World War II Isolationist America and President Roosevelt: The 1930s

Figure 1.-- Canadian Prime-minister King mentioned to President Roosevelt that King George VI was contemplating an official visit to Canada (August 1938). The George VI was considering a state visit to Canada. President Roosevelt immediately realized the public relations potential. He wanted in particular to improve public opinion toward the British. He was convinced by this time that war was inevitable and that America and Britain must become allies if democracy was to be preserved in an increasingly dangerous world. An occassion for the Royal visit was provided by the 1939 New York World Fair. President Roosevelt personally prepared the itinerary for the royal couple. The plans were sent it through Ambassador Bullitin Paris rather than through the London Embassy. This was one of many slights which rankled Ambassador Kennedy. The Royals entered the United States from Canada (June 8). President Roosevelt met them at Union Station (June 9). The President and First Lady hostted a state dinner at the White House. Kate Smith, Marion Andeson, and Lawrence Tidbitt provided the entertainment. The next day they sailed down the Potomoc to Mt. Vernon on the presidential yacht 'Sequoia' (June 10). The King laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetary. They then traveled by train to New York to briefly visit the World's Fair. After which they were driven to Hyde Park. They encountered enthusiastic crowds along the way which slowed the trip. They had an informal dinner at Springwood, King and President stayed up late discussing the world situation. President Roosevelt though war was inevitable. The King thought that there was still a chance it could be prevented. The next day the Presudent and Mrs. Roosevelt attended church at St. James Chapel at Hyde Park (June 11). Then there was a picnic at Top Cottage. President Roosevelt drove the Royal couple arounf the Hyde Park area, with his cigarette holder, and pointing out senic sites. The is is where the picture here with the American Boy Scout was taken. The President was at the drivr's wheel, but does not appear in the photograph. You can see the presidential seal on the car. Queen Elizabeth would later claim that he was not looking at the road whole driving at high speeds and that it was a more frightening experience than the Blitz. In the evening President Roosevelt drove them to the Hyde Park railway station. The crowds sang 'Auld Lang Syne'. The President from the car waved, and in a loud voice for all to hear "Good luck to you! All the luck in the World." [Bradford, p, 393.] They of course needed it. And not much help would be coming for some time. Britain was soon engulfhed by war. It was clear where the President stood as Europe was engulfed by war. It was less clear at the time just where America stood. It is likely that this voy Scout would be one of several million young Americans thst would join America in the War. Source: Naval Photographer Alfred Emmanuel Weed

President Roosevelt, who took office only a few weeks after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancelor of Germany, saw from a very early point the dangers posed by Hitler and the NAZIs as well as the Japanese militaists. There was at first little that he could do to support the forces of democracy in Europe. The isolationists were a powerful force throughout the 1930s. The President with great skill and political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy. Before War began, there was little he could accomplish, but in the 1930s he layed the ground work for the most masterful shaping of public opinion in the histgory of the republic--and the most essential. Actions by the President played a major role in supporting Britain after the war began in Europe in September 1939.

U.S. Election of 1932

Following his reelection as governor in 1930, Roosevelt began to campaign for the presidency. Roosevelt's bold efforts to combat the Depressio as New York governor had attracted natiinal attention and enhanced his reputation. The major question in 1932 was who the Democrats would nominate. The Depression had so damaged President Hoover's reputation that the victory of the Democratic candidate was almost assured. In Chicago in 1932, Roosevelt won the nomination as the Democratic Party candidate for president. He broke with tradition and flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. He then campaigned energetically calling for government intervention in the economy to provide relief, recovery and reform. His activist approach and personal charm helped to decisively defeat Hoover in November 1932 by seven million votes. He was only the third Democrat since the Civil War to win a presidential race. Foreign relations was not important in the election.

Hitler Seizes Power (January 1933)

President Roosevelt assumed office in March 1933. The long period between November and March during which decisive action could not be taken would eventually lead to a Constitutional Amendment. By the time Roosevelt was sworn in as president, Adolf Hitler and the NAZIs had sezed power in Germany. FDR from the moment Hitler became chancellor, regarded him as a threat to America and formed a strongly almost religious dislike of him. [Friedel, pp. 123-124.] This was at a time when many European politicans tried to reach an understanding with him. The immediate impact was that Hitler's appointment as Chancellor made disarmament impossible, a policy that Roosevelt had hoped to persue to free up funds for New Deal programs.

Franklin Roosevelt

The 30th president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, is generally considered to be the most important American statesman of the 20th century. He led America through the two most serious crises of the century, the Great Depression and World War II. He inspired confidence and despite his patrician origins came to be loved by the least favored Americans. Thus when other countries turned to totalitarianism and dictatorship, American democractic society grew stronger. His policies helped to give voice of the American worker through trade unions. The resulting prosperity of the American worker created the basis for the success of the American economy in the second half of the 20th Century. He was born into a wealthy family with an elderly father. He had a charmed childhood at his father's Hyde Park, New York estate. He was a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece he married in 1905. It is difficult to know how he viewed the world scene whrn he took office. The crisis of the Depression was such that it demanded his full attention. The country demanded it. And as a result, he was little involved in foreign relations. He made his attitude toward Hitler and the NAZIs apparent from the very beginning, but the country would not have tolerated an ambitious foreign policy agenda. Americans denanded domestic actions. And the president what ever his personal feeling, was unwilling to challenge the prevailing isolationist sentiment least it impede his domestic agenda.


Franklin Roosevelt belonged to the internationalist wing of the Democratic Party. He had worked in the Wilson Adminisdtration and was a strong advocate of the League of Nations. He realized that by the 1930s that the League was a dead issue and did not make this part of his campaign. Isolationist sentiment grew after the rejection of Wilson's League in part because many Americans came to see America's entry into World War I as a mistake. These sentiments were further strengthened when Hitler seized power in Germany (1933) and the possibility of nother war began to grow. The Depression crisis forced him to focus his attention on domestic economic affairs. He faced an electorate that was staunchly isolationist. The Depression even further strengthened the growing isolationist sentiment in America.

Fireside Chats

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic slump ever to affect the United States. A new era of the American presidency was initated on Sunday evening, March 12, 1933. Most Americans sat down after dinner in their living rooms to listen to the newly inagurated president. Most were worried. The Depression was rapidly paralizing the country and the Government seemed unable to take effective action. With all this gloom, a calm, reassuring voice came through the radio exuding confidence in the future. President Roosevelt explained in understandable terms just how the Depression had come about and what he planned to do to get the country out of the Depression. The radio seems almost made for President Roosevelt. It offered the ability to speak directly to the whole country with out the complications of visual images. The fireside chats were a revolution in communication and in many ways profoundly change the office. The presideny was a much more formal office before FDR. The fireside chats seem very casual and informal. They were of course swredly calculated. Primarily previous presidents communicated with the public through the press. Many important newspapers, however, in the 1930s were oriented toward the Republicans. Homey, "down-to-earth" language was carefully adopted so that the major issues of the day could be explained to the proverbial "common man". FDR had a wonderful feel for the power of words and phrasing. Terms like "lend lease" and the "arsnal of democracy" were used in the fireside chats to help win public acceptance of the administration's policies. Most of the fireside chats were delivered from the White House, but a few were made at Hyde Park as well. They were carefully times. May were on Sunday knowing that the whole family would be home. Almost always they were in the evening, timed to catch the family after they had dinner and were gathering around the radio in the living room to listen to the evening programs. To many it was almost as if they were inviting the President into their living room for a personal chat. No other president had ever attempted talked to the average voter in this way. And none had the voice that the president possessed.

Congressman Dickstein

Congressman Sammuel Dickstein (1885-1954) helped generate an investigation of NAZI and Fascist groups in the United States. Dickstein was born in Vilnus which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. Like other Jwews, the anti-Semetic policies of Tsarist Russia, his parents emigrated to America when he was only 2 years old. He grew up in New York and was elected to Congress (1922). As an immigrant representing a Congressional district with many immigrants, Dickstein was especially interested in immigration issues and eventually rose to the chairmanship of the Committee on Naturalization and Immigration. He began to note foreigners illegally entering the United States and the growing anti-Semitism among new European immigrants. He also noted the increasing amount of anti-Semetic literature being distributed in the United States. He began a private investigation of the activities of NAZI and other Fascist groups operating in the United States. Based on his own findings, Dickstein concluded this was something that Congress should investigate. Dickstein on the opening day of the second session of the 73rd Congress, Dickstein introduced a resolution calling for the formation of a special committee to probe un-American activities (January 3, 1934). What became known as the "Dickstein Resolution" (H.R. #198) was quickly passed (March 1934). John William McCormack was chosen as Chairman and Dickstein as Vice-Chairman. Dickstein could have been chairman, but thought that his Jewish ancestry could affect how Americans would view the validity of the Committee's findings. This did not, however, prevent him drom playing a very active role in the proceedings. He was a showman with a flar fir the dramatic. He not only found some sensational information, but was able to get it into newspapers. He thus played an important role in educating Americans about the NAZIs from a very early period.

Neutrality Act (August 1935)

The Congress passed the Neutrality Act and President Roosevely signed it into law August 31, 1935. It provided for a mandatory arms embargo "... upon the outbreak or during the progress of war between, or among, two or more foreign states, the President shall proclaim such fact, and it shall thereafter be unlawful to export arms, ammunition, or implements of war to any port of such belligerent states." It was passed for a 6-month period, but Congress continued to renew it. Thus the Act is generally referred to in the plural as the Neutrality Acts. It was first invoked against Italy when Musolini invaded Ethiopia (1936). It was not at first invoked in the Spanish Civil War until an aviation builder (Glen Martin) began to supply planes to the Spanish Nationalists (Franco). The law was made permanent in 1937, but an exemption was made for "cash and carry" purchases, meaning orders paid in cash and not transported on American vessels. As war loomed in Europe, a September 23, 1938, Gallup poll showed 73 prcent of Americans were in favor of maintaining a mandatory arms embargo. A Douglas DB-7 bomber crashed in California pn January 23, 1939. When it was revealed that a Frenchman injured, press reports reveal that FDR planed to sell advanced U.S. aircraft to England and France. One journalist charged that the U.S. frontier was now "on the Rhine". Administration attempts to change provision of the Neutrality Acts run into Congressionl opposition, but public opinion polls show that American public opinion was beginning to change in 1939. FDR invoked 1937 Neutrality Law on September 5, 1938 after Germany invades Poland and England and France declared war on Germany. This meant American arms could not be shipped to the Allies as was done in World War I. After much debate and arm twisting by Roosevelt, the embargo provision was repealed by a new Neutrality Act signed by the President on November 4, 1939, but purchases had to be on a cash-and-carry basis. There were to be no U.S. ships in war zone around British Isles, no loans to belligerents, no travel on belligerent ships, and no armed merchant ships. This was not the best of terms for the allies, but at least arms and munitions as well as other supplies could now be provided the Allies. Hitler hoped that the allies could be defeated before American supplies could make a difference. Here he was almost right.

Naval Preparations

The U.S. Navy was not prepared for World War II, but of all the services it was probably the best prepared. The Treaty Navy in the 1920s was limited by arms limitations treaties and Congressional resistance to defense spending. As a result, the United States began the 1930s with a sizeable fleet of battleships which were sen as the key capital ships. The American battleships were, however, were World War I-era ships. The Navy was badly in need of modernization Most of the battleships sunk at Pearl were older classes from World War I and early 1930s. The failure of efforts to renew the Washington Arms Treaties, because the Japanese wanted to expand naval construction, meant that America had to proceed with the expansion and modernization of the fleet. The Navy would begin to construct newer and larger classes of battleships and innovative air craft carriers. President Roosevelt was a strong proponent of a strong Navy. Funds were at first limited by the New Deal's focus on social spending. The United States also began improving their submarine fleet from the small S types to the larger fleet classes that had the range to operatecin the Pacific Ocean. Naval construction still left the U.S. Navy dangerously inferior to thr Imperial Fleet in the Pacific, but just strong enough to contain the Japanese in thecPcific and keep the Atlantic life lines tonBritain open until a massive wave of new ships from American shipyards could reach the fleet (1943).

National Industrial Recovery Act (1933-34)

One of the principal efforts of President Roosevelt's New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933. The NIRA Blue Eagle appeared on business around the country. Economists now generally critize the NIRA, but among the provisions funded in 1934 was 70 new US Navy ships. Among the vessels was two new Yorktown Class aircraft carriers. These proved to be two of the most famous carriers of World War II (USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Enterprise (CV-6). (The Yorktown played a key role at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Yorktowm and Enterprise were two of the three American carriers at the Battle of Midway.) Fredident Roosevelt had a strong interest in the Navy. He had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I. In his desire to modernize the Navy, the President had a strong Congressional ally--Georgia Congressman Carl Vinson. Vinson became chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee (1931). He helped and Florida Senator Park Trammell guided the Vinson-Trammell Act through Congress (1934). The bill created badly needed jobs in American shipyards but also ptovided the ships that proved critical in staving off the Japanese and Germans when war came. It provided the first large number of new ships the Navy received since World War I. Congressional isolationist and peace forces, however, fought untiringly to limit funding for the Navy. As a result, when war came all but one of America's battleships (USS North Carolina was launched in 1941) as well as many cruisers and destroyers were World War I relics and badly outclassed by modern Japanese vessels. (The eight American battleships destroyed or damaged at Pearl Harbor had been built between 1914 and 1921.)

Failure of the London Conference (1935)

The Americans and the British attempted to convene another naval arms conference (1935). The major naval powers met in London for another round of naval talks to renew the existing limitations decided on at the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22) and London Naval Conference (1930). These limits were due to expire (1935-37). The militarsts in Japan were now in virtual control of the Government. The Japanese demanded parity with America and Britain. When this was not granted, the Japanese withdrew from the planned conference. This meant the exisiting limitations would expire. All three nations initiated battleship rebuilding programs with expiration of the treaty in 1936. Japan initiated the largest building program, a massive program to build 150 ships. The Japanese laid down two super battleships, Yamoto and Musoshi, but the actul doimensions of these massive ships were kept secret. They were 69,100 tons, twice the size of treaty limitations. Germany built Bismarck and Tirpitz at 52,600 tons. The falure of the Conference created enough concen in Congress to approve an American naval building program, although a smaller program than initiated by the Japanese, only 100 vessels. Even so the new ships would only bring the Navy up Treaty limits. Two aircraft carriers were laid down in 1936 and 1937, each within Treaty limits. (These were USS Wasp (CV-7) and the larger USS Hornet (CV-8). No one knew at the time just how importnt these carriers would be. Both would reach the fleet in 1941 in time to participate in the critical Pavific battles of 1942. The Rooevelt Administration justified the appropriations in part as they would create jobs. The Isolationists and peace lobby opposed the appropriations with the slogan "Schools, not battleships". New battleships were authorized, but actual keels were not laid until after the war began in Europe. Only the USS North Carolina (BB-55) reached the fleet before Pearl Harbor.

American Reaction to Fascism

Franklin Roosevelt was the only important national leader to take a firm stance against Hitler from the beginning. So did Churchill, but Churchill until war broke out was out of government. The British and French attempted to appease Hitler. Prime-Minister Chamberlain was determined to prevent another War and he was confident he could achieve this by placating what he was willing to see as legitimate natiinslist demands. Hitler and Roosevelt came to power within months of each other. There was never any talk of appeasement on Roosevelt part and the President made his feelings about Hitler crystal clear on numerous occassions. U.S. policy sought to prevent German and Italian aggression by appeals to ethical behavior and through applying economic pressure or offering incentives for cooperation with Western democracies. There was in part because of the strength of isolationist and abti-war feeling not threat of military action. [Schmitz "Introduction"] A diificuklty faced by the Roosevelt Administration as well as the British and French was how to resist Fascism without assisting Soviet expansionism. This came to a point in the Spanish Civil War. [[Little] The United States had a ddecade of relations with Fascist Italy before the NAZIs seized power in Germany. The Roosevelt Administration attempted to use Mussolini as a force to moderate Hitler. [Schmitz "Speaking"]

Quarantine Aggressor Nations (October 5, 1937)

President Roosevelt in 1937 spoke about the need to quarantine aggressor nations. It was challenge to the Dictators and a rebuttle of the Isolationists. The President spoke forcefully, but stressed America's commitment to peace. The President said, "It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease. It is my determination to pursue a policy of peace and to adopt every practicable measure to avoid involvement in war. It ought to be inconceivable that in this modern era, and in the face of experience, any nation could be so foolish and ruthless as to run the risk of plunging the whole world into war by invading and violating, in contravention of solemn treaties, the territory of other nations that have done them no real harm and which are too weak to protect themselves adequately. Yet the peace of the world and the welfare and security of every nation is today being threatened by that very thing. .... War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot insure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the dangers of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement, but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down. If civilization is to survive, the principles of the Prince of Peace must be restored. Shattered trust between nations must be revived. Most important of all, the will for peace on the part of peace-loving nations must express itself to the end that nations that may be tempted to violate their agreements and the rights of others will desist from such a cause. There must be positive endeavors to preserve peace. America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace." There are two interesting observations concerning this speech. First was where he delivered it. The occassion was the opening Outer Link Bridge in Chicago and the speech was delivered close to the Tribune Tower. The Chicago Tribune was of course a citidel of Midwestern Isolationism. The second was that after delivering the speech, he came to believe that he had gotten dangeously out in front of public opinion and began to back off of the logical conclusions flowing from the speech when queried by the press.

Political Situation

The President, flush with his sweeping electoral success in 1936, was embolded to confront the Supreme Court. The Court was the only branch of government still dominated by conservative Republicans, but the justices were using their power to virtually dismantle the New Deal. The President sent Congress a bill designed to reorganize the Federal judiciary. The impact of the effort badly damaged the President politically. This weakened his habd in the fight with the Isolationists. The fight over the Ludlow Amendment in Congress illustrated a dramatic shift in the political situation. Many of the progressive forces in Congress with isolationist and pacifist sentiments had abandones the President to vote with the President. The Administrations victory in defeating the Ludlow Amendment was achieved by holding the largely pro-national security Southern Democrats. The fact that the New Deal failed to act on issues like lynching and emmigration has to be seen with this political dynamic in mind. The President after his Quarantine speech (October 1937) put national defense and preparation first. His success in large measure is due to the fact that he maintained his focus and priority. It is easy to criticize what he did not do. It is also also unimaginable to consider the consequences if he had failed to defeat the isolationists. There is also no doubt that he was going to allow the fight with the isolationists to be couched as a debate over collective security. The Quarantine sppech in fact was essentially a statement of collective security, but only in these such generalized terms did the President dare to reveal his true feelings. This was a fight that the President even with his persuasive powers would have lost. This was because wile he could bring the Southern Denocrats along on military preparadness, he would have lost many of them on collective security. Isolationist feeling was strong in the South, although it was not combined with pacifism as was the case of some of the progressive forces that had deserted the President to vote for the Ludlow Amendment. The President's political position was weakened in the 1938 Congressional byelection, when Republica for the firt time since 1930 picked by Congressional seats. So during the late 1930s, the President persued what could be achieved and that was a low level of military preparaness. It was far short of what was needed, but it was what could be achieved with the prevalent isolationist sentiment and in fact laid the foundation for the air and naval power tht would win World War II.

Roosevelt Peace Conference Proposal

With Europe clearly moving toward war, President Roosevelt agonized he could use the influence of his deeply solationist country to prevent another tragic war. He and Under-Secretary of State Sumner wells, a personal friend, came up with a plan for an international conference to deal with major outstanding issues. At the conference the issues being raised by Germany, Italy, and Japan would be discussed (access to raw materials, security, and territory). Secretary Hull who disliked how the President tended to curcumvent the State Department was not impressed, but he agreed to go along if the President would first try it out on the British (January 1938). Primeminister Chamberlain turned it down flatly. He at the time was attempting to appease Mussolini and thought such an American ininitative would interfere. Chamberlain with the benefit of hindsight has been severely criticised for his appeasement. But given the experience of Britain in World War I, it is not unreasonable to make every effort to avoid another war. But this action on his part seems very difficult to justify. Britain's interests were clearly to involve America in the developing international crisis. It seems one of a series of instances that Chamberlain had more trust in his judgement than was justofied. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was unavailable and Chamberlain appears to have used this circumstance to reply without consulting him. Eden was furious when he found out what happened. After Hitler fired up his plan to seize Austria, Chamberlain reconsidered. President with his hand on the pulse of public opinion, realized that this would make American participation in such a conference much more controversial and replied that the time for such a conference had past.

New British Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy (December 1937)

Joseph P. Kennedy made a fortune on Wall Street in somewhat dubious security trading. He was active in the Massachsetts Democratic Party and helpful in the President's 1932 election. He helped draft new laws outlawing such trading and was appointed the first chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission, commonly described as the fox in charge of the hen house approach. Subsequently he was appointed to head the Maritime Commission. Kennedy thought that neither of these appointments was adequate payment. He wanted a cabinent appointment. But when he learned that a new ambassador to Britain was needed, he began lobbying for the post--using his frienship with the President's son James. Roosevelt at first thought that sending an Irish Catholic to the British was laughfulable. And he didn't appreciate Kenndy using James. After considering the idea he seems to have felt that he did owe Kenndy more. And he was apparently snubbed by Primeminister Chamberlain turning down an invitation go visit Washington (June 1937). Roosevelt apparently thought this was a way of snubbing Chamberlain. He also had Kennedy by ordering him to lower his trousers in the oval office and declaring him to be the most bow-legged person he had ever seen. And as a result he would rediculous in knee breeches. (The new ambassador to the Court of St James wore knee breeches when presenting his credentials.) Kennedy has to get written permission from the British Government to wear stripped pants and a cut-away jacket. [Davis, p. 153.] It was to be one of the appointments that Rossevelt would come to most regret. Ironically, Kennedy develop a close relationship with Chamberlain, in part because he agreed so strongly with the Primeminister's apeasement policy. This proved a problem as the President struggled with the isolationists.

Cordell Hull

The American people throghout the 1930s were strongly isolationist. The NAZI Anschsluss, absorption of Austria, in 1938 brought a strong rebuke and prophetic warning from Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull in a June 3 speech warned that isolationism was a "bitter illussion". He stated, "It is my firm conviction that national isolationism is not a means of security, but rather a fruitful source of insecurity. For, while we may seek to withdraw from participation in world affairs, we cannot thereby withdraw from the world itself. Attemps to achieve national isolation would not meerly deprice us of any influence in the councils of nations, but would impair our ability to control our own affairs."

Expanding Aircraft Production (September 1938)

Not only did President Roosevelt have to take on the isolationists, but he had to begin to rearm America. Here he faced resistance, but less ressistance than with efforts to resist Hitler. Even many isolationists favored strenthening America's defenses. One area that the President was especially concerned with was air power. Ameican air power was to prove decisive in World War II. But as War approached in Europe, the United States did not have a substantial air force. The President's commitment laid in 1938 would prepare the foundation for the Air Forces that would smash the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. The President called a meeting in which he stressed a need to build a powerful air force (September 28, 1938). The world's attention in September 1938 as Chamberlain and Daladier traveled hat in hand to Munich was on the Luftwaffee. It is notable that in that same month that President Roosevelt laid the foundation for American air power. He wanted American aircrafts plants expanded so that thy could produce 20,000 planes a year. The next day he told Hap Arnold that he would be the new chief of the Army Air Corps. Arnold would oversee the development of the world's most powerful air force. He played a major role in World War II, especially the in the campaign over Northern Europe. Initially he was concerned over the President's desire to use much of the initial output to supply the Allies rather than equip American units. This reflected the major difference of opinion with the isolationists. [Freidel, pp. 308-309.] The European air campaign despite the early prominance of the Luftwaffe would be dominated by the U.S. Army Air Corps. This was possible because of the steps toward rearmament sponsored by the Roosevelt Administration as well as orders from the Allies following Munich. This was to be the beginning of a massive expansion of the American aircraft industry which would eventually devestate Germany. The initial orders were modest, in part because of the still limited capacity of American aircraft companies.

Secret Roosevelt Proposal (September 1938)

At the height of the Czech crisis, Preident Roosevelt met secretly with British Ambassador, Sir Ronald Lindsay (September 20). He made an astonishing offer to Lindsay, an offer which surely would have cost his reelectionif it had ever been leaked. The President stressed that he details had to be kept secret. He offered the British what amounted to a secret alliance against the Germans. He suugested another international conference. He said it could not be held in Europe, but suggested the Azores. He proposed in event the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, that it should be blockaded--putting into action his Quarantine speech. He offered the possibility of Americam participation as long as The British did not declare war. He also offered arms shipments. He also kept open the possibility of American participation in any future war. Foreign Secretary Haifax, presumably after consulting with Prime Minister Chamberlain did not respond to the President's suggestion, except to inform him that the British Government was doing eveerything it could to satify German greviences. Agin if word had ever leaked, it would have made the President's reelection impossible.

Munich (October 1938)

Until Munich, President Roosevelt did not overtly take on the isolationists. The strength of isolationist opinion did not permit it. Beginning with Munivch, the President began a long campaig to guide public opinion so that he could opose Hitler and aid the Allies. The danger was great, but public opinion required that he move cautiously and in some cases covertly. Hitler first used his Luftwaffe to aid Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The Luftwaffe and the huge advantage it held over Britain and France was the reason that Hitler could cow the Allies. After Munich, American leaders pledged that they would never allow another Munich to occur. Ambassador Bullitt distilled the lesson of Munich to President Roosevelt, "If you have enought airplanes you don't have to go to Berchtgaden." [Freidel Rendezuous, p. 303.] President Roosevelt was determined that America would never be in that position. Hitler had made his point at Munich, but in the end it would be German cities that would lie in ruins. Ironically while Muich made the case for bombers in Britain and America, NAZI Germany necer built a fleet of strategic bombers.

Congressional By-Election (November 1938)

After some progress in reducing unemployment what became known as the Roosevelt recession occurred (1938). This probably resulted from efforts to reduce government stimulation of the economy. What ever the cause, the public's assessment was harsh. For the fitst time since President Roosevelt's election (1932), conservatives scoored a major political victory. Both Republicans and conservative Democrats won important victories. This dramatically changed the composution of Congress. It also meant that President Roosevelt could no longer command automstic majorities for important legislation. It also strengthened the influence of the isolationists. Not all isolationists were Republicans, but it is true tht the locus of political power for the isolationosts was the Congressional Republicans. Thus just as Hitler began to move toward war in Europe, the influence of the isolarionists in the United States was strengthened. But ironically, the conservative Democrats who held their seats were very strong supporters of national defense which the liberals often were less concerned with.

Kristallnacht (November 1938)

Americans watched in horror the NAZI pogrom on Jews--Kristallnacht. It was widely recorded in the newsreels. The NAZIs made no attempt to hide the violence and burning of syngogues. The brutalities in the concentration camps went on beyond public view. The democracies including the United states did nothing. The view of the NAZIs, however, helped solidify among many Americans the view that many had begun to form. It did not change the desire to stay out of any European war, it did confirm among a growing number of Americans that the NAZIs represented a new and increasinly virulent form of evil in the modern world. Anti-Semitism was still wode spread in America. But even among a public with little sympathy toward Jews, it was clear that this was an act of unmitigated evil.

NAZI Spy Ring Trial (November-December 1938)

Most Americans in the 1930s were primarily concerned with the Depression. When Hitler and the NAZIs began to appear in the movie newsreels, it was disturbing but the Dpression and their jobs were what most people were concerned about. This was still the case in 1938 and determined the outcome of the 1938 Congressional by-election. But events in 1938 moved to change this focus. First was the Abchluss in Austria. This was raspidly followed by the Munich Crisis and Kristallnacht. This all could be pigeon-holed as a European problem as the isolationists insisted--a European problem which American should stay about of this time. At the end of tghe year a sensationsl trial occurred in New York of 18 NAZI spies (November-December 1938). The implications were obvious, the NAZIs could not be resticted to Europe. Eventually they woulkd come after Amnerica. Public opinion was still asrdently against American involvement in another war, but after 1938, public opinion wouls steadily shift if glacially toward increasing opposition to the NAZIs and strenthening national defense..

Grilled Millionare (December 1938)

President Roosevelt took the offensive against the isolantionists. From the beginning of his predidency he has spoken out against the dictators. During his first term (1933-37) the opposition to the president had been mostly based on economics and the role of government. During his second term (1937-41) as war clouds gatheed in Europe, the opposition began to center more around charges of dictatorship and the concerns of the isolationists. Here the President used his considerable charm as well as carefully choosing and couching the issues. A good example of his charm was a speech delivered at the University of North Carolina (December 5, 1938) upon receiving an horary degree. The President said, "You have heard for 6 years that I was about to plunge the nation into war; that I was driving the nation into bankruptsy; and that I breakfasted every morning on a dish of grilled millionaire. Actually I am an exceedingly mild-mannered person--a practtitioner of peace both domestic and foreign, a believer in the capatalistic system, and for by breakfast, a devotee of scrambled eggs." No one knew how to put his audiences at ease and demolish his political opponents like Franklin Roosevelt. There was no Republican that had this type of appeal. And there was no isolationist that knew how to speak like this. There was widespread support for isolationism in America, but a combination of Franklin's Rooselvelt's political mastery, the shrillness of the Isolationist opposition, and the brutality of the dictators would in the end dramatically shift Anerican public opinion. The irony in the President's speed was that there was a real conflict in the White House over breakfast. A determined German lady had been hired by Elenor who apparently was a terrible cook. At least she refused to cook what the President wanted. Elenor could, however, not bring herself to firing the woman.

Need to Revise the Neutrality Acts

Hitler's ability to use the modern Luftwaffe to coerce the Allies caused both Britain and France to begin to rearm and looked to America. Arms purchases in America were possible. In favct President Roosevelt hoped to dter Hitler by the threat of American industry supplyong thde Allies, especially with auircraft. The Neutrality Acts would, however, require the Administration to terminate sales to all belingerants if war was declared. The President saw the need to revise the Neutality Acts. In the interim he discussed with British and French officials how the Neutrality Acts could be evaded. One way was to ship parts to Canada where they could be assembled at plants near U.S. factories and then shipped on to the Allies. The President and French representative Jean Monnet, the future mastermind of the Common Market, in secret talks on October 19, 1938 at Hyde Park discussed just such an opeation which could produce 5,000 planes annually. [Freidel, p. 309.] Public opinion polls, after the NAZIs violated the commitments made at Munich seized the rest of Czechelovakia, show a major change in American publication concerning the need to revise the Neutrality Acts. [Freidel, p. 315.]


The NAZI persecution of the German Jewish community and political opponents brought a wave of prominent individuals who made major contributions to America. Many described in gtaphic detail what was going on in Germany. There was long list of prominent individuals both from Germany and later the occupied countries, including Marlina Detrich, Peter Drucker, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, ??? Salard, Edmund Teller, and many more. These many destinguised individuals made great contributions to American arts, medicine, music, science, and many other fields. America is much the richer for their invaluable contributions. Others were just children when they emmigrated before and after the War, but would make valuable contributions of their own: Madeline Albright, Peter Drucker, Andy Grove, Henry Kisinger, Tivi Nussbaum, George Sorros, and others. The publicity certainly affected how Americans thought about Hitler. It did not, however, affect the stringly isolationist views of most Americans, it may in fact only strengthened them--at least at first. Also America and other countries had severe limitations on immigration, especially Jewish immigration. The Depression caused many countries to limit immigration, to save avaialble jobs for unemployed Americans. Anti-semitism was also a factor.

American Public Opinion: Japan and Germany

American public opinion showed a remakable difference in its willing to confront Japan in th Pacofic and Germany in Europe. The public was willing for America to confront the Japanese much more strongly than the Germans. Thus the Roosevelt Administration after the the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 adopted much stronger policies against Japan than against the Germans. [Freidel, pp. 315-316.] This was despite the fact that the Administration saw a much greater danger from the Germans. We are unsure why the public was willing to accept a stronger approach to Japan. It may be that the public felt that there was greater danger in standing up tothe Germans and that the Japanese military was less of a threat. Racial attitudes may have been a factor. Whatever the reason, the public willingness to accept a stronger policy toward Japan was noted by the Administration which acted on it.

Public Letter to Hitler and Mussolini (April 1939)

President Roosevelt was apauled at developments in Europe and the steady stream of German and Itlalian annexations (Austria, Sudentenland, Czechoslovakia, Memel-Klaipeda (Lithuasnia), and Albania. The President in his press conferences and in an address on Pan-American day sent a public message to Hitler and KingVictor Emanuel (ntended of course for Mussolini) and ask for assurances that they would not invade 31 countries and colonies that he listed in the next 10 years. He offered a conference to deal with trade and disarmament issues. Both Hitler and Mussolini privately rediculed the President's message. Mussolini complained of "Messiah-like messages". In conversations with Göring they attribed the message to "an incipient mental disease". It was Hitler who made a public issue of the message. In a speech before the Reichstag he sarcastically read out the President's list. His performnce is a common set piece for world War II documentaries. Hitler also drew on the Nye Committee findings for his address. [Freidel, p. 314.] The Reichstag led by Göring responded in laughter to the President's message and in thunderous approval for their Führer. Hitler at the time did not consider isolationist an immediate America a real threat. Historians difer as to how they assess Roosevelt's diplomacy. [Black, p. 521.]

Arms for the Allies (January 1939)

The President did not publicize his plans to asist the Allies by allowing them to buy military equipment, especially aircraft, in the United States. The public first became aware of this in January 1939. Army Air Corp Chief General Hap Arnold had ordred the Douglass aircraft company to allow French arms purchasers to inspect the new Douflas bombers. One of the bomber crashed on January 23, 1939 and the press learned that a Frenchman was aboard. The isolationists were outraged and a Congressional delegation that met with the president charged that he was setting America's frontier on the Rhine causing another furor in Congress and the press. [Freidel, pp. 311-313.]

Attempt to Revise the Neutrality Act (May-July 1939)

The President was convinced that the 1935 Neutrality Act would give aid a comfort to the enemy. He was not convinced, however, that it was possible to amend, at least in 1939. Congressman Sol Bloom, the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committe, introduce a bill to revise the Neutrality Act (May 29). It was esentially a repeal, exceot for cash and carry and war zone provisions. The House Leadership (Speaker Bankhead and Majority Leader Rayburn thought it wouuld be difficult. Congressman Bloom did get it out of committee (June 6). House passage proved more difficult. The bill did pass, but was amended on the House floor so as to drastically weaken it. But even this weakened measure could not even get it out of the Senate Foreifn Affairs Committee. Isolaionist sentiment was stronger in the Senate led by Republican senators Nye, Borah, and Hiram Johnson . FDR had a meeting with Senators (July 18), but with solid Republican opposition, the votes were just not there. Why were the Reoublicans so determined on this? Here the strength of isolationist sentiment mixed with anti-Roosevelt sentiment were the principal reasons the Republicans were so determined. The Democrats at the time controlled both Houses, but a few Democrats added to a united Republican opposition could stop most bills. Former Republican President Herbert Hoover at the time was speaking across the country, claiming that Germany was not a threat to America, he continued to insist on this psdently absurd position ever after the NAZIs actually launched the War. In actuality, many Republicans saw the President as a greater threat to America than Hitler.

British Bases (June 1939)

President Roosevelt, anticipating the bases for destroyer deal by a year, called Ambassador Lindsay and proposed declaring the Western Atlantic out 500 miles a neutrality zone. This was a typical Roosevelt proposal. The terminology was neutrlity zone which would set well with the american public, the actual step was a beligerant one toward Germany. Roosevelt wanted to lease British bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda. Lindsay recommended that the British Government accept the proposal. The Foreign Office incredibly was not interested and provided Limdsay a legalistic reponse. This kind of short-sided reaction was part of the reason that Stalin decided against dealing with Britain and instead chose to deal with Hitler. The result of course was the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact. The British would pay dearly for the weakness and miscalculations of the Chamberlain Government. Ambasador Lindsay brought the British Government's response to the President (July 8). The President was reportedly irritated.

European Royalty (June 1939)

The Roosevelt Administration attempted to support the countries facing the NAZIs within the narrow limits created by the Neutrality Acts. One step taken by the Administration was to encourage visits by European royalty. The most important was a vist by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. An occassion for the visit was provided by the 1939 New York World Fair. The visit created a public relations sensation and was closely followed by the press. A factor of course was the sensation abdication of King George's brother Edward VIII and marriage to an American divorcee. The British were concerned that the popularity of the former King would unfavorably affect attitudes toward Britain. The attractive young royal couple enchanted many Americans. Extensive newsreel coverage showed President Roosevelt and King George together. The visits included informal events at Hyde Park to show the depth of the relationship. President Roosevelt drove the royals to the Hyde Park train station. The president from the car waved, and in a loud voice for all to hear "Good luck to you! All the luck in the World." It was clear where the President stood as Europe moved inexorably toward war. The British royals were not the only ones invited. The Administration also invited Scandinavian royals. The Norwegian royals visited in April 1939. Even King Boris of Bulgaria was invited. The visits were ceremonial, but Roosevelt and the European royals hoped that they would generate sympathies for the countries involved. [Freidel, pp. 316-317.]

Naval Missions (August 1939)

The United States dispatched Navy officials to begin leasing facilities for naval missions from Pan Am and private owners in Trinidad, St. Lucia, and Bermuda.

Hitler Escalates Propaganda Campaign Against Poland

After taking the remainder of Czechoslovakia (March 1939) in contrevention of the pledges made at Munich, Hitler next turned to Poland. Hitler began escalating the propaganda campaign against Poland fousing on the German minority. He made demands on Poland, plebecites in German areas, roads accross the corridor, and much of Silesia. He thought he had been deprived pf his War at Munich. Now after facing the Allies down at Munich he did not think they would fight for Poland. It is unlikeky that he would have desisted even had he known that they would fight. Rossevelt wondered also, apparently more concerned about another capitulation than war. [Black p. 527]

Hitler and Roosevelt

Hitler reportedly by 1939 was given to fits of range whenever Roosevelt's name was mentioned. Göring mused about long range bombers that could reach New York. Goebels ordered the press to began a campign targeting Roosevelt, calling him among other things a Jewish Mason. Ambassador Dieckhoff warned Berlin than if a new war broke out, the United States would not take 2 1/2 years to get involved. [Herzstein, p. 527] He was referring to the hostility of the President. Actully it did take 2 1/2 yrs. American commitments to the Allies by late 1941 were approaching war. Hitler despite repreated provocations from Roosevelt, carefully avoiding conflict in hope of keeping the United States out of the War. Finally it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that was to bring war. This time it was to be Germany that declared war. Hitler, however, discounted these asessments and did not think that the "Jewish Democrats" would have the courage to wage war. [Herzstein, 295] Hitler was right that American Jews did vote Democratic, but of course had no real concept of the limited influence. When making statements like this, it is difficult to know how much of this he really believed. The Jews were a usesful target politically, but Hitler's hated was so pathological that it seems that he often did see resistance to him as Jewish in origin. There is no doubt that Hitler even at this early stage saw war with America as inevitable. His hope was that he could conquer Europe before America intervened. He was aware if not fully aware of the potential strength of the United States and thus attributing America's leadership as Jewish was probably assuring in his mind. He wanted war and did not want to be disuaded from it by talk of potential american intervention.

Germany Launches World War II (September 1939)

The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began on September 1, 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Britain and France declared war September 3. Within 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.] Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east.


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Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (Random House: New York, 1993), 691p.

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Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.

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Harrison, Richard A. "The United States and Great Britain: Presidential Diplomacy and Alternatives to Appeasement in the 1930s," in David F. Schmitz and Richard D. Challener. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Greenwood Press, 1990), 200p.

Hornberger, Jacob G. "Repatriation: The Dark Side of World War II, Part 1" Freedom Daily (February 1995).

Little, Douglas. "Antibolshevism and Appeasement: Great Britain, the United States, and the Spanish Civil War," in David F. Schmitz and Richard D. Challener. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Greenwood Press, 1990), 200p.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Rising Sun in the Pacific" History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Vol. 3.

Schmitz, David F. "Introduction" in David F. Schmitz and Richard D. Challener. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Greenwood Press, 1990), 200p.

Schmitz, David F. "Speaking the Same Language: The U.S. Response to the Italo-Ethiopian War and the Origins of American Appeasement," in David F. Schmitz and Richard D. Challener. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Greenwood Press, 1990), 200p.

Tugwell, Rexford. The Democratic Roosevelt (New York, 1957).


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Created: January 1, 2003
Last updated: 11:01 PM 11/12/2014