In late January 1941, five British senior officers arrived in Washington, D.C. Originally the delegation was to receive an official welcome. But isolationists, furious over President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s December 1940 “arsenal of democracy” speech and recently introduced Lend-Lease legislation, were alert to any activity that would confirm their suspicions that Roosevelt was pushing the United States toward an alliance with Britain and war against Germany. Instead, the greeting was low-key and contained only a vague statement about the group’s arrival. It needed to be, because the actual, unstated reason was warm, red, blood-dripping meat for the isolationists: “To determine the best methods by which the armed forces of the United States and British Commonwealth, with its present Allies, could defeat Germany and the Powers allied with her, should the United States be compelled to resort to war.”
On Jan. 29, 1941, the British delegation met with its American counterparts in the first of fourteen secret meetings over two months to establish the framework for what would become the “Germany first” strategy.
Included in the nine-man American delegation were Brig. Gen. Leonard T. “Gee” Gerow, head of War Plans Division, War Department General Staff; Army Air Force Col. Joseph T. McNarney, recently returned from his post as chief of staff of the special Army observation group in London; Rear Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, who in August 1940 had been part of a senior team in London to determine British survival capability and what aid America could provide without violating its neutrality; and Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner, director of war plans for the U.S. Navy.
British strategy held three positions: that the European theater was the “decisive one,” that Germany and Italy should be defeated before Japan, and that Far East strategy should include preservation of the British Empire. To that end protection of Singapore, specifically basing an American fleet there, was vital. This third point had to be galling for the British delegation, particularly for members from the Royal Navy, as it was a naked acknowledgment of their inability to defend their empire where “the sun never sets.”
The American delegation agreed in general with the first two points. But putting into harm’s way American lives to defend a remote British colony far from any American possession? The Americans closed ranks in rejecting the third. The British delegation pushed back – hard. They claimed Japan, having seized Hainan Island and occupied French Indochina, was preparing to attack the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore and thus threatened the strategic Malacca Straits. The Americans were having none of it. In memos to Gen. George Marshall, American delegate Brig. Gen. Sherman Miles, assistant chief of staff for military intelligence, detailed the “concerted British pressure on us to commit ourselves in the Far East” and that an American task force in Singapore “would be a strategic error of incalculable magnitude.” The Americans recommended support be in the form of operations having a secondary goal of diverting Japanese forces away from Singapore.
Marshall hardly needed convincing. Confronting the likely, imminent reality of a two-ocean war, he knew the U.S. Army was ill-equipped to defend the Philippines, an American protectorate, and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, to say nothing of the nation’s far flung smaller Pacific island possessions. And the U.S. Navy, having moved its Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1940, was having its own problems preventing Roosevelt from dispersing the fleet amongst other American Pacific island territories.
But, Singapore and the Far East aside, the two sides were much in agreement. On March 27, 1941, they presented their report. Called ABC-1 (American-British Conversations-1) it was a remarkable document of military cooperation between a neutral and a combatant stating that “the High Command of the United States and United Kingdom will collaborate continuously in the formulation and execution of strategic policies and plans which will govern the conduct of the war.” It acknowledged Europe as the primary focus of offensive operations, with war against Japan to be defensive until Germany and Italy were defeated.
Initially secret due to America’s neutrality, ABC-1 and a follow-up report, ABC-2, laid the foundation for close (though not always harmonious) military cooperation between the American and British chiefs of staff that would continue throughout the war.