Biography and History

From late 1939 through 1941, the United States was embroiled in a philosophical debate about the role of the nation in the global arena. War was sweeping across Europe, with Adolf Hitler’s German armies advancing through Poland in September 1939, invading Denmark and Norway in April 1940, and overrunning Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France in May and June of that year. German U-boats were attacking and sinking ships in the Atlantic, and Britain was enduring air raids. The United States, an ally and friend to many of the occupied territories, initially held firm to a non-interventionist policy, but as the scope of the war increased and the threat of Hitler grew, so, too, did the debate about this country’s role in and response to the conflict. Some Americans argued for continued neutrality and adherence to the established non-interventionist policy of the 1920s and 1930s, while others urged involvement in a war they believed was a growing threat to American freedom and their way of life.

One of the legacies of World War I was a strong isolationist streak in American foreign policy and a belief that Europe’s problems should remain Europe’s. In the United States, this manifested itself in an opposition to intervention in future foreign wars, a dislike for binding military alliances, and a reluctance to enter into collective security agreements or organizations. Millions of Americans favored isolationism. The influence of isolationists on the crafting of American foreign policy was best seen in the passage of several acts that buttressed existing neutrality legislation. By May 1937 neutrality legislation prohibited loans and the sale of arms and munitions to warring countries and banned travel on belligerent ships by U.S. citizens. The Neutrality Act of 1939 relaxed the restrictions somewhat by introducing a “cash and carry” policy that permitted belligerent nations to purchase supplies and arms from the U.S. on the condition that those materials would be transported on non-American ships.

When Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained American neutrality despite the fact that the Allies needed supplies for their war effort. Reversal of this position was slow and gradual. In September 1940, Roosevelt negotiated a “destroyers-for-bases” deal with Britain whereby Britain received fifty old American destroyers in exchange for America’s use of eight British Atlantic bases. A further erosion of the neutrality stance came in January 1941 when Roosevelt proposed the Lend-Lease Act. This act, passed on 11 March 1941, permitted the president to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, [or] lend” war materials to countries whose defense was necessary for U.S. national security. Congress appropriated $50 billion for Lend-Lease, with aid going to 38 countries. Britain received $31 billion. With the vast majority of Americans opposed to an outright declaration of war, Lend-Lease was the best Roosevelt could do at the time to support the Allies.

Leading proponents of the isolationist position were Senator Burton Wheeler (D-Montana), Senator Gerald Nye (R-North Dakota), and Representative Hamilton Fish (R-New York). Supporters were also found in the small towns and rural areas of the Midwest, among Irish-Americans, and in certain business and anti-New Deal circles. The most prominent organization dedicated to the isolationist cause was the America First Committee. Believing that any involvement in European wars would weaken America, and shocked by the failures of peace following World War I, America First wanted nothing to do with a conflict involving the Axis Powers and did not see the Nazi army as a threat to U.S. security. Members of America First included Robert E. Wood (Chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Company), journalist John T. Flynn, and retired diplomat William R. Castle, with Charles A. Lindbergh, the American flying hero, as its most celebrated spokesman. He believed that German air power did not pose a threat to America, that America could not succeed militarily in a European conflict, and that the best response to the war would be to protect American freedoms at home. Lindbergh’s growing radicalism and anti-Semitic remarks made during a Des Moines, Iowa, speech in September 1941 tarnished his appeal and hurt the America First cause. At its peak, the organization had over 400 local chapters and a membership base of 85,000. It received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and advanced its position by holding rallies, writing editorials, airing radio broadcasts, and sending speakers to meetings and events.

At the other end of the debate were the interventionists. Advocates of intervention wanted to redirect U.S. foreign policy toward a more active role in the European war. They sought a repeal of neutrality legislation, urged the severing of diplomatic ties with the Axis powers, and favored legislation that allowed for the sending of U.S. troops overseas. While isolationists saw the European conflict as a strictly European matter, interventionists linked the fate of the fallen European nations with the fate of the U.S. In their view, an Axis victory would not only mean defeat for the Allies, but also would threaten the very fiber of American liberties and compromise American security, both domestically and internationally.

Although the percentage of the American populace that supported intervention was less than that which supported the isolationists, two groups championed the interventionist cause: The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA) and Fight for Freedom, Inc. (FFF). Founded by William Allen White in May 1940 as a bipartisan advocacy organization, CDAAA was an outspoken opponent of isolationism but shied away from the critical interventionist issue, that of an outright and immediate declaration of war against Germany. Although astute enough to realize the growing crisis would inevitably necessitate U.S. participation in the war, CDAAA never asked for such a declaration. While the two groups often cooperated and many of their activities overlapped, an eventual parting of the ways occurred over the war declaration issue.

No organization was more vocal or vehement in its position on the war than FFF, which was “willing to do whatever is necessary to insure a Hitler defeat [including] accepting the fact that we are at war, whether declared or undeclared.” Most Americans first learned of FFF on April 18, 1941, during a radio broadcast by the Right Reverend Henry W. Hobson of Cincinnati, Ohio. Hobson, known as the “fighting bishop,” was a World War I veteran and bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Southern Ohio. In his radio address, Hobson outlined the basic FFF beliefs, stating, “We believe that the present world conflict is an irreconcilable struggle between dictatorship and freedom, and that if dictatorship wins in the present area of conflict, there will be little hope for freedom. We therefore represent all citizens who share our convictions that this is our fight for freedom in which we must play our part.” Hobson became one of the honorary chairmen of the organization, which maintained its headquarters at 1270 Sixth Avenue in New York City.

Fight for Freedom lobbied for full participation by the U.S. in the war, arguing that the conflict was a phase of military revolution against all Western democracies. If Hitler won in Europe, American freedoms and values would soon fall victim to a similar fate. Initially CDAAA and FFF sustained a cordial relationship and worked closely together, but the breaking point came over the issue of a declaration of war.

Like CDAAA, FFF was an advocacy organization that disseminated information while also closely monitoring the activities of isolationist groups such as America First. FFF’s leadership included Ulric Bell, Executive Committee Chairman and head of the Washington office of the Courier-Journal/Louisville Times newspaper; Elizabeth Worthington Best, Executive Chairman of the Women’s Division; Grace Coolidge, Vice Chairman and wife of former U.S. president Calvin Coolidge; F. H. Peter Cusick, Executive Secretary; Mrs. Dwight F. Davis, Vice Chairman; Senator Carter Glass (D-Virginia), Honorary Chairman; Wayne Johnson, Treasurer; Francis P. Miller, Chairman; and Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, head of the Women’s Division. Morrow’s involvement in FFF is particularly interesting because her daughter, Anne Morrow, was married to America First’s leading spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh.

Other key individuals, many of whom sat on the Board of Directors, included Herbert Agar, editor of the Courier-Journal/Louisville Times and a Pulitzer prize winner; his brother William Agar, a noted geologist on the Yale University faculty; Henry B. Cabot; Mary Ellen Chase, author and educator; Ward Cheney; attorney Grenville Clark; Harvard University president James B. Conant; Colonel William J. Donovan; Lewis W. Douglas, a New York City businessman; Allen Dulles; Marshall Field, philanthropist and publisher of the New York-based evening newspaper PM; publisher Harold Guinzburg; Jay Pierre, a New York financier; Dorothy Overlock, leader of the Student Defenders of Democracy; historian Conyers Read; Spyros Skouras, a motion picture executive; Henry P. Van Dusen, a Christian statesman affiliated with Union Theological Seminary; and financier James P. Warburg. The FFF headquarters was a hub of activity, and at its peak, FFF maintained an office staff of twenty-five.

Support for FFF came from thousands of citizens across America, many of whom sent in donations as small as one dollar. Additional support came from prominent educators, authors and playwrights, clergy, stage and screen actors and actresses, newspapermen, and politicians. Several key groups were particularly targeted for membership, and support from individuals affiliated with these groups was seen as key to ensuring that the FFF message reached many occupations and cut across religious, gender, and racial lines.

To achieve this goal, FFF created numerous divisions geared to directing its message to specific groups and audiences. The Lawyer’s Division, for example, reached out to prominent attorneys, especially those practicing in New York City and on Wall Street. A significant activity of the Lawyer’s Division was to host luncheons in the city with the purpose of drawing additional like-minded men to the organization’s efforts. The Youth Division, which was closely connected to the First-to-Fight Division, focused its efforts on getting FFF’s message out to America’s young people, particularly those in college and of draft age. Entertainers, writers, and those involved in the performing arts were the focus of the Stage, Screen, Radio, and Arts Division. Several prominent actors and actresses, including Burgess Meredith and Helen Hays, lent their support to FFF and channeled their activities through this division. Issues and concerns unique to African Americans were addressed primarily by the Harlem Division. The task of coordinating the work of numerous volunteers fell to the Volunteer Division.

Critical to the success of FFF was enlisting the support of labor unions and organizations such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the American Federation of Labor, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, the United Automobile Workers of America, the United Rubber Workers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America. Leaders of these organizations worked closely with Abe Rosefield, Fight for Freedom’s Labor Division Chairman. These unions endorsed the FFF message, particularly the repeal of the Neutrality Act, and saw the growing threat totalitarian governments posed to trade unionism. The Labor Division published a newsletter, the Labor News Service, which compiled labor-related news reports and stories from newspapermen around the country.

The Women’s Division had the purpose of broadening the existing base of support for FFF aims and principles, supplementing the work and resources of the Men’s Division, and providing an outlet through which all interested women could participate. Prior to the official announcement of the formation of the Women’s Division, women’s work with FFF fell under the umbrella of the Women’s Committee for Action. On November 21, 1941, the Women’s Division was launched at a meeting held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Mrs. Dwight (Elizabeth) Morrow, Honorary Chairman of the Women’s Division, ended the evening’s events by broadcasting a message over the Red Network of the National Broadcasting Company. Other women involved in the national leadership of the Women’s Division included Frederica Barach, who served as Executive Chairman, and Elizabeth Worthington Best.

Women were asked to assist and support FFF by hosting luncheons, teas, and cocktail parties. At these gatherings women often heard speeches from FFF-sponsored speakers and would encourage other women to join the effort. The Meetings Committee reached out to clubs, societies, and organizations in planning gatherings and benefits. A Solicitation Committee was formed with the purpose of organizing women into small groups that would solicit gifts for FFF. The intent was to establish good personal contacts with potential donors. Other women served on the Headquarters Committee. The purpose of this committee was to assist with the coordination of the entire women’s program, including meeting planning, event and speaker scheduling, gift solicitation, propaganda duties, and clerical work. Women interested in publicity and propaganda work were assigned to the Propaganda Committee. Here women worked to expand the list of members, arranged for notices to appear in publications, encouraged women to write their congressmen, helped with rallies, and studied the propaganda of opponent organizations. While the Women’s Division was short lived, disbanding in early January 1942, the male leadership of FFF recognized that women played a critical role in the overall success of the organization.

The Speaker’s Division, under the direction of George Havell, had the large task of coordinating all speaking and radio broadcasting engagements for FFF. Radio was a key tool for FFF, and many speakers used their air time to present the case for U.S. involvement in the war or to counter arguments and presentations made by isolationists. Speakers fanned out across the country, delivering messages to local chapters. Men as well as women spoke ardently on behalf of FFF, and prominent speakers such as Mrs. Irving (Ellin) Berlin, Alexander Woollcott, Struthers Burt, and Rex Stout, among others, were in high demand.

A key element in disseminating FFF’s message throughout the country was the development of an extensive network of organizations at the state and local level. In each of the forty-eight states, there was at least one local contact person or newspaper editor. Some states had highly organized committees with multiple chapters that were extremely active. The local committees were responsible for mobilizing and increasing the membership base, fundraising, communicating national policies and positions, and, often, sponsoring speakers and information sessions. An important component of FFF’s work on the state and local level was the use of newspapermen from small town weekly and daily presses. Relying heavily on the state’s press association, FFF actively recruited editors and publishers of papers to support their cause, seeing the papers as a critical link to the public. While FFF avoided dictating editorial policy, it encouraged editors to run editorials and advertisements that were supportive of FFF’s views.

A major public relations event held by FFF was the “Fun to be Free” patriotic pageant, held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 5, 1941. The show, orchestrated by Helen Hays and Burgess Meredith of the Stage, Screen, Radio, and Arts Division of FFF, was heralded as a demonstration for liberty and against slavery. “Fun to be Free” featured patriotic music, a pageant directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that included such stars as Tallulah Bankhead and Melvyn Douglas, a variety show with Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Ethel Merman, and others, and several speakers, including Hays, Meredith, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, and Wendell Willkie. The show was so successful that similar versions were presented around the country, and a script was produced so that it could be performed as a play in schools or over the radio.

Another major event sponsored by FFF was the “Continental Congress for Freedom,” which was held at the Hotel Washington in Washington, D.C., on October 9-10, 1941. This congress drew delegates from all forty-eight states, with each state sending at least two representatives and two alternates. The primary focus was to urge Congress to repeal or greatly modify the Neutrality Act. Allen Dulles, a prominent New York lawyer, opened the October 9th afternoon session, and Herbert Agar provided the keynote address. Delegates then spoke from the floor, asking questions, presenting statements, and debating issues. At the conclusion of this session, two resolutions were passed: one reiterated the fundamental principles of FFF, and the other demanded an immediate repeal of the Neutrality Act. There were other activities at the congress. At the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt received a large contingent of women delegates, and a grand banquet, featuring nationally and internationally known speakers, was held on the evening of the 9th. Many prominent individuals, including several senators and representatives were invited. Special activities for youth groups were conducted under the auspices of the First-to-Fight Division.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, prompting the United States to enter the war, the debate between the isolationists and interventionists ceased. With the declaration of war, one of the primary objectives of FFF was met, and the organization was forced to re-focus its efforts, shifting its emphasis from am advocacy campaign to education and morale-building initiatives. The leadership of FFF urged the local chapters to remain intact and active and encouraged members to undertake other types of war work, such as aiding the Red Cross and other relief organizations, fundraising, attending patriotic events, and watching for subversive elements within their communities. Recognizing the need for a united front, FFF recommended increased cooperation with other groups, especially the Citizens for Victory Committee. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the main headquarters of FFF closed down, and a significantly reduced staff moved operations to the offices of Freedom House, located on East Fifth Street in New York City. Most of the major divisions of FFF ended their work by January 1942, and many speakers who had been scheduled to appear at meetings in late December and early January were cancelled. The only division that continued operations was the Stage, Screen, Radio, and Arts Division. It kept to its plan to tour the country with a version of the “Fun to be Free” show.

Source: From the finding aid for MC025

  • Fight for Freedom, Inc. Records. 1922-1942 (inclusive), 1939-1942 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC025

    Fight for Freedom, Inc. (FFF), a national citizen’s organization established in April 1941, was a leading proponent of full American participation in World War II. Believing that the war was a threat to American freedom and security, FFF boldly and vehemently championed the interventionist cause, advocating that all necessary measures must be taken to insure the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the German Army. In addition, FFF worked to preserve fundamental American freedoms at home. An offshoot of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, FFF was supported by average citizens, as well as prominent educators, labor leaders, authors and playwrights, clergy, stage and screen actors, newspaper men, and politicians. Acting as a clearinghouse for information related to American intervention in World War II, FFF monitored the activities of the leading isolationist organization, the America First Committee, and many of its key individuals such as Charles A. Lindbergh, Burton Wheeler, and Gerald Nye. From its headquarters in New York City, FFF spread its message through an extensive network of state and local branches, as well as through heavy reliance on local newspaper editors supportive of the interventionist cause. Pearl Harbor effectively ended the isolationist-interventionist debate, and by early 1942 FFF had disbanded.