How Franklin Roosevelt learned of the start of the Second World War

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, President Roosevelt was awakened in his bedroom at the White House by a telephone call from his Ambassador in Paris, William C. Bullitt, who advised the President that Germany had invaded Poland and that several Polish cities were being bombed. Roosevelt understood immediately that this meant a larger war, for Great Britain and France had pledged to come to Poland’s defense if Germany attacked. World War II had begun. The President wrote this unique “bedside note” documenting for posterity how and when he had received the news of the outbreak of World War II.


“The President received word at 2:50 am, by telephone by Ambass. Biddle through Ambass. Bullitt that Germany has invaded Poland and that several cities are being bombed. The President directed that all Navy ships and Army commands be notified by radio at once. In bed 3:05 am, September 1, 1939. FDR”

On September 3, FDR went on national radio to speak to the American people about the crisis in Europe. “This nation will remain a neutral nation,” he declared, “but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. . . . Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.”

In the crucial months that followed, the President would demonstrate that his sympathies lay with the victims of Axis aggression. Yet America’s isolationist mood limited FDR’s freedom to act. In particular, the country’s Neutrality Acts prohibited the sale of American weapons to warring nations.

Complied by Cynthia M. Koch, August 29, 2019

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “Found in the Archives, FDR’s Bedside Note, and the special exhibition, “Freedom From Fear: FDR, Commander in Chief,” September 2, 2005- November 5, 2006 (compiler’s files).