The world depends on America and her servicemen and women, Lt. Jeffrey Swanson told his audience at the American Legion’s annual Veterans Day service in Oneida Monday morning.
Swanson, speaking to a near-capacity crowd at the historic American Legion’s War Memorial Building in midtown Oneida, spoke methodically about the build-up to World War II and how the United States broke its policies of isolationism to help save the world from the march of Nazism and imperialism.
“America didn’t ask in 1941 to be thrust into the role of protector of democracy,” Swanson said. “But that’s where we found ourselves in 1945 and that’s where we remain today.”
Swanson has traveled the world over, but has settled down in East Tennessee. He and his wife purchased a cabin in Scott County in 2000 and are now in the process of moving to Oneida, American Legion commander Avery L. Honeycutt told the crowd assembled at Monday’s service.
Swanson is more than a World War II history buff. He’s turned it into a career. Earlier this year, he and his organization presented a living history demonstration at the Primitive Barn in Oneida.
As America struggled in the grips of the Great Depression, Swanson said, events were unfolding across the globe that would ultimately lead to World War II. With the first world war still less than a generation past, Americans weren’t eager to intervene in a new global conflict.
“Sentiment in the United States was strongly anti-interventionalism and isolationism,” Swanson said. “But things were happening all around us.”
By 1933, the first concentration camp had been established in Nazi Germany, which was ignoring the treaties of World War I. The League of Nations was essentially powerless to prevent another war. And by 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, war became inevitable. Great Britain and France, key U.S. allies, declared war on Germany and it was only a matter of time before America would be drawn into the conflict.
“There was really no appeasing Nazi ambitions at that time,” Swanson said. He quoted Sir Winston Churchill: “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America was rebuilding its military muscle in anticipation for war, Swanson said. “We were the only nation in the world that could turn the tide,” he said. But America’s military was just the world’s 18th-largest — barely ahead of Holland. So the selective service program was initiated, and the draft started in 1940.
By the time Germany invaded Russia, sentiments in America were beginning to shift. “People started to turn and realize what was happening in Europe and realize we needed to support those countries locked in battle with Germany, Japan and Italy,” Swanson said.
Then came the date that lived in infamy — December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a surprise offensive on Pearl Harbor.
Swanson quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s joint session of Congress, which summoned the nation to war: “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
“Now the full might of our country was mobilized to intervene,” Swanson said. “It changed the war and it changed world history to this day.”
Over 16 million Americans served in World War II, including 1,487 Scott Countians — about 10 percent of Scott County’s population at the time. Four percent of those from Scott County never returned home.
“Those Americans that did return home returned to an America that had changed forever,” Swanson said.
Swanson and his wife have visited many of the World War II cemeteries during their travels abroad, visiting the sites where thousands of American servicemen were laid to rest after dying in combat. What he has found, he said, are pristine memorials that are carefully manicured and maintained by foreign nations in honor of those American troops who helped turn the tide in World War II.
“What we have seen is our veterans are remembered and are held in high esteem not only in America but throughout the world,” he said.