Basics of the Greer speech

US strategy
Nazi strategy

Eric Rauchway


April 28, 2023

Ultimately, what troubles me most about standard accounts of the Greer incident is the tendency to treat evidence showing the U-boat captain didn’t know the destroyer was a US ship as a gotcha for the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt’s speech on the incident, and the policy he announced as a result, didn’t depend on the U-boat captain knowing Greer was a US ship; in fact, Roosevelt quite expressly said otherwise.

A transcript of the president’s remarks as delivered appear in the Master Speech File at the Roosevelt Library in the second folder on this address; big pdf link here.

Here’s what seems to me the most important passage, so far as the Greer incident itself goes:

Excerpt from the transcript of Roosevelt’s national broadcast of September 11, 1941, speech file 1381B, box 62, Master Speech File, FDRL.

Roosevelt does say before this passage that it was broad daylight and the destroyer was flying the American flag. Moreover he imputes to the U-boat commander the “deliberate design to sink her.”

But the key, so far as his argument goes, seems to me here: if the German U-boat saw Greer was a US ship and fired at her, that’s an act of war—but! if it didn’t see Greer and ascertain her identity, that’s “even more outrageous”; it’s “indiscriminate violence,” and even worse.

Thus Roosevelt’s argument does not hinge on the Germans’ knowing they were firing on a US ship. You’d never know it the way many historians talk about it. For example:

In a fireside chat delivered on September 11, FDR deliberately distorted the details of the incident. He claimed that the Greer’s identity as a U.S. ship was unmistakable and that the German submarine fired first without warning. He went on to outline a Nazi design to abolish the freedom of the seas as a prelude to domination of the United States.1

But Roosevelt’s speech didn’t, as I say, depend on Greer’s identity as a US ship. Much to the contrary; he says it’s actually worse if the U-boat didn’t know it. (Moreover, as previously noted, the Nazis absolutely did mean to abolish freedom of the seas as prelude to war with the United States.)

Further: Roosevelt then goes on in the speech to outline a pattern. The Germans had previously sunk the US merchantman Robin Moor, the Panamanian ship Sessa, and the US merchant vessel Steel Seafarer. You could reasonably suppose the Germans didn’t particularly care whose ships they were sinking.

Indeed, historians now know—or should know, at any rate—that’s precisely the case, both in the specific case of the Greer and in general. In the National Archives, one may find a decrypted message from Lt. Fraatz, of U 652, to the German commander of submarines, dated September 5, 1941, explaining he had fired torpedoes at “DESTROYER, FLING [sic] UNKNOWN FLAG.”2 Fraatz knew Greer wasn’t acting like a British ship. He didn’t think it was a British ship. He was puzzled by its behavior, and he didn’t know whose ship it was. But he fired on it anyway. Which is what Roosevelt described as “even more outrageous” than knowing it was a US ship.

Perhaps Fraatz, via the various communications channels of Raeder’s navy, absorbed the message given by Hitler earlier in the summer. On July 25, 1941, one of the many occasions when Hitler urged patience, awaiting the right moment to attack the United States, he said,

His original view has undergone no changes whatsoever. He would, however, like to avoid having the U.S.A. declare war while the Eastern Campaign is still in progress, also out of consideration for the Army which is involved in heavy combat. But he will never call a submarine commander to account if he torpedoes an American ship by mistake.3

As I say, Fraatz’s specific behavior reflects this general carelessness. The Greer might have been an American ship; it might not. But there was no harm in shooting at it if it were. That’s precisely the view that Roosevelt objected to, describing it as “piracy.”


  1. John M. Schuessler, “The Deception Dividend: FDR’s Undeclared War,” International Security 34, no. 4 (April 2010): 157,↩︎

  2. Fraatz to ComSubs, September 5, 1941, Entry A1 9019 German Navy U-Boat Message Translation and Summaries, SRGN 2720, RG 457, National Archives and Records Administration.↩︎

  3. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 1939--1945 (London: Greenhill Books, 1990), 222.↩︎