|This Week in American History
July 25 31, 1940
The American Republics Mobilize To Defend the Hemisphere from the Axis Powers
With the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. In April of 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway, and by May they had overrun the Netherlands and Belgium. By June 22, France had signed an armistice with Germany, and, shortly thereafter, with Italy as well. The Nazi occupation of these countries had serious implications for the Americas. One of the most chilling was the fact that several of the defeated nations had colonial possessions in both North and South America. If the Nazis occupied these territories as bases, the republics of the Western Hemisphere would face tremendous difficulties in withstanding the coming fascist onslaught.
President Franklin Roosevelt was acutely aware of the possible strategic problems involved, and as early as 1936 had made a tour of South America in order to promote unity among the various republics. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, he had delivered the keynote address at an Inter-American meeting which resulted in a number of treaties and bilateral agreements on security, promotion of trade, and cultural exchange. In his keynote, Roosevelt stated that the role of the American nations must be to consult with each other on their mutual safety against aggressors, to raise their living standards, to promote social and political justice, and to exchange commodities and ideas with other nations.
Once the disastrous Munich Pact, between Hitler and Britain's Neville Chamberlain, was signed in the fall of 1938, Roosevelt knew more urgent action was needed to safeguard the Americas. That December, he sent Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Lima, Peru, for the International Conference of American States. The Declaration of Lima, which came out of that conference, provided for consultation in case of a threat to the security of any member nation.
With the actual outbreak of war in Europe, President Roosevelt called for a Pan-American Conference to be held in Havana, Cuba, in the summer of 1940. Writing about the conference, Roosevelt said that, "The fall of France and other countries in Europe in June 1940, immediately raised the grave question as to the status of their colonial possessions in the Western Hemisphere. Obviously, if these possessions were to be ceded to, or seized in any way by the aggressor nations, or if any control over them were to be transferred, or if any impairment whatsoever were to be made in the sovereignty which existed at the time with respect to them, the results would be a matter of deep concern to all the American Republics. The principles of the American foreign policy, enunciated over one hundred years ago in the Monroe Doctrine, might eventually be placed in jeopardy.
"In order to consider the effect of European developments in the World War, and to devise means of meeting this new threat to the peace and security of the Western Hemisphere, the American Republics called together a formal meeting of their foreign ministers on July 21, 1940, in Habana [Havanaed.]. This meeting was convened in accordance with the procedure established in Buenos Aires in December 1936, and at Lima in December 1938.
"This meeting considered several other matters of inter-American interest in the emergency of the European and Asiatic wars; but its chief attention was devoted to formulation of a policy to be followed in the event of any attempted change in the sovereignty of European nations over any of their possessions in America."
Even before the foreign ministers assembled in Havana, the United States had put the Axis Powers on notice that the Monroe Doctrine could not be violated. Secretary Hull wrote that after the United States had been informed of the French armistice with Germany, he had "directed the representatives of the United States at Berlin and Rome to make a communication to the German and Italian Governments the pertinent paragraph of which is the following:
"The Government of the United States feels it desirable, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, to inform Your Excellency that in accordance with its traditional policy relating to the Western Hemisphere, the United States would not recognize any transfer, and would not acquiesce in any attempt to transfer, any geographic region of the Western Hemisphere from one non-American power to another non-American power.
"The Governments of France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands were informed in the same sense.
"The Senate itself has also given evidence of its adherence to the policy which I have outlined above through the passage of S.J. Resolution 271 on June 17, 1940, 'approving nonrecognition of the transfer of any geographic region in the Western Hemisphere from one non-American power to another non-American power, and providing for consultations with other American republics in the event that such transfer should appear likely.'"
The pressing necessity for invoking the Monroe Doctrine was succinctly summarized by Secretary Hull: "The progress of that war to date has obliged the Government of one of the countries [the Netherlands] having possessions in the American republics to abandon its homeland; the Government of a second of these countries [France] has been forced to sign an armistice involving, among other conditions, the hostile occupation of more than one-half of its territory. The third of the Governments [Great Britain] with whose possessions in this hemisphere we are now concerned is engaged in a struggle in which its very existence may be at stake."
Partially reflecting President Roosevelt's intention to end colonialism once the war was over, Hull stated that at the Havana conference, "It was therefore agreed that in the event that conditions should so permit, such possessions as might be taken under control by, or on behalf of, the American republics should be returned to their original sovereigns or declared independent, as soon as possible after the passing of the emergency which furnished the basis for the assumption of control over them."
On July 30, 1940, the Inter-American Conference endorsed the "Act of Habana," as well as a "Convention on the Provisional Administration of European Colonies and Possessions in the Americas." The Act of Habana provided for the emergency establishment of a provisional administration under conditions "when islands or regions in the Americas now under the possession of non-American nations are in danger of becoming the subject of barter of territory or change of sovereignty."
An emergency committee was formed consisting of one representative of each of the American republics, and that committee was to determine the necessity for such provisional regimes. Provision was also made for individual or joint action on the part of any American republic under urgent conditions.
The Convention passed by the conference established an "Inter-American Commission for Territorial Administration" to carry out the principles of the Act of Habana. President Roosevelt informed the U.S. Senate that the Convention included provisions that enumerated "the general principles of such administration, all of which were consonant with the inter-American democratic system and their consultative agreements, as well as the rights and interests of the natives of the colonial possessions which might have to come within the purview of the Convention."
The President sent the Act of Habana and the Convention to the U.S. Senate on September 13, where the provisions were swiftly ratified, and the President signed the ratification on October 10, 1940. Although Adolf Hitler asked his staff in the fall of 1940 to draw up plans to seize Atlantic islands as a first step toward invading Latin America, that strategy was not followed. Instead, the Nazis relied on the development of a fifth column in Latin America. They concentrated especially on building up fascist assets in Mexico, from which they planned to launch an attack on the United States.