** World War II -- pacifism isolationism

World War II: Inter-War Military Spending (1920s-30s)

Figure 1.-- Americans after World War I saw no need for substatial military spending. The army was cut down to the bone and appropriations for new weapon devvelooment was virtually non-exisent. Th Navy scrapped or mothballed large numbers of vessels. At the same time the Soviet Union and Japan steadily expanded military spending. The situation fundamentally changed when Hitler sized power in Germany (1933) and launched the most massive military rearmament program in history. The rapidity of change was starteling. The United States did not respond except for a limited naval building progrm after the Japanese refused to extend the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty. While the German began building Panzers an the new Luftwaffe, America built consumer products like this car--the magbificent 1932 Chrysler Imperial. The Depression affected Government finances. There was massive stpport for welfare efforts. No one was interested in military spending.

The major world powers powers were variously affected after World War I by the different ideological constructs affecting attitudes toward military spending and adopting a wide range of different policies. A group of countries Socialist parties wanted welfare, not miltary spending. Several revisionist countries expousing totalitarian ideas pursued massive armament rograms. The Soviets had two decades to prepare. Hitler had a much shorter period and launched the most massive rearament porogram in history. The progrm was gigantic and conducted over and incredivly short period. Only one of these totalitarian coutries (Japan) was actually controled by the military. They were determined to fundamentally change the world order. And their ideological beliefs were fundamentally hostile to the core values of Western civilization. The major Western democratic nations (America, Britain and France) influenced by isolationisn, pacifism, and socialism were determined to never repeat the tragedy of World War I. After the NAZI take over, exposing pacifism or socilist peaae ideal or criticizing military spending would get your books burned and you confined to a concentration camp. They democracies failed to respond to the massive military build up of the totalitarian states. As a result, by the time of the Munich Conference (September 1938), the world military ballance had shifted from the victorious World War I Allies to the totalitarian states, placing a mortal challenge to Western Civilization. The democracies tardily began to rearm. Hitler saw that he had aindow of military superiority that the Allies had begun to close. And there was only one country with rhe capability of redressing that balance. But te american people were dead set aginst participting in another war. and many Americans even believed that the way toprevent another war was to oppose military defense spending.

America, North


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.


Canadians who fought with Britain on the Westwrn front were shocked with the casualties suffered, The most prominant Canadian pacifist was the politician James Shaver Woodsworth. Woodsworth advocated the strengthing of the League of Nations to avoid future wars and ensure world peace. He believed that economic sanctions against states which committed aggression, such as Italy when it invaded Ethiopia (1935). Notably the League sanctions against Italy not only did not work, but drove Mussolini to cooperate with Hitler. Canadian anti-war sentiment was in part affected by the cultural/linguistic divide. French Canadians in particularoposed conscription and once World war I began service in what they saw as a British Empire effort. Even after the Germans invaded and occupied France, French Canadians generally resisted overseas service. The Canadian units which served in Europe were almost ebntirely made up of English speaking Canadians.



Mahatma Gandhi's Indian natonalist movement used pacifist tactics to oppose British colonial domination of India with some success. They were working, however, within a system governed by British law. The British maninulated the system, but still the law and British public opinion placed limits on the colonial authorities. After the outbreak of World War II, He opposed the War, seeing war itself as the greatest evil. Gandhi wrote to the British Viceroy and advised that Britain surrender to the Germans. At the time, the German Panzers seemed unstopable. Ghandi wrote, "This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man....� He followed this with an open letter to the British people (July 4, 1940). "Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds.� [Grenier] Gandhi also attempted to write to Hiler and convince him of the value of non-violemce. Hitler for his part before the War gave Lord Halifax advise on how to deal with the Indian National Congress (INC) (1938). Hitler pledged his support to the preservation of the British Empire. He suggested killing Gandhi and if needed the INC other leaders as well. And then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people finally gave up on independence. This would essentially be the formula he would pursue in Poland a year after meeting with Halifax. Of course Ghandi and many others did not know at the time Hitler's true character. After the War, however, he argued, "Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions." [Fischer] Gandhi did not, however, actively resist the War. Indian troops played a critical role in the British war effort, especially the early fighing in the Middle East. They also helped stop the Japanese invasion of India.


The Japanese military used World War to expand their empire. They were promarily interested in China, but gained strategic Pavific islands. The highly nationalistic military steadily increased their influence over the civilian military during the 1920s. Xeophobic officers were disatisfied with modernate civilian gvernment beginning with the Versailles Peae Treaty (1919) and the washington Naval Limitations Trearty. The military demanded huge budgetary appropriations and civilians politicians which resisted were attacked and assasinated. The militaty by the1930s was basically in control of the Government. The seizure of Manchuria was carried out by the Kwantung Army without any authorization of the Govrnment. It was local Army ommanders who launched the invasion of China, again without Government authorization, And once the fighting began, civilian officials did not dare restrict military opertions. And once in control of the Government, the militry could set its own budget. Japan was a very traditiinl, ;argely agriculturl society. At the same time, it had developed a substantial industrial base, about the ize of France and larger than Italy. It w, gowver, a small fraction of Americam industry. But American resistance to miltary spending allowed Japan to develop a very substantial niltary force and a technolgical lead the same way that Germany did. It inceased military spending in the 1920s and on a war footing during he 1930s. The February 26 Incident or coup ultimately failed and ended the era of 'Government by Assaination' (1936), but left the military in control of the Government. There was no pacifist or anti-miltary rhetoric allowed in Japan. The Japanese could not begin to outproduce america, but when Japanese factories and research groups were on a war footing for more than a decade and America cut defense spending to the bone, the result was inevitable. By the time of wotld war II, Japan had developed a dominant position in the Pacific that was not fully understood ny American political and military leaders.



We do not yet have any information of Belgian pacifism. Perhaps readers will know more. Belgium did prepare militarily, but while an indistrialized country, it was quite small. Thus there was no way the Belgians alone could stop a German invasion. Rather as in World War I, the Belgians relied on neutrality, hoping that the Germans unlike World War I would honor their neutrality. This seems a policy meant to appeal to pacifist and anti-war sentiment rther than a coherent foreign policy given they were dealing with NAZI Germany which had already invaded six countries (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark, and Norway). As a result of Belgium's neutrality policy, there was no coordinated military talks and preparations with the Allies. And the Allies were not allowed to build fixed defenses in Belgium. This would lead to disaster when the Germany struck (1940).


There has always been a strong pacifist element within the British political left. After World War I, there was support for the War Resisters' International and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The pacifist movement was uincouraged by both the siocialists throughout Europe and the Communuists (under instructiion from Moscow) to weaken countries that were a military threat to the Siviet Union. Pacifist activities and groups were active in Britain. Pacifist activists erected an Anti-War Memorial monument, at Woodford Green, in Essex (1932). It was shaped rather like a bomb. It was meant to memorialize the words of a British delegate at the League of Nations who had spoken against the banning of aerial warfare, on the grounds that Britain needed to bomb rebels on the North-West frontier of India, to keep the "tribesmen in order". The Woodford Green memorial bore the sarcastic inscription, "To those who, in 1932, upheld the right to use bombing planes". [Pankhurst] British Pacifists opposed military spending. The idea ws that military weakness would preclude another war. This was based on the World War I experience which many Brits believed was a huge mistake and pointless slaughter. Very little thought was given to what it would have meant for Germany to defeat France and dominate the Continent. The British Labour Party had a strong pacifist element, as did Socialists throughout Europe. (The major exception here was the Soviet Union.) Particularly important in Britain was the string pacifist feeling within the KLabour Party. As the major opposition party, this had cionsiderable influence. Labour at its annual conderence adopted a resolution without oposition to "pledge itself to take no part in war" (1933). This of course was the same year that Hitler seuzed power in Germany. Labour did not adopt a pacifist policy and unilateral disarmament. It idealistically supported peace through a world socialist commonwealth and the outlawing of war, but supported 'collective security' through the League of Nations. Labour tended to favor cuts in military spending, insisting that availavle funds be used fior social programs. There were more radical pacifist voices. An important Labour pacifist was George Lansbury, a Christian pacifist. He chaired the No More War Movement and was president of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). He was the Labour Party leader (1932-35). He famously insisted in an election, "I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world: 'Do your worst' (1933). Stafford Cripps's organized the vocal Socialist League which criticised Labour's policy. He charged that the League of Nations was 'nothing but the tool of the satiated imperialist powers'." [Toye] Hitler'sise in Germany began to change minds about military spending, even within the Labour Party. Non-pacifists within the Party forced Lansbury to resign. His replacement was Clement Attlee. The NAZI threat forced the Labour Party to abandoned pacifism and support increased military spending. A factor here was Soviet efforts to confront the Germans. Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton were important figures in realigning Labour policy. They even convinced the Party to oppose Primeminister Neville Chamberlain's effort to appease Hitler and the NAZIs. [Davies] Hitler was a major factor in weakening the British pacifist movement. The scenes of Luftwaffe moming of Spanish cities were terrifying. But most Brits, even most Labour pacifists, realized that the only protection was a strong military, not pacifism. After the bombing of London, it would be years before British pacifists were able to again find their voice.


Other thabn Russia, France suffered more than any other of the major combatants in World War I. The war on the Western Front was fought in Belgium and nortghern France. There was enormous phsical damage. But even more than the physical damage was the enormous loss of life and soldiers who survived with grevious injuries. The German came very close to breaking the French Army at Versun. Ulitmately the French held, but the French Army was rendered largely incapable of offensive operations. Even though the Allies with American aid ultimately emerged victorious, France was for ever changed. The kind of fervent nationslism common before World War I was gone forever. Pacifist and anti-war sentiment was pronounced in the inter-War era. Socialista and Communists were major centers of this sentiment. Another important proponent of pascifist sentiment was French school teachers. After World War II, many authors identified interwar pacifism as playing a major role in undermining the will of the French people to resist German aggression and thus responsible for France's humiliating defeat when the Germans struck in the West (May 1940). This was the positiion taken by Vichy, in part to protect the reputation of the French Army. There are different views. Many military historians point to the poor battle plzan and leasdership of the French military high commnd. One author contends that while anti-war, French school teachers were also highly patriotic. [Siegel]


Germany like Britain and Frabnce experienced the growth of pacifist sentiment and groups holdinh anti-war views. The German author Erich Maria Remarque who served during World War I wrote Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) (1929). It was a sensation and quickly appeared in film (1930). The Soviets had two decades to prepare. Hitler had a much shorter period and launched the most massive rearmament program in history. The progrm was gigantic and conducted over and incredably short period. It began with moderate rearmament under budgetary disciplined imposed by Reich Miniter of Economics Hjalmar Schacht. This created, however, an escalating dynamic. As Britain and France began to respond. Hitler had to increase the magnitude and pace of German rearmament. [Tooze, p. 207.] No public oposition to the program was permitted. The sale of the spending was hidden from the German people. This open expression of this anti-war sentiment changed immediately after Hitler seized control of Germany (1933). Pacifist authors like Remarque were placed on the lists of banned books and were included in the book burnings shortly after the NAZIs seized power. The NAZIs arrested people who openly expressed pascifist sentiment. They incarcerated in concentration camps rather than dealt with during the judicial system because such views were not actually illegal. German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was incarcerated and severely treated. He died in captivity. The supression of Seven Day Adventists was primarily because of their pacifist views. Many of the World War I generation were strongly against another war. This is reflected in Hitler's speeches in which he claimed to be trying to prevent war and blamed the Jews and other countries even after he invaded Poland (1939). The NAZIs did not change many minds among older Germans regarding war, but he did sway the younger generation through the Hitler Youth movenment which actively glorified war and prepared the boys for it. The best known German pacifist was the the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged just two weeks before the NAZI surrender (1945).


Italians who joined the Allies after the first year of the War were shocked with the casualties suffered and after the War were widely disastisfied with what the country achieved by the War. This played into the rise of Fascism. Thus pacifist movements werre not as strong in Italy as many other countries. And after Mussolini and the Fascists seized control (1924), pacifist literature and promotion of pacifist ideas were banned. Fascist control of the media meabnt there was no opportunity for pacifists to present their ideas publically. Abd we know of no important Itaklian pacifists. Fascism glorified war and promoted national expansion which meant war. The Balial promoted Fascist ideas among youth, but unlike the Hitler Youth in Germany, seems to have had little impact. Mussolini who began political life as a socialist promoted militarism and the creation of a Nediterranean empire--Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). He and other Fascists looked on pacifists as cowards impeding his expansionist plans. Mussolini declared war on Britain and France (June 1940). Despite years of Fascist ruke, however, there was little public enthusism for war. Pacifist ideas seem less important than the Italian temperment and distrust of the common people for their leades. Many Italians did not understand why they were fighting Britain, much less the United States when Mussolini followed Hitler's lead and declared war.

(The) Netherlands

The Netherlands is a small country, smaller than even Belgium. It did not have the capacity to dfend itelf militarily from its larger neigbots. This their defense strategy wa the swiss approach -- newtrality. Unfortunately the Dutch did not have the rugged montaneous trraine that would slow down an imving army. Not did the Dutch approprite the funds capable of putting up a basic resistance like the Belgins. This apprach had worked for the Dutch in World War I. Ad the Dutch had even assisted the Germans with food prigrms after the war. Most Dutch people looked on Hitler and the Germans with diapproval, but assumed that even Hitler would not invade.

Soviet Union

The socialist movement which developed in the 19th century became anti-militaristic and strongly pacifist. This was in part an ideological and socialists argued that war was essentially governmental coercion of the working class. War was seen as the end result of copetitions between capitalist dominated states and ultimately it was workers who would have to fight and die in wars which they had no real interests. Despite these strongly held attitudes. Socialist parties had becoe major forces in many European countries by the early 20th century. European workers and even Socialist parties, however, sided with their national goverments as Europe descended into war (1914). French socialist leader Jean Jaur�s's was assasinated just before war was declared (July 31, 1914). The Second International failed to effectively oppose World War I. The War in fact became seen as a great failure of the Socialist movement. The War was a huge shock to Europe. Many believed that war was a thing of the past. And World War I was a war that essentially destroyed an entire generation of Europe. Antiquated tactics and increasingly deadly weaponry resulted in battlefield deaths beyond comprehension. After the War there was a general relusion against war which resulted in the growth of pacifist thought. Peace of course became a major factor in the Bolshevick seizure of power. Pacifist sentiment was especially pronounced within the Socialist movement, but was notable even in America without a strong Socialist party. There were exceptions to the rising pacifist sentiment. First the Italian Fascists began to promote the miliitary after seizing power. And the Japanese military began to dominate the government. Pacifist thought was strong in Germany during the 1920s, but so were highly politicized paramilitary groups. The NAZIs were only one such group. This of course changed when Hitler and the NAZIs seized power (1933). Military combat became the highest embodiment of human behavior. The situation in the Soviet Union was more complicated. Stalin built the largest military establishment in the world and any talk of limiting military spending was prohibited. And as the Soviet agressions early in World War II showed, Stalin was willing to use his military as brutally (if more cautiously) as Hitler to invade neighboring states. Yet the Soviet Union portrayed itself as the the leader of the world Socialist and actually controlled Communist parties in most country. Thus ideologically it could not portray war and military service in the same way as the Fascists.


Davies, A.J. To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (Abacus, 1996).

Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950).

Grenier, Richard. "The Gnoandhi Nobody Knows", Commentary (March 1983).

Marx, Karl. Das Capital.

Pankhurst, Richard. "Ethiopia's Image Abroad: Ethiopian Place-Names and Statues in Britain Rasselas and Aida".

Siegel, Mona L. The Moral Disarmament of France: Education, Pacifism, and Patriotism, 1914-1940 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 317p.

Tooze, Adam. The Wages if Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nai Economy (Penguin Group: New York, 2007), 800p.

Toye, Richard. The Labour Party and the Economics of Rearmament, 1935-1939.


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Created: 11:57 PM 4/12/2016
Last updated: 11:57 PM 4/12/2016