Relations between the United States and Japan had become increasingly tense. Roosevelt was concerned that continued Japanese aggression would force the British to shift resources away from the European war to the defense of its colonies in Southeast Asia. Roosevelt imposed on Japan a number of tough economic and trade restrictions. The United States cut off vital exports to Japan and barred the withdrawal of Japanese funds from American banks.
On Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull met with two Japanese diplomats. While they talked, Japanese planes launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japanese leaders hoped to knock out the Pacific Fleet so that it could not block Japan's expansion in Asia. The attack destroyed or damaged many U.S. ships and aircraft and killed nearly 2,400 Americans.
President Roosevelt addressed Congress the next day. He said that December 7 was "a date which will live in infamy." The United States declared war against Japan on December 8. Three days later, on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The United States then declared war on those countries.
Roosevelt suggested the name United Nations for the alliance that fought the Axis nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Although the group came to be known as the Allies, it formed the basis for the peacetime United Nations organization that was established in 1945.
After Pearl Harbor, the United States faced a situation as dire as that of the Great Depression. Abroad, the Axis powers had put the United States and its allies on the defensive, with Germany and Japan dangerously close to winning the war. At home, the situation was equally bleak. Production snags, labor shortages, ethnic and racial tensions, and general confusion hampered preparations for war.
Early on, Roosevelt made a key strategic decision. Even though it was Japan that had attacked the United States, he made the defeat of Germany his first priority. He reasoned that Germany posed the greater threat to the security and strategic interests of the United States.
Roosevelt’s top commanders, including Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, argued for an American and British invasion across the English Channel into Nazi-controlled France. The Soviet Union, which had suffered huge casualties during German offensives, also favored this strategy. Winston Churchill and his advisers, however, argued for a different course of action. They favored postponing the invasion of France and instead launching a joint offensive to drive the Axis forces from North Africa. Roosevelt wavered on this question for six months. Then, to the frustration of his top commanders and the Soviet Union, he sided with Churchill.
On Nov. 8, 1942, Allied troops commanded by Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the U.S. Army landed in Algeria and Morocco, in North Africa. After the landings began, Roosevelt spoke by radio to the French...