Reviewed by Mary Kathryn Barbier
By Norman Moss
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004
The spring and summer of 1940 were a tumultuous time in Europe. The so-called Phony War ended, and German troops invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Once those countries had fallen under the might of German blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain began almost immediately. While descriptions of the first summer of the conflict can be found in many sources, other wartime events, such as the Normandy invasion, frequently receive more attention.
World War II has been the topic of innumerable monographs, and the number of works being published has increased in the last several years. Some World War II books, such as Ernest R. May’s Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France and Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, focus primarily on France in May and June of 1940, while others, such as Constantine Pleshakov’s Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front, concentrate on a short, pivotal period of time. More general accounts of the war devote a chapter or two to the events that ended the “Phony War,” but one has the right to ask if there really is a need for additional books on World War II, and more specifically on the summer of 1940. While many readers might be convinced that authors have already thoroughly explored that “fateful summer,” Norman Moss demonstrates the opposite in his book, Nineteen Weeks: America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940.
Moss contends that the personalities of three men—Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt—shaped the events of the summer of 1940. As dictator, Hitler alone made decisions about matters that affected war and peace. Under Churchill’s guidance, Britain demonstrated a determination to continue fighting even against overwhelming odds. Roosevelt steered the evolution of American policy and public opinion during that “fateful summer” toward a closer association with Britain.
In order to make his case, Moss examines the interwar period, particularly the ways in which World War I had changed Britain and the ways in which American foreign policy evolved under Roosevelt’s leadership. He discusses the establishment of a relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill even before the latter became prime minister. As he discusses the evolving association between these two leaders, Moss also examines the complicated connection between Britain and France during the weeks leading up to the French surrender. Moss identifies an unusual proposal, seriously considered by the two countries, that called for the unification of Britain and France. Their parliaments would be merged, and the British people would become citizens of France, while the French would become citizens of Britain. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud’s inability to gain enough support for the proposal in the last hours before France’s capitulation to Germany prevented it from being put into effect. Britain’s last ditch effort to persuade the French to continue the fight against the German onslaught failed.
Because of public sentiment in the United States, Roosevelt was unable to satisfy Reynaud’s frantic appeals for help. Despite his inability to help France, Roosevelt did his utmost to keep Britain afloat, particularly during the summer of 1940. The president carefully gauged public opinion, successfully swayed it increasingly in Britain’s favor and courted support for aid to Britain from Republicans. In fact, as Moss persuasively notes, the nomination of Wendell Willkie as the Republican presidential candidate in 1940 actually helped Roosevelt in several ways. Willkie, who was not an isolationist, agreed with Roosevelt’s position regarding increased aid to Britain. Consequently, aid was not a divisive campaign issue, and Willkie also supported specific legislation, such as the destroyers-for-bases deal.
In addition to examining Roosevelt’s efforts to facilitate Britain’s struggle against Germany, Moss also weaves the story of a prime minister who recognized the cost that American aid would bear on the future of the British empire. As far as Churchill was concerned, the continued existence of Britain was worth the cost. In addition, Moss explains the long-term impact of the war on Britain’s society and economy, as well as the increasingly important role of Britain’s government in solving social problems during the war. This increased role continued in the postwar period as the British government took the lead in the establishment of a social welfare state.
Moss’ Nineteen Weeks provides much needed insight into the complicated long- lasting relationship that developed between Britain and America during the “fateful summer” of 1940.