World War II: Isolationist America

World War II isolationist America
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.

Importance

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 Isolationism

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 Workld 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

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 Expeitionary Force (AEF) meant that the Allied could.

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.

Isolationst 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.

Interventionist Sentiment

The American public gebnerally 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 intervenionists and isolationists. Many od 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 could way to get defeated. Supporting aopular president was possible, but loudly promoting intervention was not politically possible until Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The same was true of Administration officials. Even the Presidebnt bhad to tread very casrefully. 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 emasaries.

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.

Sources

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: 10:01 AM 6/6/2013