The 1930s were a difficult time for most Americans. Faced with colossal economic hardships—unprecedented in American history—many Americans turned inward to focus on the worsening situation at home. The United States became increasingly insensitive to the obliteration of fellow democracies at the hands of brutal fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. The U.S. was determined to stay out of war at all costs—even if its allies were in trouble; Americans believed that they were immune from Europe’s problems as long as they refused to get involved. However, as the “free” countries fell, one by one, to the Nazi war machine, Americans began to realize the folly of their foolish optimism and clamored for increasing involvement in foreign affairs. American foreign policy changed in the years 1930-1941 as Americans realized that fascism would likely conquer all of Europe unless Americans acted quickly. Ultimately, it was fear of the fascist threat to American democracy that triggered the end of American isolationism and inaugurated the era of American interventionism.
World War I had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans; many believed that the U.S. had been tricked into joining the war for the wrong reasons, and they were determined to avoid making the same mistake twice. After the Great War, Americans were disappointed to realize that the war was fought for null; World War I was not the “War to End Wars” as advertised by the government propaganda. The disappointment of being “suckered” into the Great War helped motivate Americans to adopt a largely isolationist policy during the 1930s. The situation was worsened when Britain and France defaulted on their loans from the U.S. after they were unable to collect reparation payments from Germany satisfactorily. In a political cartoon of 1932, Uncle Sam is seen wisely remarking that the only thing European nations are able to agree upon is that they cannot pay back their U.S. loans (Document B).
Isolationism was also encouraged when Hoover approved the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, raising the tariff to an unbelievable sixty percent. The hiking-up of the tariff shut out foreign trade nearly completely—a fact which did not seem to bother too many Americans who were concerned with their own fortunes at the time. Many foreign nations responded with high tariffs of their own, largely destroying any prospect of international trade. Unfortunately, American isolationism had more dire consequences than the loss of trade or loan defaults.
As the 1930s dragged on, it became clear that fascism was destroying many democracies around the globe, but America still opted for neutrality rather than war. Hopelessly optimistic and naïve American politicians like Frank B. Kellogg created the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by fifteen nations, which would supposedly protect America from the threat of war. Although the nations that signed agreed not to use war as an instrument of national policy, the Pact was utterly useless because it could not be enforced. Similarly, the Nine Power Treaty attempted to keep the Open Door in China open by affirming the territorial integrity of the country; however, the agreement was easily broken by the Empire of Japan in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. Although Americans lambasted Japan for disregarding international treaty agreements, there was nothing the U.S. could do—short of war—that would stop Japanese aggression (Document A).
In order to avoid any unintentional disasters that might plunge the U.S. into war, Congress passed three consecutive Neutrality Acts from 1935-1937 aimed at keeping Americans impartial and out of harm’s way. If Americans were not able to secretly aid belligerents on either side, as they had in World War I, then, presumably, the U.S. would not be drawn into the conflict (Document C). Although Americans were upset with Japanese aggression, they opted to maintain peaceful relations as long as possible, as evidenced by the Public Opinion Poll results in 1939-1941 which show that a majority of Americans opposed war during this period (Document E). However, the fall of France demonstrated to the American people, more than anything else, the true threat fascism could pose to American democracy.
President Roosevelt realized that Britain needed aid or else the U.S. would become a lone “free” nation in a fascist-dominated world. The American military needed to be mobilized in order to assist the Allies or democracy would be in grave danger. Roosevelt plead his case to the American people in his famous “Quarantine Speech” in which he called for an end to dangerous isolationism; however, his speech was not well-received and he was criticized for his desire to “entangle” the U.S in European foreign affairs (Document D). With Britain the only remaining power fighting against Germany, Roosevelt felt compelled to offer aid in some way. In 1940, Roosevelt boldly transferred fifty World War I destroyers to Britain in exchange for eight valuable defense bases stretching from Newfoundland to South America. As bombs dropped over Britain, Americans began to realize that their interests were intricately tied to Britain’s and that they must offer aid or else the battle would come to American soil soon.
The goals of American foreign policy were reversed when Congress repealed the now defunct Neutrality Acts and officially ended their Neutrality. The U.S. began openly selling weapons to Britain on a “cash-and-carry” basis so as to avoid attacks on American ships. When this was not enough, Roosevelt devised the “lend-lease” system that allowed Britain to borrow billions of dollars of American military equipment to be returned at the end of the war. Americans finally realized that the Atlantic Ocean would not protect them from Germany in the age of modern warfare, and that they must actively protect their country.
Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the Atlantic Conference to discuss the idealistic motivations behind the war and create the Atlantic Charter, a document similar to Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” explaining the values that Britain and the U.S would seek to uphold at the war’s end. The biggest departure from traditional 1930s American isolationist thinking was in the provision that affirmed the right for people to determine their ruler, and declared a new League of Nations to uphold this “peace of security” (Document D). By the end of 1941, the U.S. was preparing for war at full speed, egged on by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
During the last few years of the Roaring ‘20s the Hoover administration had set up policies that isolated America from the rest of the world. The U.S. was prospering and the quality of life in America had never been higher—why meddle in European affairs? However, as the 1940s approached, Americans realized that amid the growing Fascist threat presented by Hitler and Mussolini, the U.S. could no longer hide behind the false illusion of safety offered by isolationism. Americans slowly but surely realized that their nation’s ultimate fate was tied to Britain’s. As American support for international intervention grew, the U.S.’s foreign policy goals changed to accommodate aid to Britain in an effort to avoid risking American lives inall-out war. Unfortunately, the attack on Pearl Harbor angered Americans so much that they called for immediate revenge against Japan—permanently erasing isolationist ideas from American minds forever.
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