In 1939, the world witnessed the beginning of arguably the most devastating of all combat in the history of mankind, World War II. The conflict would ravage the entire European continent and far beyond extending into the far reaches of the planet, stretching from the lands of the African continent and waters of the Atlantic, to the Philippine islands in the Pacific. Previously, tensions had arisen with Germany’s annexation of Austria in March of 1938, along with the German crisis in Czechoslovakia. Further, Japan had invaded China in 1937, after overtaking Manchuria in 1931. In August of 1939 German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler had negotiated to provide a partition of Poland to Soviet Russia prior to its invasion, in addition to other smaller territorial provisions to be taken under the Iron Curtain.
The ‘Axis’, referring to the aggressive expansionist ensemble of fascist and militaristic regimes included Germany, Japan and later Italy. Facing off with the Axis in 1939 were the Allies, whose members included, principally and among others, Great Britain and France. At the outset of the war, the United States had taken a neutral stance, before joining the Allies after the Japanese attack on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941.
America’s hesitancy was shaped by various factors, namely “the desire to avoid entanglement in European affairs…the conviction that intervention in World War I was wrong [and] the focus on domestic issues during the Great Depression. ” The following shall analyze and explain why the United States did not enter World War II until December 8th of 1941 and advocates of American intervention were not able to do so previous to Pearl Harbor. To obtain a clear understanding of America’s late entry, one must firmly grasp the pertinent aspects of US history in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II. The United States became the forum for
“A heated nationwide debate between isolationists, who opposed both US participation in World War II and aid to Britain, and interventionists, who felt that victory over the Axis powers was essential for United States security and were prepared for the United States to enter the war at an appropriate time.”
Secondly, this essay shall explore how and why, in the first years of the Second World War, the United States maintained its official neutrality until late 1941, while the outlook shifted from isolationist to interventionist towards Pearl Harbor. Interventionists and proponents of US entry into war prior to 1942 will be detailed throughout in accordance with the latter half of the thesis outlined above.
Prewar* United States: Isolationism and Neutrality ______________________________________________
It can easily argued that a significant factor in the late entry of the United States into World War II was the continuity of its foreign affairs and domestic policy during the interwar years, dedicated to neutrality with isolationist tendencies. From 1920 to 1932, the United States participated in a multiple policies of international limitation of armaments as well as a “pact to renounce war as an instrument of national policy” with France. Further, the United States showed demonstrable isolationist propensity by not consenting to act along with France on an embargo against Germany and forcing said nation to abide by the disarmament provisions listed in the Treaty of Versailles. Norman H. Davis, Chairman of the American delegation went as far as to say that the US “will not participate in European political negotiations and settlements… [Or] make any commitment to use its armed forces for the settlement of any dispute anywhere.”
Also, the Treaty of Versailles, ratified shortly after and as a result of the First World War, contained a covenant calling for an association of nations, which became the ‘League of Nations’, eventually superseded by the United Nations. Although the US was part of the covenant drafting committee, it was never ratified by the US Senate, as a result of an article requiring that “all members preserve the territorial independence of all other members, even to joint action against aggression.” Thus, primarily for its isolationist tendencies, America did not become a member of the League of Nations, not to say that the country did not publicly support a large majority of the League’s policies. This outlook would continue until 1941 and the isolationist stance of the US would foreshadow its entry into World War II.
Although chiefly political in United States society, isolationist facets of foreign affairs influenced other aspects of American life. In the 1930s, during the Depression, legislation was enacted to limit foreign trade to shelter the US from a wavering international economy. Echoing the US desire to avoid conflict was the Good Neighbor Policy, ratified under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, which, in short, ended “heavy-handed intervention and military occupation” in Latin America.
Further, a succession of Neutrality Acts from 1935-37 amplified the isolationist stance of America. The Acts forbade arms sales and loans to nations at war and disallowed Americans from traveling on the ships of belligerent powers. So intent was the United States Congress on remaining isolated from conflict, it actually went to the extent of almost passing a requirement of national referendum favoring a declaration of war, to ratify the declaration.
At home, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported neutrality. More so, by 1937, 70% of Americans believed that even entering into World War I had been a mistake. An investigating committee led by Senator Gerald Nye sought to probe allegations that “banking and corporate interests had dragged the United States into World War I to protect their loans and weapons sales to England and France.” Nye’s committee detailed the lobbying and public relations activities of businesses supporting US intervention, striking a chord with US citizens. Literature sprouted up across the country.
In 1934, the infamous Merchants of Death explored the profit made by arms manufacturers exploiting the war through lobbying for intervention. Smith goes as far to apply the same allegations to the circumstances leading up to World War II: the kinds of foreign policy tactics best suited to promote the prosperity of private-enterprise capitalism in the United States, whether isolationist or not. In light of these developments, an anti-war sentiment crept across the country as the American population was fearful of repeating the economic circumstances and human sacrifice of World War I.
To prevent economic interest on the potential European conflict as tensions rose in the 1930s, the US government enacted legislation such as the Johnson Act of 1934, which “prohibited sale of the securities of any nation in default on its obligations to the United States” , particularly in terms of the debts due from World War I, which totaled approximately 10 billion dollars in addition to interest accumulated as years passed.
Japan’s aggressive advances into Manchuria in 1931, coupled with invasion into China in 1937 caused the US to invoke a policy of non-recognition towards the puppet government in Manchuria, and encouraged American citizens to boycott Japanese silk. Japanese advances threatened the longstanding US policy of Open Door Trade in the Philippines and China. Economic interest and isolationism made for a complex political combination and contributed to the failure of the United States to enter World War II at its outset.
Further economic concern of the US, reflecting an anti war sentiment, occurred even earlier with the 1929 Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression. The Roosevelt administration, during its first term, implemented a series of policies under the umbrella title of the ‘New Deal’. The goal of the New Deal was primarily recovery from the crash and stabilization of the national economy. In his PHD dissertation in 1977, John Drier explored the politics of isolationism, arguing that the debate over intervention followed logically from division of the New Deal.
In 1936, as the Roosevelt administration claimed a landslide victory for its second term in power, opposition claimed his strict New Deal policies were a “dangerous curtailment of the rights assured by the free-enterprise system” and warned the public of its potential unconstitutionality. Further, opponents of intervention warned that involvement could destabilize progress made by the New Deal and perhaps serious reaction from American citizens.
Another interesting aspect of American reluctance to avoid war was that of geopolitics. The United States was “protected by two oceans…from the upheavals convulsing in other parts of the war.” Additionally, Melvin Small explores political minorities opposing US intervention, including blatant anti-Semites support Hitler’s expulsion of Jews or later, anti-Bolsheviks supporting Hitler as well as anti-British, anti Rooseveltians and pro-fascists.
In light of the United States’ pacifist mentality and legislative momentum towards avoiding conflict, the outbreak of World War II did not see American involvement. As time rolled on, the debate between interventionists and isolationists finally found an outcome in the late fall of 1941, due to recent happenings between 1939 and 1941. From its lessons learned in the First World War, to domestic and economic issues spawned by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, and a flurry of isolationist support, the United States avoided entering the conflict until provoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Shifting Perspective: America 1939-1941
At daybreak, September 1st 1939, Nazi troops poured into Poland as the Luftwaffe simultaneously bombed its cities, in an overwhelming invasion. This direct and sudden military offensive became known as the blitzkrieg, Germany’s trademark tactic in World War II . Two days later, as per their defensive obligations towards Poland, both France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, marking the official and emblematic starting point of World War II, which lasted until 1945.
Supported by a vast majority of the American population, President Roosevelt prepared to assist the Allies as much as possible with the conviction that we did not belong in the war, an attitude not unlike that taken towards the founding of the League of Nations following World War I. But, in his infamous speech on September the 3rd 1939, Roosevelt veritably foretold America’s future when stating, “Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or conscience.”
In an ensuing amendment to the now famed Neutrality Acts, the Roosevelt administration permitted the sale of arms and war supplies on a ‘cash and carry’ basis and to be picked up in the United States. According to Small, “the British, as usual, controlled the seas, our neutrality revision helped only one side in the conflict” , therefore slightly contradicting a neutral stance with an interventionist overtone. Indeed, between 1939 and 1941, a majority of Americans “moved gradually from noninterventionism to intervention”
As the war abroad escalated, Roosevelt, the biggest advocate of war, campaigned for an unprecedented third term as United States President. It was at this point the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the president on an inevitable conflict with Japan, predicting a full scale war within a year. “Naturally, no one expected the president to reveal his game plan during the campaign.” Herein lays another reason for the delayed entry into war, as well as a clear cut example of why the most prominent of war advocates, President Roosevelt and his administration, could not direct his countrymen into conflict prior to Pearl Harbor.
Had Roosevelt given any inclination towards sending American soldiers into war, there is no doubt that the largely anti-interventionist voting community would have elected Democrat candidate Wilkie. Roosevelt promised that he would not ‘send American boys into a foreign war’. According to Small, “Roosevelt lied, or at the very least distorted the truth in order to win the election…not an isolated incident…and does not speak well for our system.”
Upon his reelection, Roosevelt proceeded to present his citizens, whose reaction was once again positive, that he would increase economic aid to Britain, as their wellbeing was vital to American safety. America’s cooperative reactions towards Roosevelt’s actions paralleled the shift towards interventionism, as citizens were spoon fed the complex issues surrounding the development of the war.
As the British economy stumbled from intense wartime pressures, the US Lend Lease Act of 1941, “an unprecedented for a neutral”, was enacted, “giving away material to one side used against another.” The ensuing months saw a secretive Roosevelt, through cautious maneuvering and careful planning; bring his country to the brink of war. Legislation, such as the Draft extension- which passed by only one vote, exemplified the marginal stance of the United States, which, with one foot in the door, would all change in December of 1941.
Pressures from Japanese expansionism interfering with America trade policies and anxiety in the face of Nazi fascism propelled President Roosevelt to take action “more than any one person or event” towards interventionism. As the war escalated, Roosevelt committed economic resources to the flailing France, which eventually fell to German and Italian forces. Nazi naval forces began appearing on the coast of the Atlantic, isolationist organizations “such as National Association of Manufacturers and the National Chamber of Commerce” gave full support to aid for Allied countries. Such aid came in the form of financial support and trading of assets, such as the Destroyer deal of 1940, supplying British forces with naval ships, which the “public overwhelmingly applauded the deal.”
In the meantime, dealings with Japan persistently to worsened. In September 1940 Japan persuaded Vichy France into conceding northern Indochina. In an effort to resolve the situation, the U.S. sought after halting Japanese expansionism, although the isolationist population still remained substantially large therefore preventing action without Japanese aggression and provocation.
The U.S. proceeded by prohibiting the exportation of steel, scrap iron, and aviation gasoline to Japan. Further, in July, the United States froze Japanese assets to avert Japanese acquisition of oil, a critical resource during wartime.
Moreover, the advocates of war were feared that it was not adequately prepared for a war with Japan, after the signing of the Tripartite Pact in 1940, which provide an allied defense between Germany, Japan and Italy therefore confirming a two front war for the United States.
In due time, the strategic diplomatic maneuvering of the Roosevelt administration came to convince Americans that the security of the United States was dependant on the defeat of the Axis. Interventionism, support by only a slim margin of Americans prior to 1939, flared up. Ahead of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt met with Prime Minister Churchill in a naval vessel off Newfoundland, Canada, and participated in the enactment the Atlantic Charter on August 14, 1941.
The Charter emphasized allied the goals of improved economic conditions, “freedom from fear,” and the disarmament of aggressors. But Roosevelt and his administration could not proceed without public support and during the late 1930s; isolationism in the United States had peaked. Roosevelt and his consultants felt restrained by the public and their representatives in Congress and “ran scared of polls that revealed the Americans did not want to mix in world affairs.” Further, Roosevelt was kept from assisting China to any extent by the difficulties of geographical distance and by American isolationism.
Soon afterward, as the Axis began to dominate the war in Europe, Roosevelt called for a billion-dollar allotment for naval expansion, and produced similar requests time and again soon after. Congress obliged, and the defense build-up was under way. In Japan, militarists took complete control of the government in 1941 and prepared for a showdown. Conflicting positions of business interests and US support for China’s independence had snowballed to the brink of war.
Conclusively, at the time of the attack Pearl Harbor, the United States had begun attacking German U-Boats, escorted Allied ships at sea, posted troops in Iceland to relieve British soldiers and many other “unneutral” activities which openly demonstrated US association and support of Allies “in an antifascist coalition” . Further, the approach to interventionism was “accepted by most Americans [who]…considered Hitler and [Japanese dictator] Tojo their enemies, the survival of England and Russia vital to our defense” and the supremacy of democracy. Advocates of US intervention had been prevented from doing so prior to Pearl Harbor simply for the reason that they could not proceed without public support, the essence of democracy.
Democratic fundamentals were, in fact, the rallying cry of the Allies. Once the shift occurred from isolationism to intervention, as the war escalated to a point of endangering the United States, war became inevitable. In effect, as the United States declared war on Japan on December 8th, 1941, the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, “America went to war with unanimity of popular support that was unprecedented in the military history of the United States.” Evidently, the first attack on American soil in over one hundred years had served as a wake up call to the remaining isolationists who had yet to be convinced of concerns over national safety resulting from World War II…