** World War II campaigns -- isolationist sentiment in America

World War II: Isolationist Sentiment in America

Figure 1.-- Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into World War I had been a mistake. Even before the end of the War, this attitude began to to appear. Critics popularized the charge that America was dragged into the War by British propaganda, greedy bankers, and international arms merchants. This attitude was very widespread by the 1930s. Millions were determined that America should not repeat the mistake they firmy believed had been made.

Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. After the rise of the NAZIs in the 1930s and Germany's rearmament, it became increasingly clear that Europe was moving toward another war. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were determined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues. The anti-war sentiment in America and the memories of the men lost convinced many Americans that America must not get involved in any future European war. These sentiments combined with long-standing American isolationism resulted in the passage of a series of Neutrality Acts. These Acts prohibited for United States companies to trade with belligerents. As a result, while the Fascist powers aided Franco's Falange in Spain, the Spanish Republic could not even buy arms in America. The show of German arms in Spain, especially Luftwaffe bombings of Spanish cities terrified many. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. This fueled the desire of many Americans to remain neutral. Isolationist leaders opposed any involvement in a European war and clashed with President Roosevelt who increasingly saw the need to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. Some like Charles Lindbergh, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Many not only opposed American involvement, but even military preparedness and military expenditures were strongly opposed in the Congress.


Isolationism had deep roots in America. Involvement in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars was an issue in the early years of the Republic. And America fought a Quasi Naval War with France and the War of 1812 with America. But after hat, America avoided the many wars and alliance system of Europe. And America avoided the huge military expenditures and conscription (except the Civil War) which was a factor in the enormous industrial expansion that followed. America entry in to World War I was an aberration in American foreign policy and during the 1920s, most Americans began to see it as a mistake which helped to fuel isolationist sentiment. But there were many other factors that contributed to isolationist thought.

World War I

The United States had a very small army, backed by poorly trained and armed state militias. This was one attraction for European emigrants, escaping conscription and military service as the European arms race began to gather force. There was also a strong pacifist element among many of the new immigrants. The Civil War had taught many Americans about the evils of war. The power calculation had significantly changed by the turn-of the-20th century. The United States still had a tiny professional army, but America since the Civil War had undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. The country had developed from a largely rural, agricultural country to world's largest and most advanced industrial power. The country had built a modern navy, but had not entered the European arms race and had virtually no army. The United States was the world's only industrial power without a large, well armed military. Several small European countries had larger armies better armed armies than the United States. The British recognized the potential importance of the United States. The German's, however, attached much less importance to the potential of American power and were more swayed by America's lack of a large, well equipped army. Some Germans were even more dismissive, thinking that America was not a real nation because it lacked a core racial identity. America had changed economically. Industrialization brought with a range of social changes. What had not changed was a virtually religious commitment to isolationism and a desire to stay out of European wars. There was no realization in America that the era of inconsequentially, but bloody dynastic wars was over. And the possible domination of Europe by Germany had very real security consequences for the United States. Competent diplomacy on the part of Germany could have played on the strength of American isolationist feeling to keep America out of the War. In stead Germany engaged in both reckless military actions and diplomacy that would for the first time overcome American isolationist sentiment.

View of World War I

Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. Even before the end of the War, this attitude began to to appear. Critics popularized the charge that America was dragged into the War by British propaganda, greedy bankers, and international arms merchants. The term 'merchants of death' became popular. The position of America in a Europe dominated by Imperial Germany was simply ignored in the debate during the 1920s. After the rise of the NAZIs in the 1930s and Germany's rearmament, it became increasingly clear that Europe was moving toward another war. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were determined that America should avoid war at any cost. The anti-war sentiment in America and the memories of the men lost convinced many Americans that America must not get involved in any future European war. And with the rise if the NAZIs, fear of fighting the powerful German military became an important factor.

Other sources

The Progressive movement was a massive moral undertaking which addressed a range of social issues (women and child labor, monopolies, consumer protection, public health, and others). Women were enfranchised and the country launched upon the experiment of prohibition. A revulsion toward of war became a part of the widespread moral movement. Many Americans were determined that their country should never again be dragged into a European war. This was part of the reason that the Senate rejected participation in the League of Nations. They saw collective security and just another form of entangling alliances. Part of the swelling isolationist movement was sharply reducing immigration by establishing quotas. And there was still an under current of Anglophobia. Britain was seem as particularly responsible for brining America into the War. Anglophobia was strongest in the Irish community, but present within the country's even larger German community. Participation in the League had been killed by Senate Republicans. Here there was a strong Midwest base where German-Americans were very important. Isolationism was not, however, just a conservative movement. There was considerable support from progressives and liberals as well as socialists. Here the moving force was the moral abhorrence of war. Liberals were also influenced by Socialists who preached the Marxist view that war was inherent in the final phase of capitalism. While the Socialist and new Communist Party was small, it had an influence on more moderate liberals. The academic community was influenced by British economist John Maynard Keynes who argued that the hard peace forced upon Germany had adverse economic consequences. And revisionist historians began to question the idea that Germany was uniquely responsible for the War. Influential historian, Charles Beard, and others argued that America could avoid any future war by building strong defenses behind two broad oceans. Influential Americans like Charles Lindberg agreed. A factor with Lindberg and many other Americans, such as Joseph P. Kennedy, was the strength of a rearmed Germany under Hitler and the NAZIs. Anti-Semitism was another factor, notably expressed by industrialist Henry Ford.

The Depression (1929-39)

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic slump ever to affect the United States. It was not just a national economic crisis, but one which spread to virtually every country. The greatest calamity to befall Americans in the 20th century was the Great Depression--a worse calamity than even two world wars. The Depression began with the Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929. Soon business were going under and Americans were losing their jobs. All Americans were affected. Eventually about one-third of all wage earners were unemployed and many who kept their jobs saw their earnings fall. President Hoover who had engineered a humanitarian miracle in Europe during World War was unable to break away from the mindset that the Government should not intervene in the economy. This anti-war and isolationist feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues.

Presidential Election (1932)

Several candidates vied for the Democratic Part nomination in 1932. Former New York Governor Al Smith who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928 hoped to win it again in 1932. Influential publisher William Randolph Hearst nominated House Speaker John Nance Gardner who he said would put aside Wilsonian idealism and put "America first". Roosevelt had been a fervent supporter of President Wilson and the League. Understanding the futility of supporting lost causes, Roosevelt said that he no longer supported League membership, saying that the League had changed and was too involved in European affairs. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 68.] The importance of the issue clearly shows the strength of isolationist sentiment in America at time. The term "America first" was to be resurrected in 1940 by those determined to block the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. The League, however, was aide issue. Most Americans were fixed on the economy. And the situation by 1932 was such that who ever the Democrats nominated would almost certainly win the election.

Johnson Act (1934)

The first major law enacted to ensure American neutrality was the Johnson Act. The United States prohibited any future lending to countries which defaulted on their World War I loans. The basic rationale was to deny financing to countries which might go to war, thus preventing them from doing so. The primary result of the law was that countries making token payments stopped.

Nye Committee (1934-36)

The Nye Committee was an important factor in strengthening isolationist thought in America. The U.S. Senate in the 1930s established the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee, a special committee established to study America�s role as an arms exporter. The Committee chairman was North Dakota Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye and the committee became known as the Nye Committee. Many Americans had come to believe that the corporate quest for corporate profits acts to promote war. The Nye Committee conducted a well publicized study during 1934-36. The Nye Committee also studied the possible regulation of the arms trade. Senator Nye was an outspoken isolationist. His solution was to nationalize the arms industry. This was too radical, but his Committee's findings impaired the reputation of many American companies. One practical outcome was the creation of the Munitions Control Board. More importantly, the Nye Committee confirmed the opinion of many that arms exports had involved America in World War I. The created support for the Neutrality Act that would prohibit American companies from selling arms to belligerent countries.

American Liberty League (1934)

Opponents of President Roosevelt's New Deal organized the Liberty League on August 22, 1934. Many conservatives in America, including conservative Democrats, were appaulled by the expansion of the Federal Government's role in the economy as part of the New Deal fight against the Depression. President Roosevelt was accused of trying to create a dictatorship and threatening individual liberty. President Roosevelt was compared to Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. The League explained that it would work to "defend and uphold the Constitution" and to "foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property." Some industrialists opposed to New Deal economic policies, especially du Pont family members, financed the League. Conservative Democrats like John W. Davis supported the League. The League was hampered, however, by the absence of a compelling spokesman to take on the President. The most prominent Democrat to join the Liberty League was Al Jones, the former New York governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate. [Graham and Wander] Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith who Roosevelt had campaigned for joined the League. Smith never forgave Roosevelt for superseding him as the titular head of the Democratic Party. As a one-time leader of the progressive-wing of the Party, he could have severely damaged the New Deal. Smith's keynote speech at a League fund-raising dinner held January 25, 1936, was so extreme and embittered not only destroyed his legacy in the Party, but actually harmed the the League. A Roosevelt spokes quipped that Smith had turned his trade-mark Brown derby for a top hat. [Time Magazine] Jouett Shouse was President of the American Liberty League from 1934 to 1938 and authored many pamphlets. Former President Herbert Hoover, embittered at his stunning defeat in the 1932 election, never joined the League as it was seen as a Democratic club, but his denouncements of the New Deal were along the same lines. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 140.] Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge tried to rally popular support against the New Deal, especially in the South which at the time was a key part of the Democratic coalition. The League also tried to organize a Farmers' Independence Council and the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution. None of these efforts had any notable success. President Roosevelt in 1934 strengthen his Congressional majorities and in 1936 achieved one of the most overwhelming electoral victories in American history. FDR's great personal popularity and the electoral success of the New Deal during gradually diminished the influence of the League. The League did, however, play a major role funding the Republican presidential candidacy of Alf Landon in 1940. The League officially dissolved in 1940. Increasingly debates over foreign affairs were dominating American elections and here the anti-Roosevelt voices were concentrated in the America First Committee.


The modern American pacifut movement was born out of World War I. American peace groups attempted to promote a negotiared end to World War I, but the Europeans were uninterested. The German were especially dismissive of the American efforts, in part because many officials did not look the United States with its mixed ethnic and racial population as a real nation. The British were more willing to at last humor the Americans as they understood the imprtnce of the United States. With the end of the War, peace groups were optimistic, believing that war could be oulawed. American pacifists helped draft the constitution (Covenant) of the new League of Nations. Many peace groups were shocked that the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Paece Treaty which included the provision for the League. In fact the American pacifist movement was split on the League. The pacifist movement developed into a pro-League or conservative faction and an anti-League or radical faction. Conservative peace groups included the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the World Peace Foundation, the League of Nations Association, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. These were groups that emerged out of the Northeastern estabishment and were well funded. The Carnegie Endowment was founded with a bequest of $10 million in United States Steel Corporation bonds (1910). U.S. Steel was one of the major American corporation and had benefitted from war contracts which in the eyes of more radical pacifists brought their credibility in question. The World Peace Foundation was founded with a $1 million endowment (1910). The Woodrow Wilson Foundation ammaseed conrtributions of almost $1 million for its foundtion (1924) . The radical peace organizations were less fixated on the League, some even opposed Amerucan menbership. And they were much less apt to work in quiet ways for peace. They were less well funded, but had more grassroot suport. Many emerged out of the Midwest where isolationist views were also strong. They were newer groups, organized after the War. There were something like 40 national groups. Local groups wre much more numerous. Some had small, less stable memberships. Some did not last long as finabces were shaky. There were changes of names. Objective varied, but all were commited to a peaceful world. The groups included: the American Committee for the Cause and Cure of War, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the National Council for the Prevention of War, the Committee on Militarism in Education, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood, the Peace Heroes Memorial Society, the War Resisters' League, the Women's Peace Society, the World Peace Association. Women played a major role in most of these groups anf this of coure was the same time that that women got the vote with the rtification of the 19th anendment and emerged as a major force in American politics (1919). Women were especially important in the more radical peace groups. American attitudes during the inter-War era were in part pacifism, but and even stroinger sentiment was a desire to disassociate from Europe which was seen as the source of endless political strife. Pacifism was an elemement in isolationist sentiment in America. Isolationism and pacifim were different movements, but there was substantial over lap. The Congress launched a major investigation designed to prove that American arms manufacturers had help involve the United States in the War. It is ironic that the industry that would save Western civilization was during the inter-war years being being investigated for disloyalty by Congress. The Committee became known as the Dyes Committee led by Congressman Martin Dyes. After a huge investigation, no evidence was found to justify the charges. Public opinion in America remained staunchly against involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor. During the War, some 43,000 Americans refused to fight for reasons of conscience, Some were recognized as conscintious objectors. Others were not. About 12,000 men served in Civilian Public Service, 6,000 were sentenced to prison terms, and 25,000 served in the military as noncombatants, often in dangerous roles like corpsmen.



Neutrality Act (August 1935)

The Congress passed the Neutrality Act and President Roosevelt 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 Mussolini 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 percent of Americans were in favor of maintaining a mandatory arms embargo. A Douglas DB-7 bomber crashed in California on 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 Congressional 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.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

As a result, while the Fascist powers aided Franco's Falange in Spain, the Spanish Republic could not even buy arms in America. The show of German arms in Spain, especially Luftwaffe bombings of Spanish cities terrified many. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. This fueled the desire of many Americans to remain neutral. Isolationist leaders opposed any involvement in a European war and clashed with President Roosevelt who increasingly saw the need to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists.

Neutrality Act Strengthened (1937)

Congress as a result of the fighting in Spain, made major changes to the Neutrality Acts. This was not an Administration initiative, but the President did not oppose the changes. The restrictions on munitions and loans were kept in place. A policy of :cash and carry" was established for raw materials listed by the president. Travel on belligerant ships was made unlawful rather than just conducted at the individual's own risk. There was criticism. Some argued that some distinction should be made for aggressor nations and that the president should have more discretion. But they were a minority. Most Americans supported efforts to ensure that the country would never be dragged into another European war.

The Isolationists

The isolationists were a large, vocal, and powerful challenge to President Roosevelt's efforts to fight the dictators. The isolationists were men and women from every walk of American life. The core of the movement was the Republican senators, many of which were from the progressive movement. There were also Democrats, but the most prominent isolationists were Senate Republicans, men like William E. Borah (Idaho), Robert Marion La Follette (Wisconsin), Hiram Johnson (California), Arthur Vandenburg (Michigan), and Burton K Wheeler (Montana). The most vocal Senate Republican was Gerald Nye (North Dakota) who was the most fervent Senate spokesman for the American First Committee (AFC). The isolationist movement and the AFC obtained celebrity converts, especially famed aviator Charles Lindbergh who claimed to have technical competence in evaluating air forces. Notably absent, however, was Hollywood support. The isolations included both vicious anti-Semites like Father Couglin and racists like Senator Theodore Bilbo (Mississippi) as well as the more genteel anti-Semitism of Lindbergh and Nye. There were also men fundamentally opposed to anti-Semitism and racism like Norman Thomas. Some ethnic groups like the German-American Bund were isolationists. Until the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Communists were also involved. There were both important industrialist like Henry Ford and Robert Wood as well as critics of big business like Nye and Socialists like Thomas. It is difficult to imagine a more diverse group. They had varying motivations. Groups like the German-American Bund and Communists were politically motivated. Others had a visceral hated of President Roosevelt. For the vast majority the primary motivation was an opposition to war. Here there was both a moral statement as well as a fear of war, especially a fear of NAZI Germany. What most did not understand and President Roosevelt did that Hitler and the NAZIs along with the Japanese militarists represented a fundamental challenge to Western civilization. The isolations could delay American entry into the war, but the delay would mean America would face an increasingly powerful Germany and the prospect of fighting a two-front war with Germany and Japan without allies.

The Intervenionists

While there is a long lists of isolationists, the list of Intervenionists is much shorter. This is because it was political suiside to suggest that the United States should participate in another European War. President Roosevelt was Intervenionist number one, but he did not dare so. So huis approach was pomote preparedness and suppott for Britain and France. His appeal was that the United States should be the Arsenal of Femocracy--not the hield or sword. And he assured the American public that he was not going to send merucan boys to fight in foreign wars, 'unless we are attacked'. Other interveniinists attacked Hitler and NAZI brutality, but fell short of advocating Americam military action. Even after the War began, the intervenionist mostly advocated aid to Britain and France, not military involvemnt. This basically continued until Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt eentually tool the vinprecedented and illegalmstep of launching an undeclared naval war in the Atlantatic. Despite the strident Isolationist movement, the press did not pck up on this.

U.S.S. Panay (December 1937)

American involvement in China did not begin with the Japanese invasion and the Roosevelt Administration. American naval vessels began cruises on the Yangtze River in 1854. The mission of these early cruises was to show the flag and support American consular officers. The naval mission grew ever more complex as the authority of the Imperial Government deteriorated in the late 19th century and became an important instrument of American foreign policy. Operations included putting landing parties ashore on occasions to protect U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy after the turn of the 20th century began to conduct the patrols in a more organized fashion. The Navy deployed purpose-built gunboats and began coordinating operations with the British Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy was also deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the Chinese coast. Japanese forces were moving up the Yangtze River toward the Chinese capital which had been evacuated from Peeking to Nanking. Two U.S. Navy gunboats were at Nanking, the U.S.S. Luzon and the U.S.S. Panay. Chinese officials notified the American Embassy on November 27, 1937 that it must evacuate. The Ambassador and most of the Embassy personnel departed the net day on the U.S.S. Luzon. The rest of the Embassy staff remained another week. Ambassador Grew notified the Japanese government on December 1 that the U.S.S. Panay would be departing. Panay took on Embassy officials and some civilians and began upriver. It escorted three Standard Oil barges. Two Royal Navy gunboats and some other British boats followed. A Japanese artillery position commanded by a Colonel Hashimoto fired on the ships, hoping that it might precipitate a war with America and end civilian influence in the Japanese Government--finalizing the "Showa Restoration." Panay flew an American flag as well as had American flags painted on the awnings and topsides. December 12 was a clear, sunny day with perfect visibility. At about 1330, three Japanese Navy bombers attacked Panay followed by 12 more planes that dive-bombed and 9 fighters that strafed. The attack was deliberate lasting over 20 minutes. As Panay began sinking, the Japanese strafed the lifeboats and river bank. Two sailors and civilian were killed. there were 11 sailors seriously wounded. passenger died of their wounds; eleven officers and men were seriously wounded. [Morrison, pp. 16-18] There was no outcry in America for war. The Japanese Government which had not ordered the attack, promptly apologized and offered compensation. The attack was, however, coordinated by military officers. Both the American public and the Roosevelt Administration were relieved that war could be averted. [Freidel, pp. 290-291.] The Japanese when they arrived in Nanking proceeded to conduct one of the greatest atrocities in their campaign in China--known to history as the Rape of Nanking". The Panay was also involved in intelligence collection. The Administration for a while considered economic sanctions against the Japanese. The Navy gunboats missions continued through 1941 until the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor. The Japanese carefully avoided any further incidents. The Japanese officers responsible, however, got what they so ardently desired nearly 4 years later.

Munich Conference (October 1938)

The isolations in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, distrusted President Roosevelt. Until Munich, however, Roosevelt avoided confronting the isolationists. After Munich, President Roosevelt was determined to support the Allies (Britain and France) which brought him into conflict with the isolationists. Both groups supported increase defense spending. The President wanted to use some of the limited supply of arms to assist the Allies. The isolationists wanted to use the new arms to supply only the American military. This they thought would strengthen the American military and avoid coming into conflict with the Germans.


There were powerful isolationists in the United States Congress. After Munich, it was clear that war was coming in Europe. The isolationists in Congress were determined that America would not be involved this time. Some of the most important were Senators William Borah, Hirmam Johnson, and Gerald Nye. Borah assured the public that there would be no war. The Congressional isolationists were not opposed to increased defense spending. They were opposed to American assistance to the Allies (Britain and France) as this could eventually involve America in the upcoming war. Until Munich there were no major issues separating Roosevelt from the isolationists, although many were distrustful of him--including some Democrats. President Roosevelt recognizing the depth of public support for the isolation from Europe, did not confront the isolationists. After Munich this changed. It was clear to the President that isolationism was a deeply flawed policy. And liberals began to shift with the President. If the Allies lost in a war with Germany, America would be left to fight the Germans, strengthened with all the resources of a conquered Europe, alone without Allies. Thus the battle for American public opinion began. The President in seeing the danger posed by the NAZIs was far ahead of public opinion. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 305.]

Kristallnacht (November 1938)

Kristallnacht followed Munich by a month. Hitler having gained the military advantage over Britain And France as demonstrated at Munich had no compunction about dealing with the Jews who were now isolated and defenseless in Germany. Jews had been severely persecuted, even killed, in Germany before Kristallnacht , but for the first time they were being killed openly in homes and on the street. Synagogues were burned. Most adult males were arrested. The world was shocked. Combined with Munich the impact on American public opinion was significant. There was no interest in military involvement. There was interest in increased defense spending. It was also clear to many Americans that Hitler and the NAZIs were evil people that represented a danger to America and democratic government. This provided a basis for President Roosevelt to begin to challenge the the isolationists.

Ludlow Amendment

Isolationists sought to put as many limitations as possible on the possibility of America ever going to war again. Congressman Louis Ludlow from Indiana proposed a constitutional amendment requiring a national referendum to approve any Congressional declaration of war--unless the United States itself was attacked. FDR took the threat seriously and had his son James pass on to the press his thoughts as to why this would be harmful. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 289.] It was not just a vague threat. Ludlow submitted his proposal in 1935 during the Ethiopian crisis. It had been bottled up in committee by the Democratic leadership. Ludlow had not, however, given up. And by late 1937 had almost enough signatures to secure release. The Panay Incident (December 1937) brought the extra signatures needed. Passage would have been a virtual no-confidence vote in the President's conduct of foreign affairs. Davis, p. 156.]

Conservative-Liberal Split

Roosevelt Strategy

President Roosevelt in late 1938 began a cautious strategy of confronting the NAZIs within the limited scope permitted by the Isolationists in Congress and the considerable support that they enjoyed with the American public. The President pursued a three prong strategy. First, President Roosevelt began to promote what he call "Hemispheric Defense". While public opinion was resolutely opposed to any involvement in Europe. Defense of the Americas was a different matter for which there was considerable public support as well as Republican support. Second, America must begin to rearm. The United States had a sizable navy, but the army was minuscule. Here the threat was not yet obvious for huge increases, but increased defense spending could be achieved because even many isolationists supported it. The President after Munich was especially interested in air craft production. Third, the President began to promote changes in the Neutrality Acts. The Allies could order arms in America, but once war broke out this would no longer be possible. FDR saw that this had to be changed. Third, the President began to use American diplomacy to influence the NAZIs. The basic card Roosevelt had to play was the threat of American industrial support the Allies. This meant in effect that beginning with Munich the Hitler and the NAZIs were in a race to defeat the Allies (Britain and France) before the weight of American industrial might could be mobilized. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 306-307.] The Kaiser and German generals made the same gamble in 1914. Hitler came much closer to succeeding.

American Communist Party (August 1939)

The Soviet Union and NAZI Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939). The two countries secretly agreed to to dismember Europe. It meant war. This necessitated an about face for the Communist Parties around the world which were controlled by the Soviet Union. The American Communist Party followed directives from Moscow. Foreign Minister Molotov declared Germany was working for peace. Communist picket lines appeared outside the White House. Strikes occurred in defense plants. The Communist withdrew from Anti-Fascist groups. From advocating opposition to the NAZIs and support for defense spending*, the Communist Party with the Soviets allied with the NAZIs now opposed defense spending and military preparation. While the Communist Party itself had relatively little influence in the United States, Communist=front groups promoting peace and isolationism did generate some support. And the Party did have influence in some labor unions.

NAZI Interest

The Isolationist Movemnt in America was vital for the NAZIs. Hitler's strategy was to conquer Europe before America could injtervene as it did in World War I. Hitler sensed that America was a danger and he thus tolerated American actiions tat were decidedly uneutral such as aiding Britain and providing escorts for British convoys. After the War, G�ring discussed this with U.S. Army interogator, Major Kenneth W. Hechler.

Hechler: What comments were made by Hitler during 1939-41 on the strength of the antiwar campaign in the U.S.? G�ring: Hitler spoke a great deal on the subject. These people [isolationists], he thought, had great influence, but he got this [impression] from the U.S. press and some observers in the U.S., for example, labeling Roosevelt a warmonger. After the election of 1940, we realized that these isolationist forces were inadequate to hinder the United States� entry into the war.

Hechler: But [Wendell] Willkie was not an isolationist! G�ring: When we read Willkie�s speeches just before the election, it was also clear that even had Willkie been elected the course of events would have been the same. After the election, we attributed little importance to the isolationists in the United States. Hitler said that they were not strong enough. Roosevelt declared before the election that U.S. troops would not leave the country and were only to be used to repel a possible invasion. We realized that this was a sop to antiwar sentiment rather than any decisive change of attitude. When Sumner Welles visited Europe in 1940, we believed the United States still wanted to stay out of the war, and that on Welles� return there might be an attempt to preserve peace. We had previously found in Poland the diary of Count Potofsky, which indicated that Roosevelt was preparing for war. Welles� visit might have been, we thought, a possible sign that the U.S. was inclined to try to settle matters peaceably. [G�ring]

War in Europe (September 1939)

What the world had feared, another world war began on September 1, 1939 when the NAZI German invaded Poland. German Panzers poured into Poland. The Luftwaffe devastated the largely obsolete Polish Air Force. The Poles fought valiantly, but were outclassed by the modern German weapons and the new tactical doctrine of Blitzkrieg. Britain and France sent diplomatic warnings and declared war when the NAZIs failed to respond (September 3). The Allies, however, provided no aid to Poland. The Soviet Union, as provided for under secret protocols of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Plan, sealed Poland's fate when they attacked from the east. The war triggered provisions of the American Neutrality Act.

American Ethnic Origins

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 coalese 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 string left-wing views were from Eastern Europe.) The largest ethnic hroup in America was British, however, most had ancestors that emigrated in the 17th, 18th, and early-19th century and tgus had few ties with Britain. Thus while sympthetic 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 wre other complications with Americans of British origins. First, they dominated the American inteligencia and business community and these groups were strongly pro-interventionist, especially with the advent of the Blitz on London. Secondly, the Scotts-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. Suich attitudes should not be confused with favorable attutudes toward the 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 vioting block in the Mid-West. They came earlier than most other ethnic groups, but by World War II were throughly Americanized. Most looked upon Hitler with disfavor, but were very stronly opposed to entering the War. The formed an important share of support for the isolationists.

Neutrality Act Revisions (November 1939)

President Roosevelt when war broke out in Europe (September 1939) requested that Congress ease the arms embargo requited by the Neutrality Act so that war material could be sold to the democracies (Britain and France) opposing Hitler. After much debate and arm twisting by Roosevelt, the embargo provision was repealed by a new Neutrality Act. Substantial majorities in both the House and Senate supported the new Neutrality Act--including influential Republicans. The measure was signed by the President on November 4, 1939. The Neutrality Act still had severe limitations. The Act permitted belligerents to purchase materials of war on a strictly cash and carry basis, but banned American merchant ships from traveling in war zones designated by the President. Although worded neutrally, "cash and carry" at the time favored Britain and France. Their financial resources and control of the seas enabled them to buy war materials in the United States and transport them in their own ships. It was a marked shift from isolationism to pro-Allied neutrality and extremely dangerous politically for FDR with an election only a year away. The conditions were very strict, 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 the best FDR could do for the Allies at the time. 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 Hitler was almost proved right.

Charles Lindbergh

Some like Charles Lindbergh, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Lindbergh, the famed Lone Eagle who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, was one of the most respected men in America. He was one of the most influential spokesmen among the isolationists. Lindbergh had been living in England. When the War began in Europe, he returned to America and entered the debate about American involvement. He began speaking at AFC events (April 1940). He criticized the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to support the Allies (Britain and France) against Germany. He was among the more restrained AFC spokesmen, but his fame brought him considerable attention. Roosevelt compared him to Civil War Copperheads (anti-War Democrats). Lindbergh in protest resigned his military commission. [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 366.] Up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh argued against American involvement in World War II and the measures taken by the Roosevelt Administration to confront the NAZIs and Japanese and to support the British. Mixed in with his promotion of isolationism were attacks on Jews. One of his most notable speeches was delivered in Des Moines, Iowa (September 11, 1941). He was speaking to support the America First Committee. He sharply criticized those that he accused of leading America toward war. He insisted, "If any one of these groups--the British, the Jewish, or the administration--stops agitating for war, I believe there will be little danger of our involvement." He told the audience that the Roosevelt Administration was acting against the country's interests. Lindbergh had visited Germany. He attended the Munich Games in 1936 as a personal guest of Luftwaffe Chief Herman Goering. He was given a tour of Luftwaffe facilities. The NAZIs even decorated him. As a result of his visits, Lindbergh doubted that the U.S. military could achieve victory in a war against Germany, which he said had "armies stronger than our own." Some agreed with him. Many Americans by this time, however, had come to side with President Roosevelt and saw the dangers represented by the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. There was, as a result, considerable criticism of Lindbergh. Some denounced him as an anti-Semite. At a time that Jews were being massacred in unbelievable numbers by NAZI Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, Lindbergh was attacking the Jews. Lindbergh was clearly anti-Semitic. Germany's anti-Semitic campaign including the excesses of Kristalnacht was well known. All that can be said in defense of Lindbergh is that the wholesale murder campaign of the Holocaust was not yet known.

Isolationist Groups

Americans after World War organized many groups to oppose war. These groups has a range of orientations. The groups varied in size, orientation, and importance. Most of thee groups began to criticize President Roosevelt as he began to speak out against the Dictators. Americans concerned about the Roosevelt Administration's weakening of the Neutrality Acts to support the Allies formed The America First Committee (AFC) in September 1940. This was the most powerful isolationist group that resisted President Roosevelt's efforts to resist the dictators. There were a wide range of groups which promoted isolationism, many of which also opposed American rearmament. Some of the groups were pacifists. Other had left-wing leanings. Socialist parties had historically resisted militarism and war. Here the situation was more complicated. Some left-wing groups were under the control or strongly influenced by the Soviets. The Soviets built a huge military but ordered foreign communists to opposed domestic military spending. After the formation of the National Front in Europe (1936), the Communists out of fear of Hitler began supporting military preparations. This changed with the signing of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939). The Communists abruptly changed again when the NAZIs attacked the Soviet Union (June 1941).

Isolationist Arguments

It is today difficult to understand why so many Americans failed to perceive the danger that the NAZIs posed to America. There are still some like Pat Buchanan that argue we fought the wrong war, but most serious historians now understand that American isolationism was illconceived and seriously limited the ability of the Roosevelt Administration to deal with the growing menace of NAZI Germany. There are a variety of reasons for the strength of the isolationists. There was a widespread belief in America after World War I that American involvement had been a mistake. Many believe that the industrialists and arms manufacturers helped drag America into the War and profited. Many also believe that the War was a manifestation of decadent Europe. Thus when war broke out in Europe again, there was a strong belief that the United states should not get involved. Many sited President Washington's warming about getting involved in European wars. After the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Moscow ordered Communists in America to oppose not only American involvement, but American military preparedness. The arguments they used were ideologically based. They argued that war was a manifestation of capitalism and working-class people should oppose war. The Communists were a small group, but there arguments added to the wider opposition. The main arguments, however, were arguments against war. Here it is difficult to counter there arguments. No think person sees war as a good or moral undertaking. The fact is that Hitler and the NAZIs thought exactly this. Hitler's life in the trenches during World War I was the happiest of his life . He saw war as an essential element of human existence. Unfortunately for Europe, the German military had devised a modern and exceeding effective method of war--Blitzkrieg. No one at the time knew the immensity of the NAZI evil. Lindbergh in a speech to an appreciative audience, "In the past we have dealt with a Europe dominated by Britain and France. In the future we may have to deal with a Europe dominated by Germany." Lindbergh was a staunch anti-Semite, but in his defense he did not understand nor did most of the Europe the abject depravity of the NAZIs. Nor even after the NAZIs had swallowed up country after country did the isolations grasp that eventually would come America's turn. It is virtually impossible to conceive how America could have fought the War without Britain and the Soviets. Yet this is what a victorious isolationist movement would have meant. Thankfully they were up against a master politician--Franklin Roosevelt.


Isolationit groups were strongest in the Midwest and had support throughout the country. Interventionist sentiment in contrast was promoted by much smaller but vocal groups formed by Northeastern elites , often with ties to Britain. The Isolationists dominated the debate about American security in the 1930s. The dominant opinion was that american involvement in World war I had been a mistake and that America should never again become involved in a European war. Americans mired in the Depression were largely uniterested in foreign affairs, including Hitler's seizure of power in Germany and instalation of a police state dictatorship (1933). Jewish groups had little impact on public opinion. And as NAZI power grew, the primary concern became the danger of another bloody conflict with Germany. American saw developments in Germany and Hitler haranging mass rallies in the movie newsreels. They did not like what they saw, but they also wanted no part in another war. A rare pro-British organization was the Friends of Democracy, founded in 1937. Public opinion only began to shift after the Munich Conference carving up Czechoslovakia (September 1938) and the brutal Kritallnacht pogrom targeting Jews (October 1938) President Roosevelt reclled American Ambassador Hugh Wilson to protest the NAZI pogrom. Despite the substantial anti-Semetic orientation of many Americans, most Americans were critical of Hitler's treament of Jews. [AIPO] This was followed by Hitler's violation of his Munich commitments, the invasion and occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). Americans began connecting dictatorship at home with aggression abroad. But Jews nd Czechs were a small part of the American population. And the increasingly vocal isolationist groups still dominated public discourse. President Roosevelt was the most outspoken American about the character and danger of the NAZIs, but there were limits as to how far ahead of public opinion he could get. And the President as well as much of the country assumed that given the third term convntion that a new president woyld be chosen in 1940. Events in Europe soon overtook American politics. Most Americas when war broke out (September 1939) assumed that the Western democracies (Britin and France) could contain the Germans and stangle them with a naval blockade as in World War I. American heavily favored the Allies. [Fortune Magazine poll]. Everything change with the German Western offensive (May 1940) that led to the fall of France. It was suddely clear that Britain alone could not stop the NAZIs. More Americans began to see that America would have to become involved. The most immediate change was that many Americans wanted Presudent Roosevelt to guide them thriugh the coming crisis despite the no third term convention. The President had arned about Hitler and many saw that he had been correct. Groups began to form to support the President and intervention. The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies was created (May 1940). A more aggressive interventionist group was the Fight For Freedom Committee (April 1941). These groups backed the Presisent in his fights with the Isolationists. The interventionist groups helped place articles in nationals publications and provide speakes. They could not, however, match the Isolationits in mass rallys. Despite the best efforts of the Isolationists, Americans came around to a peace time draft, increased military spending, and support for Britain. The President took a huge step after meeting with Chuchill to sign the Atlantic Charter by launching a undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic (September 1941). At the time of Pearl Harbor multiple polls had shown a huge majority of the Americans still opposed war.

Opposition to Military Preparedness

Many not only opposed American involvement, but even military preparedness and military expenditures were scrutinized by a skeptical Congress dspite te fact that the Democrats controlled both houses.

Evasion of the Neutrality Act (May 1940)

The NAZIs launched their long awaited Western Offensive on May 10 and from the onset scored impressive successes. FDR wanted to help, but was restrained by the Neutrality Act which among other provisions by flying assembled air craft to Britain ready to fight. The solution was to fly aircraft to the Canadian border. Push then across the border and then fly them on to Newfoundland where they could be loaded aboard ships for the British. This was not publicized at the time. American public opinion was still strongly isolationist and most Americans were convinced that the country should stay out of the War. Thus actions like this were done at great political risk.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The sudden quick and surprising fall of France to the NAZIs in June 1940 shocked most Americans. Some wanted to support Britain, convinced that America could no longer remain neutral and allow Hitler to conquer Britain the rest of Europe. Others like Lindbergh, in awe of the mighty Luftwaffe, felt that the NAZIs had already won the War and it would be suicidal for America to challenge the Germans. President Roosevelt was convinced that Hitler and the NAZIs should not be permitted to dominate Europe, but was unsure that Britain would continue to fight.

The Draft (September 1940)

The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia had an army smaller than that of several small European countries. The American army was smaller than that of Romania. At the Administration's urging, Congress after an intensive debate, approved the first peacetime draft in American history. President Roosevelt on September 16 signed the Selective Service Act. The first draft had been during the Civil War. The draft involved men from 21-35 years of age and involved only 1 year of training a military service. The votes in Congress were comfortable majorities as most Democrats and about half the Republicans supported it despite of the upcoming election November election. Undoubtedly the radio broadcasts and newsreel images of London burning as a result of the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people.

Lend Lease

By the end of 1940, Britain was essential bankrupt. The British Treasury did not have the resources to pay for armaments that had been ordered, let alone pay for additional orders. Unless President found a way to aid Britain, the country simply could not afford to continue the War. The solution, conceived by the President was Lend Lease. One of the AFC's largest efforts was to defeat the Roosevelt Administration's Lend Lease Bill in the Congress. Lead Lease was an anathema to the AFC because it deepened America's involvement in the War and shipped war material abroad instead of used to arm the American military. The AFC's language was extremely caustic. Senator Burton K. Wheeler and referred to Lend Lease as "the New Deal's triple 'A' foreign policy --it will plough under every fourth American boy." FDR who often ignored AFC outbursts told reporters, "I regard [it] as the most untruthful, as the most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has ever been said. Quote me on that." [Freidel, Rendezvous, p. 362.] In fact, Lend Lease in the end not only help save America, but Western civilization itself.

Pearl Harbor

The bitter debate between the Roosevelt Administration and the isolationists ended on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The carrier attack was a stunning military success, crippling the fleet. It was, however, one of the great strategic misacluclations in history. The American people over night were galvanized into a formidable national consensus to wage war. Even the isolationists joined the war effort. Men like Lindbergh who had fought against involvement in foreign wars attempted to join the war effort. When Hitler declared war on America on December 10, 1941 the last obstacle to American involvement was gone. Even the American First Committee, which had so vehemently promoted isolationism, quietly dissolved itself 4 days after the Japanese attack.


American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO). An AIPP poll December 10 1938 reported that 94 percent of Americans opposed Hitler's treatment of Jews.

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

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal (Little Brown: Boston, 1973), 574p.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezvous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

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

Göring, Herman. In Gilberto Villahermosa. World War II Magazine (September 2006). G�ring was interogated immeduiately after the War in Prisoner of War Camp No. 32 (July 25, 1945). Major Kenneth W. Hechler of the U.S. Army Europe�s Historical Division asked the questions. Captain Herbert R. Sensenig served as the translator.

Goodwin, Dorris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. Franklin and Eleanor Roosebelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994), 759p.

Fortune Magazine Public opinion poll (October 1939). mericans wanted no part of the War, but 85 percent favored Britain and France.

Graham, Otis L. Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander. Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1985).

Time Magazine, February 2, 1936.


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Created: May 13, 2003
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Last updated: 3:33 AM 8/17/2020