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The USS Reuben James was a Destroyer protecting a convoy when it was hit and sunk by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. This was on Oct 31, 1941. Most of the people on board were killed.

A Wikipedia article on the US Neutrality Acts also says:

After repeated attacks by German submarines on U.S. ships, Roosevelt announced on September 11, 1941, that he had ordered the U.S. Navy to attack German and Italian war vessels in the "waters which we deem necessary for our defense".

Though it has no citation for that, it makes it sound like Germany had been attacking US shipping for at least a month.

And I guess I'll just explicitly make the obvious comparison to WW1 and the Lusitania. Germany sank the Lusitania in 1915. It was a British ship, but over 100 Americans died in that attack, so American joined WW1 albeit two years later.

In the Rueben James case, it was an American ship and over 100 died according to Larrabee (Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War, Simon and Schuster, 1988; Google books). So why didn't America join the war after it sank?

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    I think you're giving too little credence to your "albeit two years later" remark. The US did, in fact, join WWII within two years of September 11, 1941, after all. – Jonathan Cast Aug 11 '17 at 14:19
  • Wow, I never knew Sep.11, 2001 was the 60th year anniversary of this... :( – Mehrdad Aug 12 '17 at 9:30
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    @Mehrdad Sep. 11, 2001 was the anniversary of anything happening on a Sep 11 ever before ... – Hagen von Eitzen Aug 12 '17 at 10:18
  • @HagenvonEitzen: Thank you for the intelligent remark... – Mehrdad Aug 12 '17 at 10:24
  • September 11th marks the War of '1812 "Battle of Plattsburg / Lake Champlain", a British defeat, which recently released British Admiralty papers, admitted was the defining reason for concluding British involvement on the former Colonies. History has omitted this American Victory in favor of the "Burning of Washington", a ruse to keep American troops out of N. New York, and the after the fact "Battle of New Orleans." – Ace Aug 15 '17 at 10:26
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why didn't America join the war after it sank?

Because, according to the Constitution (Article 1 Section 8), war is declared by Congress, and Congress was heavily isolationist.

Also, for all practical purposes, US was already at war:

When Hitler declared war on the US, he mentioned that "they are already fighting us anyway".

Constraints on FDR

As an extended reply to a comment

why didn't the President declare military action, based on the attack of one of their ships, (forcing Congress to go to war, because they would have no other choice once we actively attacked Germany)

Political Constraints

FDR could not afford to give more ammo to the isolationists, who already were outraged by the aforementioned actions. His political opponents were many and varied - from Nazis and Communists (although the latter switched sides on 1941-06-22) to traditionalists who love to mention Washington/Jefferson's "entangling alliances".

The even more important issue were the people. FDR understood that the war will be a hard fought all-out effort. He had to make sure that the people will keep morale high and not think "we provoked the war ourselves, it's our own fault, let's settle".

Note that during his reelection campaign Roosevelt pledged that he would "not send American boys into any foreign wars".

Industrial Constraints

Seriously, what could FDR do that he was not already doing? Building a battleship takes 2-3 years. Making 1000 strategic bombers takes similar time. Mobilization, training the troops, arming them takes time.

US was in no position to do anything it was not already doing.

See also the Details section in another answer.

  • Really good answer, but the President still has power to declare a military strike, he just has to explain it to Congress in X timeframe. I think it would help the answer to ask why didn't the President declare military action, based on the attack of one of their ships, (forcing Congress to go to war, because they would have no other choice once we actively attacked Germany). – EvSunWoodard Aug 11 '17 at 19:56
  • @EvSunWoodard: I thought I spoke about it, but I added a special section as an answer to your question. – sds Aug 11 '17 at 20:23
  • @EvSunWoodard You might want to look at the year the war powers act was enacted. – KorvinStarmast Aug 11 '17 at 23:58
  • This gives good detail, but the FDR's enemies thing makes me wonder how FDR was re-elected to an unprecented 3rd term in the first place. I think it would make a good separate question, but idk how to word it exactly. Also, I somehow suddenly remember a campaign promise something along the lines of "we will stay neutral unless deliberately attacked". – DrZ214 Aug 12 '17 at 5:52
  • The warning against "entangling alliances" was given by Washington, I believe. – Tom Au Aug 12 '17 at 5:58
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The sinking of the Reuben James contributed to the American war sentiment, and the U.S. and Germany went to war six weeks later. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 contributed to U.S. war sentiment, and America entered the war in early 1917, almost two years later. Both events were smoothed over (temporarily) when the Germans showed subsequent restraint.

But the trigger events for America's entry in both wars were existential threats. For World War II, it was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1917,it was the Zimmerman Telegram proposing a German-Mexican alliance. Both were regarded as stabs in the back.

The sinkings of the Lusitania and Reuben James did not rise to the above levels.

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    It was Germany who declared the war. – Vladimir F Aug 11 '17 at 9:14
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    @VladimirF: The question was, "why didn't the U.S. join the war?" The answer was, we did, through the "back door" with Japan. Even if Germany didn't declare war, we would soon have been at war with Germany's ally. – Tom Au Aug 11 '17 at 9:20
  • @TomAu You're mischaracterizing or miscontextizing my question. My question is why didn't usa go to war after a direct attack on one of her ships? – DrZ214 Aug 11 '17 at 17:08
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    Both events were smoothed over (temporarily) when the Germans showed subsequent restraint. Can you expound upon that and give a source? – DrZ214 Aug 11 '17 at 20:07
  • @DrZ214: In World War I, Germany suspended unrestricted submarine warfare from September 1915 to February 1917.history.com/this-day-in-history/…. In World War II, Hitler told his Admirals after the Reuben James, "don't do that again until I give the OK" (six weeks later/ – Tom Au Aug 12 '17 at 4:36

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