The Great Depression: Isolationism 1930-1941

Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


Between World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) the United States was gripped by contradictory urges and interests in foreign relations. Some Americans, called internationalists, were strongly in favor of full participation in world affairs. Other Americans, sickened at the toll of World War I, turned inward. They became ardent isolationists, supporters of keeping the United States uninvolved with foreign affairs and instead focusing only on domestic matters. They opposed economic or political alliances with other nations and wanted to avoid wars abroad. The 1930s was a period of tension between isolationists and internationalists.

The stock market crash in late 1929 and the following Great Depression led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) to introduce a wide range of economic relief and recovery programs collectively known as the New Deal. The Depression and New Deal further deepened this political divide between isolationists and internationalists. Isolationists increasingly viewed international relations as potentially detracting from the United States being able to make economic decisions for the best of the American public. While this battle limited President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, unintentionally it gave Roosevelt’s key advisors and administrators, known as the New Dealers, greater freedom in designing unprecedented domestic programs. Isolationist U.S. senators, many of whom were progressive Republicans, supported Roosevelt’s New Deal programs at first. Progressive Republicans were those Republicans who believed government had a distinct role in furthering social needs. This perspective was in strong contrast to most Republicans who strongly believed in a very limited role in American daily life. With changes in the direction of New Deal programs, however, by 1935 emphasizing more long-term economic reform and permanent government involvement in private business, the isolationists increasingly opposed New Deal programs as well as Roosevelt’s internationalist perspective.

Internationalists sought peace through cooperation between nations. For example internationalists supported the work of the League of Nations. The League was an international organization created in 1920 to resolve world issues before they could lead to war. Although U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913-1921) championed the organization, the United States was not a member because of the pressure of isolationists within its government. Some internationalists wanted to develop a “Good Neighbor Policy” with Latin America and an “Open Door” for economic trade in Asia. The Good Neighbor Policy attempted to improve relations with Latin American nations by refraining from armed intervention in Latin American political developments and improving economic relations. Internationalists were well aware of the financial benefits of international trade and commerce for the United States from anywhere in the world. They sensed industries’ need for raw materials located in foreign nations and also desired overseas markets to sell American manufactured goods. Some internationalists also had concern over the growing government role in private economic matters. They supported unfettered capitalism in which markets for their goods were unhindered by government regulation or oversight. Many believed in a government role in nurturing trade relations with other countries, but not government control over industrial operations.

Isolationists disavowed treaties with foreign nations and argued that events on other continents were not of concern or consequence for the United States. Their opposition largely grew from distrust of East Coast financial leaders who they believed would not develop treaties that would benefit the general public. They believed America could lead the world best by being an example of democracy rather than through involvement in formal economic alliances. They had been successful in keeping the United States out of the League of Nations though the League had been the idea of President Woodrow Wilson. By the late 1930s, as Europe tipped toward warfare, these Americans held to a noninterventionist (do not get involved in conflicts between other nations) position. They sought laws from Congress to discourage involvement of the United States in assisting the warring countries of Europe. Though opposing formal alliances, isolationists did not oppose foreign commercial and financial activity that could relieve Great Depression economic problems.

Many factors fed the attitudes favoring isolation. These attitudes included a distrust of international agreements, fear of involvement in another war, pride of American accomplishments in business and rapid industrialization, and the distance across the seas from troubled parts of the world. Another powerful force in isolationism was the peace movement. It attracted thousands of newly enfranchised (right to vote) women in the 1920s. Though women sought international cooperation to achieve peace, they too fed isolationist tendencies. Isolationists sought peace by avoiding treaties with other nations and staying out of their business activities.

Many isolationists believed that U.S. munitions makers and bankers, hoping for windfall profits, conspired to lead the country into World War I. As U.S. Senator Gerald Nye’s investigations into these matters made front-page news in the mid-1930s, the number of isolationists grew. Peace advocates worked closely with his committee and helped it secure information. Although the committee uncovered immense profits made by banks and companies like DuPont, it could not confirm a conspiracy. The public disgust with bankers and the munitions industry, however, fed the great disillusion with business leaders and financiers at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Isolationism posed a major challenge for both foreign and domestic policy in the New Deal. President Roosevelt was, by conviction, an internationalist and realist. He and his advisers saw the coming fury in Europe. They were constrained, however, by actions in Congress both to assist future allies as well as to prepare the United States for what appeared an inevitable world war. The eventual mobilization of U.S. industry proved the ultimate cure for the Great Depression. The isolationism of Congress and the public, however, had delayed this cure. On the other hand, isolationism kept U.S. ties with foreign nations at a minimum. This detachment from other economies gave the New Dealers a unique opportunity to experiment with the U.S. economic system without complications of complex foreign ties. This likely allowed for a more dramatic and immediate response of New Deal economic relief and recovery programs.

Issue Summary

Despite the growth of industry and international trade through the 1920s, isolationism remained strong in the United States. Most Americans opposed any involvement in foreign wars or establishing alliances with foreign nations. Isolationism came to the fore again by the mid-1930s due to a series of events. These events included investigations by a congressional committee, passage of neutrality laws by Congress, and the rise of popular anti-war organizations.

Isolationists and the New Deal

The crash of the stock market in October 1929 and the following Great Depression only strengthened isolationism in America. By 1932, 25 percent of the workforce was jobless, amounting to over 12 million people. Farmers in the Midwest, where isolationism was strongest, were finding fewer markets for their crops. They were going bankrupt and losing their farms through foreclosure to banks. In turn banks were increasingly going out of business as they were stuck with many properties for which there was no market. Congressional leaders began to look for ways to help their constituents in distress.

As the Great Depression worsened in its first few years the mood of isolationism was strong among the American public and its elected representatives in Congress. Those senators strongly supporting isolationism included independent progressive Republicans. Their sentiments were in contrast to main Republican support of international trade alliances to expand markets for satisfying the increasing productivity of U.S. industry. With innovations in manufacturing, including adoption of assembly lines and increased electrical service, U.S. factories were producing commodities faster than American consumers could purchase them. The Eastern business establishment sought new markets elsewhere. The isolationist progressive Republicans represented an independent political block, who believed New Deal relief and recovery programs offered better prospects for economic improvement for the common man than international alliances that they believed would only serve to fatten the wallets of East Coast business tycoons. They also provided critical support for many of President Roosevelt’s early New Deal initiatives.

Isolationism, with its strong supporters in Congress, served to influence the development of government programs under Roosevelt’s New Deal. The president needed support in Congress for his New Deal programs, which he hoped would assist the country out of the Great Depression, and he could not risk alienating the isolationists. The main progressive Republican spokesmen for isolationism in Congress included George W. Norris of Nebraska, William Borah of Idaho, Hiram Johnson of California, Burton Wheeler of Montana, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, and Robert LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin. These men largely distrusted the involvement of East Coast business leaders and financiers in European affairs. All were strong supporters of the massive amount of legislation Roosevelt was able to pass through Congress in his first one hundred days of office in 1933. These measures, the first of the New Deal, included work relief, farm relief, industry recovery efforts, and the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

In general isolationists felt that restoration of economic prosperity in the United States was crucial for maintaining independence from world events. For example Senator Norris was a long time supporter of government economic planning and public electrical power projects. But efforts had failed in establishing regional power projects until President Roosevelt arrived in office. Norris was instrumental in getting approval for the TVA project through Congress. As a result a major dam and new town in the project were named after him. The TVA was the first major economic reform act of the New Deal.

Most progressive Republican isolationists were from the Midwest farm country, therefore farm relief was particularly of interest to them. The isolationists supported creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to tackle problems of long-term farm overproduction, sagging foreign demand for U.S. farm products, and low produce prices paid to farmers. They were more supportive, however, of providing loans to farmers aimed toward helping reduce debts and saving foreclosures rather than setting limits on how much a farmer could grow, which was a key part of the AAA. The isolationists pushed hard to guarantee farmers that their costs of crop production would be covered. Norris added a much-debated amendment to the bill as it was proceeding through Congress to guarantee production costs. The House of Representatives, however, removed it before the bill finally passed. The deletion of Norris’ amendment was a major blow to the Midwest progressives. They reluctantly supported implementation of the AAA but the resulting programs of plowing up crops and killing pigs drew much criticism. They could not see setting acreage controls for crop production when many of the less fortunate in America were going hungry. Few progressives were disappointed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the New Deal agricultural program unconstitutional in January 1936.

Senator LaFollete was less interested in government planning programs and farm relief, but he was a big supporter of public works programs. Therefore he was helpful in passing such work relief related measures as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Progress Works Administration (PWA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA). All of these programs provided various types of jobs to different parts of the population. For example the CCC employed youths of approximately 18 to 25 years of age to perform land conservation work such as planting trees, constructing irrigation systems, and fighting forest fires.

Isolationists, however, did not support all of these programs. For example both Senators Borah and Nye in particular believed the National Recovery Administration (NRA) created by the NIRA was unconstitutional. The NRA setup committees through which competing businesses could set prices and wages. The isolationists feared the increased concentration of economic power in big business would encourage growth of monopolies. They distrusted the business and financial leaders residing on the East Coast. They believed the growth of these cooperative business practices hurt small business in America in addition to workers and farmers. Once the NIRA was passed and the NRA created, most of the isolationists became opponents of the agency. The progressives pressured Roosevelt to set better controls on the cooperation going on between business leaders. In response on March 7, 1934, Roosevelt created the National Recovery Review Board that was initially proposed by Senator Nye. The board was to determine what effects the new NRA business codes had on business competition. Having no real powers, however, to enforce any decisions the board proved largely ineffective but successfully served to establish a more formal split between the progressives and Roosevelt over the NRA. To the relief of the progressives the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1935 ruled the NIRA unconstitutional just as Borah and Nye had originally argued.

When the NIRA was ruled unconstitutional, Roosevelt took the New Deal off into new directions to which the isolationists were even more opposed. Rather than trying to work in partnership with American business, Roosevelt decided to seek economic reform that would regulate business. Even progressive Republicans found this role of government too intrusive in private business matters. In addition Roosevelt came out strongly supporting labor unions that were looked upon with great disdain by the Midwest population. Meanwhile the isolationists were also making headway. In 1934 Congress passed the Johnson Act that prohibited U.S. citizens from lending money to foreign countries who had not paid their war debts from World War I. This would substantially affect the flow of investment capital (monies) to European nations recovering from war and Depression.

In general the isolationists thought the New Deal was an attack on a traditional way of life they cherished. They represented rural, small town, small business interests. Isolationists supported some pieces of legislation in the First New Deal of 1933 to 1935 but opposed other pieces. Their emphasis was on local community, self-government, and individualism with limited influence from big business and big government. It was an interest in holding onto traditional American lifelines that dominated the nation before the rise of industrialization and big business. They wanted foreign policy to reflect this simpler, earlier period as well.

Investigations of the Nye Committee

In 1934 and 1935 Senator Nye headed a congressional committee investigating an alleged conspiracy by munitions (war materials) makers to involve the United States in World War I. The Women’s International League, a peace group, in December 1933 had identified such a study as its primary objective. Dorothy Detzer and Jeanette Rankin of the League and others helped develop materials for the committee. Those serving with Nye included Walter F. George (Georgia), Bennett Champ Clark (Missouri), Homer T. Bone (Washington), James P. Pope (Idaho), Warren Barbour (New Jersey), and Arthur H. Vandenberg (Michigan). Stephen Rausenbush, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, was the committee’s chief investigator.

In 1934, as the Nye Committee began its work, the Book-of-the-Month Club promoted H. C. Englebrecht and F. C. Hanighen’s Merchants of Death. This wide-selling book rejected the idea that arms makers had engaged in a conspiracy to lead America into war. It documented, however, the enormous profits made by the munitions industry and their blindness to the social consequences of their work. The Nye Committee thus looked at World War I through the concerns of peace advocates as well as those who wanted to isolate their country from foreign entanglements.

To assess the lobbying and influence of armaments manufacturers the Nye Committee examined the proceedings of various post-war conferences focused on disarmament (reducing the amount of weapons on hand) including the 1922 Washington Disarmament Conference and the 1925 Geneva Arms Control Conference. In addition they examined any lobbying by industry on various arms embargo efforts of the early 1930s and a neutrality bill proposed in Congress in 1935. It looked into the influence arms sales had on peace, the relations of the munitions companies with the U. S. government, and international agreements between munitions companies in various countries.

On February 24, 1936, the Nye Committee, more formally called the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, issued the “Nye Report.” The committee found that none of the companies engaged exclusively in the manufacture of military materials. In fact the largest firms—General Motors, DuPont, General Electric, Babcock & Wilcox, and Westinghouse—primarily manufactured products for civilians. The committee, however, found that many of the American munitions companies used questionable business methods that bordered on bribery in coercing leaders of foreign governments to purchase their war goods instead of another industry’s products. The Committee concluded such activities were clearly unethical and reflected poorly on American business. It also reflected poorly on U.S. government agencies that helped them obtain those orders for war goods. While the committee did not conclude that a conspiracy of these firms led to American involvement in World War I, it condemned the actions of the companies in general.

The work of the Nye Committee and its report gave what isolationists considered concrete documentation of inappropriate dealings by certain industries. As a result publicity from the report only hardened opposition by isolationists to New Deal programs that fostered growth of big government and allowed big business to operate freely. Members of the public, however, who were not isolationists were well aware that the members of the Nye Committee were all committed to isolationism. Therefore that segment of the public only saw the findings as firmly establishing the committee’s own biased position. Consequently the debate over isolationism still raged.

Neutrality Acts and the Call for Voluntary Actions

By early 1935 while the Nye Committee was hard at work Adolph Hitler, who had established a dictatorship over a war ravaged and economically depressed Germany, was rearming Germany in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, established in 1920, had concluded World War I by heavily penalizing Germany for its aggression during the war. One treaty provision limited reestablishment of military forces. Hitler’s vision, however, was to bring Germany back to a prominent world position including expansion and control over the rest of the European continent. In March Hitler established universal military training that required all German youth to serve their country in the military service for a minimum amount of time. Meanwhile Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini who had grand visions of expansion for Italy, had launched an attack on Ethiopia to carve out an Italian “colony” in North Africa through military occupation. The response in Congress to these ominous world events was to withdraw from international engagement and, instead, to announce American neutrality.

In 1935 Walter Millis published The Road to War: America, 1914-1917, which became a best seller. It promoted the idea that the United States could have avoided World War I, but was tricked into participation by other nations. British propaganda, Allied purchases of war materials, and Woodrow Wilson’s weak position on neutrality, he said, were all contributing factors. Those who wanted reasons to avoid American involvement in war saw in the Millis book good evidence for remaining neutral.

Congress passed the Neutrality Act in March 1935, which prohibited the export of the implements of war such as airplanes, tanks, and guns to any nation engaged in a conflict. No U.S. ships could transport arms to warring nations. The measure also authorized the president to withhold protection for any Americans traveling on ships of countries at war. The act also created the National Munitions Board placing some federal control over the armament industry.

Being sensitive to growing isolationism in the United States, the Roosevelt administration sought to figure out how to avoid stirring conflict with isolationists while responding to the deteriorating conditions in Europe. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, for example, asked for a voluntary ban by industry on the export of materials that could ultimately be useful for the manufacture of U.S. war materials. The voluntary nature of the plan would raise less alarm among isolationists than a mandatory strategy. Hull’s request proved effective largely stopping the international sale of copper, oil, railroad tracks, scrap iron, scrap steel, scrap tin, old locomotives, and other items that might in the future help the nation go to war.

Following Italy’s expanded aggression in North Africa, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes requested American petroleum producers to stop further sales to Italy. The embargo was voluntary. Also in 1935 the Department of Commerce urged American shipping companies to refrain from transporting war materials to any nation preparing for war. These modest steps by the administration were taken in the spirit of the Neutrality Act but at the same time saving materials for U.S. use. As a way to ease economic problems caused by the Great Depression, small communities, schools, and organizations mounted scrap drives to try to raise money for their communities. They sold useful trash to willing buyers and these drives returned useful materials back into use.

In 1936 the Neutrality Act came up for renewal. Following much spirited debate over placing further restrictions on arms sales, Congress simply extended the existing 1935 provisions for another 14 months. Reflecting the influence of the Nye Committee, Congress did add a new provision prohibiting loans to foreign nations at war. This provision essentially adopted the 1934 Johnson Act restrictions into the Neutrality Act context.

When the Neutrality Act came up for renewal again in 1937, some significant changes were made under Roosevelt’s influence. A “cash-and-carry” policy was written into the act. Though still limiting U.S. business contacts with warring nations, the policy allowed the sales of arms to foreign nations. The purchasing nations must, however, pay in cash for the war materials and ship them in their own ships. The law permitted President Roosevelt to send 50 old destroyers to Britain in return for eight naval bases. This provision was designed to keep American ships out of war zones. A main problem with this provision from the British and other foreign countries’ views was that due to the Great Depression they had little cash on hand to purchase the much needed materials.

The series of neutrality acts passed by Congress between 1935 and 1937 attempted to keep the United States out of conflicts leading toward World War II. The laws limited the sale and shipment of the implements of war.

As time passed tensions over potential American involvement in the troubles in Europe grew steadily. On February 7, 1938, Senator Hiram Johnson of California, an ardent isolationist, introduced a resolution asking whether the president had entered into or anticipated any agreement or alliance with Britain. Secretary of State Hull responded, no. When in early 1939 it became known that Roosevelt had suggested to some senators that the nation’s “first line of defense” was in France, the President had to cover himself quickly. He denied the statement and then on February 3 clarified his foreign policy by affirming a less engaged position in European politics by his administration. Reinforcing this public position Roosevelt proclaimed that the United States would avoid any “entangling alliances”; would maintain world trade with all nations; support efforts to reduce or limit armaments; and respect the political and economic independence of all nations.

America First Committee, 1940-1941

As the European political crisis deepened in the late 1930s, isolationists became more and more determined to keep the United States out of world affairs and world war. Strong leadership for isolation continued to come from Midwest business and political leaders. Robert E. Wood, a former army officer and president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. was adamantly opposed to war preparations the Roosevelt administration was edging towards. Wood became the first head of an organization known as the America First Committee (AFC).

The AFC was created on September 4, 1940, the day after Roosevelt had signed a deal to provide the destroyers to Great Britain. It was also 12 days after the president had signed the Selective Service Act. The act required all males between ages 21 and 36, both citizens and aliens, residing in the United States to register for the draft. Those inducted into the services would serve for 12 months and only in the Western Hemisphere and U.S. territories. With national headquarters in Chicago, the AFC grew out of a student organization at Yale University. During the summer of 1940 it gained increasing attention of the Midwest business leaders and politicians. By November local chapters of AFC were being formed around the nation.

The AFC drew together isolationists with diverse backgrounds including Communists and pro-Nazi sympathizers. It was primarily made up of conservatives, however, who disliked the British and who opposed American intervention in world affairs. Various principles were formally adopted. These included that the United States must build a strong defense for America; that no foreign power can successfully attack a prepared America; that American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war; and, that providing aid to other nations just short of waging war weakens national defense at home and threatens American involvement in war abroad.

John T. Flynn, a New York journalist and sharp critic of New Deal programs and deficit spending (government spending more than the revenue it brings in), became one of the primary publicists for the AFC. He opposed war regardless of the prospects for victory or defeat. Flynn helped organize rallies, create new chapters, and build membership that peaked at over 800,000 in late 1941. By the attack on Pearl Harbor 450 chapters and subchapters existed across the nation.

The Writer’s Anti-War Bureau also provided publicity for the AFC. The Bureau wrote and distributed a weekly newssheet titled Uncensored. Its editor, Sidney Hertzberg, sought to analyze and expose any information he considered propaganda and bias that he believed was encouraging American involvement in the war in Europe. The newssheet was published from October 7, 1939, to December 6, 1941. It was mailed to radio commentators, newspaper editors, and other publicists.

AFC support came from various well-known citizens. From 1939 to 1941 highly popular aviator Charles A. Lindbergh gave a series of speeches on the radio and at public rallies on behalf of isolationism and the AFC. AFC efforts, however, were ultimately wounded by the public remarks of Lindbergh. The public interpreted some of Lindbergh’s comments as anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and unpatriotic. Lindbergh, who never recanted his speeches, insisted that his isolationism was driven by the realities of what he observed while living in Europe between 1935 and 1939. Public reaction to his comments undercut public support for anti-war groups such as the AFC. Nonetheless the AFC was the leading isolationist organization for the final 15 months leading up to Pearl Harbor. The AFC’s agenda was discredited when, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American military bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11.

Responses against Isolationism

With Charles Lindbergh mounting a series of strong speeches promoting isolationism, the White House arranged for various senators and others to counter Lindbergh’s words. These efforts included new organizations. One organization established during this late period of the inter-war years was the Committee to Defend America. William Allen White founded the committee on May 20, 1940 to counter Lindbergh’s speeches and the persistent national isolationist mood. The committee, promoting aid-shortof-war, also sought to sway public opinion and influence congressional members to support greater military preparedness for defense. This was the day following a national broadcast by Charles Lindbergh promoting extreme isolationism. It was also a few days before the evacuation of British troops from Europe at Dunkirk, France. Only a month later France would surrender to Germany. With the German advances against British and French forces, many in America were becoming increasingly alarmed.

One other organization formed to attack isolationism was the Fight for Freedom Committee. This organization contended that defeat of Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in Europe was essential to protecting American interests. This group wanted the United States to take aggressive military action rather than what was simply promoted by the Committee to Defend America. This group argued for a more active military role in supporting Britain in defeating Germany rather than waiting to defend American shores. Appealing to the Eastern urban establishment along the Atlantic seaboard, this group was formed in April 1941 by prominent individuals in New York City.

The support of such groups enabled President Roosevelt to take some action in assisting Britain. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 replacing the earlier cash-and-carry policy of the neutrality acts. The new act authorized President Franklin Roosevelt to spend up to $7 billion to assist the Allies in their war efforts. Constituting one more major step toward war, the law permitted the United States to provide war supplies to shore up Great Britain, following the German invasion of France. American aid included the sale, lending, leasing, exchange, or transfer of materials to any country whose defense was vital to the security of the United States. It did not require immediate payment that the 1939 Neutrality Act did. The act would provide the primary authority for the U.S. government to contribute military assistance to foreign nations throughout World War II. Such diverse countries to receive such aid were Britain, China, Brazil, and the Soviet Union. Importantly for economic recovery from the Great Depression, the Lend-Lease Act spurred increased mobilization of American industry to produce war goods. This, more than any New Deal program, would ultimately pull the United States out of the economic crisis.

Isolationists were not opposed to forming relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere. As a result the United States was able to take steps in Latin America to fight the Great Depression as well as keeping German influence at bay. Roosevelt adopted policies of his predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, in forming the Good Neighbor Policy. This included helping resolve existing conflicts in South America and signing trade agreements with Latin American countries. Roosevelt also promised nonintervention in internal political affairs of Latin American countries and unity against foreign aggression.

Isolationism in the 1930s significantly affected the relationship of the United States to former World War I allies—Great Britain and France most particularly. Ironically it ultimately also contributed to the nation’s entry into World War II as European nations steadily fell to German expansion having received little support from friendly nations. With the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, American isolationism was abruptly over. The nation formally entered World War II the following day and the related mobilization of industry to produce war materials would bring an end to the Great Depression.

Contributing Forces

Isolationism in America stretched back to the colonial times of the eighteenth century since many colonists sought to escape European political, economic, and religious influence. Early U.S. leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson openly warned the nation about the hazards of forming foreign alliances. They reinforced the prevailing public sentiment. Indeed the U.S. wars of the nineteenth century, including the War of 1812 (1812-1814), the Mexican War (1846-1848), and the Spanish-American War (1898) were all fought in the Western Hemisphere and did not involve Europe or any formal alliances. By the early twentieth century, however, improved transportation and communication including cable, radio, and steamships, increased U.S. contacts with foreign nations. Stronger relations through international trade grew with Europe.

American Involvement in World War I

World War I was the first major break from longstanding U.S. isolationist policies. The United States Senate in 1917 responded favorably to the request for a Declaration of War by President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson saw the importance of European political developments for American security. The prospect of “making the world safe for democracy,” as Wilson phrased it, seemed a noble goal. The war, however, bogged down in grueling, deadly combat with troops facing each other for months in the wet mud and cold of Western Europe. Tens of thousands of combatants died and thousands more survived with burned lungs and bodies—the results of chemical weapons. Great psychological damage resulted from the horror of their military service. Leading isolationists in Congress during this period were William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and George Norris of Nebraska. They became determined not to have this happen again to young Americans.

Shortly after the end of the war in 1918, journalists, politicians, and historians began to assess the causes for U.S. entry into the war. Public opinion was shaped in part by Albert J. Nock’s Myth of a Guilty Nation (1922) and John Kenneth Turner’s Shall It Be Again? These books contributed to American disgust with the war. Nock alleged that Germany really had not caused the war, rather, he argued, the real cause was a plan of the Allied powers (the combination of France, Britain, and Russia) to make war on the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Turner argued that President Wilson led America to war to protect American bankers and that the “profits of patriotism” created 21,000 new millionaires. These books were founded on little evidence but were widely read.

In The Genesis of the World War (1925) historian Harry Elmer Barnes used substantial sources based on thorough research. He stated that starting in 1911 France and Russia began a campaign with two goals. France wanted to recover control from Germany of the Alsace-Lorraine area on its eastside. Russia wanted control of the Bosporus, the connection between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Barnes essentially argued that Germany was forced into World War I because of this plot between France and Russia. Barnes followed this study with articles and another book In Quest of Truth and Justice (1928). Using interviews with Kaiser Wilhelm, Alfred Zimmerman, and other German leaders, Barnes more forcefully argued that Germany was not guilty of causing the war for it had nothing to gain.

The revelations in the four books—some of them tinged by dubious documentation and biased writing—fueled American disillusionment with World War I and the complex situation of international involvement following it. For example President Wilson was determined the United States should join the proposed international organization, the League of Nations. He outlined Fourteen Points, a series of actions that he said would make the world “fit and safe to live in.” Wilson called for arms reductions, free seas, an end to tariffs (taxes on imported goods), and some degree of independence for colonial peoples (a country under control of another nation). Wilson’s opponents in the United States were equally determined that the United States would not participate in the post-war world he wanted to create. In the end Wilson lost and the United States neither ratified (approved) the Treaty of Versailles officially ending World War I nor did it join the League of Nations, even though Wilson had in part orchestrated both.

These events set the stage for the international disillusionment that gripped the United States in the 1920s. The feelings were not uniquely American, for intellectuals and others in Europe were also sickened by the consequences of World War I. In the United States, however, these feelings tended to move in special ways in part due to the vast oceans separating the United States from Europe and Asia. One way was an increase in isolationist sentiment. The United States, it was argued, could get along just fine on its own and not involve itself with the rest of the world. The other matter was the embrace of materialism (to be more concerned with material items than spiritual or intellectual values) as the U.S. turned inward and self-centered. For much of the 1920s the United States seemed prosperous, even though signs of economic difficulties were mounting. Americans bought automobiles, vacuum cleaners, iceboxes and refrigerators, installed electric lighting in their homes, and went to movies where they saw an artificial world created by filmmakers.

Some of the most disillusioned in the 1920s removed themselves from American society by rejecting its materialism as well as any future involvement in war. A generation of intellectuals, mostly writers, moved to Europe and wrote bitter, sometimes haunting poetry and novels about a world gone wrong. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land became one of the most famous of these works. Another group of writers, artists, and photographers settled in the upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico to form the Taos Colony. They sought a simpler, more innocent existence removed from the problems of modern times. World War I and the disillusionment of the 1920s were thus powerful factors in shaping American isolationism in the 1930s during the New Deal.

The Peace Movement

The conclusion of World War I in 1918 was followed shortly in 1920 by the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and the extension of suffrage (right to vote) to women. For decades women had watched the ravages of war and mounted campaigns to try to eradicate it from human society. Empowered with the right to vote and a keen sense of the power of organizing for a cause, women stepped up their peace efforts in the 1920s. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915 in the Netherlands, became a rallying point. The time was right, for in 1921 the Washington Conference, a meeting of the world’s powers at the time, addressed disarmament. Several treaties resulted from the meeting. The Five-Power Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy) agreed that for ten years the five nations would build no battleships and would reduce their fleets. The Four-Power Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France) agreed to respect each other’s interests in the Pacific Ocean and to confer if hostilities erupted in the area. The Nine-Power Treaty agreed to respect the independence of China and keep open trade relations.

While these agreements were essentially toothless, having little power or ability to enforce them, they inspired peace advocates to press harder for disarmament and an end to war. In 1928 a number of nations, including the United States, participated in conferences in Paris that led to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The U.S. Senate ratified the Pact in 1929 by a vote of 85 to one. Though the agreement renounced war as an instrument of national policy, it would do nothing to stop the drift toward World War II later in the 1930s. It was, however, a high point for the peace movement affirming that the United States might decline to become involved in future wars. The agreement also contributed significantly to the mood of isolationism.

The peace movement thus included both internationalist as well as isolationist tendencies. Workers in the peace movement sought both world peace and international connections. But they disavowed war and, most particularly, American engagement in anything that might again lead the nation into war. Women in the peace movement felt that the best way to achieve peace was to avoid international agreements that would require U.S. participation in defending other nations who had been attacked. This perspective clearly fed the isolationist mood of the nation.

Economic Concerns at Home

The ardent isolationists also had another factor working in their favor through the occurrence of the Great Depression. Many Americans were substantially affected by the economic hard times. By early 1933, 25 percent of the U.S. workforce, or over 12 million people, were out of work. Many more had their incomes reduced or lived in daily fear of losing their jobs. The future was very uncertain and hope was dimming. As a result, interests in foreign issues greatly decreased as domestic economic issues dominated. Concern about what was going on in the United States far surpassed concerns over political developments across the ocean or international trade relations. These issues seemed much more distant and less important to day-to-day life. In this economic climate of the Depression, isolationists gained political strength and worked diligently to sway the less engaged public in foreign affairs toward their perspective.


Local Perspectives

At the local level isolationism was largely a matter of individual choice. Issues of foreign policy were not overwhelmingly important for those 12 million unemployed workers facing breadlines at the height of the Great Depression in 1932 and 1933 and for many others concerned about the economic strife. They wanted to see the government primarily tackle the domestic economic problems. Public polls showed that unemployment was the number one issue in the 1930s up through December 1936. Prospects of being involved in war did not become a leading concern of the public until May 1939. Domestic issues had continued to be dominant right through the decade.

Organizers, however, seeking to gain support for isolationism found fertile ground for pulling together those opposed to U.S. involvements abroad. Founded in 1940, the America First Committee (AFC) grew rapidly to enlist over 800,000 members whose goals all focused around isolationism. The AFC sought to explain to newspaper writers, politicians, policy-makers, and the public its determination to keep the United States out of war in Europe. It fielded speakers, such as Charles A. Lindbergh, issued press releases, and published pamphlets. Members were inspired by the committee’s insistence that the United States could maintain an insular, isolated detachment from world events. It ignored international trade and banking, concerns over the well-being of families and friends living across the Atlantic Ocean, and the moral responsibilities of a democracy. By 1941 New York City had more than 80 chapters of the America First Committee.

Various other local and regional organizations with diverse causes shared a common goal—isolation from world events. In some communities peace organizations worked hard to keep citizens informed about the dangers of international alliances, war, and buildup of armaments. Again, these grassroots efforts succeeded wherever a core of motivated advocates existed.

In addition to the AFC there was also the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. William Allen White, a nationally prominent newspaper editor from Emporia, Kansas, founded this organization. As warfare spread across Europe in the late 1930s, White argued for nonintervention like the AFC but did argue for the granting of aid.

American women increasingly played prominent roles in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Jane Addams and Emily Green Bach, both founding members, were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 1932 and later in 1946. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, had voted against American entry into World War I in 1917. Her vote probably cost her position in Congress. Rankin, however, became a prominent peace advocate and lobbied in the 1930s for congressional investigations into why the United States became involved in World War I. Rankin was elected a second time to Congress—in November 1941. She cast the only vote against the declaration of war on December 8, 1941.

Isolationists, who preferred to identify themselves as noninterventionists, were supporters of the Neutrality Acts. They generally opposed Lend-Lease and other programs that would authorize the United States to aid nations suffering from the spread of war posed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Isolationists, right up to the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor tended, to be sharp critics of the New Deal’s growth of big government and especially its foreign policies that would encourage international connections and alliances.

A shift away from isolationism among the public could be detected in certain public polls in mid-1940. Many were forced to reconsider their opinions with continued German aggression in Europe. In March 1940 only 43 percent of Americans polled thought a German victory in the war in Europe would be a threat to the United States. Only three months later in July 1940 following the fall of France to German forces, 69 percent of Americans polled saw a German victory as a threat. Similarly in May 1940 only 35 percent of Americans polled favored aiding Britain in its war efforts. By September 1940, 60 percent of Americans polled favored aid to Britain. In November 1941 only 20 percent of Americans polled favored a declaration of war against Germany. That percentage rose significantly the following month to almost 90 percent as the vast majority favored declaration of war.

National Perspectives

The Nye Committee investigations dominated the national perspective on isolationism. Between 1934 and 1936 Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota launched a series of investigations into why the United States had entered World War I. Nye was convinced that special interests had conspired to bring about American involvement. Therefore his committee, rather than pursuing objective findings, held preconceptions about what it would discover. Using its subpoena powers to obtain records and compel the testimony of witnesses, the Nye Committee examined specific companies, how they had lobbied Congress, and how much they had earned as a consequence of the war. It found, for example, that DuPont Company, a firm manufacturing paint, chemicals, and munitions, had profits of $5 million in 1914 and $82 million in 1916. To those who wanted to find villains, the Nye Committee provided nominees. The work of the Nye Committee and passage of the Neutrality Acts in 1935 and 1939 were clear cases where the will of isolationists was felt nationally.

Former President Herbert Hoover was another who joined the isolationists camp during the 1930s. Following his election defeat to Roosevelt in November 1932 Hoover became increasingly critical of President Roosevelt’s foreign policies. As he had earlier while in office, Hoover frequently blamed the Great Depression on international events and economic policies of foreign nations.

International Perspectives

Isolationism in the United States in the 1930s went right along with Britain’s policy of “appeasement” under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was prime minister from May 1937 to May 1940. Like U.S. citizens, British citizens had no desire for another major war in central Europe. Therefore Chamberlain sought to satisfy expansionist demands of Germany and Italy by giving in. He hoped the two aggressive fascist nations would become satisfied and become less active. For example, Chamberlain in April 1938 officially recognized Italy’s new domination over Ethiopia hoping that would keep Italy from forming alliances with Germany. Chamberlain also kept Britain out of the Spanish Civil War that lasted from 1936 to 1939 and failed to aggressively respond to Hitler’s establishment of armed forces in the Rhineland in opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and his takeover of parts of Czechoslovakia that Chamberlain condoned through a Munich Agreement. In addition Britain put strong reliance on the League of Nations for resolving conflicts before they went much further. Some in Britain challenged appeasement policies. They wanted to be more aggressive with the German and Italian threat, among these was Winston Churchill.

In September 1938 Chamberlain traveled to Germany three times to negotiate an avoidance of war. When Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 Chamberlain finally dropped his appeasement policy and pledged armed support for Poland, Romania, and Greece in case of future attacks. Britain began a major rearmament program and started a military draft, the first peacetime draft in British history. When Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Chamberlain declared war on Germany. Fighting, however, did not immediately begin and when it did, Chamberlain and Britain were less than enthusiastic. Chamberlain resigned the day Germany invaded western European nations and was replaced by Churchill.

In addition French citizens feared another destructive war on its soil. The socialist party, the Popular Front, won national elections in May 1936, their policies leaning toward government control of industry caused fear in foreign investors. This led to much economic strife and made any organized resistance to developments in Germany and Italy difficult at best. Instability had taken hold of Spain as well. The monarchy gave way to a republic in 1931. As the new leaders moved further toward the Left much dissatisfaction grew. Finally by July 1936 the Spanish military led a revolt, which began the Spanish Civil War. The war dragged on through 1938 until the Nationalists won in March 1939. After losing 500,000 during the civil war, Spain maintained neutrality throughout World War II.

For some Americans, the growing world crisis in the 1930s only deepened their commitment to maintain isolation. It contributed to accepting the aggressive actions of Japan, Germany, and Italy, in half-hearted help to former allies, and in U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines where it had earlier maintained an economic and political interest. This anti-war sentiment was also widespread in Europe as Germany, Italy, and Japan took advantage of these sentiments. Ominous events began in 1933 when Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and an arms conference. Each following year would bring new major events leading away from peace.

In 1935 international crises became more global in scope. Japan withdrew from an international conference held in London and Italy invaded and seized control of Ethiopia. Italy then also withdrew from the League of Nations following Germany’s lead. In 1936 Hitler of Germany and Mussolini of Italy formed the Berlin-Rome Axis (alliance) and Civil War broke out in Spain. In 1937 Japan increased its aggression by invading northern China. Then in 1938 Hitler began Germany’s massive expansionist campaign gaining control of one European nation after another. By 1939 Germany had taken over all of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland with a mighty show of force. With the invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. This long series of events drove many Americans to think that their best defense was in further isolating their country from world problems. They strongly sought neutrality and non-intervention.

Isolationism shaped American foreign policy through the 1930s. The noble commitment to enter World War I plunged the nation into disengagement from world responsibilities, retreat from enforcing provisions of the Treaty of Versailles regarding Germany’s military buildup, and into repeated efforts in Congress to define foreign policy along isolationist principles. As the world moved toward global war after 1935 the United States did little to help stop the events. In the end isolationism turned the country inward and left Americans blinded to worsening world events. Isolationism exacted a high price for shirking world responsibilities in a global community of which the United States was a part. Because of isolationism the United States was poorly prepared to go to war in 1941. The nation lacked stockpiles of strategic supplies, trained troops, and bases to mount a defensive war.


The threat of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and communist expansion after World War II kept isolationism from returning to prominence. An international rivalry grew between the United States and the Soviet Union that drew in their various allies. Known as the Cold War (1946-1991), competition was fierce both politically and economically, but with little actual armed conflict. The Cold War began as the Soviet Union began installing communist governments in the various countries of Eastern Europe. The United States and Britain feared a permanent domination of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and a spread to other parts of the continent.

The United States had learned powerful lessons from the isolationism of the 1930s. In response to the post-war Soviet expansion the United States built a system of alliances and agreements aimed at collective security with other nations. The United States assumed a prominent role as an international peace-keeper and arbiter in disputes. While the old controversies about isolationism versus internationalism did not totally go away, they never gained the same power they had possessed during the Great Depression.

For example the Marshall Plan was initiated by the United States in 1948 to economically rebuild Western Europe. This would make it stronger against the rise of Communist Party influence within their democracies. Through the plan United States gave massive amounts of economic aid to the nations of western and southern Europe. In response the nations were required to pursue joint planning to hasten their recovery from the Great Depression and war in the face of Soviet growing influence.

Militarily the United States and its European allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Its primary goal was to provide a unified response to growing Soviet influence in Eastern Europe by establishing a centralized leadership and structure. The alliance included 18 nations at the beginning. Other nations joined through the years including the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in March 1999.

The U.S. provided $1 billion in military aid to NATO in 1950 to start operations. A series of U.S. generals beginning with World War II hero and future U.S. President General Dwight D. Eisenhower served as supreme Allied commanders. During its first 20 years $3 billion worth of infrastructure were built including airfields, military bases, and communications networks. A key function of NATO during the Cold War was deploying U.S. nuclear weapons at western European bases beginning in 1957. By the 1980s, 300,000 U.S. troops remained stationed in Western Europe.

The intensity of global political competition grew as Chinese communists took control of China in 1949. The following year in 1950 the communist leaders of North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea that was supported by the United States. The Korean War resulted involving American troops until 1953 when it ended in stalemate.

By 1958 an arms race grew with development of intercontinental ballistic missiles by both the United States and the Soviets. This race led to a major confrontation that took the world to the brink of nuclear war between the two superpowers in 1962 when it was discovered the Soviets had begun installing missiles in Cuba within easy reach of U.S. cities. A resulting agreement led to the Soviets removing the missiles. A Nuclear Test Ban Treaty followed in 1963 between the two nations that prohibited above ground testing of nuclear weapons.

A second phase of the arms race then began involving buildup of conventional and strategic forces for the next 25 years. During this period, actual military operations by the United States avoided direct confrontations with the Soviets in Europe. Rather they involved actions in Guatemala in 1954, an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba in 1961, conflict in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the long and bloody Vietnam War (1964-1975), and military action in Grenada in 1983. The Vietnam War involved unsuccessful efforts at keeping communist North Vietnam from gaining control of South Vietnam. Anti-war advocates during the Vietnam War era did not represent general isolationism, but rather non-intervention in specific events. Many still supported foreign alliances, military aid in other regions of the world, and membership in international organizations.

The collapse of eastern European communist regimes in 1989 and 1990 came in advance of the Soviet Union collapse in 1991. Fifteen newly independent nations including Russia resulted from that collapse. The Cold War had come to an end and NATO turned to other missions by the mid-1990s including peacekeeping operations in Eastern Europe in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the launching of air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces. The rise of international finance and the global economy by the 1990s essentially killed any lingering isolationism.

Notable People

William E. Borah (1865-1940)

A Republican U.S. Senator from Idaho from 1907 to 1940, Borah was a criminal lawyer and famous orator. Borah was noted for his inconsistencies in Congress, voting against some measures while following his personal prejudices in favor of others. Although erratic he was generally considered a Progressive.

In foreign policy Borah was initially a militant nationalist (favoring one’s own nation over others). He supported U.S. intervention in Mexico in 1914 and 1916 and the declaration of war against Germany in 1917. He then became a leader of the opposition against American involvement in the international League of Nations. His isolationism hardened when in 1924 he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was consistently suspicious of presidents and treaties with foreign nations. He opposed U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Far East and involvement in a World Court. Yet he praised Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America and diplomatic recognition of the communist Soviet Union. Borah supported the Neutrality Acts and opposed the sale of arms by “cash and carry” to Britain. Congress finally approved such aid in spite of Borah’s opposition.

James Middleton Cox (1870-1957)

A newspaper publisher and politician, Cox grew up in Ohio. His career in journalism led to ownership of newspapers and, in turn, entry into politics. Cox gained election as a Democrat to Congress in 1908 and was elected governor of Ohio in 1912 where he served three terms. Cox supported Progressive reforms such as Prohibition, woman suffrage, and a state highway system. In 1920 the Democrat Party on the forty-fourth round of voting by state representatives to the national convention nominated Cox as its candidate for president. He mounted an active campaign strongly endorsing internationalist positions such as membership in the League of Nations. Cox was soundly defeated in 1920 and never again sought public office. His defeat marked a hardening of public opinion on isolation. Non-interventionist attitudes in the United States would remain a major political factor for the next 20 years.

John T. Flynn (1882-1964)

An avid journalist, Flynn was born in Maryland. Though he did not attend college, he earned a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He never practiced law though as he devoted much of his energy as a free-lance journalist criticizing big business and big government. Initially he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, as the New Deal programs developed he turned against the New Deal. In 1938 Flynn helped organize the Keep America Out of War Committee (KAOWC), serving as its national chairman. The KAOWC was a circle of influential isolationists who tried to coordinate noninterventionist activities.

In 1940 Flynn, enraged with Roosevelt’s plan to send 50 destroyers to Britain to assist with their war effort, called for the president’s impeachment. He also joined General Robert Wood, head of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to form the America First Committee (AFC) that by 1941 engaged an estimated 800,000 members who were isolationists. Flynn headed AFC activities in New York City, delivering radio speeches, writing pamphlets, assembling public rallies, and devising advertisements to support non-intervention in Europe’s affairs. Although Flynn supported the U.S. decision to go to war in 1941, he remained convinced that Roosevelt had helped foment the involvement. In 1944 he published The Truth About Pearl Harbor, a controversial criticism of the president. In 1945 he expanded it into The Final Secret About Pearl Harbor.

Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-1974)

Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a father who was a progressive Republican and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years. Young Lindbergh joined the Army Air Service, forerunner to the U.S. Air Force, in 1925. The famed pilot of the “Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh made the first solo flight in 1927 between New York and Paris dramatizing the feasibility of flight over the Atlantic Ocean. For this he won the Congressional Medal of Honor and gained tremendous popularity in the United States. In 1938, however, he accepted the Service Cross of the German Eagle, conferred by Herman Goering, head of the German air force.

Upon returning to the United States in 1939 Lindbergh became an ardent advocate of isolationism. Lindbergh had grasped the strength of the German military buildup, sensed the weaknesses in France and Britain, and did not believe that American interests could be served by intervention in European affairs. In the spring of 1941 he joined the America First Committee and became one of its leading public speakers. His speeches drew considerable criticism, especially his comments at Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941. Many began to believe that Lindbergh was pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic. With Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lindbergh threw his energies behind the war effort, but he could not regain his Air Force commission. He fought in the South Pacific as a civilian pilot. In 1954 President Eisenhower restored his commission and appointed him brigadier general. Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1953) won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography.

Gerald Prentice Nye (1892-1971)

A U.S. Senator from North Dakota, Nye was born in Wisconsin and reared in that state. Following graduation from high school, Nye spent 15 years working as a newspaper writer in Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Dakota. He was actively involved in the Non-Partisan League, a radical agrarian (farmer) organization. In 1925 Nye gained appointment by the governor of North Dakota to the Senate and was later elected in 1926, 1932, and 1938.

Nye was an ardent advocate for farmers. After 1919, he increasingly believed that American involvement overseas met the financial interests of eastern businessmen and bankers but not Midwest farmers. He was a supporter of some parts of Roosevelt’s farm relief program. Beginning in 1934 Nye headed a Senate committee investigating the U.S. munitions industry. The committee focused on the profits allegedly made on preparations for and mounting U.S. engagement in World War I. Based on his findings Nye campaigned for neutrality legislation in Congress from 1934 to 1937. His attitudes led him in 1939 to oppose President Roosevelt’s efforts to repeal the Neutrality Acts to assist victims of German, Italian, and Japanese aggression. In 1940 and 1941 Nye served as a leading speaker of the America First Committee. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Nye supported the war effort but was defeated in his reelection bid in 1944.

Primary Sources

Roosevelt Presses for Action

After winning election to an unprecedented third term as president, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat in which he dramatically described the foreign dangers he foresaw. The president stressed the need for the United States to take more action to help stop German expansion (from Franklin Roosevelt. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941, pp. 633-644).

This is not a fireside chat on war. It’s a talk on national security …

Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now …

The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world …

In view of the nature of this undeniable threat, it can be asserted, properly and categorically, that the United States has no right or reason to encourage talk of peace, until the day shall come when there is a clear intention on the part of the aggressor nations to abandon all thought of dominating or conquering the world …

Some of our people like to believe that wars in Europe and in Asia are of no concern to us. But it is a matter of most vital concern to us that European and Asiatic war-makers should not gain control of the oceans which lead to this hemisphere …

If Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the high seas—and they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere. It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun—a gun loaded with explosive bullets, economic as well as military …

[D]efinitely there is danger ahead—danger against which we must prepare. But we well know that we cannot escape danger, or the fear of danger, by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads …

The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness …

Democracy’s fight against world conquest is being greatly aided, and must be more greatly aided, by the rearmament of the United States and by sending every ounce and every ton of munitions and supplies that we can possibly spare to help the defenders who are in the front lines …

We must be the great arsenal of democracy.

Famed Aviator Promotes Isolationism

Charles A. Lindbergh became a featured speaker for the American Freedom Committee (AFC) in promoting isolationism. Lindbergh had spent several years in Europe in the 1930s and was impressed with Germany’s armament buildup led by Hitler. Lindbergh returned to the United States and argued for the United States to not get entangled with those superior forces of Hitler. Many believed his racist views mirrored those of Hitler and the Nazi Party, which promoted a pure white race. His speech of October 13, 1939, “Neutrality and War” was broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System (from Charles Lindbergh. The Radio Addresses of Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, 1939-1940. 1940, pp. 5-8).

Tonight, I speak again to the people of this country who are opposed to the United States entering the war which is now going on in Europe. We are faced with the need of deciding on a policy of American neutrality. The future of our nation and of our civilization rests upon the wisdom and foresight we use …

If we repeal the arms embargo with the idea of assisting one of the warring sides to overcome the other, then why mislead ourselves by talk of neutrality? Those who advance this argument should admit openly that repeal is a step toward war. The next step would be the extension of credit, and the next step would be the sending of American troops …

Our bond with Europe is a bond of race and not of political ideology. We had to fight a European army to establish democracy in this country. It is the European race we must preserve; political progress will follow. Racial strength is vital—politics, a luxury. If the white race is ever seriously threatened, it may then be time for us to take our part in its protection, to fight side by side with the English, French, and Germans, but not with one against the other for our mutual destruction …

I do not want to see American bombers dropping bombs which will kill and mutilate European children, even if they are not flown by American pilots. But I am perfectly willing to see American anti-aircraft guns shooting American shells at invading bombers over any European country. And I believe that most of you who are listening tonight will agree with me.

A View from the Media

The editors of the journal New Republic noted in the May 20, 1940 issue (pp. 703-704) the struggle between President Franklin Roosevelt in trying to respond in some meaningful way to the crisis in Europe and the prevailing isolationist mood in the nation. His steadily pushing on providing materials to the European nations kept constant tension between the two sides—isolationists and interventionists.

Prevailing American sentiment during Mr. Roosevelt’s eight years in office has been strongly isolationist in the sense of not wishing to be drawn into any foreign conflict. As a result of this struggle, American policy has been less interventionist than the President would have liked and more interventionist than most of the American people have realized or would welcome if they had.

Our neutrality law was an attempt to profit by the lessons of the last war and prevent our being drawn in again … The neutrality law of course does not mean that Americans are impartial. About 86 percent of them, according to Dr. Gallup, are pro-Ally and only one percent are pro-German. The neutrality law was intended not to enforce impartiality but to set up as far as possible legal equality of belligerents …

The technical neutrality but actual unneutrality of the Americans is approaching another great test. Britain and France are now buying war materials in this country on a large scale … It is said that airplane orders alone will amount to about $1,000,000,000 in the next eighteen months.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Following four years of residency in Europe, famed American aviator, Charles A. Lindbergh returned to the United States in the late 1930s and took a strong, public position that the United States should stay out of Europe’s war. He became a leading member of the America First Committee. Examine: 1) Lindbergh’s advocacy against American involvement in Europe, 2) charges that Lindbergh was pro-Nazi, 3) charges that Lindbergh was anti-Semitic, and 4) the consequences of his isolationism to Lindbergh’s reputation.
  2. One of the founders and chief publicists of the America First Committee, John T. Flynn was a talented and well-published writer. Examine Flynn’s writings from 1939 to 1945 in magazine articles and pamphlets to explore the arguments he made against America’s involvement in international affairs and, most especially, World War II. Use the Internet and other resources to carry out this research.
  3. Many of the leading isolationists in Congress in 1933 were also politically progressive, meaning they supported government action in bringing about social change. Therefore they supported much of the early New Deal programs of President Roosevelt. Why specifically did isolationists support Roosevelt’s economic relief and recovery programs? What made them change their support by 1935?
  4. Search the World Wide Web for a copy of the “Nye Report,” 74th Congress, 2nd Session, February 24, 1936. What did the committee find out about the various industries it looked at? Do you think based on this report that the isolationists had a strong case that the United States was wrongly led to war?