1938: Heat and Passion

This month — March, 2013 — marks the 75th anniversary of an event that signified the world tipping hard toward heated chaos.  The Third Reich, under Hitler’s Nazidom, had bullied and brow-beat Austrian leadership — and perverted Austrian public opinion — for several years.  The annexation of Austria, or the Anschluss (in German: Anschluss Österreichs), was completed that month.  Few believed that Hitler’s appetite would be sated for long, that the heat of passion had cooled, or that the winds of war could long be avoided.

The Anschluss left the Czech half of Czechoslovakia virtually surrounded by the hungry Third Reich (see figure).  And as the heat of the 1938 summer made temperatures rise, so too did Hitler’s new acquisition hasten his desire for Lebensraum – living space.  He cast his wolfish eyes on Czechoslovakia, on the premise that citizens there of German descent were being mistreated.  Shouldn’t they be part of a Greater Germany?Slide1

Through the heated summer Hitler made his claim that he would march the Wehrmacht on behalf of Sudentenland’s ethnic Germans.  Britain and France were bound by treaty to defend Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty.  Is this how the next Great War would start?

The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich in Mid-September to meet Hitler in Berchtesgaden.  Hitler delivered his ultimatum (Dictat) firmly.  Afterward, Chamberlain and Daladier, the French Prime Minister, met and agreed that the Sudentenland must be conceded to Germany – without having the decency to include Czechoslovakia’s President Benes on the negotiations or discussions.

Sudentland, in deep Purple

Sudetenland, in deep Purple

Days later, Chamberlain flew back to Munich for further negotiations.  Now that France and Britain had agreed to appease him, Hitler had additional demands.  With Czech soldiers on the border and in the streets ready to defend their nation — and ill-prepared British and French armies only beginning to mobilize — the world waited for news of the negotiations’ results.

Across the Atlantic in the United States there was edgy unease.  She had slipped back into deep economic recession, as FDR had eased off on his massive stimulus – his own five year spending extravaganza coming after Hoover’s stimulus efforts – only to learn that the economy had not been sufficiently kick-started and unemployment shot back up to 18%.  Anxiously, Americans wanted to know if there would be war in Europe. But, in place of news and the voice of Edward R Murrow, there was only static over the airwaves.  What was going on?

A terrific hurricane had been making its way across the Atlantic.  Without satellites or even weather aircraft, the only way to track storms was by reports from merchant or cruise ships, and by wind, surf and barometric measurements far away on land.  This storm was reported to have turned north hundreds of miles east of the North Carolina-to-Florida coast.  All hurricanes that do so – it was believed – then go to cooler waters, weaken, turn northeast, and fade away.

Not this one.

There is some controversy over what was the hottest decade in US and North Atlantic history.  Until recently the 1930s has routinely held that distinction.  Many climate scientists say that it was 2000-2010.  However, for North America and the North Atlantic, consider that the hottest temperatures ever recorded in 26 of the 50 states were in that decade [1] (Even though Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states, their weather records are included in the reference).  That’s quite remarkable.  And the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Canada and Iceland were also in this decade.

And 1938 was hot too.  As the storm moved north, it was blocked by an unusually large and strong high pressure in the north Atlantic between Bermuda and the Grand Banks.  Undetected, it slinked back to the northwest.  Fueled by the strong high and an unusually warm Gulf Stream, it grew stronger (hurricanes were not named then).

The barometric pressure dropped throughout New England.  Yet a major storm had not hit since 1821, and none had failed to turn northeast since the hurricane of 1815.  Why would it not do so now?  Eventually the barometric pressure dropped to one of the lowest ever recorded in the US until that time: 27.76 inches.  Up in the hills of Vermont people could smell sea air.  What was happening?

On Long Island a man had just received a barometer via mail order.  He set it up.  The pressure reading was so low that it barely registered at the bottom of the scale.  Figuring it must be defective he repackaged it and drove off to the post office to return it.  While he was gone his house disappeared.[4]

Path, The 1938 Hurricane, AKA the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane

Path, The 1938 Hurricane, AKA the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane

It’s hard to compare hurricanes of different eras, but The Great New England Hurricane of September, 1938, would probably knock the socks off super-storm Hurricane Sandy of 2012, like a mountain lion would tear into a kitty cat.  Mercifully the ’38 storm weakened from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm just before making landfall on Long Island in the early afternoon of September 21, 1938.  Sandy was certainly larger in size, but was only a Category 1 just before landfall, slipping to sub-hurricane intensity as she hit land (is Sandy a boy or a girl?).

Long Island was rocked with winds of 150-mph and surf surges of 35 feet that washed completely over the island.  The storm’s arrival was unfortunately simultaneous with a very strong high tide, tugged hard by the coincidence of the moon’s perigee and a sun-moon syzygy, from by a nearly new moon at mid-day and at equinox.  [Unfortunately, Sandy also coincided with a new moon high tide, although in late October, there was no equinox syzygy, nor was there lunar perigee].

The east end of Long Island, and all of the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut, received the full brunt of the storm’s right hand, as the counter-clockwise rotation adds to the wind and surge on the right side of northern hemisphere storms.  It remains today the worst natural disaster ever in Connecticut.

When the storm cleared, many hundreds were dead, many thousands more were homeless, devastation was widespread – but the US now had their news from Europe.  There would be no war.  Not yet, anyhow.  The Czech, British and French armies would stand down.  Nazi jackboots soon marched into the Sudetenland.  Churchill, on the backbenches and not in government, dryly observed: “Britain and France had to choose between dishonor and war.  They chose dishonor.  They will have war.”

The ignominy continued.  In March 1939, Hitler grabbed the remainder of Czechoslovakia.  Again Britain and France declined to honor their sworn and treaty-bound obligation to defend Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty … on the grounds that, since the country was first split into a Czech Republic and a Slovak Republic before the seizure, the country of Czechoslovakia no longer existed.  Shameful.

Soon enough – and still unprepared – in September, 1939, they would get  war, nonetheless, with the dismemberment of Poland.

If the Hurricane of 1938 were to hit New England today, we would probably think of Sandy and Katrina as unpleasant days at the park.  Satellite warnings and evacuation notices could not save the millions and millions of homes and buildings and highways and bridges that have been constructed since then – to say nothing of trying to evacuate so many more tens of millions.  There is simply no preparing for devastation and power on that scale.

And if the heat of fascist or extremist passion that swept over the world in the 1930s were to return, I doubt if the world would be prepared for that either, regardless of how much warning we had.

Until then, I wish you peace

Joe Girard © 2013



[1] State-by-state Extreme weather records: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/scec/records

[2] North American and European warming from mid-1800s to 1940: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/20ctrend.htm

[3] 1938 Timeline: http://www.oocities.org/ww2_remembered/1938.html

[4] Story of the man with the barometer from The Glory and the Dream; A Narrative History of America: 1932-1972, Volume I.  Pg 224-225, William Manchester.

2 thoughts on “1938: Heat and Passion”

  1. Steve Rolfe


    A great story, but I disagree on your second point. In 1938 England, France and the US had very weak armies. The reason that Chamberlin capitulated is because he had no other choice, as Churchill himself later acknowledged. Communications was very poor so the build up in Germany was not well known. Of course, much of the rest of the world had there own problems to deal with. The aftermath of the Great War was such that many did not want to deal with war again.

    Today the US is by far the most powerful country that every existed. And, it has military involvement nearly everywhere in the world.

    What Germany did in the 30’s and 40’s is unlikely to be repeated. That was the “last war”. Asymetrical warfare is the new regime. China may become a major issue, but it does not appear to want to take over the world as Hitler wanted.

    We should learn from the past, but we should not be blind to the changes in the world. We need to fight today’s wars and not past wars.

  2. Joe Post Author

    I agree Steve: Britain was not ready, a point I made in a 2010 essay “Protecting Peace: Buzz This” (https://sites.google.com/site/girardmeister2/protecting-peace-buzz-this). You are also correct about 30s and 40s being unlikely to repeat. As Mark Twain said (or is said to have said): “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” 😉
    I somewhat disagree however on the why. Britain and France could well have known, if they’d wanted to. The horrors of the first Great War caused them to turn a willingly blind eye, even after Hitler marched into the Rheinland.

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