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Isolationism Ww2 Essay Contest

During the 1930’s the world began bubbling over with the social and political consequences of World War I. During this time the United States became inherently isolationist and unwilling to get involved with world affairs. This essay will discuss whether President Roosevelt was viewed “as the pawn of public and Congressional isolationism, or as a sagacious politician who slowly guided the nation toward his own internationalist philosophy.”[1] George F. Kennan wrote “World War II seemed really so extensively predetermined; it developed and rolled its course with the relentless logic of the last act of a classical tragedy.”[2] With this in mind, how much say did the United States have in being drawn in to World War II? Did President Roosevelt’s foreign policy decisions speed up or hamper the United States’ entry into World War II and in a time of isolationism, was all what it seemed?

The origins of World War II can be traced back to the end of World War I, where The Treaty of Versailles was signed, complete with extremely harsh terms for Germany. Furthermore, the United States did not become a member of the League of Nations after President Wilson failed to gain Congresses approval. The American people were too preoccupied with the first Red Scare, industrial disputes and inflation, and the United States sunk back into Isolationism. During the 1920’s the American economy exploded, with industries such as manufacturing booming. Everyone seemed to be enjoying an extremely high standard of living, and in fact, war had become so unpopular that in 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact was ratified, essentially outlawing war. [3]

Though the United States was politically isolationist, American companies and Banks were not. Money was loaned and offices were set up throughout the world, and the global economy, led by the United States was flourishing. That is, until the Great Depression hit in 1929.  This turned the American people even further away from global affairs and when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected into the Presidential office in 1933 domestic issues were at the forefront of his mind.[4]

The Neutrality Act of 1935 was the first indication that Roosevelt would not have absolute control over Congress. After a series of New Deal measures were passed without delay, the passing of the Neutrality Act would shock Roosevelt. Weiss tells us that he “suffered the first sever rebuke to his prestige and discretionary authority, as Congress forced him to accept a Neutrality Act which narrowly restricted his conduct of foreign policy.” [5]  Roosevelt had been pressing for a Discretionary Embargo which was introduced to Congress by President Hoover. This would allow the United States to stay quasi-neutral whilst legally supplying arms to whomever they felt was the victim of any conflict. The President would have the right to decide who was the belligerent, and this piece of legislation was welcomed by Europe. Dulles argues that with Congress pressing for full neutrality they were not looking realistically at the emerging threat and that the act was “designed to keep the United States out of a war that had been fought twenty years earlier.”[6]

During the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1933, just eight days after President Roosevelt’s inauguration, the European powers waited on a decision from the new President before they would go forward in any deal. Roosevelt sent Ambassador Norman Davis to Geneva to reassure the countries that if they agreed on disarmament the Discretionary Embargo, which was particularly favoured by the British, would be passed.[7]

Roosevelt had no reason to believe this act would not be ratified as his party, the Democrats held majorities in both the House and the Senate. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Council had other ideas as it’s Chairman Senator Key Pittman (D-Nevada) was more interesting in mining rights and silver. He was unwilling to support a foreign policy agenda that he thought was “contrary to national interests”.[8] Pittman also had support in two Senior Republican Senators, William Borah (R-Idaho) and Hiram Johnston (R-California), whom were both staunch isolationists, “if that term is understood to mean opposition to any policy that would curtail American rights and involve collective action.”[9] Therefore, Senator Johnston proposed an amendment for the bill that would require President Roosevelt to apply the Neutrality Act to all participants in any dispute, making the United States a Neutral country. President Roosevelt was displeased with this amendment, but Weiss suggests that Roosevelt may have wanted to “conserve his strength”[10] and ensure that the focus was firmly on his domestic policies which were lifting the country out of recession. Bachevich tells us that Roosevelt had a “master politician’s acute sensitivity to the public yearning for normalcy after long years of depression.” [11] At this time, picking a fight with the Senate did not seem conducive, even though Ambassador Davis has promised the Discretionary Embargo to the European Powers.[12] Dulles agrees with Weiss and since many of the Republican Senators helped to pass his New Deal Legislation, Roosevelt was unwilling to alienate them by rejecting their neutrality amendment.[13]

As the first of The Neutrality Acts were signed, European troubles began to heat up, with the League of Nations proving itself incompetent by failing to prevent Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 or the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Hitler was also breaking the Treaty of Versailles at his will, especially with his remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, and none of the European powers held any sway over him, whilst Spain had erupted into a Civil War that brought Global involvement.[14]  The Neutrality Act was passed again in 1937, thought there was many pleas to the contrary.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote that he had, “no doubt whatsoever that the greatest single contribution which the United States could make at the present moment to the preservation of world peace would be the amendment of the existing neutrality legislations,” as he felt that it compounded, “an indirect but potent encouragement to aggression.”[15] Chamberlain got his wish, as the Cash-and-Carry provision was added to the policy. This would allow nations involved in conflict to travel to America, buy their goods in cash and take them home, eliminating the risk to American property and lives in the shipping of the goods.[16]

This led President Roosevelt to deliver his ‘Quarantine Speech” on October 5th 1937, calling for a world quarantine on any aggressor nations. In his speech he spoke of international lawlessness, a reign of terror and that world affairs, particularly those in Japan and China had “reached a stage where the very foundations of civilization are seriously threatened.” [17] Roosevelt, however, had been battling with an isolationist public who did not understand the threats in Europe. In his own words in a letter to a friend and confidant he wrote, “As you know, I am fighting against a public psychology of long standing – a psychology which comes very close to saying ‘Peace at any price’” then follows up with, when talking of the aggressors, “The most practical and most peaceful thing to do in the long run is to quarantine them.”[18]

With such an isolationist feeling in the United States at this time, Roosevelt was brave to buck the trend of “softly softly” and deliver a speech with some gusto.[19] Haight tells us that is was widely accepted that Roosevelt backed down from his strong stance on Foreign Policy almost immediately after the speech was delivered, but he argues that he did not, though he did tone down the rhetoric. Roosevelt felt that the public reaction was not “overwhelmingly negative” and carried on with his newly voiced foreign policy with The Welles Plan and The Nine Power Conference.[20] The Welles Plan, conceived by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, was presented to Roosevelt in October 1937. The plan was for all Ambassadors that were in Washington D.C to be called to the White House on Armistice Day and a call would be issued for an international gathering. Roosevelt wished to make “lawlessness of the aggressors easier to define and condemn”[21] and to engage the American public in the world of foreign affairs to try and damper down isolationism.

The Nine Power Conference was a simultaneous opportunity to get involved with world affairs and it was held from November 3rd to the 24th 1937 in Brussels after the League of Nations struggled to deal with with the Sino-Japanese Conflict. The conference originated with the Nine Power Naval Treaty that was signed in 1922, and the League hoped that a meeting of the powers would hold Japan accountable for their actions, especially if the United States was involved. Roosevelt felt that there had to be unanimous cooperation in order to fix the problems in the far east. [22]

In such a climate of isolationism in the United States, Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy decisions from the Quarantine Act onwards were very internationalist. These three decisions tested the water on how the American Public may act to any intervention that would possibly take place. Haight states “had Roosevelt believed that opposition to his Quarantine Speech to be overwhelming, he never would have devoted such attention to the Welles Plan or to the Nine Power Conference.”[23] However, Dallek tells us that Roosevelt was not trying to push through sanctions on Japan with his Quarantine Speech, but “rather to give public expression to his long-standing desire to find some new concept for preserving peace.”[24]

The Welles Plan was not implemented at the time, even though it had the backing of Roosevelt, as Secretary of State Hull branded the scheme “illogical and impossible”.[25] He believed a peace conference would lead to a false sense of security in such dangerous times.  Roosevelt shelved the idea, which left only the Nine Power Conference as any continuation of the Quarantine Speech. Roosevelt sent his trusted diplomat Ambassador Norman Davis as his delegate, who was known to have an interventionist view on foreign policy. Cleverly, Roosevelt picked Jay Pierrepont Moffat, a noninterventionist to appease the isolationists in Congress and Stanley Hornbeck, an interventionist, to accompany Davis on the trip, which gained the confidence of the State Department, yet Roosevelt believed Hornbeck and Davis could override Moffat. Publicly Roosevelt made out that he sent the delegates to foster peace, privately, however, he was willing to talk about intervention as he believe it was a “fallacy that neutrality would keep us out of war”[26] There were two obstacles to Roosevelt’s Plan however, The Neutrality Act and the threat of Japanese retaliation. Moffat along with the State Department felt the United States would not even be able to apply sanctions without Japanese Retaliation, but Roosevelt felt that if the United States held enough conviction in which ever action they took and had the backing of other countries, this would not transpire.

However, midway through the conference Davis received word from Secretary of State Cordell Hull to stop the agenda that was laid forth by the President and to back down. Reasons why the President suddenly stopped pushing this agenda range from congressional opposition to unfavourable public opinion, to the economic crisis in the United States, and also the hesitancy of Cordell Hull. [27] Another reason for the breakdown of the conference was the lack of equality between the powers, with many of the countries wanting the United States to take the lead militarily and economically, in which Franklin Roosevelt could scarcely afford. France called for an American guarantee of French Indo-China, but Roosevelt knew that he would be unable to see it’s safe passage through Congress, as it was certainly not deemed as Collective Neutrality. “The Quarantine Speech has been heralded as a revolution in American Foreign Policy”[28], and it certainly showed Roosevelt’s internationalist side, however, Roosevelt failed to carry on this doctrine in the public sphere.

The breif spell of internationalist thought carried on into December when the American Gunboat Panay was bombed by Japanese planes. Roosevelt immediately struck up plans with the British for a Japanese Quarantine, by acting under the 1933 Trading with the Enemy Act. Roosevelt had calculated these proposed actions, and felt Japan would fall within a year without any military intervention.[29] However, the isolationist mood was back in full throw throughout the country and all forms of intervention or retaliation were renounced. Roosevelt wrote in a letter to friend shortly after the incident stating that “largely as a result of Republican propaganda and the growing disregard for all treaties, our talk turned more and more to the “peace at any price” theory. That is what I have to combat at the present time.” [30] Two days after Roosevelt wrote this letter the Japanese apologised and paid for damages, the case was closed.[31] From this set of actions it would seem that Roosevelt legitimately wanted to get involved with global affairs but was struggling to have his thoughts accredited within the public sphere and that of Congress.

By 1938 the crisis in Europe was almost at breaking point. In March Hitler incorporated Austria into Greater Germany, which extended his frontier to the Italian border, nevertheless, Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship grew stronger.[32] Throughout 1937 the British and French had carried out a policy of Appeasement, one which Roosevelt had supported. He stayed silent when Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, and after his Quarantine Speech he sent Ambassador William Bullitt to Germany to ensure the Germans it did not apply to them, but the public was unaware the United States was sending delegates to Europe. A sign that Roosevelt may shift his stance in foreign policy came in January of 1938 when the Welles Plan was reintroduced. Roosevelt wanted a convention of the major powers in Washington to discuss disarmament and frame international law, however, upon asking the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to attend, he declined. His acceptance changed once his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden managed to persuade him to the contrary. The signal was a fleeting one, Roosevelt headed straight back to an isolationist foreign policy when he cancelled the convention no less that five times. [33] Initiating the Welles Plan again was yet another sign that had Roosevelt  held the backing of the public and Congress, he may have acted more forcefully in the global sphere.

Appeasement was back in full force in Europe, but Roosevelt was sending mixed messages. The Munich Agreement of 1938 allowed annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and all the major powers were in agreement of this treaty, and had urged it’s passing so that they could feel “a universal sense of relief.”[34] The French, however, were not on board so the United States quietly urged them to stop acting as though they may help Czechoslovakia recover their land. Contrary to this a few months later he “began to praise France for backing Czechoslovakia against a country that understood only force.”[35] Furthermore, Ambassador Kennedy told the Germans that they had his sympathy in there racial and economic goals, and contrary to that Ambassador Bullitt was granted permission to give an interventionist speech by Roosevelt.[36] At this period in time it seems as though Roosevelt either had no real control over the State Department policy of appeasement to keep the United States neutral, or he was trying to keep all the European powers in his favour.  There was also an overriding feeling in the country that if Britain and France could appease Hitler the United States would have no fear of military action. In spite of this, Cole tells us that neither Roosevelt or Hull “really believed that appeasement would produce enduring peace and security for Europe and the world”[37], yet both were willing to carry on with the policy. Ambrose suggests that this is because “American Foreign Policy in 1938… was to support the status quo”.[38]

In January of 1939 Roosevelt attempted to get the Neutrality Legislation repealed, but his plans failed partly because “Democrats personally hostile to Roosevelt voted with the isolationists”[39] and the isolationist public opinion. By 1939 Hitler had completely annexed Czechoslovakia, with this, Britain and France declared appeasement over and warned Hitler that any other forays into European countries would result in war. Roosevelt and the United States response was to do nothing, as isolationist sentiment still running high it would have been unwise for the Administration to do anything to the contrary.[40]

It became clear in the August of 1939 that Hitler would invade Poland. Desperate to stop the outbreak of war Roosevelt offered to send mediators to discuss the issue, however, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced on the 23rd. Poland would be split between the two countries, and with that Britain and France declared war on Germany.[41] On the 21st September Roosevelt made his first war speech to Congress. He stated no less that four times that he would keep the United States out of war, whilst also stating that Congress must repeal the Embargo on Arms and Munitions and reinstate the Cash-and-Carry system. This would undoubtedly help the Allied forces, and the United States aligned themselves with the Western Democracies, showed their sympathy and friendship, but also made it clear they would not get involved in any other way.[42]

Roosevelt had to fight “a battle of Washington” in 1940 against his own administration in a dispute about aid for the British and French. The Allies had ordered planes from the United States, but members of the government were refusing them the top-secret information on how to fly them. Cashman tells us that Roosevelt “became so exasperated that in March he told the War Department that its opposition must end, that leaks to the isolationist press must stop, and that he would transfer any truculent officers to Guam.”[43] During this time Roosevelt and Hull were trying everything to ensure the United States were playing “positive and active roles in efforts to preserve peace and guard security”[44], even over the heads of the isolationist. They tried trade reciprocity, diplomacy, messages from the President himself and disarmament ideas, however, Roosevelt’s most effective Foreign Policy directive was the aid and lifting of the embargo to the allies. [45] This, and the reprimand of subordinate members of his government suggests that Roosevelt was deeply involved in WWII and was steering his Foreign Policy towards possible intervention at a later date, whilst doing anything within his power to help the allies at this time. However, 1940 was also election year, which meant that Roosevelt had to compete on foreign policy with the Republicans, therefore, he spent most of the year promising peace for the United States, with no deployment into Europe “except in case of attack.”[46] It would be fair to say that 1940 was the “most opaque” year in foreign policy matters because of the election.[47]

However, The United States agreed a deal with Great Britain that American would furnish them with 50 out-of-date Destroyers whilst Britain gave them Naval Bases along the Atlantic Coast. This is seen as the first concrete and public show of support for the Allied Powers. Britain was in desperate need of aid, whether financial or arms, and Roosevelt broke the strict rules of the Neutrality Act to provide them with such.[48] Roosevelt then further stepped away from Neutrality in 1941 with the introduction of the Lend-Lease Act in January. The act would allow the President to “sell, transfer, exchange, lease, lend, under such terms as he thought suitable, supplies of munitions, food, weapons and other defense articles to any nation whose defense he deemed vital to the defense of the United States.”[49] In short it gave the President the ability to help the Allied Powers any way he wished and after two months of debate in Congress it was eventually passed on March 11th 1941.  Dulles states that the Roosevelt administration was not seeking war when the policy of aid to the allies was adopted or when it cut off all supplies to Japan in Summer 1941, it was because he “remained convinced that there could be no safety for America in a world dominated by Hitler. And he knew that isolation was not security.”[50]

In August 1941 The Atlantic Charter was announced by Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, laying out a plan for world peace once the Nazis had been defeated. The charter spoke of sovereignty, self-determination, the freedom of trade and the seas to try and promote some form of world security.[51] The Charter itself “is an outstanding example of executive agreement”,[52] considering the United States was not yet at war, and the country was still fighting against it. Furthermore the Charter was used as “an explicit warning to Japan of war against further encroachment.”[53] As 1941 wore on Japan further spread their troops throughout the Pacific ocean and even further into China. Though Roosevelt had tried appeasement and diplomacy it was no longer working subsequently Hull issued a proposal to the Japanese that they completely withdraw from China. However, the United States did not hear back until December 7th 1941, when Japanese aircraft and naval ships attacked Pearl Harbour.[54] The United States could not ignore this blatant attack on American military personnel, Roosevelt had no option but to declare war on Japan, and did so the following day after an address to Congress. At the same time, the German forces in Russia were faltering due to the sub-zero winter, but nevertheless, Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11th 1941. The United States, once staunchly isolationist, was now fighting a war on both fronts. Cashman, on Pearl Harbour, tells us that ‘This tragic event was the bitter climax to years of infamy in world affairs.”[55]

Roosevelt’s foreign policy throughout his presidency was varied, from conceding the first Neutrality Act to the isolationists to the Atlantic Charter. The fact that Roosevelt had argued for a discretionary embargo, over the Neutrality Act shows that he was not a staunch isolationist. However, he was stuck with an isolationist Congress and public, so rather than opposing the act he tried to appease the public and appease Hitler at the same time. “FDR, in particular was intimately involved in the patronage of Nazi Germany, more so that anyone has perhaps supposed.”[56] With the many underhand meetings that Roosevelt authorised, and the mixed messages sent to the powers in Europe, it is apparent that this statement is correct. However, this asserts that Roosevelt was trying to prevent the outbreak of war. The President did believe that intervention by the United States would be necessary for Hitler to be defeated, but could not say this outright due to “fear of further isolationist attacks… Under these circumstances the leadership that he might have exerted in preparing the nation for the role that it was destined to play often appeared weak and vacillating”[57], hence the reason he may have been accused of secretly leading the country to war. The inevitability of the United States joining World War II seems absolute, and even though his foreign policy did not always directly reflect this, he was always on the side of the Allies. Roosevelt’s foreign policy was ramping up to be more interventionist, with the Lend-Lease Act, his tough stance on Japan and the Atlantic Charter, and had Pearl Harbour not pushed the United States into World War II, ultimately she would have found her own way there. Therefore, Roosevelt’s foreign policy did eventually push the United States into war, but only after all other options had been exhausted.



Ambrose, S. E. (1979). Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy, 1938-1976. New York: Penguin Books.

Aufricht, H. (1944). Presidential Power to Regulate Commerce and Lend-Lease Transactions. The Journal of Politcs, 6, 57-76.

Bachevich, A. J. (2005). The New American Militarism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beard, C. A. (1946). American Foreign Policy in The Making. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Caridi, R. J. (1974). 20th Century American Foreign Policy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Cashman, S. D. (1989). America, Roosevelt and World War II. New York: New York University Press.

Cole, W. S. (1983). Roosevelt and the Isolationists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Dallek, R. (1979). Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dulles, F. R. (1955). America’s Rise to World Power 1898 – 1954. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Haight Jr, J. M. (1962). Roosevelt and the Aftermath of the Quarantine Speech. The Review of Politics, 24 (2), 233-259.

Heinrichs, W. (1988). Threshold Of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennan, G. F. (1984). American Diplomacy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Marks III, F. W. (1985). Six Between Roosevelt and Hitler: America’s Role in the Appeasement of Nazi Germany. The Historical Journal, 28 (4), 969-982.

Offner, A. A. (1969). American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1952). F.D.R to Endicott Peabody, at Groton (letter in FDR Library) October 16 1937. In E. Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Letters, Vol 3 1928-1945 (p. 220). London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1952). F.D.R to Joseph P. Tumulty, in Washington Dec. 23, 1937. In F. D. Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Letters, Vol 3, 1938-1945 (p. 226). London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.

Utley, J. G. (1986). The United States Enters WWII. In J. M. Carroll, & G. C. Herring, Modern American Diplomacy (pp. 91-107). Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc.

Weiss, S. L. (1968). American Foreign Policy and Presidential Power: The Neutrality Act of 1935. The Journal of Politics , 672-695.

[1] Ronald J. Caridi (1974) 20th Century American Foreign Policy. New Jersey: Prentice Hall pp142-143

[2] George F. Kennan (1984) American Diplomacy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press p56

[3] Foster R. Dulles (1955) America’s Rise to World Power. London: Hamish Hamilton pp108-128

[5] Stuart Weiss. (1968) American Foreign Policy and Presidential Power. The Journal of Politics p 673

[7] Weiss 1968, pp 673 – 675

[11] Andrew J. Bachevich (2005). The New American Militarism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p9

[12] Weiss 1968, p 677-678

[18] Franklin D. Roosevelt. (1952) Letter to Endicott Peabody. The Roosevelt Letters p220

[19] Jonathan G. Utley (1986). The United States Enters WWII. In J. M. Carroll, & G. C. Herring, Modern American Diplomacy (pp. 91-107). Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc.

[20] John Haight. (1962) Roosevelt and the Aftermath of the Quarantine Speech. The Review of Politics pp 233 – 234

[22] Haight, 1962 pp 237-242

[29] Dallek 1979, pp 154-155

[30] Roosevelt. (1952) Letter to Joseph P. Tumulty. The Roosevelt Letters p226

[32] Wayne S. Cole (1983). Roosevelt and the Isolationists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[33] Frederick W. Marks III. (1985). Six Between Roosevelt and Hitler: America’s Role in the Appeasement of Nazi Germany. The Historical Journal, 28 (4), 969-982.

[34] Arnold A. Offner (1969). American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[35] Marks III 1985, p974

[36] Marks III 1989, pp974-975

[38] Stephen E. Ambrose (1979). Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy, 1938-1976. New York: Penguin Books. p 24

[39] Sean D. Cashman(1989). America, Roosevelt and World War II. New York: New York University Press.

[41] Ambrose 1979, pp22-27

[45] Cole 1983, pp297-298

[46] Charles A. Beard (1946). American Foreign Policy in The Making. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[47] Waldo Heinrichs (1988). Threshold Of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[48] Dulles 1955, pp192-193

[51] Heinrichs 1988 pp151-152

[52] Hans Aufricht (1944). Presidential Power to Regulate Commerce and Lend-Lease Transactions. The Journal of Politcs, 6, 57-76.

[53] Heinrichs 1988, p152

[56] Marks III 1985, p982

[57] Dulles, p197

Written by: Jenny Wilson
Written at: The University of Aberdeen
Written for: Dr. Alex Spelling
Date written: December 2011

World War II Neutrals: Isolationist America (1939-41)

Figure 1.--The United States before the outbreak of World War II did not have a creditable military force. Even small European countries like Romania had larger armies. The American people wanted no part of another war. German Führer Adolf Hitler calculated in launching the War was that he could defeat the European democracies before President Roosevelt convinced the American people that the NAZIs must be confronted with military force. Hitler very nearly suceeded in his gamble. Hitler outmaneuvered other German politicans as well as European leaders in the years leading up to the War. President Roosevelt proved to be a very different leader. The American people were a tough sell, but President Roosevelt was no ordinary salesman. Here we see the pre-War American Army. This group of soldiers are waiting to embark a train at Beaumont. Texas. Family/friends are in attendance, as well as a young paper boy selling the Liberty Newspaper (5 Cents a week is advertised on the sling pack across his shoulder).

While fighring raged in Europe with the NAZIs and Soviets as allies over running country after country, a conflict also was underway in America--a debate between the isolationists and interventonists which deeply divided the nation. America was the only major nation not yet committed to the War. The outcome of the debate in large measure would determine the fate of the Free World and Western Civilization. There has always been a strong isolationist streak in American political life. Americans separated by two great oceans have since the Revolution seen ourselves as different and apart from the rest of the World. From the beginning of the Republic, President Washington warned of entangling foreign alliances. For much of our history, Britain was seen as the great enemy of American democracy and of Manifest Destiny. World War I was America's first involvement in a European War and the United States played a critical role in winning that War. Had the Germany not insisted on unrestricted submarine warfare, in effect an attack on American shipping, it is unlikely that America would have entered the War. Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were determined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. Isolationist leaders opposed any war. Others such as, Charles Lindbergh, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Many not only opposed American involvement, but even military expenditures. Against this backdrop, President Roosevelt who did see the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militarists, with political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy, producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies, not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well, in quantities that no one especially the Axis believed possible.


While fighring raged in Europe with the NAZIs and Soviets as allies over running country after country, a conflict also was underway in America--a debate between the isolationists and interventonists which deeply divided the nation. America was the only major nation not yet committed to the War. The outcome of the debate in large measure would determine the fate of the Free World and Western Civilization. After the fall of France (June 1940), most of Europe was left in the hands of the two great totalitarian powers: Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's NAZI Germany. Britain might be able to hang on, but no longer had the capacity to challenge either, let alone both. Only America with its vast resources and industrial might was capable of liberating Europe and savibng western civilization. to us with the hindsight of history this is obvious. To many Americans at the time it was not. [Olson]

American Foreign Policy

There has always been a strong isolationist streak in American political life. Americans separated by two great oceans have since the Revolution seen ourselves as different and apart from the rest of the World. From the beginning of the Republic, President Washington warned of entangling foreign alliances. President Adams ruined his chance of reelection by keeping America out of the Napoleonic Wars. President Jefferson became unpopular in his second term by cutting of trade with Europe to keep America out of the Napoleonic Wars. President Madison finally entered the War and the results were near disaster. Gradually the principle of staying out of European Wars became a acceptted principle of the American Republic. And it was undoubtedly in America's best interests to do so. While European countries poured ememse treadure and blood into fighing each other in terrible and often pointless dynastic wars. America's energy was devoted to developing a new country and productive economy. Even in the 19th century, there were dangers. Napoleon had planned to seize Louisana and only failed because his troops got bogged down in Haiti and fied in droves from tropical diseases. Incredibly, none of the War HAwks who took America to war in 1812 asked themsekves the basic question, 'What if Napoleon won in Europe? The basic equation changed in the 20th century. Imperial Germany might dominate most of Western Europe as a result of World War I (1914-18). And two decades later, Hitler actually conquered most of Western Europe. Incredibly, many Americans did not compreghend the dangers posed. `

World War I (1914-18)

American entry into World War I was agreat departure from traditional American isolation from Eureopean diplomacy. World War I proved to be a vast killing field, destroying a generation of European men. World War I was America's first involvement in a European War and the United States played a critical role in winning that War. Had the Germany not insisted on unrestricted submarine warfare, in effect an attack on American shipping, it is unlikely that America would have entered the War. The failure of the great Spring 1918 German offensice meant that Germany could not force a military conclusion to the War. The arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) meant that the Allies could.

Inter-War Era: Popular Culture (1920s-30s)

As discussed above, the United states from the outset of the Republic has string isolationist tradition. It was addition established by Gerorge Washingon and John Adams. World War I was the first deviation from that tradition. And as far as most Americans are concerned it did not go well. Over 0.1 million Americans were killed and 0.2 million wonded. The cost was enormous. And our Allies did not want to pay off their war loans. And despite all the sacrifice, the War did not achieve the goal President Wilson promised. And then the charges that the war was the work of war prifiteers and industrialists--the so-called Merchants of Death. The result was the widespreadreemergence of Isolationist thinking, stronger than before the War. And it was not just official American foreign policy. It emerged in poplar culture as well. Mrs. Burnett's book Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) was an inditment of the British aristocracy compared to the innosence and purity of Americans. his was a theme that wiuld be reported over and over in popular cilture. And we see movies like 'My pal the king' (1932) with a premise of how corupt and unjust Europe was and how pure America was, in this the most famous white-hated cowboy of all time. This kind of popular culture helped to convince Americans that we should never again get involved in a foreign war, especially a European war with the Germans. This is part of the explanation as to why the Isoationist Movement was so strong. Also explains why there was some minimal spending on the Navy while the Army was allowed to wither. The Navy and the Atlantic Ocean wre seen as sufficent to protect America from the corruption and vicitudes of Europe. And unlike the Army we see very positive films about the Navy like 'Here comes the Navy' (1934) with big stars including Jimmy Cagney.

The Depression (1929-39)

This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the focus on domestic issues. The greatest calamity to befall Americans in the 20th century was the Great Depression--a worse calamity than even two world wars. The Depression began with the Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929. Soon business were going under and Americans were losing their jobs. All Americans were affected. Eventually about one-third of all wage earners were unemployed and many who kept their jobs saw their earrings fall. President Hoover who had engineered a humanitarian miracle in Europe during World War was unable to break away from the mindset that the Government should not intervene in the economy. President Roosevelt was elected by a landslide in 1932. He brought emery and new ideas to Washington and the Federal Government initiated programs that would have been rejected out of hand only a few years ago. Roosevelt was willing to use the Government to solve economic and social problems besetting Americans. The people loved him, electing him to an unprecedented third and fourth term. The propertied class or "economic royalists" as he called them, hated him. Roosevelt's program was called the New Deal and the many programs initiated help change the face of the United States: Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), protection for union organizers, and many others. The conservative-dominated Federal Courts struck down WPA, but many New Deal programs endure to this day. The great novel to emerge from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath which addressed to problems of rural Americans and the dust bowl. Urban Americans of course also suffered. While the New Deal brought relief to many desperate Americans, the Depression lingered until orders for war material from Europe began to flood into America in the late 1930s. The rest of the world was also affected by the Depression. Britain and France also struggled with the economic down turn. The response in Germany and Japan was totalitarianism, militarism, and finally war.

Isolationist Sentiment

Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. After the rise of the NAZIs in the 1930s and Germany's rearmament, it became increasingly clear that Europe was moving toward another war. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were determined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues. The anti-war sentiment in America and the memories of the men lost convinced many Americans that America must not get involved in any future European war. These sentiments combined with long-standing American isolationism resulted in the passage of a series of Neutrality Acts. These Acts prohibited for United States companies to trade with belligerents. As a result, while the Fascist powers aided Franco's Falange in Spain, the Spanish Republic could not even buy arms in America. The show of German arms in Spain, especially Luftwaffe bombings of Spanish cities terrified many. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. This fueled the desire of many Americans to remain neutral. Isolationist leaders opposed any involvement in a European war and clashed with President Roosevelt who increasingly saw the need to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. Some like Charles Lindbergh, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Many not only opposed American involvement, but even military preparedness and military expenditures were strongly opposed in the Congress.

Pacifist Sentiment

American peace groups attempted to negotiare an end to World War, but the Europeans were uninterested. The German were especially dismissive of the American efforts, in part because many officials did not look the United States with its mixed ethnic and racial population as a real nation. The British were more willing to at last humor the Americans as they understood the imprtnce of the Americans. With the end of the War, pace groups were optimistic, believing that war could be oulawed. American pacifists helped draft the constitution (Covenant) of the new League of Nations. Many peace groups were shocked that the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Paece Treaty which included the provision for the League. In fact the American pacifist movement was split on the League. The pacifist movement developed into a pro-League or conservative faction and an anti-League or radical faction. Conservative peace groups included the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the World Peace Foundation, the League of Nations Association, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. These were groups that emerged out of the Northeastern estabishment and were well funded. The Carnegie Endowment was founded with a bequest of $10 million in United States Steel Corporation bonds (1910). U.S. Steel was on of th major American corporation and had nenefitted from war contracts which in the eues f nore radical pacifist brought their credibility in question. The World Peace Foundation was founded with a $1 million endowment (1910). The Woodrow Wilson Foundation ammaseed conrtributions of almost $1 million for its foundtion (1924) . The radical peace organizations were less fixated on the Legue, some even opposed Amerucan menbership. And they were much less apt to work in quiet wys for peace. They were less well funded, but had more grassroot suport. Many emerged out of the Midwest where isolationist views were also strong. They were newer groups, organized after the War. There were something like 40 national groups. Local groups wre much more numerous. Some had small, less stable memberships. Some did not last long as finabces were shaky. There were changes of names. Objective varied, but all were commited to a peaceful world. The groups included: the American Committee for the Cause and Cure of War, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the National Council for the Prevention of War, the Committee on Militarism in Education, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood, the Peace Heroes Memorial Society, the War Resisters' League, the Women's Peace Society, the World Peace Association. Women played a major role in most of these groups anf this of coure was the same time that that women got the vote with the rtification of the 19th anendment and emerged as a major force in American politics (1919). Women were especially important in the more radical peace groups. American attitudes during the inter-War era were in part pacifism, but and even stroinger sentiment was a desire to disassociate from Europe which was seen as the source of endless political strife. Pacifism was an elemement in isolationist sentiment in America. Isolationism and pacifim were different movements, but there was substantial over lap. The Congress launched a major investigation designed to prove that American arms manufacturers had help involve the United States in the War. It is ironic that the industry that would save Western civilization was during the inter-wars year was being being investigated for disloyalty by Congress. The Committee became known as the Dyes Committee led by Congressman Martin Dyes. After a huge investigation, no evidence was found to justify the charges. Public opinion in America remained staunchly against involvement in World war II until Pearl Harbor. During the War, some 43,000 Americans refused to fight for reasons of conscience, Some were recognized as conscintious objectors. Others were not. About 12,000 men served in Civilian Public Service, 6,000 were sentenced to prison terms, and 25,000 served in the military as noncombatants, often in dangerous roles like medical corpsmen.

Outbreak of World War II (September 1939)

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin who had become allies with the Signing of the NAZI-Soviet Pact launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939). The Germans struck first, unleashing Blitzkrieg with all of its destructive fury by invading Poland from the morth west, and thanls to Prime Minister Chamberlain craven capitultion, the south as well. The outnumbered and outfunned Polish Amy was smashed. Stalin struck next from the wast (Septembr 1939). The two armies met at Brest-Litosk and divided Poland as agreed. They even conducted joint military parades. The Allies primarily reacted to the German invasion. Britain and France declared war on Germany (September 3). Western Newspapers focused primarily on the German invasion and reports of atricitis. Very liitle was published about Sovit atricities. In fact the Soviets were doing much the same thing in their occupation zone that the Germans were doing with the excption of the attacks on Jews.

Getting Americans Home

Traveling abroad was not nearly as common before World War II as it is today. There were no cheap airfares. People traveled by ship. It was more expensive and it took much more time. There were some ameicans abroad, byr compared to the situation tody, the number was very small. They were mostly fairly afflent people that could aford foreign travel as well as students from families that could support them abroad. In addition to the well-to-do there were also Americans falling into three main groups: busnessmen, diplomats, and missionaries. With the outbreak of the War, these people needed to get home. The process was aided by the fact that America was neuteal. Thus there was no difficulty getting out of Germany or German occupied Europe. The major problem was trans-Atlantic air travel was in its infancy. Getting home had to be done by ship and the Battle of the Atlantic made Atlantic crossings difficult. Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the Pacific War created the need to getting Americans in Asia home. The horific experience of Americans and other Westeners in Japanese captivity undescored the need to get home. Some Americans did come home as relations with Japan began to deteriorate. Many like the American military did not fully understand the military power that Japan had ammased while the United States severly limuted defense spending.

Interventionist Sentiment

The American public generally saw Hitler and the NAZIs as despicable. Despite this the vast majority of Americans were determined to stay out of what they saw as another European War. There were, however, also interventionists who saw clearly the developing danger and argued for American involvement, goung far further than the President was willing to go. As the power iof NAZI Germany grew, so did interventionist sentiment. A major turning point was the fall of France (June 1940). The French Army had been the Allied bulwark in World War I. Many saw at this time a mortal danger if America did not get involved and at a mere mininum support Britain. There was a major difference between interventionists and isolationists. Many of the major isolationists came from the Congress. Isolationism was popular with the voters and thus it was a useful campaign issue. Interventionist ideas publically expressed was a quick way to get defeated. Supporting a popular president was possible, but loudly promoting intervention was not politically possible until after Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The same was true of Administration officials. Even the Presidebnt bhad to tread very carefully. The interventions were largely figures from bussiness, the media, and academia. Several ethnic groups were pro intervenionist, esopecially Jewush groups. And the list grew as Hitle invaded on European country after another. They were, however, not as important as the ethnic groups that tended ton opose interventiion (German, Irish, and Italian). There were in addition to the interventionists outside of government, several figures the President turned to promote his policies. They worked outsude of Stste Depsrtmnt channels. The OPresident was contrained by the State Department which he could not fully rely on because he was prepared to go futher than he was willing to admit publically. And isolationist newpapers like the Chicago Tribune was constantly on the hunt for evuidence of the President's intervenionist commitment. One major problem with the State Department was his anmassador in Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. Kennedy was an isolationists, but who hesitated as a Democrat to openly challenge the President. A leak even developed at the Embassy, a clerk opposed to the President's policies. Thus the President turned to several private emissaries.

Struggle Against Isolationism

Despite the strong national consensus for isolationism, President Roosevelt saw the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists. A great national debate began. The two leading figures in the debate were President Roosevelt and aviator Charles Lindbergh, the most formidable American Firster. The Isolatinists protrayed the President as an eneny of free speech. Some in the military were opposed to his pro-British policies, especially sending Britain arms the Army lacked. The President authorized wire taps and authorized a British intelligence and propaganda operation in the United States the beginning of a connction that would lead to the first American secret inteligence and spy operation. [Olson] The President with great determination and political courage managed to, not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the great Arsenal of Democracy. The President as early as 1935 began to resist the public clamour fos a policy of strict neutrality and moved by 1941 to an undecalred, but shooting war in the Atlantic. The President also layed the ground work for producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well in quantities that no one--especially the AXIS believed possible.

Anglo-American Historic Relationship

The United States for much of its history saw Britain as the great enemy of American democracy and Manifest Destiny. This was in part the Revolutionary War experience and perhaps even more the War of 1812 and the impressment issue. There were also other entanglements, including Florida, the Canadian border and Oregon. Anerica had invaded Canada twice and there was a real poosibility of war over Oregon (1840s). The major test of Anglo-Anerican relations was the American Civil War (1860s). There was considerable sympathy for the Condederacy among the English upper class, in part because it would have divided a potentially dangerous rival. Thankfully, wiser heads like Prince Albert helped to avoid involvement. Some immigrant groups, especially the Irish, were strongly anti-English. This anti-English sentiment appeared in popular weriting. A good example is Little Lord Fauntleroy. The last major Anglo-American crisis was over Venezuela (1890s). America fought alongside Britain in World War I. After the War, however, many Americans came to feel that participation in the War was a mistake and that Bitain had dupoed the United states in entering the War. President Roosevelt not only faced a strongly isolationist America, but considerable lingering anti-British feeling. The British for their part viewed American naval power with suspicion and as late as he 1920s, Royal Navy planning assessed America as a possible adversary. The American upper class was stronly pro-British. The same was not true of working-class Americans. Many Americans in the 1920s and 30s, however, still saw the world through the lens of their ethnic backgrounds. The British were hated by many Irish Americans. This was not just a result of the Potato Famine of the 1840s which propelled many Irish to emigrate to America, but the fight for Irish independence throughout the 19th century was propelled to the forefront by the 1916 Easter Rebellion. The terror of the IRA and the counter terror of the Black and Tans generated passions to a fever pitch in the 1920s. American politicians, especially those courting the Irish vote still made inflammatory statements in the 1920s. The mayor of Chicago threatened to poke King George V in the nose if he ever came to the city. The rise to power of Hitler and the forging of the Axis alliance between Germany and Italy generated anti-British feelings among some German and Italian Americans. But the much more prevalent attitude was that Britain was not going to drag America into another European war.

Arsenal of Democracy

President Roosevelt first used the term "Arsenal of Democracy" on December 29, 1940 in a radio broadcast to the American people. Her explained the importance of supplying the people of Europe, at the time primarily Britain with the "implements of war". He said that the Unites States "must be the great arsenal of democracy". The very day he spoke, a Luftwaffe raid on London severely damaged famous buildings and churches in the city center and engulfed St. Paul's Cathedral in flames. [Gilbert, p. 356.] Hitler feared America more than any other country, but was convinced that Britain could be defeated before America could be mobilized or American industry could be effectiverly harnessed for the war effort. Neither the NAZIs or the Japanese had any idea just how effectively American production could be converted to war production. Air Marshall Goering sneered. "The Americans only know how to make razor blades." Four years later with the Luftwaffe in tatters, Goering said he knew that the War was lost when American P-51 Mustangs appeared over Berlin escorting waves of bombers. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the outcome of the War.

Dividing the Axis

The isolationists significantly limited President Roosevelt's ability to bring American power to bear against the Axis. Even so, evedn before entering the War, the United States was shipping war supplies to Britain, underwriting the British war effort (Lend Lease), and launching an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic. This is of course widely report in World War II. Less well reported is President Roosevelt's success in spliting the Axis. The Soviets demanded after Pearl Harbor that the Western Allies open another front. In fact President Roosevelt's diplomacy essentially divided the Axis. Japan's focus was initially on the Soviet Union and even fought a brief war with the Soiviets (July 1939). A united Axis almost certainly would have defeated the Soviet Union. Germany came very close to doing so in Barbarossa (1941). It was President Roosevelt's diplomacy that prevented the Soviets being forced to fighting a disasterous two-front war. As a result, Germany and Japan essentially fought two separate wars rather than focusing on the Soviet before America entered the War.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

It was a stunningly successful military success, brilliantly executed by the Japanese. Eight battle ships, the heart of the American Pacific fleet were sunk. But the three carriers were not at Pearl. Despite the success of the attack, it was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in the history of warfare. The Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor changed everything. A diverse and quarreling nation, strongly pacifistic was instantly changed into a single united people with a burning desire to wage war. The isolationism that President Roosevelt had struggled against for over 7 years instantly disappeared. Even Lindbergh asked for a commission to fight for the United States.

End of Isoltionism (December 1941)

The Isolationists were one of the most powerful political movements in American history. Beginning with President Washington, there has always been a strong isolationist movement in America, one that is still presentr today. For about 4 years President Roosevelkt had been fighting the isolationists who had come to see him as a war mongerer, detwrmined to drag America into the European war. Republican Congressmen were importaht isolationists. There were also Democrats, including the Ambassaor to Great Britain, Joeph P. Kennedy. Perhaps the most iportant isolationist was aviator Charles Lindurgh. the greatest hero of the inter-War era. He was an influential voice in the most important isolatiuonist group--the American First Committee. The President won the major battles with the isolationists, including repealing the Neutrality Acts, aiding Britin, beginning a peace-time draft, and Lend Lease. Even so, the isolationists significatly impeeded his efforts to resist Axis aggression. Even as the bombs were falling at Pearl, the American Firsters staged a major rally in Pittsburgh. In a hall festooned with red, white, and wall bannets, the American Firsters engaged in anti-Roosevelt cheers awaiting the main address by Congressman Gerald Nye. He brushed aside the first news reports of the attack and delivered an anti-Roosevelt tirade, charging that the President was leading us into War and included the standard isolationist line that the munitioin makers were behind the War. Immediately afterwards Nye would blame the British. Few of the isolationists includiung Nye knew as they filed out of the auditorium that their movement that had been so powerful and influential had literally evaporate as soon as the American public learned about the Japanese sneak attack on America.


Gilbert, Martin. A History of the United States Vol. II.

Olson, Lynne. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2012), 576p.

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Created: December 31, 2002
Last updated: 10:33 AM 11/28/2017