This week marks the 70th anniversary of “Operation Dynamo,” an ad hoc rescue mission involving small civilian ships coming to the aid of French and British soldiers who had been forced into retreat at Dunkerque during the for Allied troops disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. The operation, which became known as “The Miracle of the Little Ships,” was recreated today as more than sixty British vessels, sailing from Kent, arrived on the shores of northern France.
During the course of a single week, nearly 340,000 soldiers were brought to safety, however temporary. Many civilians who had what became known as “Dunkirk spirit” were recruited after listening to BBC appeals on behalf of the British admiralty for aid from “uncertified second hands”—fishermen, owners of small pleasure crafts, any and all, as the BBC announcer put it, “who have had charge of motor boats and [had] good knowledge of coastal navigation.”
Eager to maintain its neutrality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was understandably lacking in such public “spirit,” frequent outcries against Nazi atrocities notwithstanding; but even long after entering the war, the US government kept on struggling to explain or justify the need for sacrifices and (wo)manpower to a people living thousands of miles from the theaters of war. On this day, 27 May, in 1941, one year after the operation at Dunkirk began, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came before the American public in another one of his Fireside Chats.
Although the nation was “[e]xpect[ing] all individuals [. . .] to play their full parts without stint and without selfishness,” the Roosevelt administration took considerable pains to explain the significance of the war, the need for “toil and taxes,” to civilians who, not long recovered from the Great Depression, were struggling to make a living.
If Hitler’s “plan to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada” remained unchecked, FDR warned the public,
American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics and collective bargaining a joke.
Crucial to America’s freedom was the security of the oceans and ports. If, as FDR put it, the “Axis powers fail[ed] to gain control of the seas,’ their “dreams of world-domination” would “go by the board,” and the “criminal leaders who started this war [would] suffer inevitable disaster.”
The President’s address—broadcast at 9:30 EST over CBS stations including WABC, WJAS, WJAS, WIBX, WMMN, WNBF, WGBI and WJR—departs only slightly from the script, published in the 31 May 1941 issue of the Department of State Bulletin. Whatever changes were made were either designed to strengthen the appeal or else to prevent the urgency of the situation from coming across as so devastating as to imply that any efforts by the civilian population were utterly futile.
The address, as scripted, was designed to remind the American public that the US navy needed to be strengthened, alerting listeners that, of late, there had been “[g]reat numbers” of “sinkings” that had “been actually within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.”
The blunt truth is this—and I reveal this with the full knowledge of the British Government: the present rate of Nazi sinkings of merchant ships is more than three times as high as the capacity of British shipyards to replace them; it is more than twice the combined British and American output of merchant ships today.
In address as delivered, this passage was rendered slightly more tentative as “The blunt truth of this seems to be,” a subtle change that not so much suggests there was room for doubt as it creates the impression that the great man behind the microphone was weighing the facts he laid bare, that the devastating and devastatingly “blunt truth” was being carefully considered rather than dictated as absolute.
No mention was made of the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” that remarkable demonstration of spirit and resilience. More than a flotilla of “little ships” was required to defend the US from the potential aggression of the Axis powers. The challenge of American propaganda geared toward US civilians was to make the situation relevant to individuals remote from the battlefields, to motivate and, indeed, create a home front.
In Britain, where “ignorant armies clashed” just beyond the narrow English Channel and where the battlefields were the backyards, there was less of a need to drive home why the fight against the Axis was worth fighting.
In the US, the driving home had to be achieved by breaking down the perfectly sound barriers of that great American fortress called home, by making use of the one medium firmly entrenched in virtually every American household, an osmotic means of communication capable of permeating walls and penetrating minds. Radio served as an extension to the world; but it was more than an ear trumpet. It was also a stethoscope auscultating the hearts of the listener. As FDR, who so persuasively employed it in his Fireside Chats, was well aware, the most effective medium with which to imbue the American public with something akin to “Dunkirk spirit” was the miracle not of “little ships” but of the all-engulfing airwaves—and the big broadcasts—that helped to keep America afloat.