In the summer of 1933, 66 nations sent delegates to the London Economic Conference. The delegates hoped to organize a coordinated international attack on the global depression.
They sought to stabilize the
values of various nations’ currencies
rates at which they could be exchanged.
President Roosevelt, at first, agreed to send delegates to the conference, but had second thoughts after he realized that an international agreement to maintain the value of the dollar in terms of other currencies wouldn’t allow him to inflate the value of the U.S. dollar. He declared that America wouldn’t take place in the negotiations.
Without support from the United States, the London Economic Conference fell apart. The collapse strengthened the global trend towards nationalism, while making international cooperation increasingly difficult.
Freedom for (from?) the Filipinos and Recognition for the Russians
Increasing the nation’s isolationism, President Roosevelt withdrew from Asia. Bowing to organized labor’s demands of the exclusion of low-wage Filipino workers, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, providing for the independence of the Philippines by 1946. The nation did not want to have to support the Philippines if Japan attacked the territory.
In 1933, Roosevelt formally recognized the Soviet Union, opening up trade and bolstering a friendly counter-weight to the possible threat of
German power in Europe
Japanese power in Asia.
Becoming a Good Neighbor
President Roosevelt initiated the Good Neighbor policy, renouncing armed intervention in Latin America.
The last marines left Haiti in 1934;
Cuba, under the Platt Amendment, was released from American control; and
the grip on Panama was relaxed in 1936.
When the Mexicangovernment seized American oil properties in 1938, President Roosevelt held to his unarmed intervention policy and a settlement was eventually worked out in 1941, causing the oil companies to lose much of their original stake.
Secretary Hull’s Reciprocal Trade Agreements
Congress passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934. Designed to lower the tariff rates, it aimed at both relief and recovery.
Secretary of State Hull succeeded in negotiating pacts with 21 countries by the end of 1939. These pacts were essentially trade agreements that stated if the United States lowered its tariff, then the other country would do the same. With the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, the president was empowered to lower existing rates by as much as 50% provided that the other country involved would do the same.
During these years of trade agreements, U.S. foreign trade increased dramatically. The act paved the way for the American-led free-trade international economic system that took shape after WWII.
Impulses Toward Storm-Cellar Isolationism
Joseph Stalin took control of the Communist USSR;
Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in 1922; and
Adolf Hitler took control of Germany. Hitler was the most dangerous of all of them because he combined tremendous power with impulsiveness.
In 1936, Nazi Hitler and Fascist Mussolini allied themselves in the Rome-Berlin Axis.
Determined to find a place in the Asiatic sun, Japan terminated the Washington Naval Treaty and accelerated their construction of giant battleships.
Mussolini, seeking power and glory in Africa, attacked Ethiopia in 1935.
Congress Legislates Neutrality
Responding to overwhelming popular pressure, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of1935, 1936, and 1937. The acts stated that when the president proclaimedthe existence of a foreign war, certain restrictions would automatically go into effect. No American could
legally sail on a belligerent ship,
sell or transport munitions to a belligerent, or
make loans to a belligerent.
The Neutrality Acts were made to keep the United States out of a conflict. By declining to use its vast industrial strength to aid its democratic friends and defeat its totalitarian foes, the United States helped to provoke the aggressors.
America Dooms Loyalist Spain
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 started when Spanish rebels, led by General Francisco Franco, rose against the left-wing Republican government in Madrid. Aided by Mussolini and Hitler, Franco undertook to overthrow the Loyalist regime, which was assisted by the Soviet Union.
Although it was legal for the United States to send aid to the Loyalist regime, the United States desperately wanted to stay out of war; Congress amended the existing neutrality legislation so as to apply an arms embargo to both Loyalists and rebels.
Appeasing Japan and Germany
In 1937, the Japanese militarists touched off an explosion that led to the all-out invasionofChina. President Roosevelt declined to invoke the recently passed neutrality legislation by refusing to call the “China incident” an officially declared war. If he had, he would have cut off the trickle of munitions on which the Chinese were dependent. The Japanese, as a result, were able to continue to buy war supplies in the United States.
In 1935, Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles when he introduced mandatory military service in Germany. In 1936, he again violated the treaty when he took over the demilitarized German Rhineland.
In March, 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. (Note: Austria actually voted for the occupation, fully aware that if it resisted, Germany would forcefully take it over.)
At a conference in Munich, Germany in September 1938, the Western European democracies, unprepared for war, betrayed Czechoslovakia to Germany when they gave away Sudetenland. They hoped that by doing this, Hitler’s greed for power would end.
In March 1939, Hitler took control of Czechoslovakia. (See Austria note.)
Hitler’s Belligerency and U.S. Neutrality
On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression treaty with Hitler. The Hitler-Stalin pact meant that Germany could make war on Poland and the Western democracies without fear of retaliation from the Soviet Union.
Hitler demanded from Poland a return of the areas taken from Germany after WWI. After Poland failed to meet his demands, Hitler militarily invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France, honoring their commitments to Poland, declared war on Germany; World War II had started.
Although Americans were strongly anti-Nazi, they were desperately determined to stay out of the war.
The Neutrality Act of 1937 lifted the arms embargo against Britain and France.
Heeding to the need of France and Britain of war materials from America, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939. It stated that the European democracies could buy American war materials as long as they would transport the munitions on their own ships after paying for them in cash. America thus avoided loans, war debts, and the torpedoing of American arms-carriers.
Overseas demand for war goods brought a sharp upswing from the recession of 1937-1938 and ultimately solved the decade-long unemployment crisis, bringing an end to the Great Depression.
The Fall of France
The months following the collapse of Poland were known as the “phonywar.”
The Soviet Union took over Finland despite Congress loaning $30 million to Finland.
Hitler overran Denmark and Norway in April 1940, ending the “phony war.” Hitler then moved on to the Netherlands and Belgium. By late June 1940, France was forced to surrender.
When France surrendered, Americans realized that England was all that stood between Hitler controlling all of Europe. Roosevelt moved with tremendous speed to call upon the nation to build huge airfleets and a two-ocean navy. Congress approved a spending of $37 billion. On September 6, 1940, Congress passed a conscription law; under this measure, America’s first peacetime draft was initiated—provision was made for training 1.2 million troops and 800,000 reserves each year.
With the Netherlands, Denmark, and France all fallen to German control, it was unsure what would happen to the colonies of Latin America. At the Havana Conference of 1940, the United States agreed to share with its 20 New World neighbors the responsibility of upholding the Monroe Doctrine.
Bolstering Britain with the Destroyer Deal (1940)
Before France had fallen, Hitler launched a series of air attacks against Britain in August 1940. The Battle of Britain raged in the air over the British Isles for months. During the Battle of Britain, radio broadcasts brought the drama from London air raids directly to America homes. Sympathy for Britain grew, but it was not yet sufficient to push the United States into war.
President Roosevelt faced a historic decision: whether to hunker down in the Western Hemisphere and let the rest of the world go it alone; or to bolster Britain by all means short of war itself.
The most powerful group of those who supported aid for Britain was the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Isolationists organized the America First Committee, contending that America should concentrate what strength it had to defend its own shores.
On September 2, 1940, President Roosevelt agreed to transfer to 50 destroyers left over from WWI to Britain. In return, Britain agreed to hand over to the United States 8 valuable defensive base sites. Shifting warships from a neutral United States to Britain was a flagrant violation of the neutrality obligations.
FDR Shatters the Two-Term Tradition (1940)
The Republicans chose Wendell L. Willkie to run against President Roosevelt. Willkie’s great appeal lay in his personality. The Republican platform condemned FDR’s alleged dictatorship, as well as the New Deal. Willkie was opposed not so much to the New Deal as to its extravagances and inefficiencies.
Roosevelt challenged the sacred two-term tradition when he decided that in such a grave crisis he owed his experienced hand to the service of his country.
Both presidential nominees promised to stay out of the war, and both promised to strengthen the nation’s defenses.
FDR won the election of 1940; voters generally felt that should war come, the experience of FDR was needed.
Congress Passes the Landmark Lend-Lease Law
Fearing the collapse of Britain, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941. Nicknamed “An Act Further to Promote the Defense of the United States,” it allowed for American arms to be lent or leased to the democracies of the world that needed them. When the war was over, the guns and tanks could be returned. Key opponents of the bill, such as Senator Taft, criticized it, reporting that the arms would be destroyed and unable to be returned after the war. It was praised by the FDR administration as a device that would keep the nation out of the war rather than dragging it in. America would send a limitless supply of arms to victims of aggression, who would in turn finish the war and keep it on their side of the Atlantic.
Lend-lease was a challenge thrown at the Axis dictators; America pledged itself to bolster those nations that were fighting aggression. The bill marked the abandonment of any pretense of neutrality.
Hitler recognized the Lend-Lease Bill as an unofficial declaration of war. Until then, Germany had avoided attacking U.S. ships. On May 21, 1941, the Robin Moor, an unarmed American merchantman, was destroyed by a German submarine in the South Atlantic, outside the war zone.
Hitler’s Assault on the Soviet Union Spawns the Atlantic Charter
Two events marked the course of WWII before the assault on Pearl Harbor:
the fall of France in June 1940, and
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Even though the two nations were bound to peace under the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, neither Hitler nor Stalin trusted one another. Hitler decided to crush the Soviet Union, seize the oil and other resources of the Soviet Union, and then have two free hands to battle Britain.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler launched an attack on the Soviet Union. President Roosevelt immediately promised assistance and backed up his words by making some military supplies available.
With the surrender of the Soviet Union a very real possibility, the Atlantic Conference was held in August 1941. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met and discussed common problems of the world. The two men came up with the eight-point Atlantic Charter, outlining the aspirations of the democracies for a better world at the war’s end. The Atlantic Charter promised
That there would be no territorial changes contrary to the wishes of the inhabitants;
it affirmed the right of a people to choose their own form of government and to regain the governments abolished by the dictators; and
disarmament and a peace of security, pending a new League of Nations.
U.S. Destroyers and Hitler’s U-boats Clash
FDR made the decision to escort the shipments of arms to Britain with U.S. warships in July 1941. In September 1941, the U.S. destroyer Greer was attacked by a U-boat, without suffering damage. Roosevelt then proclaimed a shoot-on-sight policy. On October 17 the destroyer Kearny was crippled by a U-boat. Two weeks later, the destroyer Reuben James was sunk off southwestern Iceland.
Congress voted in November 1941 to repeal the Neutrality Act of 1939, enabling merchant ships to be legally armed and enter the combat zones with munitions for Britain.
Surprise Assault of Pearl Harbor
Since September 1940, Japan had been allied with Germany. In late 1940, Washington imposed the first of its embargoes on Japan-bound supplies. The State Department insisted that the Japanese clear out of China, offering to renew trade relations on a limited basis. Forced with the choice of succumbing to the Americans or continued conquest, the Japanese chose to fight.
On “Black Sunday” December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,348 people.
On December 11, 1941, Congress declared war.
America’s Transformation from Bystander to Belligerent
Pearl Harbor was not the full answer to the question of why the United States went to war. Following the fall of France, Americans were confronted with a dilemma. They desired to stay out of the conflict, yet they did not want Britain to be knocked out. To keep Britain from collapsing, the Roosevelt administration felt compelled to extend the non-neutral aid that invited attacks from German submarines. Americans wished to stop Japan’s conquests in the Far East. To keep Japan from expanding, Washington set out to cut off vital Japanese supplies with embargoes that invited possible retaliation.
Rather than let democracy die and dictatorship rule, most Americans were determined to support a policy that might lead to war.