The Road to War • The Rise of Fascism • Depression-Era Isolationism • Retreat from Isolationism • The Attack on Pearl Harbor
A nation’s successes and failures are often bound up with the personalities and characteristics of its leaders. Perhaps nowhere is this shown better than in a comparison and contrast of Franklin Roosevelt in the United States and Adolf Hitler in Germany. These were two of the great players of World War II, who dominated their own countries’ and the Western world’s fate.
The evolution of American foreign policy in the years 1939 to 1941 provides an interesting case study of American politics: President Roosevelt used every tool at his disposal—all within his constitutional powers—to move the country in a direction decidedly different from what the people and Congress seemed to want. The United States evolved from neutral to nonbelligerent to belligerent in only two years, after a decade or more of isolationism.
did Roosevelt take the “back door” to war, that is, get into the war in Europe through the Pacific “door”?
On one side, proponents of the “warmonger” thesis suggest that Roosevelt wanted to join Great Britain in fighting Germany early on but could not provoke Hitler into declaring war.
The president’s defenders counter that FDR was too wise to risk the loss of American possessions in the Pacific in the opening moments of a war and that he could not depend on Hitler to join his Axis partner, Japan, in a war against the United States.
World War II provided opportunities for women and African Americans that might not have been available in peacetime. The Great Depression had forced women out of the workplace and shut the door of opportunity to all people of color. Mobilization for war reversed that trend.
Disillusioned after World War I, the American people retreated into isolationism in the 1930s. During the first years of World War II, the United States tried to remain neutral but found itself drawn closer to Great Britain by a president who favored internationalism over isolationism.
The nation’s neutrality was undermined by the wars begun by Germany, Italy, and Japan, all determined to expand their borders and their power.
After winning an unprecedented third term as president in 1940, Roosevelt concentrated on persuading the American people to increase aid to Britain. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and the United States began supplying arms to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This marked the unofficial entrance of the United States into the European war.
The nation’s neutrality was challenged by the aggressive actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan, all determined to expand their borders and their influence.
During the early years of the New Deal America limited its involvement in international affairs.
The Rise of Fascism • The nation’s neutrality was challenged by the aggressive actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan, all determined to expand their borders and their influence.
In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria; then in 1937 it launched a full-scale invasion of China. The League of Nations condemned the aggression, and Japan withdrew from the League.
In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, and by 1936, the Italian subjugation of Ethiopia was complete.
Germany presented the gravest threat to the world order in the 1930s. • huge World War I reparations payments, economic depression, fear of communism, labor unrest, and rising unemployment fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
Hitler became chancellor in 1933, assumed dictatorial powers, and as he made clear in his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), sought to overturn the territorial settlement of the Versailles Treaty to restore all of the Germans of Central and Eastern Europe to a single German fatherland, and to annex large areas of Eastern Europe.
Part of his vision was that “inferior races” and other “undesirables” had to make way for the “master race.” • in 1933 Hitler established the first concentration camp at Dachau.
Wanting to avoid a war with Germany, Britain and France were proponents of what became known as “appeasement.” They took no action • Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, and Hitler’s 1935 announcement of plans to rearm Germany—in violation of the Versailles treaty—met with no resistance.
Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and later that year Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini joined forces in the Rome-Berlin Axis. • When the Spanish civil war broke out, Germany and Italy armed the Spanish Fascists.
in 1936, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, a precursor to the military alliance between Japan and the Axis that was formalized in 1940.
Depression-Era Isolationism • Even In a climate of isolationism, President Roosevelt provided a strong voice for internationalism. He showed his preference for American involvement abroad before Pearl Harbor in a number of ways
One of Roosevelt’s few diplomatic initiatives was the formal recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. American recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 was a sign that under FDR the country would have a wider world vision than it had during the Republican presidencies of the 1920s.
A second significant initiative - The Good Neighbor Policy ensured that the United States would pursue an activist approach in the Western Hemisphere but was willing to moderate the gun-boat diplomacy practiced earlier. The United States voluntarily renounced the use of military intervention in the Western Hemisphere, and recognized that the friendship of Latin American countries was essential to the security of the United States.
the U.S. Navy kept a base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay and continued to meddle in Cuban politics and it also used economic pressure to influence other Latin American nations.
In 1937, in the face of Japanese expansionism in Asia, FDR proposed that the United States join with other nations to “quarantine” aggressor states. The public forced him to back down, but the speech gave evidence of his attitude.
From the start of the war in Asia in 1937 and in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt showed determination to assist friendly countries—especially Great Britain—in their wars against aggressors that threatened American interests.
Roosevelt used his personal popularity to set up justification for war by making his sympathies known, denouncing Japan as “the present reign of terror and international lawlessness” and saying that he could not ask Americans to remain neutral in their thoughts about Hitler’s aggression. His four freedoms speech defined America’s ideological difference from its future enemies.
Partly due to disillusionment with American participation in World War I, isolationism had built in Congress and the nation throughout the 1920s.
Gerald P. Nye, a senator from North Dakota, headed a congressional investigation into the profits of munitions makers during World War I; his committee concluded that war profiteers, whom it called “merchants of death,” had maneuvered the nation into World War I for financial gain.
Though most of the committee’s charges were dubious or simplistic, they gave momentum to the isolationist movement, contributing to the passage of the Neutrality Act of 1935.
The Neutrality Act imposed an embargo on arms trading with countries at war and declared that American citizens traveled on the ships of belligerent nations at their own risk; in 1936 the Neutrality Act was expanded to ban loans to belligerents, and in 1937, it adopted a “cash-and-carry” provision.
Despite their Loyalist sympathies, the neutral stance of the United States, Great Britain, and France virtually assured a Fascist victory in the 1936 Spanish civil war.
In 1938, Hitler sent troops to annex Austria, while simultaneously scheming to seize part of Czechoslovakia. • At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Britain and France capitulated to Germany’s aggression, agreeing to let Germany annex the Sudetenland — the German speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia —in return for Hitler’s pledge to seek no more territory.
Within six months, Hitler’s forces had overrun the rest of Czechoslovakia and were threatening to march into Poland. • In August 1939, Hitler signed the Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union, which assured Germany it would not have to wage war on two fronts at once. • On September 1, 1939, German troops attacked Poland; two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.
Retreat from Isolationism • President Roosevelt, with the support of most Americans, sought to keep the United States neutral. • By mid-1940, Germany had overrun Western Europe, leaving Great Britain as the only power in Europe fighting Hitler. • In America, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies led the interventionists, while the isolationists formed the America First Committee, which had the support of the conservative press, to keep America out of the war.
The National Defense Advisory Commission and the Council of National Defense were created in 1940 to put America’s economy and government on a defense footing. • Also in 1940, the United States traded destroyers to Britain for the right to build military bases on British possessions and instituted a peacetime draft registration and conscription. • After winning an unprecedented third term as president in 1940, Roosevelt concentrated on persuading the American people to increase aid to Britain.
In 1939, Congress amended the Neutrality Act of 1937 to allow the Allies to buy weapons from the United States—but only on the cash-and-carry basis. • In March 1941, FDR convinced Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, to “lease, lend, o otherwise dispose of” arms and other equipment to any country whose defense was considered vital to the security of the United States. • The “lend-lease” was extended to the Soviet Union, which became part of the Allied coalition after it was invaded by Germany; the full implementation of lend-lease marked the unofficial entrance of the United States into the European war.
The United States and Britain’s Atlantic Charter called for economic collaboration between the two countries and for guarantees of political stability after the end of the war and also supported free trade, national self-determination, and the principle of collective security. • By September 1941, Nazi submarines and American vessels were fighting an undeclared naval war in the Atlantic, unknown to the American public; without a dramatic enemy attack, Roosevelt hesitated to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor • Throughout the 1930s, Japanese military advances in China had upset the balance of political and economic power in the Pacific; • Roosevelt suggested that aggressors such as Japan be “quarantined” by peace-loving nations, but the United States avoided taking a strong stand. • During the sack of Nanking in 1937, the Japanese massacred 300,000 Chinese and sunk the American gunboat Panay; the United States accepted Japan’s apology and more than $2 million in damages. • Japan craved the conquest of more territory and signed the Tri-Partite Act with Germany and Italy in 1940.
After Japan occupied part of French Indochina, Roosevelt retaliated with trade restrictions and embargos on aviation fuel and scrap metal. • When Japanese troops occupied the rest of Indochina, Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States and instituted an embargo on trade with Japan, including oil shipments. • The United States knew that Japan was planning an attack but did not know when or where; on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor.
On December 8, Congress voted to declare war on Japan; three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and the United States in turn declared war on them. • The United States was plunged into the inferno of World War II with the most stupefying and humiliating military defeat in its history. In the dismal months that ensued, the democratic world teetered on the raw edge of disaster.
The Japanese fanatics forgot that when one stabs a king, one must stab to kill. A wounded but still potent American giant pulled himself out of the mud of Pearl Harbor, grimly determined to avenge the bloody treachery. "Get Hirohito first" was the cry that rose from millions of infuriated Americans, especially on the Pacific Coast. These outraged souls regarded America's share in the global conflict as a private war of vengeance in the Pacific, with the European front a kind of holding operation.
But after earlier conferences with the British, Washington wisely adopted the grand strategy of "getting Hitler first." If we diverted our main strength to the Pacific, Hitler might crush both Russia and Britain, and then emerge unconquerable in Fortress Europe. But if Germany was knocked out first, the combined Allied forces could be concentrated on Japan, and her daring game of conquest would be up. Meanwhile enough American strength would be sent to the Pacific to prevent the Nipponese from digging. in too deeply.
The get-Hitler-first strategy was carried through. But it encountered much ignorant or biased criticism from two-fisted Americans who, according to the public opinion polls, at one time constituted a plurality. Aggrieved protests were also registered by shorthanded American commanders in the Pacific, and by our Chinese and Australian allies. But Roosevelt, a competent military strategist in his own right, was able to resist these pressures.
Given time, the Allies seemed bound to triumph. But would they be given time? It is true that they had on their side the great mass of the people of the world, but the wolf is never frightened by the number of the sheep. The United States was the mightiest military power on earth potentially. But wars are won with weapons, not blueprints. The naked truth is that we came perilously close to losing the war to the well-armed aggressors before we could begin to throw our full weight into the scales.