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Annus Mirabilis: 1941

How one year changed a nation, and the world

Seventy years ago, the United States went through a year unlike any other. Both in the world of sports and on the world stage, it was truly a “year of wonders,” and four names took on larger-than-life proportions that loom to this day.

On January 20, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the first American president to serve a third term. The country he led, newly out of the Depression, wanted no part of the European war that had raged since 1939. Our arms industry would soon begin churning out tanks, planes, and weapons, but not for American use. FDR managed to gain approval for the Lend-Lease Act, signed into law on March 11, which gave a line of unlimited credit to Winston Churchill’s Great Britain—the only European combatant nation not under the German swastika—to fight the Nazis. For Americans, Lend-Lease was just good business and jobs; for the American president, there was more at stake, and he was determined to take his country where it did not want to go.

Americans had another preoccupation that summer and fall. When they did turn to the newspapers, it was to find out if the center fielder for the New York Yankees had gotten another hit. Between May 15 and July 16, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in fifty-six consecutive baseball games, and America was mesmerized. On the day of the thirty-fifth game of the streak, German armies poured over the Russian border and began the invasion of the Soviet Union. Even then, the most frequently asked question of barbershop conversation was “How did DiMaggio do?”

When the streak ended, the nation’s attention turned to the gangly left fielder of the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams, who was pounding baseballs around the American League at a better than .400 clip into the fall, when he began to slip. On the last day of the season, in high drama, Williams got six hits in a doubleheader to finish the year with a historic .406 average. Seventy years later, DiMaggio’s record still stands, and no hitter since 1941 has reached .400 for the season. It was a year for baseball legends.

Meanwhile, Britain was fighting for its life. Churchill knew that unless America joined the war against Germany, his country would not survive. Roosevelt did what he could. After Lend-Lease began pouring equipment across the Atlantic, the president ordered American destroyers to convoy the cargo ships. He effectively declared naval war on German U-boats, ordering his commanders to shoot on sight. But still the American people resisted war with Germany. The nation’s largest single ethnic group was the German Americans, and a powerful German American Bund helped organize public opinion to stay out of Europe’s conflicts.

FDR was not deterred. On August 9, in a secret rendezvous off Newfoundland, the American president, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, for the first time met the British prime minister, who had crossed the Atlantic on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. When they parted five days later, the two men had outlined in the Atlantic Charter a view of how the world would look after the Axis defeat they both deemed inevitable.

The United States finally was drawn into the world conflict, but not from Europe. The day of the Japanese attack, Americans raced to atlases to locate the Hawaiian Islands and that harbor they had never heard of. Next day, when President Roosevelt termed December 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy” and declared war on the Empire of Japan, he said not a word about Germany. Adolf Hitler took care of that: on December 11 he declared war on the United States.

The world has changed since 1941. America’s hatred of Japan has faded away; one of our great sports icons, Ichiro Suzuki, roams right field for the Seattle Mariners and will soon find his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And few Americans recall the national mood of that annus mirabilis: isolationism and indifference to Europe’s enslavement. Yet Roosevelt and Churchill have a permanent hold on American imagination; and for chroniclers of the national pastime who were not yet born in 1941, the magic of that year is unlocked with the mention of just two numbers: fifty-six and .406.

In his forty-seven years at Tufts, Sol Gittleman has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university. He now serves as the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor.

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