On the night of December 29, 1940, theaters and restaurants across the country emptied as Americans gathered around radios to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliver one of the most famous of his beloved fireside chats. His topic was a somber one for the holidays. “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now,” the president said.
World War II was underway, though America had not yet entered the fight. Germany and its allies had overrun much of Europe and Asia. The British, Greeks, Chinese, and a few other nations struggled to hold back the Axis assault. If Great Britain fell, FDR predicted, Americans “would be living at the point of a gun.” (That very night, German bombs fell on London, engulfing many buildings in flames.)
“There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness,” Roosevelt warned. “There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb. We know now that a nation can have peace with the Nazis only at the price of total surrender.”
The president explained that America had no choice but to use its industrial might to arm nations battling the Axis powers. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he said. “We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”
In the following months, American factories began pumping out planes, tanks, guns, and ships to aid the Allies. Between 1940 and 1943, the United States increased its war output by a stunning 25 times. As the British journalist Alistair Cooke wrote, “The Allies would not have won the war . . . without the way the American people, with amazing speed, created an arsenal no coalition of nations could come close to matching.”