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Memorandum for General Gerow1
January 17, 1941 Washington, D.C.
Subject: White House Conference of Thursday, January 16, 1941.
Yesterday afternoon the President held a lengthy conference with the Secretaries of State, War and Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Army. He discussed the possibilities of sudden and simultaneous action on the part of Germany and Japan against the United States. He felt that there was one chance out of five of such an eventuality, and that it might culminate any day.
The President then brought up for opinion and discussion a number of phases of the matter:
What military and naval action we should take in that emergency; he mentioned the “Rainbow” plan and commented on the fact that we must be realistic in the matter and avoid a state of mind involving plans which could be carried out after the lapse of some months; we must be ready to act with what we had available.
He discussed the publicity we might give to our proposed courses of action,—in relation to the Philippines, fleet, the continuation of supplies to Great Britain, etc.
He devoted himself principally to a discussion of our attitude in the Far East towards Japan and to the matter of possible curtailment of American shipments of war supplies to England. He was strongly of the opinion that in the event of hostile action towards us on the part of Germany and Japan we should be able to notify Mr. Churchill immediately that this would not curtail the supply of materiel to England. He discussed this problem on the basis of the probability that England could survive six months and that, therefore, a period of at least two months would elapse before hostile action could be taken against us in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, that there would be a period of eight months in which we could gather strength.
The meeting terminated with this general directive from the President:
That we would stand on the defensive in the Pacific with the fleet based on Hawaii; that the Commander of the Asiatic Fleet would have discretionary authority as to how long he could remain based in the Philippines and as to his direction of withdrawal—to the East or to Singapore; that there would be no naval reinforcement of the Philippines; that the Navy should have under consideration the possibility of bombing attacks against Japanese cities.2
That the Navy should be prepared to convoy shipping in the Atlantic to England, and to maintain a patrol off-shore from Maine south to the Virginia Capes. (I am in doubt as to this southern point.)
That the Army should not be committed to any aggressive action until it was fully prepared to undertake it; that our military course must be very conservative until our strength had developed; that it was assumed we could provide forces sufficiently trained to assist to a moderate degree in backing up friendly Latin-American governments against Nazi inspired fifth column movements.
That we should make every effort to go on the basis of continuing the supply of materiel to Great Britain, primarily in order to disappoint what he thought would be Hitler’s principal objective in involving us in a war at this particular time, and also to buck up England.3
This is a rough outline of the general understanding resulting from the discussion.
G. C. M
Document Copy Text Source: Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs (RG 165), Records of the War Plans Division (WPD), 4175-18, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.
Document Format: Typed memorandum signed.
1. Brigadier General Leonard T. Gerow had been acting assistant chief of staff, War Plans Division, since December 16, 1940.
2. Concerning the army’s gradual buildup in the Philippine Islands, see Marshall to Grunert, February 8, 1941, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-365 [2: 414-16].
3. President Roosevelt was summarizing the United States position on these subjects in preparation for the staff meetings called the “American-British Conversations” scheduled to begin in late January. See editorial note #2-363, Papers of George Catlett Marshall [2: 409-10].
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. 391-392.