Of all his speeches, perhaps the best example of Roosevelt's readiness to lie is his 1941 Navy Day address broadcast over nationwide radio on 27 October.
A lot had happened in the months preceding that address. On 11 March 1941 Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill into law, permitting increased deliveries of military aid to Britain in violation of U.S. neutrality and international law. In April Roosevelt illegally sent U.S. troops to occupy Greenland. On 27 May he proclaimed a state of "unlimited national emergency," a kind of presidential declaration of war that circumvented a power constitutionally reserved to Congress. Following the Axis attack against the USSR in June, the Roosevelt administration began delivering enormous quantities of military aid to the beleagured Soviets. These shipments also blatantly violated international law. In July Roosevelt illegally sent American troops to occupy Iceland.
The President began his Navy Day address by recalling that German submarines had torpedoed the U.S. destroyer Greer on 4 September 1941 and the U.S. destroyer Kearny on 17 October. In highly emotional language, he characterized these incidents as un-provoked acts of aggression directed against all Americans. He declared that although he had wanted to avoid conflict, shooting had begun and "history has recorded who fired the first shot."
What Roosevelt deliberately failed to mention was the fact that in each case the U.S. destroyers had been engaged in attack operations against the submarines, which fired in self-defense only as a last resort. Hitler wanted to avoid war with the United States, and had expressly ordered German submarines to avoid conflicts with U.S warships at all costs, except to avoid imminent destruction. Roosevelt's standing "shoot on sight" orders to the U.S Navy were specifically designed to make incidents like the ones he so piously condemned inevitable. His provocative efforts to goad Hitler into declaring war against the U.S. had failed and most Americans still opposed direct involvement in the European conflict.
And so, in an effort to convince his listeners that Germany was a real threat to American security, Roosevelt continued his Navy Day speech with a startling announcement: "Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler's government -- by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it." This map, the President explained, showed South America, as well as "our great life line, the Panama Canal," divided into five vassal states under German domination. "That map, my friends, makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States as well."
Roosevelt went on to reveal that he also had in his possession "another document made in Germany by Hitler's government. It is a detailed plan to abolish all existing religions -- Catholic, Protestant, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish alike" which Germany will impose "on a dominated world, if Hitler wins."
"The property of all churches will be seized by the Reich and its puppets. The cross and all other symbols of religion are to be forbidden. The clergy are to be liquidated. In the place of the churches of our civilization there is to be set up an international Nazi church, a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi government. And in the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in the place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols: the swastika and the naked sword."
Roosevelt emphasized the importances of his "revelations" by declaring: "Let us well ponder these grim truths which I have told you of the present and future plans of Hitlerism" All Americans, he said, "are faced with the choice between the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of world which Hitler and his hordes would impose on us." Accordingly, "we are pledged to pull our own oar in the destruction of Hitlerism."
The German government immediately responded to Roosevelt's speech by denouncing his "documents" as preposterous frauds. The Italian government declared that if Roosevelt did not publish his map "within 24 hours, he will acquire a sky high reputation as a forger." At a press conference the next day, a reporter rather naturally asked the President for a copy of the "secret map." But Roosevelt refused, insisting only that it came from "a source which is undoubtedly reliable."
As has often happened, the truth about the map did not emerge until many years after the war: It was a forgery produced by the British intelligence service, most probably at its technical laboratory in Ontario, Canada. William Stephenson (code name: Intrepid), chief of British intelligence operations in North America, passed it on to U.S. intelligence chief William Donovan, who gave it to Roosevelt. In a memoir published in late 1984, war-time British agent Ivar Bryce claimed credit for thinking up the "secret map" scheme. Of course, the other "document" cited by Roosevelt, purporting to outline German plans to abolish the world's religions, was just as fraudulent as the "secret map."
Some U.S. officials were concerned about British wartime efforts to deceive the American government and people. In a 5 September 1941 memorandum forwarded to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle warned that British intelligence agents were manufacturing phony documents detailing supposed German conspiracies. Americans should be "on our guard" against these British-invented "false scares," Berle concluded.
It's doubtful if any of Roosevelt's great contemporaries, including Stalin, Hitler and even Churchill, ever delivered a speech as loaded with falsehoods as brazen as those in his 1941 Navy Day address. On at least one occasion, Roosevelt privately admitted his willingness to lie to further his goals. During a conversation on 14 May 1942 with his close Jewish adviser, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the President candidly remarked: "I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I maybe entirely inconsistent, and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help us win the war."
SourcesBratzel, John F., and Leslie B. Rout, Jr., "FDR and The 'Secret Map'," The Wilson Quarterly (Washington, DC), New Year's 1985, pp. 167-173.
"Ex-British Agent Says FDR's Nazi Map Faked," Foreign Intelligence Literary Scene (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America), December 1984, pp. 1-3.
"President Roosevelt's Navy Day Address on World Affairs," The New York Times, 28 October 1941.
Journal for Historical Review, 6/1 (1985), 125ff. For related information, see (off-site) John T. Flynn's thorough demolition of the Roosevelt Myth, W.H. Chamberlain's How Roosevelt Lied America Into War, and Mark Weber's Secret Polish Documents.