With the threat of war looming over Europe, on this day in 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader, appealing to him to avoid the “incalculable disaster which would result to the entire world from the outbreak of [another] European war.” Addressing Hitler as the German chancellor, Roosevelt focused on German threats to annex the largely German-speaking western third of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudentenland.
Hitler replied on the same day in a lengthy telegram. “Be assured,” he wrote, “that I can fully appreciate the lofty intention on which your remarks are based and that I share in every respect your opinion regarding the unforeseeable consequences of a European war.
“Precisely for this reason, however, I can and must decline all responsibility of the German people and their leaders, if the further development, contrary to all my efforts up to the present, should actually lead to the outbreak of hostilities.”
He asserted that “conditions in the Czechoslovak state, as is generally known, have in the last few weeks become completely intolerable. Political persecution and economic oppression have plunged the Sudeten Germans into untold misery.” Hitler concluded his response by falsely asserting that “it now rests, not with the German government, but with the Czechoslovak government alone, to decide if they want peace or war.”
In any event, Hitler soon ordered his armed forces not only to march into the Sudentenland but also followed up, in March 1939, by invading and seizing all of Czechoslovakia.
FDR began his letter by declaring that “the question before the world today, Mr. Chancellor, is not the question of errors of judgment or of injustices committed in the past. It is the question of the fate of the world today and tomorrow. The world asks of us who at this moment are heads of nations the supreme capacity to achieve the destinies of nations without forcing upon them, as a price, the mutilation and death of millions of citizens. …
“Resort to force in the Great War [World War I] failed to bring tranquility. Victory and defeat were alike sterile. That lesson the world should have learned. …
“Allow me to state my unqualified conviction that history, and the souls of every man, woman, and child whose lives will be lost in the threatened war, will hold us and all of us accountable should we omit any appeal for its prevention.
“The government of the United States has no political involvements in Europe and will assume no obligations in the conduct of the present negotiations. Yet in our own right we recognize our responsibilities as a part of a world of neighbors.
“The conscience and the impelling desire of the people of my country demand that the voice of their government be raised again and yet again to avert and to avoid war.”