Washington, D.C. · July 7, 1941

Long before the U.S. entered World War II, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt began unra­veling Con­gres­sional legis­la­tion that had hin­dered his aiding Great Britain and other Western demo­cra­cies in their armed con­flict with Nazi tyranny. Four suc­ces­sive Neu­trality Acts from the 1930s were un­done with “help” from two Ger­man U‑boat attacks on U.S. Navy ships in the North Atlantic off Ice­land, together with FDR’s Lend-Lease bill, approved by Con­gress on March 11, 1941, which began “lending” arms and mate­rial to the British—at war with Germany since September 3, 1939—even though the U.S. technically remained neutral.

On this date in 1941 Roose­velt dis­patched Amer­i­can forces to occupy the Carib­bean island of Trini­dad, British Gui­ana in South America, and the Danish depen­dency of Ice­land in the North Atlantic. The two British pos­ses­sions, Trini­dad and British Gui­ana, were stra­tegically signi­fi­cant because of Vene­zuelan oil fields in the south­east and the U.S.-owned Pana­ma Canal in the south­west. Ice­land, viewed as part of America’s defense of the West­ern Atlantic, approved the arrange­ment where­by troops of a neu­tral nation—that is, the U.S.—would be per­mitted to station armed forces on its soil in place of troops from a bel­lig­er­ent country. The bel­lig­er­ent country was Great Britain, which had sta­tioned troops in Ice­land and patrolled Ice­landic waters to pre­vent Ger­many from over­running the is­land after the latter had over­run Iceland’s mother coun­try, Den­mark, the year before. Three months earlier, in April 1941, FDR had sent troops to occupy the Danish depen­dency of Greenland, the lightly settled landmass east of Canada.

These occu­pa­tions were made under the imagi­na­tive guise that the terri­tories fell under the protec­tive um­brel­la of the cen­tury-old Mon­roe Doc­trine. The U.S. move was to pre­vent, in the words of the pre­si­dent (who also happened to be military com­man­der-in-chief), the occu­pa­tion by Nazi Ger­many of stra­tegic out­posts that could be used as air or naval bases for even­tual attack against nations in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. Amer­i­can air and naval assets on Green­land and Ice­land moved the U.S. closer to sup­porting Great Britain in its Battle of the Atlantic—which became the longest-running (six years), most com­plex cam­paign of the war—because now U.S. Navy warships could extend their patrols to these two island terri­tories, both laying along the fragile oceanic lifeline between the U.S. and Britain.

The U.S. Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941

Battle-scarred USS Kearny, November 1941USS Reuben James

Left: USS Kearny at Reykjavík, Iceland, two days after being tor­pedoed by U‑568 on Octo­ber 17, 1941. The USS Mons­sen is along­side. The tor­pedo hole is visi­ble in Kearny’s star­board side (dark smudge mid­ship in photo). The Kearny, assisting three other U.S. destroyers, came to the res­cue of a belea­guered con­voy whose Cana­dian escorts were being mauled by a U‑boat wolf pack when it too came under attack. Casual­ties among Kearny’s crew included 11 dead and 22 injured. Roose­velt told the Ameri­can pub­lic that “we do not pro­pose to take this [attack] lying down.” He asked Con­gress to autho­rize the arming of Ameri­can mer­chant ships, one of many mile­posts he planted on the road to mobilizing the nation for war in 1941.

Right: The USS Reuben James—a four-funnel, post-World War I destroyer—was the second U.S. Navy ship sunk by hos­tile action in World War II. (The first was the USS Panay, a Yangtze (China) river gun­boat sunk by Japa­nese air­craft on Decem­ber 12, 1937.) The sinking of the Reu­ben James off Ice­land on Octo­ber 30, 1941, with the loss of 115 lives, prompted Con­gress, on Novem­ber 17, 1941, to lift the last pro­vi­sions of the archaic 1930s Neu­trality Laws. The U.S. was three weeks short of being drawn into war with Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy.

Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945