* World War II -- isolationists American ethnic origins

American World War II Isolationism: Ethnic Divide

Figure 1.-- Greece is a small country and a relatively small number of Greeks emigrated to America. We are not sure what Greek-American attitudes toward intervention were before the War. After the Italian invasion (October 1940), Greek Americans became strongly interventionist. This 1941 photo shows women and two boys wearing traditional Greek costumes and burros carrying baskets of flowers on their backs. They are posed on a New York City street as part of a fund raising drive for the Greek Emergency Fund. It may have ben part of Greek Dy just before the German invasion (April 1941). Greece was one of the countries most affected by German occupation. After the Germans seized the food supply, a terrible famine occurred. Photo: C. M. Stieglitz.

Ethnic origins had a strong affect on how Americans viewed the developments in Europe. That affect was, however, complicated. There were many immigrant groups in America and many saw the developments in Europe differently, especially before the War. There were of course difference among individuals, but there were a range of general trends. The opinions of the various ethnic groups tend to coalesce after the Germans invaded their country of origin. Opinions were especially complicated at the beginning of the War because Germany only invaded Poland and the Soviet Union was a German ally. (Most Americans with strong left-wing views were from Eastern Europe.) The largest ethnic group in America was British, however, most had ancestors that emigrated in the 17th, 18th, and early-19th centuries and thus had few ties with Britain. Thus while sympathetic toward England, most of these Americans were primarily interested in staying out of the War. This was, however, a group who gradually shifted toward interventionism as the War progressed, especially after the fall of France and the onset of the Blitz. There were other complications with Americans of British origins. First, they dominated the American intelligentsia and business community and these groups were strongly pro-interventionist, especially with the advent of the Blitz on London. Secondly, the Scots-Irish (not to be confused with the actual Catholic Irish) were not nearly as pro-British. While they had lost their strident anti-British attitudes, they tended to have no desire to enter the War. Such attitudes should not be confused with favorable attitudes toward Hitler and the NAZIs, they simply did not want to fight the Germans. The next most important ethnic group was the Germans who were a huge voting block in the Mid-West. They came earlier than most other ethnic groups, but by World War II were thoroughly Americanized. Most looked upon Hitler with disfavor, but were very strongly opposed to entering the War. They formed an important share of support for the isolationists.


Unlike many ethnic groups, the attitudes of Afro-Americans are difficult to follow. A factor here is the number of Blacls living in the south where very few could vote and the press more limited. one author suggests that many Blacks attitudes toward foreign affairs were more affected by their regional origins than race. As far as we can tell, while a great deal has been written about the Afro-American experience during the War, much less is available on Black attitudes about the war. What little we can find about this subject suggests that Afro-American opinion was similar to overall American attitudes. There were differences, but rather small differences. Here education and poverty may be factors affecting the data. The basic opinion was isolationist and a desire to stay out of the War. The major difference seems to have been a general reluctance to express opinions on foreign affairs. Those that did seem more isolationist than Whites. One author suggests that when corrected for education and poverty, they were more isolationist than suggested by the available data. [Broom and Glenn, p. 194.] And they were more opposed to action against the Japanese than White Americans. [Krenn, p. 5.] We are mnot entirely sure why, but assume it was race. Afro-Americanswere more opposed to the draft than White Americans, nut again the differences were relatively small. [Kern p. 6.] There are a few complicating factors. By the time of theWar, there was a sunstantial population of Blacls in the North and a very vocal press focusing on isues like lynching. The politically active were infuenced to some degree by the Comminists who took up the issue of racism, unlike the major parties. The fact that Stalin after the signing of the Non-Aggressioin Pact (August 1939) was an ally of Hitler ad=ffected the Party line about the war. Anotherfactor was the small Black Muslim movement. They were stridently opposed to American involvement in the War. We are not sure if this reflected general opposition to the Government or anti-Semric beliefs. We believe that generally speaking that Black Americans were bo fully aware of NAZI racial doctrine beyonf animus toward Jews. Generally speaking, Afro-American attitudes toward the War were similar to generalAmerican attitudes, epecially after america committed to non-desvrimitory hiring policies in war industries.


Blacks were not yet a major voting block in American elections. Most Blacks in the South were not allowed to vote. Thegrowing Black population in the Northeast could vote. They do not appear to have been much affected by developments in Europe, they were primarily concerned with domestic issue. Blacks had traditionally voted Republican, but the New Deal had begun to shift them in to the the Democratic column. Few Blacks were aware of the strident NAZI anti-Black racial policies. Most American Blacks knew that the NAZIs were anti-Semitic, but did not know that NAZI racial hatred extended to them as well. It was American racial bigitry that mosr concened them. While there was considerable sympathy for Black Americans in their fight for civil rights from the Jewish community, there appears to have been limited concern among Black Americans for the plight of European Jews. Actually even today many African-Americans continue to believe that the NAZI racial animus was primarily directed toward Jews and they did not figure in NAZI racial hatred. Thus there was no real interventionist sentimeht among Africab=n Americans, But neither was a there pronounced isolatiinist sentiment among African Americans. A factor here was the racial attitudes of the Isolantists like Lindburg and others. Just as there was a pronounced anti-Senetic leaning, there were also racial attutudes including neagative attitudes toward African-Americans. There was extensive press coberage of Isolantionist rallies, including news reel footage. Rarely do you see a black face.


American at the time was very much a country of immigrants, And the vast proportion of those immifrants came from Europe. The primary immigrant stock was English, nut much of the English immigration came in the 16-18th centuries and family commections and national orintation was long since forgotten if not broken by the Revolution. While there were few if any family ties to England, a substantial part of the American establishment was oriented toward England and sympathetic to England's plight. The most important group of more recent immigrants were irpnically the Germans and Italians. Some Italian Americans werevproud of Mussolini and his apparent success. The German-Americans had little afinity toward Hitler, but as in World War I, they were very stronly opposed to another War amd mafe up an important part of the Isolatinist mocement which was particularly strong in the Mid-west where Isolationist feeling was especially pronounced. There were manybsmaller ethnic comminities, including all of the captive nations, the most imprtant of these were Jews and Poles. Jews of course are mot a noarional group, but the vasr majority of American Jews have Eastern European origins, coning from barious regins of the old Tsaristt Empire-especially Poland. Jews of course were the most intensly anti-NAZI group, understandong more than mist Americans the malignacy of Hitler and the NAZIs, but even Jews did not fully understand the enormity of what the NAZIs were doing. But Jews and the ethnic groyps represented by the captive nations had revalitively little political clout. And they ere balanced bu the Irish and other grouos sych as Italians who has little interest in aiding Britain. Low key newspaper items, but rarely the mewsreels, reported on NAZI atrocuties in the captive countries, but nany Americans at first saw this as a repeat of British World War I propaganda which exagerated German atrocities. (Morice the tern=m exagerated, even in Workd War I, the German atrocities were very real. Actualyy until Germany bwas overun and American units began liberating the concentration camps were most Americans aware of the NAZI horrors (April 1945). Only then fid Americans see immages of the NAZI horrors.



The United States had only a small Chinese minority. They were uniformaly anti-Japanese and supported intervention. And this began at a very early point with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931). Chinese in America began collecting money to support their countrymen. This was followed by the invasion of China proper (1937). Fund eaising efforts were evebtually consodidated in United Chinese Relief. Sympathy for China was not limited to the Chinese-American minority. As a result of the extensive missionary program in China, many Americans were sympathetic to the Chinese. And unlike Europe, Americans were much less fearful of a possible war with Japan than a war with Germany. American Hocermnt support was at first limited to diplomatic efforts and eventually economic sanctions. Eventually finanancial aid and direct military support followed.


The United States also had only a small Japanese minority. They were concentrated in Hawaii and on the Pacific coast. We are nor sure about their attitudes toward Pearl Harbor. Much like the Germans, there were Japanese patriotic organization, mostly supported by elderly Japanese and recent immigrants. After Pearl Harbor there was virtually no support for Japan except among a few elderly Japanese and recent immigrants. This changed slightly after the Japanese on the Pacific coast were interned, but surprisingly not very much.


Broom and Glenn. (1966).

Krenn, Michael L. Ed.The african American Voice in U.S. Foreign Policy Since world war II (Taylor & Francis: 1999), 302p.


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Created: 6:36 AM 10/26/2012
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Last updated: 5:32 AM 4/23/2020