October 31, also the anniversary of the sinking of the Reuben James

U.S.S. Reuben James (D-245) on the Hudson River in April 1939, over two years before she was sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic.

U.S.S. Reuben James (DD-245) on the Hudson River in April 1939, over two years before she was sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic. Photo from the Ted Stone Collection, Marines Museum, Newport News, Virginia, via Wikipedia

It was a tragedy in 1941, but before the U.S. could develop a serious policy response to Germany’s action, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Within a week after that, our policy towards Germany was set by Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S.

It’s important history for a couple of reasons.

  • The sinking was part of the massive, years-long Battle of the Atlantic, which the Allies won only by building ships faster than Germany could sink them.  Had the Allies lost this battle, the war would have been lost, too.
  • While the USS Reuben James was a Navy destroyer, the key weapons of the Battle of the Atlantic were Merchant Marine cargo ships, carrying goods and arms to Britain and other Allied nations.  “Civilians” played a huge role in World War II, supplying the soldiers, armies, navies and air forces.
  • Recently, politicians took to making claims that the U.S. declared war on Germany without any hostile action having passed between them, without Germany having perpetrated any hostilities toward the U.S.  Look at the dates, it’s not so.
  • Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the event, giving us a touchstone to remember.

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub covered the event with longer, detailed articles in past years, including these, which you should see especially if you are a student in a history class or a teacher of one:

Europe has changed. The world has changed.  The U.S. has changed.  War has changed.  We should remember, especially those people who died defending the merchants who defended the idea of the Four Freedoms.



14 Responses to October 31, also the anniversary of the sinking of the Reuben James

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    The Almanac Singers were anti-Hitler as well as anti-War; but wouldn’t it be fun to have a copy of that record today? Surely there is a copy somewhere . . . maybe in the Library of Congress collections?

    Hank, you recommend the Budiansky book, then?


  2. Hank Roberts says:

    The policy of Germany toward the United States, as set by Hitler, was to put off war with the US as long as possible.

    See Blackett’s War by Stephen Budiansky for direct quotes and detailed history. It’s an excellent read on how science began to be adopted for the first time by governments.

    Aside, he also mentions Woody Guthrie’s change on the European war. Wikipedia says: ” Songs For John Doe, performed by Seeger, Hays, Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary, urged non-intervention in World War II and opposed the peacetime draft and unequal treatment of African-American draftees. A month after it was issued, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Roosevelt issued an order banning racial and religious discrimination in defense hiring. The Almanacs immediately switched to a pro-war position and the Songs for John Doe album was withdrawn and all copies destroyed.”


  3. Black Flag® says:

    “hostile under any definition, completely refuting the claim that the U.S. went to war against Germany without provocation.”

    Agreed. It was US provoking Germany, not the other way around.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Further refutation of the claims of “no hostile action” come from the calendar. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the U.S. on December 11. (The text of the message to the U.S. State Department is here, at the Avalon site.) The U.S. had not declared war on Germany at that point, but did so later that day.

    42 days elapsed between the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James and the U.S. declaration of war against Germany. The declaration came after hostile action.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Point was, Ed, the US committed acts of war upon Germany long before this sinking.

    One might argue that. The U.S. argued they were acts of self defense.

    In any case, there were hostilities prior to the declarations of war.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Also see here:

    With the rise of international conflicts around the world in the 1930s, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 (49 Stat. 1081, 49 Stat. 1152, 50 Stat. 121). These laws required registration and licensing by a National Munitions Control Board of all persons trading in munitions and a mandatory embargo on the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war, and on loans and credits to all belligerents or to neutrals for transshipment to belligerents. An embargo would take effect when the president found a state of war to exist.

    The desire of the United States to remain neutral has been called isolationism. During the 1930s the U.S. public did not want the United States entangled with the international strife perpetrated by Italy, Germany, and Japan. In 1935, President franklin d. roosevelt invoked the arms embargo provision after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the consequent war. With the outbreak of the European war in 1939, limiting the conflict by an arms embargo was no longer possible. Although isolationist sentiment was strong, there was also a growing feeling that the Allies needed support against Nazi aggression. The Roosevelt administration, with some difficulty, secured the repeal of the arms embargo in the Neutrality Act of 1939 (22 U.S.C.A. § 441). Because this repeal could work to the advantage only of Great Britain and France, it was a deliberately non-neutral act.

    The United States remained a neutral state before its entry into World War II in December 1941, yet it took actions that undermined its status. In 1940, the United States entered into an agreement for the transfer of 50 old destroyers to Great Britain in exchange for leased naval and air bases in British islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States. Congress took a further step in the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 (55 Stat. 31) by agreeing to provide munitions, food, machinery, and services to Great Britain and the other Allies without immediate cost, thus eliminating their difficulty in finding dollar credits for purchases. Later repayment could be made in kind or property or other acceptable benefits. Under the Lend-Lease Act, the United States made huge shipments before and after entering the war.

    Following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, the United States became increasingly involved in direct military assistance, permitting U.S. merchant ships to transport war materials to the Allies, using U.S. pilots to deliver bombers to Canada and Britain, and using naval vessels for a “neutrality patrol” in the Atlantic that assisted in protecting belligerent convoys against submarines.

    One might have an interesting discussion over just how “neutral” the U.S. was after 1935. On one hand, the U.S. sold a lot of stuff to Germany, Italy and Japan. On the other hand, they weren’t buying munitions from us for the most part. The nations they attacked, on the other hand, needed munitions we had, but they could not afford to pay for them. It’s clear in retrospect that that FDR favored giving aid to Britain (and China), but was constrained by earlier Neutrality Acts.

    Regardless, the German torpedoing of U.S. ships, including U.S. Navy escorts of merchant ships, would be considered hostile under any definition, completely refuting the claim that the U.S. went to war against Germany without provocation.

    Not to mention, Germany declared war on the U.S.

    See also the State Department’s formal, concise history of the Neutrality Acts.

    Digital History also carries the complete text of the Neutrality Act of 1939, after the sinking of the James. I think that the actions of the destroyer were specifically authorized under U.S. law. Had Germany wished to pursue sanctions in some international tribunal, it is not clear to me the U.S. would have lost.

    In any case, Germany chose torpedoes, instead.


  7. Black Flag® says:

    Point was, Ed, the US committed acts of war upon Germany long before this sinking.


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s the best you can,Ed?

    Best I can do to try to figure out what you mean, yes. Torpedoing a boat seems pretty hostile, to me. It’s an act of war under international law now, and then — it might be justified under some provision or other, but remains hostile, and remains an act of war.

    Is that the best you can do to clarify what you were trying to say?


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Also, one interested in contemporary views of the actions may want to look at the speech made by Arthur Krock of the New York Times to the Columbia University Alumni group at the Bankers Club, on November 5, 1941, less than a week after the incident. His speech’s title was “War Policy: BUT IT SHOULD BE NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH.”


  10. Black Flag® says:

    That’s the best you can,Ed?


  11. Ed Darrell says:

    If I understand your complaint here, Black Flag, you’re saying that Germany sank the Reuben James in an attempt to restore peace, and that we should not have regarded it as hostile action. Is that correct?


  12. Black Flag® says:



  13. Black Flag® says:

    “without Germany having perpetrated any hostilities toward the U.S.”

    Not true.
    First the ship was escorting a convey heading to Britain – in violation of the neutrality of International Law
    ” Belligerent armies’ personnel and material may not be transported across neutral territory,”

    USA did, from 1940 until declaration of war.

    “Every measure of restriction or prohibition taken by a neutral Power in regard to the matters referred to in Articles 7 and 8 must be impartially applied by it to both belligerents.”

    USA did not. It placed restrictions on Germany only, in favor of Britain

    ” A neutral Power which receives on its territory troops belonging to the belligerent armies shall intern them, as far as possible, at a distance from the theatre of war.”

    The US did not. In fact, any Allied troops in American hands were returned, not interned.

    ” A neutral cannot avail himself of his neutrality
    (a) If he commits hostile acts against a belligerent;
    (b) If he commits acts in favor of a belligerent, particularly if he voluntarily enlists in the ranks of the armed force of one of the parties.
    In such a case, the neutral shall not be more severly treated by the belligerent as against whom he has abandoned his neutrality than a national of the other belligerent State could be for the same act.”

    The US did, by escorting British supply ships.

    “Art. 18. The following acts shall not be considered as committed in favour of one belligerent in the sense of Article 17, letter (b) [ Link ] :
    (a) Supplies furnished or loans made to one of the belligerents, provided that the person who furnishes the supplies or who makes the loans lives neither in the territory of the other party nor in the territory occupied by him, and that the supplies do not come from these territories;”

    The US did, by providing Britain destroyers under the Lend Lease.

    And then, of course, you forgot this


    16th of May 1941 is before October, Ed.

    The policy of the US towards Germany was set long before the Reuben James sinking.


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