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Europe First: The Geopolitics of Global War

Europe mapThe transformation of American geopolitical direction was the result of the U.S. experience in World War II but was already in motion well before Pearl Harbor. Long before the first shot was fired, the Roosevelt Administration had already committed the country toward the liberation of Western Europe, a commitment that went far beyond the war and continues to this very day. In retrospect, Adolph Hitler was not only responsible for the end of the Great Depression, he was also chiefly responsible for the end of American isolationism and the historic shift of foreign policies from the Western Hemisphere to the remainder of the world. This may well be Hitler’s lasting legacy.

The transformative impact of world war, in both domestic and foreign affairs, has not received the attention it deserves. Where would the women’s movement be, for example, minus the experience of leaving home to build war machines in American factories while the men were fighting overseas? Similarly, where would U.S. peacetime foreign policies be without the experience of the Normandy beaches and the liberation of the continent from Nazism? This transformation began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who collaborated to strengthen the geopolitical bonds between the English-speaking peoples. But the background lies deeply within the historic geopolitics of the American continent.

The priority of Europe in any wartime strategy was geopolitically as logical and consistent as the Farewell Address itself. By the twentieth century, the United States was the world’s foremost industrial power, while the technological advances in air and sea power had made the country far more vulnerable to attack than ever before. The fact that most of American industry resided in the eastern and northeastern areas dictated concentration on Germany rather than Japan, while the companion fact that the Atlantic was much narrower a defensive shield than the Pacific reinforced this reality. This came home in the early years of the war, when bathers on the beaches of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida watched helplessly as hundreds of American cargo ships went down in clouds of smoke from German submarines. By contrast, the thousands of Japanese “balloon” bombs sent to the west coast had the combined effect of killing a family on picnic in an Oregon forest.

The close relationship of the British and U.S. navies in the Atlantic, furthermore, had a history going back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and had no counterpart in the Pacific, an area where the U.S. Navy operated practically alone.

From the early years of the twentieth century, the U.S. military had drawn up hypothetical war plans against potential enemies under color plans known as “Rainbow.” Plan “Orange,” for example, was war against Japan, “Red” against Britain, “Black” against Germany, etc. In the 1930s, such plans were revised to anticipate war against a European-Asian coalition, which was named Red-Orange and, in fact, became known as the “Axis.” The geopolitical logic of such plans consistently dictated the priority of Europe over all others in the rainbow, setting a precedent that finally became real in the years right before Pearl Harbor. While the general public, outraged against Japan, demanded an all-out Pacific offensive, the die had long since been cast on behalf of “Europe First.”

This became official policy more than a year before Pearl Harbor when Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval operations, concluded with President Roosevelt after his third straight electoral victory that “Europe First” would be the priority in any future war (November 1940). This also confirmed the earlier view of the “Rainbow” plans (Plan “D” or “Dog”) that, in any Pacific war, Germany would be the priority and that the U.S. would initially have to abandon everything west of Hawaii. While the Navy vigorously challenged this view and liberated the western Pacific, Europe became number one as the world war progressed.   

In practical ways, the U.S. was already at war with Germany well before this time. In September 1940, the U.S. and Britain made their historic Destroyers for Bases deal, where 50 U.S. destroyers were transferred for U.S. bases on British Caribbean areas. In December 1940, Roosevelt made his classic “Arsenal of Democracy” broadcast; Germany was not included.

These continued in 1941. In March, Lend Lease was passed, providing aid to Britain and France. Starting in April, U.S. warships began escorting British convoys across the Atlantic, and, in August, the two signed the “Atlantic Charter,” providing joint war aims. But only Britain was at war.

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, British Prime Minister Churchill came to the White House and stayed for several weeks. Now they both were at war. The meetings held then, known as “Arcadia,” solidified earlier arrangements, announcing that “our view remains that Germany is still the prime enemy and her defeat is the key to victory.”

Thus, the geopolitical policies of the United States, based upon location and power resources, had already replaced historic isolationism even before the reality of warfare. Seventy-five years later, they are still in place but multiplied a hundred-fold.