When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, one might have naively assumed that the US would pursue an Asia First strategy:
In Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism, Richard Powers examines Roosevelt’s Europe First policy and those advocating an Asia First strategy. Anti-communists were the strongest advocates of an Asia First strategy, according to Powers, not because they were hot to revenge Pearl Harbor, but because they believed a Europe First strategy would benefit Stalin more than the United States. Catholic anti-communists were particularly well represented among Asia Firsters. A Milwaukee diocesan paper insisted that “our first duty is to this country and its own fronts, to Guadalcanal before Stalingrad.” Another Catholic paper complained that if supplies sent to England under Lend-Lease had been shipped to the Pacific, they might have prevented American defeats. Still other Catholics suspected that the Europe First strategy amounted to a betrayal of the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek, forcing him to fight both the Japanese and the Red Chinese without sufficient American aid or reinforcements.
Because of their visceral anti-communism and their concern for the Catholic populations of Eastern Europe, American Catholics were the most outspoken critics of the American-Soviet alliance. The bishops and the Catholic press would not fall in line with the Roosevelt administration’s policy of praising Stalin for the duration, although the Catholic hierarchy did bend to pressure from the president to silence Father Coughlin, “the radio priest.”
The American Catholic leadership insisted on calling attention to Soviet duplicity and crimes in eastern Europe and asserted repeatedly that the triumph of the Red Army would doom the peoples of eastern Europe to a dark age of misery, despair and death.
The Soviet propaganda machine counter-attacked by manufacturing and spreading disinformation to the effect that the Catholic Church was in league with the Nazis and Fascists to exterminate the Jews. Isvestia published numerous articles alleging the Catholics and Fascists/Nazis had been in league since 1929 (the year of the Vatican’s concordat with Mussolini).
Sen. Albert Chandler was the leader of the Asia First bloc in the senate that believed the longer the American invasion of Europe was delayed, the better. The longer the invasion was put off, they reasoned, the more losses Russia would suffer. They also feared that if the United States helped the Soviets defeat Germany before the war in the Pacific was over, the S.U. would be able to have its way in Europe while the U.S. was focusing on Japan. Sen. Burton Wheeler asserted the U.S. should finish off Japan first, then “we would be in a much better position to deal with Russia when we come to the peace table, and to protect Poland.”
Asia Firsters, outraged that Stalin honored the Russo-Japanese neutality pact, and negotiated economic treaties with Japan during the war, including a fishing treaty in mid-1943, believed Stalin might well be trans-shipping U.S. aid meant for Russia to Japan, and if not to Japan, then to Red Chinese forces.
Sen. Styles Bridges demanded that Roosevelt delay the invasion of Europe until Poland’s postwar freedom was guaranteed by treaty with the Soviets. Sen. Hamilton Fish noted in late 1944 that the country “on whose behalf World War Two was started is now about to be turned over to the Communists in utter disregard of its terrible sacrifices in fighting the Nazis and the pledges given to the Polish people by the allies.”
The Hearst newspapers kept up a drumbeat of warnings that aid to the Soviet war machine was a fundamental error. The New York Daily Mirror dubbed the Teheran conference a “Red Munich.” The San Francisco Examiner predicted in 1943 that Stalin would “install in every country in Europe a Red Regime, which means concentration camps, massacres and a continuous reign of terror.”
For these comments in his papers, Hearst was labeled “Hitler’s helper” and the “American Goebbels.” by the New Republic and the New York Times, which called for the Alien and Sedition laws be used to silence Hearst, and possibly jail him. Roosevelt himself said the war “must not be impeded by propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin.” He pressured Attorney General Francis Biddle into assigning a special prosecutor, William Maloney, into investigating alleged links between Asia First proponents and German intelligence. Maloney shortly leaked hints that he was going to indict Hamilton Fish and Congressman Clare Hoffman, two outspoken critics of Roosevelt’s pro-Soviet (as they saw it) policy of Europe First. No indictments were, in fact, ever issued against them, although a couple of dozen other Asia Firsters as well as isolotionist and pacifist opponents of the war were placed on trial for sedition in 1944.
Defendents appealed to the ACLU for help, but ACLU chief counsel Morris Ernst asserted, before any convictions were handed down, that the defendants were guilty of treason in wartime and deserved what they were getting.
The trial was as big in its day as the O.J. Simpson trial or that of the Chicago Seven in the 1960s. One of those accused, an anarchist-pacifist named Lawrence Dennis, claimed that the trial was an attempt to force the public to see all mankind as divided into two camps, fascists and anti-fascists, and to permit those in power to determine who would be included in each group.
The trial degenerated into farce as it became clear that some of the defendants, rather than being cunning tools of Nazi interests, were merely eccentrics or simply held strong opinions about international affairs. It didn’t help the government’s cause that the chief prosecuter was a man named Vyshinsky Rogge, which led to half-serious claims the trial was being directed from Moscow. On Dec. 7, 1944, during one particularly vehement yelling match between porsecutor and defendants, the judge dropped dead of a heart attack and a mistrial was declared. The government continued to hound the defendents for several more years before dropping the case in 1947.
This Asia First-Europe First argument was no simple matter of war strategy, but invoked intense passion in its day.
It’s interesting to note that to the Asia Firsters, Nazism and Japanese militarism were seen as secondary to the real danger, Soviet Communism. They had no doubt Germany and Japan would be defeated one way or the other, sooner or later, but they seemed to truly fear that the West might not be able to defeat Soviet Russia.