A president giving a commencement address is commonplace. A president giving a commencement address when his child is a member of the graduating class is pretty rare. Rarer still is a president speaking at his child’s graduation and saying something memorable enough to make it into the history books. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt accomplished just that feat on the evening of June 10, 1940 in his “stab-in-the-back” speech at the University of Virginia.
FDR had agreed to speak at UVA because his son, Franklin Jr., was graduating with a law degree. Early that morning as he prepared to depart from Washington, FDR learned that Italy had declared war on France, thereby entering World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. He had already planned to give a speech on the events in Europe. Now he would have more to say. His aides reworked his remarks on the train ride down to Charlottesville, adding five pages of text detailing the duplicity of Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini.
The five hundred graduates and their families who gathered in UVA’s Memorial Gymnasium to escape the rain heard a president on a mission. As the New York Times later described FDR’s delivery, “there could be no missing the depth of his feeling, since he put into the words all the emphasis at his command.”
FDR began by saying that the United States faced questions “not about the future of an individual or even of a generation, but about the future of the country, the future of the American people.” Without ever mentioning the war in Europe but fully confident that his audience understood the events he left implicit, Roosevelt argued that America could not retreat from the world:
Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.
Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare of a people without freedom—the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.
FDR then turned to Mussolini’s duplicity. Italy had entered the war that morning, with France tottering on the brink of collapse, in manifest “disregard for the rights and security of other nations, [and] disregard for the lives of the peoples of those nations which are directly threatened by this spread of the war.” FDR then uttered a line he had scrawled on his typewritten text:
On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
A variant of that line had been in an earlier version of the speech. FDR had taken it from a letter the French premier Paul Reynaud had sent that morning saying that “This very hour, another dictatorship has stabbed France in the back.” Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles argued, however, that the stab-in-the-back metaphor was inflammatory and should be dropped. FDR agreed—a least for a time. On the train ride down to Charlottesville he and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt discussed the merits of observing diplomatic niceties versus speaking candidly. In the end, FDR opted for candor.
Even more significant than FDR’s willingness to ruffle diplomatic feathers was what came next. The president pledged to:
pursue two obvious and simultaneous courses; we will extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.
FDR’s denunciation of the champions of “the philosophy of force” (Hitler and his allies) and his pledge to aid their opponents (Great Britain) drew cheers from the audience. The New York Times wrote the next day:
When Mr. Roosevelt gave deliberate emphasis to this nation’s sympathies with those who were staking their lives in the fight for freedom overseas, they broke into the wildest applause, cheering, and rebel yells. As the President neared the end of his speech the cheering became general and members of the faculty stamped their feet and applauded. Whenever Mr. Roosevelt mentioned this nation’s determination to preserve free institutions and liberties and to perpetuate democracy within our borders, those on the platform and in the audience forgot academic decorum in spontaneous approbation.
The country as a whole hardly reacted in the same way. Some Democratic officials worried that the speech would alienate Italian-American voters and thereby hurt Roosevelt and the rest of the Democratic ticket with national elections less than five months off. (FDR would be running for an unprecedented third term.) And the country’s vocal isolationists saw the speech as more evidence that FDR intended to plunge the country into a war that it should not fight and would not win.
Yet as the UVA graduates filed out of their gymnasium that rainy June evening to cheers of Wahoo Wah!, the die had been cast. As Time magazine put it, with the speech “the U.S. had taken sides. Ended was the myth of U.S. neutrality.” Within a week, FDR nominated Henry Stimson to be secretary of war and Frank Knox to be secretary of the navy. Both men were Republicans. More significantly, both men staunchly favored aiding Britain. Many epic political battles were yet to be fought, over a peacetime draft, the trading of old destroyers for bases, and letting Britain buy weapons from the United States. But as FDR returned to Washington that night having given what would be remembered as his stab-in-the-back speech, even though he never used those precise words, he was intent on ensuring that the United States did not become “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”