerof being the leaker. An anonymous letter, obviously writtenby an insider and addressed to the secretary of war, accusedthe harassed major and General Embick. The writer claimed Embickhated the British and "condemns Britain" for Germany's decisionto declare war. There was an unfortunate germ of truth inthis accusation. Embick, an 1899 West Point graduate, hadserved in England as a staff officer during World War I. He grewto loathe the arrogance with which the British demanded thatAmericans feed doughboys into their decimated regiments andabandon plans to form an independent army in France.
Wedemeyer's prospects grew even bleaker when the FBI discoveredhe had recently deposited several thousand dollars in theRiggs National Bank in Washington. He explained it was an inheritancefrom a relative. He admitted that he knew GeneralRobert E. Wood, Charles Lindbergh, and other leaders of AmericaFirst and agreed with some of their views. He often attendedAmerica First meetings, although never in uniform.
FBI agents hurried to Nebraska, the general's home state, to investigatehis German origins. They were befuddled to discover hisGerman-born grandfather had fought for the Confederacy. HisIrish-American mother called him long distance to ask him whatin the world he had done. She thought he was in danger of beingshot at sunrise. General Wedemeyer smiled when he told this partof the story in 1986 but in 1941 he found nothing about his ordealamusing.
Meanwhile the White House was reacting to the big leak in severalways. Although FDR "approved" Secretary of War Stimson'sstatement, the president refused to discuss the matter at a pressconference on December 5. Stimson had also refused to take anyquestions from reporters. Roosevelt allowed reporters to questionhis press secretary, Steve Early, who claimed he was not in aposition to confirm or deny the authenticity of the story. Earlyadded that it was customary for both the army and the navy toconcoct war plans for all possible emergencies. Sensing that thiswas an absurd way to discuss Rainbow Five, which included thepresident's letter ordering its preparation, Early stumbled on toassert that it was also customary to ask the president's permissionto publish one of his letters.
The press secretary undercut himself again by admitting thatthis was an official, not a personal, letter, hence a public document.Then he lamely pointed out that the president's letter madeno specific mention of an expeditionary force. But Early did notattempt to deny the president had seen Rainbow Five and given ithis tacit approval.
On only one topic did Early seem forthright. He said that thenewspapers were "operating as a free press" and had a perfectright to print the material, "assuming the story to be genuine." Itwas the government's responsibility to keep the report secret. Almostin the same breath he added that other papers were free toprint the story too, depending on whether they thought such adecision was "patriotic or treason." Obviously Early was practicingwhat Washington pundits later called damage control.
After his histrionics with Major Wedemeyer, John McCloycoolly informed Clarence Cannon, the head of the House AppropriationsCommittee, and John Taber, the ranking House Republican,that there were no plans for an American expeditionaryforce. They brought his assurance back to their colleagues; Cannondeclared that the whole story, which he implied was fictitious,was designed to wreck the appropriations bill. The nextday the House voted the more than $8 billion to enlarge the armyto 2 million men and expand the navy and the army and navy airforces at a similar rate.
In his diary Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes recorded hisoutrage at the leak of Rainbow Five. Few men in Roosevelt's administration,except perhaps Ickes's colleague, Secretary of theTreasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., were more ardently prowar. At acabinet meeting on December 6, Ickes urged the president to punishthe Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald. AttorneyGeneral Francis Biddle said he thought they could beprosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. FDR asked Secretaryof War Stimson if Colonel McCormick, the owner of the Tribune,was a member of the army reserve and if so, could he be court-martialed?Stimson said no to both questions, which seem tohave been more playful than serious. Ickes recorded his bafflementthat Roosevelt, although apparently angry, showed no realinterest in taking action against the Tribune.
White House speechwriter and Roosevelt intimate Robert Sherwoodlater described Rainbow Five as "one of the most remarkabledocuments in American history, for it set down the basicstrategy of the global war before the United States was involvedin it." The plan had distilled "two years of wartime deliberations"by American army and navy staffs and "upwards of a yearof exchanges of information and opinion by British and Americanstaffs working together in secret." In the light of such anopinion, Roosevelt's seeming indifference to the source of theleak becomes even more puzzling.
Elsewhere, the reaction to the big leak was quite different. TheU.S. government's Foreign Information Service was staffed by interventionists.Far from exhibiting any embarrassment, they decidedto send the story abroad by shortwave radio as proof ofAmerica's determination to defeat the Axis powers. The British,struggling to cope with savage German air and submarine offensives,headlined it in their newspapers as a beacon of hope.
Interest in Rainbow Five was at least as intense elsewhere in theworld. On December 5 the German embassy in Washington,D.C., had cabled the entire transcript of the newspaper story toBerlin. There it was reviewed and analyzed as "the RooseveltWar Plan." Tokyo also paid considerable attention to the plan.One big daily paper headlined the story with: United StatesLack of Preparedness Exposed by American Paper. Anotherpaper called it: United States Gigantic Dream Plan for War.A third bannered: Secret United States Plans Against Japanand Germany Are Exposed.
Excerpted from The New Dealers' War by Thomas Fleming. Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Fleming. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.