*** World War II -- pacifism isolationism

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

Figure 1.-- Pacifists and anti-war crusaders congratulate themselves on their moral superiority. They exerted considerable influence in Britain and France as well as America during the 1920s and the 1930s. The image here shows the result of their principled, but ultimately misguided efforts to promote pacifism. Pacifists and isolationists were among Hitler's most valuable allies. This Air Raid Warden assists a London family that somehow survived a Lufwaffe raid during the early phase of the Blitz. The brave young airmen of the RAF would manage to save Britain and Western civilization, but thnks to the pacifists, the margin of victory was terrifyingly close. And many of those air were killed because Britain was not adequately prepared.

World War I was a traumatic experience in Europe, both for the victors and the defeated. The people of Europe were determined to prevent another war. Losses were enormous, both in blood and material wealth. An entire generation had been decimated in many countries. Most thought that the War had been a huge mistake. The huge cost of the War made even the victors sharply cut back military expenses. Most people thought that the War had not only been costly, but pointless as well. Few stopped to consider what a German dominated Europe would have meant. Pacifist movements grew throughout Europe and had considerable impact on major political parties, especially the socialists. Inter-war pacifism had a major impact on World War II. In the democracies, pacifists significantly influenced public policy. Here the principal impact was to impede military spending and defense preparations, leaving the democracies dangerously unprepared for aggressive nations where pacifists were excluded from the public arena. Public opinion in America remained staunchly against involvement in World war II until Pearl Harbor. In America the Isolationist movement grew in importance. While anti-war and pacifist movements were of great influence, there were other currents at play in Europe. Socialist parties wanted welfare, not military spending. The Soviet Union gave lip service to anti-war sentiment, primarily to weaken potential adversaries while at the same time lavish enormous sums into military spending. The rise of Fascism also fueled position to the World War I settlement and glorified war. This began with Mussolini in Italy (1924), but did not become a real threat until Hitler seized power in Germany (1933). He quickly suppressed the pacifist movement in Germany and launched a massive rearmament program. The democracies were slow to respond to this threat because of the strength of the anti-war and pacifist movements. The primary impact of the pacifist movement was thus to lay the foundation for the most costly war in human history.

Ideological Constructs

There were several powerful forces at play in the inter-war era affecting attitudes toward military spending. By far the most important formative historical experience was World War I. Both soldiers at the front and civilians at home had harrowing experiences. The military losses were massive, unlike anything the European powers had experienced since the Napoleonic Wars. And civilians at home experienced food shortages which by the end of the War bordering on famine. Only American food relief prevented a terrible famine and millions of deaths. The military losses and the hunger that spread throughout the continent profoundly affected public thought. Europeans reacted differently to the results of the war, but there was overwhelming agreement among Europeans and American that there must never be another war. This fueled both pacifist and socialist thought as well as isolationism in America which resulted in massive cuts in military budgets. World War also gave rise to totalitarian Fascism and Communism. The totalitarian leaders did not dare openly advocate war. Such was the public mood they did not dare do this. But while mouthing peaceful intentions, the totalitarian leaders all set out to build powerful military forces.

Inter-War Pacifism

The initial sentiment in the Allied Nation after the War was one of elation. But this soon changed as a full realization of the cost set in with the public, especially the huge casualties. Anti-war sentiment grew. The "Never again" sentiment became pronounced. One aspect of the growing anti-war sentiment was a declining appreciation of the military. In the wake of the World War I disaster, anti-militarism grew in both Europe and in America. This sentiment was one of the major reasons that Britain and France did not effectively confront the NAZIs. Men like Baldwin and Chamberlain were unwilling to either prepare for War or even fight the war aggressively. Even Churchill was very cautious about casualties. Hitler understood better perhaps than anyone in Europe that democratic governments would avoid war so as to avoid casualties. This was a calculation that did not burden him or for that matter Stalin. American attitudes were in part pacifism , but and even stronger sentiment was a desire to disassociate from Europe which was seen as the source of endless political strife. Pacifism was an element in isolationist sentiment in America. 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. While Socialist inspired pacifism had weakened the Allied response to Hitler, socialist leaders in Germany and occupied countries were targeted by the NAZIs. Some how Hitler and the nationalists managed to shift the war blame from German militarists to the Socialist politicians who signed the peace. Anti-war feeling was strong in Germany after the War, but so was resentment toward the Versailles treaty. The future of Germany would be decided on which of these two sentiments would prevail. The anti-war book and film All Quiet on the Western Front was hugely popular in Germany. At the same time ultra-nationalist political parties developed a considerable following, especially after the onset of the Depression. The Socialists warned that Hitler and the NAZIs would bring war. And they were right. Even so, after 6 years of NAZI propaganda, were not enthusiastic as Hitler moved Germany toward war.


Isolationism is a policy primarily associated with America and for good reason. Isolationism was never absolute, but dominated American foreign policy for most of the country's history. Participation in World War I was an aberration. And very quickly after the Armistice, the United states brought the AEF home and most Americans quickly decided it had been a huge mistake. We did launch an effort to make sure Europe did not starve, nut most Americans wanted no part in European security or President Wilson's collective security idea. The Senate refused to approve ratification of the Versailles Peace Treaty the President brought home which created the the League of Nations. This was not a major problem at the time, even though the Soviet Union was a major threat to the peace and began building a massive military. The situation changed radically in the 1930s with Hitler's seizure of power and the Japanese withdrawal from the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty. Both countries launched massive military armament programs. This combined with Soviet and Italian spending, fundamentally changed the world balance of military power, giving totalitarian powers the balance of military power, the greatest threat to Western civilization since the Mongol invasions (13th century). Yet American public opinion was unchanged. Most Americans, despite the threats wanted no pat in another European war. America was the only country capable of preventing the totalitarian threat, but the American people were unwilling to act. America w not the only Western democracy to fail to react to the totalitarian challenge. Prime-Minister Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference claiming that he had achieved 'peace in our times' by abandoning Czechoslovakia, referring to the Czechs as 'a far away country' and 'people of which we know nothing'.


There is a strong anti-military thread in socialist ideology. It is based on one of the the central ideas proposed by Karl Marx, that the major capitalist countries will take their working class into imperialist wars. [Marx] Some socialists opposed World war I or were at least critical for this reason. Some saw World War I as a living example of where capitalism was leading the world. The idea of world peace was a goal that socialist parties espoused. And socialist parties in Britain and France after World war I opposed military spending. They wanted their governments to expand welfare spending, not 'waste' money on military spending. And this had real impact because even before World War I, socialist powers had gained real political power. And the Depression if the 1930s only intensified this attitude as well as the need for Government welfare programs. This did not begin to change until the Fascist powers intervened in the Spanish Civil War to crush the Republic, supported by Spanish socialists and communists.


Communism was if course part of the world socialist movement. And Soviet propaganda took up the the line that capitalist powers were war like and were leading the world toward an even larger war that the working-class would be forced to fight. Soviet propaganda took up the idea of world peace. Communist parties around the world which were dominated by Moscow were ordered to oppose military spending. The Communists opposed military spending around the world- with one exception--the Soviet Union. Stalin was determined to have the largest most powerful military in the world and as soon as he had the opportunity, used it against peaceful neighboring states: Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania.


Socialism and communism were ideological constructs that developed from 19th century origins. Fascism was in contrast a stunningly new set of beliefs that seem to burst on the international scene out of nowhere. In fact, contrary to common belief, it was a variant of socialism with the same totalitarian mind-set as Communism. It was in essence a marriage of socialism and nationalism. It was no accident that the NAZIs called themselves National Socialists. The core element of Fascism was nationalism. European nationalism was dented, but not destroyed by World war I. This was especially true of Germany. The Germans were shocked and humiliated by their loss of World War I. Until mid-1918, the public thought that they were wining the War, especially after the defeat of Russia and victory on the Eastern Front. They were hungry, but thought victory was at hand. The Germans were stunned by the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. As shocked and humiliated as they were, as in the Allied countries, the dominant view was that there must never be another war. This created a problem for Hitler who not only wanted a war and to become a great war leader. He understood that the goals he set out in Mein Kampf could only be achieved by war. After he seized power he face the problem of launching a major rearmament program in a country that did not want another war. He solved the problem by using the also strong public desire for government programs to end the Depression combined with masking the dimensions of the rearmament program through control of the press and financial wizardry to cloak the borrowing needed to pay for it. And Hitler continued until the Panzers crossed the Polish border to assure the German people that his policies were needed to ensure peace. Germany of course was not the only country in which Fascism grew, but it was the only Fascist country with the capability of launching another world war.

The Depression

The Black Thursday Wall Street Crash in America (October 1929) quickly morphed into a world wide economic crisis. This was due to the powerful impact of the huge American economy and financial system. It also was the result of destructive policies adopted by America and the European governments. The resulting Depression powerfully played into the inter-War debate over military spending. First it affected national budgets. Government revenue fell meaning that they had less revenue to spend. Second, the resulting budgetary priorities in the Western democracies meant slashing military spending and increasing welfare expenditures to help the rising number of unemployed survive the Depression. Third, the Depression fueled extremist political solutions among the desperate unemployed. This included both Communism and Fascism. And most prominent was the rise of Hitler and the NAZIs in Germany. Germany because of the importance of exports was especially impacted by the Depression. Unlike the democracies, Hitler's budgetary priorities were not welfare, but massive rearmament. He of course did not say this, but along with public statements on welfare and jobs was the hidden agenda of massive military spending. Interestingly, while many Americans credit President Roosevelt with ending the Depression, he actually did not, but during the Depression his New Deal did successfully limit the support for extremist political solutions.

Country Trends

The major world powers powers were variously affected after World War I by the different ideological constructs affecting attitudes toward military spending and adopted a wide range of different policies. A group of countries with Socialist parties wanted welfare, not military spending. Totalitarian countries pursued massive armament programs. Only one of these countries (Japan) was actually controlled 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 isolationism, pacifism, and socialism were determined to never repeat the tragedy of World War I. After the NAZI take over, exposing pacifism or socialist peace 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 balance 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 a window of military superiority that the Allies had begun to close. And there was only one country with the capability of redressing that balance. But the American people were dead set against participating in another war. and many Americans even believed that the way to prevent another war was to oppose military defense spending.


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 Gandhi 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.

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


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Created: 5:46 AM 7/25/2011
Spoell checked: 1:15 AM 12/29/2020
Last updated: 1:15 AM 12/29/2020