2-168 Editorial Note on Relations with FDR, May 1940

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: May 1, 1940

Editorial Note on Relations with FDR

May 1940

On the morning of May 10, scarcely twelve hours after word of the German attack on the Low Countries reached Washington, the president met with General Marshall, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and several others. Marshall discussed the materiel situation and asked for an immediate manpower increase for the Regular Army to be followed by a further increase in the autumn to raise it to full peace strength of 280,000 enlisted men. Having been instructed by President Roosevelt to “get all of this together” by Monday, Secretary Morgenthau arranged to meet with Marshall on Saturday morning, May 11. (FDRL/H. Morgenthau, Jr., Papers [Presidential Diary, 2:538-40]. For comments by Marshall and others on the May 10 meeting, see FDRL/H. Morgenthau, Jr., Papers [Diary, 150: 275-81].)

At the meeting Morgenthau told Marshall that the War Department’s budgetary tactics were wrong; “the trouble is . . . the President is getting little pieces and what he ought to have is an over-all picture.” Marshall at once produced “a rough outline of the over-all picture” summarizing additional requirements for the fiscal year 1941 budget amounting to $640,000,000 for 38,000 more men (to bring the total to 280,000), for critical and essential items of equipment, for aircraft, for seacoast defenses, and for expediting materiel production. The secretary declared that he was not frightened by the numbers, but Marshall said, “It makes me dizzy.” “It makes me dizzy if we don’t get it,” Morgenthau responded. (Ibid., pp. 291-92. A revised version [May 12] of the memorandum Marshall presented—”Summary of Additional Requirements for National Defense. . .”—is in NA/RG 165 [OCS, Emergency File].)

A major problem the military faced in seeking to stimulate greater and more rapid production was, in Marshall’s view, that the country was undergoing an unprecedented period of transition from peacetime industry but without the stimulus and efficiency of full mobilization. “We have never in the past made deliberate moves one after the other to build up to a preparation before we were in the business.” If it became necessary for the country to pass beyond preparation, the costs would become tremendous. “When we step beyond this, we are really going into mobilization, that is what it amounts to.” After a lengthy discussion of the proper strategy to adopt in approaching the president with these unprecedented requests, Secretary Morgenthau called the White House to arrange for a Monday morning (May 13) meeting. (FDRL/H. Morgenthau, Jr., Papers [Diary, 150: 300 302].)

At eleven o’clock Monday morning, Marshall, Morgenthau, Woodring, Johnson, and Budget Director Harold Smith “went to see the president who, it was quite evident, was not desirous of seeing us,” Marshall recalled later. “The conversation through most of the meeting—in fact all of it for a long time—was between the president and Mr. Morgenthau, and he was getting very little chance to state his case. I rather assumed that the president was staging this rather drastic handling of Mr. Morgenthau for my benefit, because they were old friends and neighbors.”

At first Morgenthau talked about the need for an advisory committee for the Council of National Defense, but the president did not favor this on the ground that existing agencies could handle the industrial preparedness effort. “Then Mr. Morgenthau got around to military aspects—military equipment—and the president was exceedingly short with him. Finally, Mr. Morgenthau said, `Well, Mr. President, will you hear General Marshall?’ The president replied (I remember this most distinctly), `Well, I know exactly what he would say. There is no necessity for my hearing him at all.’ It was a desperate situation. I felt that he might be president but I had certain knowledge which I was sure he didn’t possess or which he didn’t grasp. I thought the whole thing was catastrophic in its possibilities, and this last cut [i.e., the president’s reduction of Marshall’s April 15 request (see Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-164 [2: 205-7]) just emphasized the point. Recalling that a man has a great advantage, psychologically, when he stands looking down on a fellow, I took advantage—in a sense—of the president’s condition. When he terminated the meeting, I, not having had a chance to say anything, walked over and stood looking down at him and said, `Mr. President, may I have three minutes?’ Then in a complete change of mood and in a most gracious fashion he said, `Of course, General Marshall.’

“I said, `Now, first Mr. Morgenthau spoke to you about this civilian organization to represent all the civil side of these matters, and you said that Hopkins would handle one part and Morgenthau one part.’ And he [the president] himself was handling one part of it. `With all frankness, none of you are supermen, and Mr. Morgenthau has no more chance of managing this thing than of flying. We just had lunch and he gave orders he was not to be interrupted. He was interrupted three times by the matter of the closing of the Stock Exchange. He can’t possibly grasp all these things. He was trying to get the straight of the enormity of our situation regarding military preparedness, and he wasn’t even allowed to do that. If you don’t do something like that [the advisory committee]—and do it right away—I don’t know what is going to happen to this country.’

“’As to the military part, I just came here in the first place about a cut—of something which had previously been approved by the Budget Bureau and turned down in the Congress—which is actually a small sum of money. It seems to us large these days, but it will eventually be considered a small sum. I don’t know quite how to express myself about this to the president of the United States, but I will say this, you have got to do something and you’ve got to do it today.’“ (Marshall Interviews, pp. 329-30). The emphasis is in the original. For Morgenthau’s record of this meeting, see FDRL/H. Morgenthau, Jr., Papers [Presidential Diary, 2: 531].)

Secretary Morgenthau—who observed in his diary that “the President has to take a great deal of the responsibility that the Army is in as bad shape as it is”—told Marshall that evening, “You did a swell job and I think you are going to get about 75% of what you want.” The secretary was “tremendously impressed with General Marshall. He stood right up to the President.” (Ibid., pp. 533-34.)

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 209-211.

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