May 1940: President Roosevelt and the German Invasion of the Low Countries

by William A. Harris, Deputy Director

Eighty years ago today, on May 11, 1940, the world looked very different in Europe than it had just the morning before. Nazi forces had attacked the Low Countries–The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg–on May 10th. The invasions had not come as a complete surprise, for Germany had been at war with Great Britain and France since the previous September and had invaded Denmark and Norway in April.

The President addresses the 8th Annual Pan American Scientific Congress, May 10, 1940. (Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)

Nevertheless, the force and violence of the attacks appalled many around the world, including President Roosevelt. FDR had already expressed his support to the royal heads of state of the neutral Low Countries months before in notes that could only be viewed as provocative by the Germans. Walking a diplomatic tightrope, the President had offered their families safe harbor in the event of trouble. Each responded with gratitude.

The first page of Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands’ letter of appreciation to FDR for his offer of personal assistance to her family, February 4, 1940. (FDR Library, PSF, Netherlands, 1940-1941)

In those early May days of 1940, diplomatic business with the three small nations had proceeded as usual, even as a flurry of reports arrived at the State Department and on the President’s desk about German military movements along their borders. As late as the 9th, however, Ambassador John Clarence Cudahy of Belgium (who also served as minister to Luxembourg) had received word from none other than King Leopold himself that no German invasion was imminent.

No imminent attack reports King Leopold, May 9, 1940. The Germans would invade the following day. (FDR Library, PSF, Dispatches-Belgium, November 7, 1939-May 10, 1940)

Also on the 9th, the President had requested the preparation of a thank you note to the Grand Duke of Luxembourg for the recent gift of an album of stamps. With war rumors swirling in spite of King Leopold’s opinion, the President had reiterated to the Grand Duke his offer of personal support in the event of war.

FDR requests the preparation of a thank you note to the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, May 9, 1940. (FDR Library, PSF, State, April-May 1940)
The stamp album gifted by the Grand Duke to FDR which is in our collection (MO 1946.100.8).

Then, more ominous telegrams began to arrive. Nazi troops were massing along the borders. Bombs were reported falling over Luxembourg. And finally, the dreaded news. King Leopold of the Belgians cabled FDR–“Brutally attacked by Germany…” War had come and come with a cruel fury.

King Leopold cables FDR with news of the German invasion, May 10, 1940. (FDR Library, PSF, Belgium, 1938-1941)

On the evening of May 10th, the President delivered previously scheduled remarks before the 8th Annual Pan American Scientific Congress in Washington, DC. That day, in his own hand, he had inserted reference to the invasions. The force of his words, carried live on the major radio networks, left no doubt bout his views on Germany’s naked aggression.

FDR delivers remarks to the Pan American Scientific Congress, May 10, 1940 (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)
FDR’s hand-annotated remarks before the Pan American Scientific Congress during which he references the German invasions, May 10, 1940. (FDR Library, Master Speech File)
A recording of FDR’s remarks before the Pan American Scientific Congress. (FDR Library)

And yet, the President had few options to provide support to the Low Countries in the late spring of 1940. As they succumbed to the might of the German army, the President knew the day would come when Nazy Germany and its allies would directly threaten the United States, too. The scourge of fascism wouldn’t be halted by distance and the seemingly safe barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.