President Franklin Roosevelt was a master of deceit. On at least one occasion, he candidly admitted his readiness to lie to further his goals. During a conversation in May 1942 with his close Jewish adviser, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the President remarked: “You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”
Roosevelt was not the first or the last American president to lie to the people. But rarely has a major American political figure given a speech as loaded with brazen falsehood as Franklin Roosevelt did in his Navy Day address of October 27, 1941, which was delivered at a large meeting in Washington, DC, and broadcast live over nationwide radio.
A lot had happened in the preceding months. On March 11, 1941, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill into law, permitting increased deliveries of military aid to Britain — a policy that violated U.S. neutrality and international law. In April Roosevelt illegally sent U.S. troops to occupy Greenland. On May 27 he claimed that German leaders were set on “world domination,” and proclaimed for the U.S. a state of “unlimited national emergency.” Following Germany’s attack against the USSR in June, the Roosevelt administration began delivering military aid to the beleaguered Soviets. These shipments also blatantly violated international law. In July Roosevelt illegally sent American troops to occupy Iceland. And in September Roosevelt announced a “shoot on sight” order to U.S. naval warships to attack German and Italian vessels on the high seas.
The President began his Navy Day address by recalling that German submarines had torpedoed the U.S. destroyer Greer on September 4, and the U.S. destroyer Kearny on October 17. In highly emotional language, he characterized these incidents as unprovoked acts of aggression directed against all Americans. He declared that although he had wanted to avoid conflict, shooting had begun and “history has recorded who fired the first shot.” What Roosevelt deliberately failed to mention was the fact that in each case the U.S. destroyers had been engaged in attack operations against the submarines, which fired in self-defense only as a last resort. In spite of Roosevelt’s “shoot on sight” order, which made incidents like the ones he so piously condemned inevitable, Hitler still wanted to avoid war with the United States. The German leader had expressly ordered his submarines to avoid conflicts with U.S warships at all costs, except to avoid imminent destruction. In spite of President Roosevelt’s provocative efforts to goad Hitler into declaring war against the U.S., most Americans still opposed direct involvement in the European conflict.
And so, as part of his effort to convince Americans that Germany was a real threat to their security, Roosevelt continued his Navy Day speech with a startling announcement: “Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean … I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government — by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it.” This map, the President explained, showed South America, as well as “our great life line, the Panama Canal,” divided into five vassal states under German domination. “That map, my friends, makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States as well.”
Roosevelt went on to reveal that he also had in his possession “another document made in Germany by Hitler’s government. It is a detailed plan to abolish all existing religions — Catholic, Protestant, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish alike” which Germany will impose “on a dominated world, if Hitler wins.”
“The property of all churches will be seized by the Reich and its puppets,” he continued. “The cross and all other symbols of religion are to be forbidden. The clergy are to be forever silenced under penalty of the concentration camps … In the place of the churches of our civilization, there is to be set up an international Nazi church — a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols — the swastika and the naked sword.”
Roosevelt emphasized the importance of his sensational claims. “Let us well ponder,” he said, “these grim truths which I have told you of the present and future plans of Hitlerism.” All Americans, he went on, “are faced with the choice between the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of world which Hitler and his hordes would impose on us.” Accordingly, “we are pledged to pull our own oar in the destruction of Hitlerism.”
The German government responded to the speech with a statement that categorically rejected the President’s accusations. The purported secret documents, it declared, “are forgeries of the crudest and most brazen kind.” Furthermore, the official statement went on: “The allegations of a conquest of South America by Germany and an elimination of the religions of the churches in the world and their replacement by a National Socialist church are so nonsensical and absurd that it is superfluous for the Reich government to discuss them.” German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels also responded to Roosevelt’s claims in a widely read commentary. The American president’s “absurd accusations,” he wrote, were a “grand swindle” designed to “whip up American public opinion.”
At a press conference the day after the address, a reporter asked the President for a copy of the “secret map” document. Roosevelt declined, but insisted that it had come from “a source which is undoubtedly reliable.”
The full story did not emerge until many years later. The map did exist, but it was a forgery produced by the British intelligence service at its clandestine “Station M” technical center in Canada. William Stephenson (code name: Intrepid), chief of British intelligence operations in North America, passed it on to U.S. intelligence chief William Donovan, who had it delivered to the President. In a memoir published in 1984, wartime British agent Ivar Bryce claimed credit for thinking up the “secret map” scheme. The other “document” cited by Roosevelt, purporting to outline German plans to abolish the world’s religions, was – of course — just as fanciful as the “secret map.”
In 1941 few Americans could believe that their President might lie with such seeming conviction about matters of the gravest national and global importance. Most accepted his alarmist claims as true. In his historic Navy Day address, Franklin Roosevelt thus succeeded in his goal, which was to further frighten Americans into supporting, or at least tolerating, his campaign to push the U.S. into war.
John F. Bratzel and Leslie B. Rout, Jr., “FDR and The ‘Secret Map’,” The Wilson Quarterly (Washington, DC), New Year’s 1985, pp. 167-173.
James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (New York: 1970), pp. 147-148.
Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918 -1945 (Washington, DC), Series D, Vol. 13, pages 724 -727. Documents No. 439 and No. 441.
“Ex-British Agent Says FDR’s Nazi Map Faked,” Foreign Intelligence Literary Scene (University Publications of America), December 1984, pp. 1-3.
“Fälschungen gröbster und plumpester Art: Eine Amtliche Verlautbarung der Deutschen Reichsregierung,” Freiburger Zeitung, Nov. 3, 1941.
Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), pp. 600-603.
“President Roosevelt’s Navy Day Address on World Affairs,” The New York Times, Oct. 28, 1941.
“The Reich Government’s Reply To Roosevelt’s Navy Day Speech,” The New York Times, Nov. 2, 1941. ( http://ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1941/411101a.html )
Joseph Goebbels, “Kreuzverhör mit Mr. Roosevelt,” Das Reich, Nov. 30, 1941. Nachdruck (reprint) in Das eherne Herz(1943), pp. 99-104. English translation: “Mr. Roosevelt Cross-Examined.” ( http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/goeb2.htm )
Herbert C. Hoover, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and its Aftermath(George H. Nash, ed.). Stanford Univ., 2011.
Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton Univ. Press, 1991)
Lynne Olson, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939- 1941 (Random House, 2013), esp. pages 402- 403.
Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt’s Secret War : FDR and World War II Espionage (New York: Random House, 2001)
Mark Weber, “President Roosevelt’s Campaign to Incite War in Europe: The Secret Polish Documents,” The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1983.
( http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v04/v04p135_Weber.html )
Mark Weber, “The ‘Good War’ Myth of World War Two.” May 2008.
( http://www.ihr.org/news/weber_ww2_may08.html )