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America's politics before World War II

The first page of Washington's Farewell Address, one of the earliest calls for American neutrality (Image: Library of Congress)
The first page of Washington's Farewell Address, one of the earliest calls for American neutrality (Image: Library of Congress)

America always had a complicated relationship with isolationism. In his Farewell Address, George Washington advised the young country to remain neutral and avoid getting entangled in the conflicts of European nations. This advice and sentiment often informed American politics. At the same time, the United States has also fought quite a few conflicts (such as the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, or the Caribbean and Central American conflicts collectively known as "the Banana Wars") where claims of self-defense or even a moral and just cause for war would be rather shaky.
 
One major war whose causes and motives elicited much argument not only among historians but also the American public was World War I. President Woodrow Wilson did not actually want America to enter that conflict, but a sequence of events, most immediately the sinking of U.S. ships by German submarines, inevitably swept the country into the war. Publicly, Wilson claimed the moral high ground by stating that the war was needed "to make the world safe for democracy."

Woodrow Wilson with First Lady Edith Wilson in New York (Photo: Time.com)
Woodrow Wilson with First Lady Edith Wilson in New York (Photo: Time.com)

Questions and doubt about America's role in the war, however, started surfacing afterward. Some people believed that the true reason behind U.S. involvement was the interest of the arms industry and various financial institutions. America made a lot of money during the war selling weapons and other goods, and various financiers offered war loans to Britain and France, to be repaid with interest after the war. As the war bogged down, however, these investors started to worry that the Entente Powers might actually lose in the end, and they'll never get their money back. America's direct involvement ensured that the right side won and all outstanding debts were eventually paid.

American soldiers in the Argonne forest during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
American soldiers in the Argonne forest during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Such accusations came to a crescendo in the mid-30s with the publication of several best-selling books on the topic and the investigation conducted by the Nye Committee. Officially named the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, this Senate committee was chaired by North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye and investigated the financial, commercial and industrial interests that underlay the country's participation in the war. The committee's findings between 1934 and 1936 made many Americans question the morality of the country's actions and led to a surge of isolationist sentiment. Many felt that Americans had to die not for some high ideal but to fill the pockets of bankers and weapons manufacturers. One of the most powerful isolationist pressure groups was the America First Committee, with 800,000 paying members at its peak. Its cause unified a diverse range of groups from communists to pro-fascists and anti-Semites. Its most prominent spokesman was famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, but other notable supporters included actress Lillian Gish, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Senator Nye.
 
Non-interventionist sentiments were strongly represented in Congress not only among Republican Congressmen, but also a number of Democrats. One such Democrat was Representative Louis Ludlow, who repeatedly and unsuccessfully proposed the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a public referendum before any declaration of war, except for defense against a direct foreign attack. This amendment never had a chance of passing, as the massive administrative burden of organizing a nationwide referendum would have made any declaration of war an unfeasibly slow process.

Senator Gerald P. Nye (left) conferring with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. regarding Neutrality Act and the Sino-Japanese conflict, 1937 (Photo: Library of Congress)
Senator Gerald P. Nye (left) conferring with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. regarding Neutrality Act and the Sino-Japanese conflict, 1937 (Photo: Library of Congress)

One prominent Democrat to disagree was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed that America's economic and military safety could only be guaranteed through an active foreign policy that sought trading and defensive partnerships with other nations. He was particularly concerned with Japan's expansionist ambitions in the Far East and the Pacific, which he realized would inevitably put the island nation on a collision course with American interests.
 
The British Empire, France and the Netherlands were natural allies in containing Japan: these nations also had holdings in the Pacific and the Far East, so Japanese aggression would also be a danger to them. Unfortunately, they also shared another headache: Nazi Germany back home in Europe, which was a growing threat to all three countries. Therefore, if America wanted to rely on European support against the Japanese, it, in turn, needed to support those Europeans against Hitler.

1930s aerial view of the British port of Singapore, one of many Asian locations that would be threatened (and, in this case, captured) by Japan during World War II (Photo: britishempire.co.uk)
1930s aerial view of the British port of Singapore, one of many Asian locations that would be threatened (and, in this case, captured) by Japan during World War II (Photo: britishempire.co.uk)
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Unfortunately for Roosevelt, non-interventionist sentiments in America meant he didn't have enough political support to actually do much – especially not if he wanted to be re-elected in 1936. In fact, he had no choice but to allow the Neutrality Act of 1935 to pass on August 31, 1935. The Act declared an embargo on trading arms and war materiel to any nation at war. It also declared that any American citizens travelling on the ship of a belligerent nation did so at their own risk; in other words, the U.S. would not get involved in a war just to save or avenge some foolhardy citizens who should have known better.
 
The Act was supposed to expire after six months, and it had to be invoked a mere month after it was passed. Fascist Italy invaded the African country of Ethiopia in early October 1935. Roosevelt invoked the Act to prevent arms sales to both countries, and he also declared a "moral embargo" against both belligerents, meaning that other kinds of goods couldn't be sold to them, either.

Ethiopian troops and a European advisor next to captured Italian tankettes (Photo: abyssiniancrisis.wordpress.com)
Ethiopian troops and a European advisor next to captured Italian tankettes (Photo: abyssiniancrisis.wordpress.com)

This was the first test of the Neutrality Acts, and it immediately revealed a weakness: the Act covered all "belligerents" equally, making no distinction between aggressor and victim, even in cases when such a difference was obvious.
 
The Neutrality Act of 1936, passed in February, extended the provisions for another 14 months, and made them even stricter by also forbidding loans or credits to belligerents, harkening back to the controversy around America's role in World War I.

Roosevelt delivering one of his Fireside Chats in 1934 (Photo: Bill of Rights Institute)
Roosevelt delivering one of his Fireside Chats in 1934 (Photo: Bill of Rights Institute)

This new version retained an oversight which came to light later that year, and which vexed Roosevelt and many isolationists equally. The Act only dealt with nations fighting each other, but said nothing about civil wars occurring within a single country; additionally, it did not cover such goods as oil or trucks, which could be considered peacetime commodities but also had obvious wartime uses.

The Spanish Civil War, the so-called "Grand Rehearsal for World War II", broke out in July 1936, and the Act failed to prevent American commercial entanglements. Several U.S. companies, including Texaco, Standard Oil, Ford, and Studebaker sold items to the Nationalist side – the same side that also received support from Hitler and Mussolini, and which eventually won the war.

Spanish Nationalist soldiers among the ruins of Guernica, the town infamously destroyed by German aircraft during the Spanish Civil War (Photo: history.com)
Spanish Nationalist soldiers among the ruins of Guernica, the town infamously destroyed by German aircraft during the Spanish Civil War (Photo: history.com)

Congress passed a joint resolution in January 1937 as a stopgap measure, banning trade with Spain outright. The next iteration of the Neutrality Act, that of 1937, fixed the oversight by including civil wars, had no predefined expiration date, and went even further in trying to preserve American isolation. American ships were prohibited from transporting passengers or items to nations at war, and American citizens were banned from travelling on ships owned by belligerent nations. By this point, however, Roosevelt managed to earn himself some wriggle room and managed to insert the "cash-and-carry" provision, which was to be in effect for two years. This provision allowed the U.S. to sell supplies and materials to belligerent nations in Europe, as long as the buying nation paid in cash immediately and used its own ships to pick up and deliver the goods.
 
This provision finally allowed Roosevelt to maneuver America's policies closer to aiding the enemies of Nazi Germany. While the provision's wording was neutral, it was carefully set up to favor one particular side in the looming European war. Britain and France had the cash reserves to pay for goods on the spot; Germany didn't. Also, Britain and France had the ships to actually transport supplies across the Atlantic, while Germany didn't – at least not without getting sunk by the Royal Navy if and when the war broke out.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China, 1937 (Photo: The National Interest)
Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China, 1937 (Photo: The National Interest)

Roosevelt's maneuvering hit a snag in July 1937, when Japan invaded China. The resulting situation in the Pacific was very much like the one in the Atlantic, only the wrong way around. This time it was Japan, America's inevitable enemy, that had the ships to take advantage of cash-and-carry, and it was China who didn't. Roosevelt, who considered the Chinese as another ally against Japan, decided not to invoke the Neutrality Act. This predictably outraged the isolationists, who (correctly) felt that the President was using or ignoring the law according to what served his own goals. Roosevelt sought compromise: while he did not invoke the Act, he did prohibit American ships from transporting goods to either side – however, he also allowed British ships to act as intermediaries and deliver those supplies to China. He also gave the Quarantine Speech, an important step in moving America away from isolationism, later that year. In this speech, he compared the spreading military conflicts of the world to an epidemic which could only be stopped by quarantining aggressor nations. He claimed that while America did not want to fight a war, its own safety demanded that wars be prevented from spreading further, and it was acceptable to act to that end. He took care not to name any specific nations explicitly, so his policy could still be presented as fundamentally neutral, at least in wording.

German troops marching into Prague during the invasion of Czechoslovakia (Photo: The Guardian)
German troops marching into Prague during the invasion of Czechoslovakia (Photo: The Guardian)

Meanwhile, war in Europe was becoming inevitable. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland away from Czechoslovakia in 1938, then invaded the Czech part of the country in early 1939. Roosevelt tried to renew the cash-and-carry provision, but was rebuffed by Congress this time. Things came to a head in September, when Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Roosevelt invoked the Neutrality Act, but also came before Congress and lamented that the Act gives an unfair advantage to the aggressor in foreign wars.
 
By this time, the strength of non-interventionists in Congress eroded to the point where Roosevelt could finally have his way. The Neutrality Act of 1939 incorporated the cash-and-carry method as an integral part of the Act, allowing Britain (and, until its fall, France) to buy arms from America (while German buyers were still kept away by the strength of the Royal Navy). Additionally, the President was given the authority to designate war zones which American citizens and ships were forbidden to enter. Arms trade without a license became a federal crime, increasing the government's control over who could sell arms to whom. This latter part of the Act remains in force to this day.

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Contemporary newsreel of President Roosevelt signing the Cash and Carry Bill in 1939 (Video: YouTube)

War was raging in Europe and Roosevelt's government lent much-needed support to Britain and France, but the situation still looked grim. Germany invaded France in May 1940 and there was no stopping them. The British Expeditionary Force was successfully evacuated at Dunkirk in late May and the first few days of June, but all of their equipment was left behind. France fell by the end of the month. Germany had the run of Western Europe, and was starting to attack Britain's Atlantic food and supply convoys with U-boats. Britain was fighting on alone, and many top-level planners and decision-makers believed the nation would no longer be able to carry on the fight without full support from America. Also, Britain had been paying for cash-and-carry goods with its gold reserves, and was now on the verge of running out of money – and the cash-and-carry policy was still all about buying, not giving away for free.
 
On June 1, Roosevelt bypassed the Neutrality Act (and cash-and-carry) by declaring millions of rounds of ammunition and many obsolete small arms as surplus and authorizing their shipment to Britain. Churchill also wanted – and badly needed – destroyers to protect convoys from German submarines, but Roosevelt was not prepared to just hand over some. Churchill tried to convince the American President by pointing out that if Britain fell, its Caribbean bases might be occupied by German forces, which might then use those bases to threaten the United States.
 
Roosevelt finally relented in late August and consented to the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. 50 old World War I destroyers, many of them in bad need of an overhaul, were transferred to Britain and Canada. In exchange, Britain granted the U.S. rent-free 99-year leases on various plots of land in British possessions in Newfoundland, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Bermuda, so America could develop them into air and naval bases (Some locations already had British facilities in place).

American and British sailors examining depth charges, with 3 of the transferred destroyers in the background (Photo: Library of Congress)
American and British sailors examining depth charges, with 3 of the transferred destroyers in the background (Photo: Library of Congress)

A relatively little-known detail of the deal was that the Newfoundland and Bermuda base rights specifically were given not in exchange for vessels, but for free. This was still a good deal for the British, since they could relocate the military forces stationed there to other places where they were needed.
 
The agreement was pretty advantageous for Roosevelt. America's new bases provided a valuable defensive network against any trans-Atlantic aggression, and the ships given in exchange were ones the Navy didn't want or need anymore, anyway. Many of them were in such poor condition that the British had to complain, prompting Roosevelt to transfer another 10 Coast Guard cutters as compensation.

Blimp inside a hangar at Carlsen Airfield, Trinidad, built on land acquired via the Destroyers for Bases Agreement (Photo: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)
Blimp inside a hangar at Carlsen Airfield, Trinidad, built on land acquired via the Destroyers for Bases Agreement (Photo: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)

The deal wasn't only important for its immediate military effect. It was also the first time during World War II that the two English-speaking nations openly stood together in mutual support.

By this time, the American public was gradually won over to the idea of supporting Britain against Nazi Germany. An early 1941 poll conducted by Gallup revealed that 54% of Americans were in favor of aiding Britain without qualifications, another 15% supported the idea with some qualifications such as not getting dragged into the war, and only 22% opposed it completely.

Roosevelt signing the Lend-Lease Act (Photo: Library of Congress)
Roosevelt signing the Lend-Lease Act (Photo: Library of Congress)

America bade farewell to its interwar policy of neutrality on March 11, 1941, when Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill into law. This bill allowed the President to sell, lease or lend any military equipment to any nation whose defense the President deemed vital to the defense of the United States – in other words, to anybody he wanted to. The Lend-Lease originally provided supplies to the British Empire and Commonwealth, Free France and China, and was later extended to include the Soviet Union and over 30 other countries, becoming the economic spine of the war effort that eventually defeated the Axis Powers.

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