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America and World War II, Isolationism vs. Internationalism

Most Americans of the 1930s recoiled from involvement in the European conflict; they favored U.S. isolationism, and many supported pacifism. Some believed that “merchants of death” (bankers and arms dealers) had lured the United States into World War I. The Roosevelt administration, too, tried to maintain friendly foreign relations. Roosevelt recognized the USSR in 1933 and set up a Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America. No state, the United States said, had the right to intervene in the affairs of another. Roosevelt also made progress toward lower tariffs and free trade. In 1935 and 1936, Congress passed a group of neutrality acts to keep the United States out of Europe's troubles. The first two acts banned arms sales or loans to nations at war. The third act, a response to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), extended the ban to nations split by civil war.

But as conflict spread abroad, Americans discarded their neutral stance. Many opposed fascist forces in the civil war in Spain. There, democratic armies fell to dictator Francisco Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Japan launched a new attack on China in July 1937 to obtain more Chinese territory. It quickly overran northern China. Hitler marched through Europe. Germany in 1938 annexed Austria and then seized Czechoslovakia without resistance. In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, which led Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Americans increasingly doubted that the United States could avoid becoming involved.

In September 1939 Roosevelt called Congress into special session to revise the neutrality acts. The president offered a plan known as cash-and-carry, which permitted Americans to sell munitions to nations able to pay for them in cash and able to carry them away in their own ships. Isolationists objected, but Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939, which legitimized cash-and-carry and allowed Britain and France to buy American arms. The war in Europe, meanwhile, grew more dire for the Allies. In June 1940 Germany conquered France, and British troops that had been in France retreated across the English Channel. Then German bombers began to pound Britain.

In June 1940 the United States started supplying Britain with “all aid short of war” to help the British defend themselves against Germany. Roosevelt asked Congress for more funds for national defense. Congress complied and began the first American peacetime military draft, the Selective Training and Service Act, under which more than 16 million men were registered. After the 1940 election, Roosevelt urged that the United States become “the great arsenal of democracy.” In 1941 he and British prime minister Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, which set forth Allied goals for World War II and the postwar period. The two nations pledged to respect “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and promised a free world without war “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny.” Isolationists criticized each move towards war; however, the United States was still not actually at war.

In 1941 the conflict worsened. Despite the nonaggression pact, German armies invaded the USSR. Meanwhile, as Japan continued to invade areas in Asia, U.S. relations with Japan crumbled. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day it attacked the main American base in the Philippines. In response, the United States declared war on Japan, although not on Germany; Hitler acted first and declared war on the United States. The United States committed itself to fighting the Axis powers as an ally of Britain and France.


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