Like the First World War, Americans tried to stay neutral during World War II. Fighting had started in both China and Europe in the 1930s while the United States was still trying to get out of the Great Depression and people and government leaders did not feel that it would be good for the country to get into another war.
Was this a good idea? World War II was very different from the World War I that had finished 20 years before. First, by the time fighting had started in the 1930s it was clear that the most important reason for the war in Europe, Adolf Hitler, didn’t just want more land. He was very anti-Semitic and had already started the Holocaust the planned killing of the Jewish people in Europe. In World War I, there was nothing like it. Hatred and attacks against the Chinese and Koreans by Japanese soldiers were just as terrible. If the United States were to join this new war, it would not be just to protect friends, but to stop the killing of whole groups of people.
But even as the United States tried to stay neutral, we were still giving ships, aircraft, bombs to our allies.
Should the United States have joined the war before Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor? Was it a mistake to try to stay out of a war against countries that wanted to grow and kill people? Like a student who sits down to study early instead of the night before a test, shouldn’t the United States have joined the fighting early in order to stop the war from getting as bad as it did?
In the 1930s, foreign policy or dealing with other countries was not important to most Americans. The stock market had crashed, and every day things were getting worse. After World War I and the hard debate about joining the League of Nations, Americans were tired of world problems. People thought the most important problems were domestic, or what was happening in America. Overall, most Americans liked isolationism during the 1920s and 1930s.
American leaders had chances to be a part of world events between World War I and World War II but chose not to. One example was the London Conference of 1933. Leaders of European countries wanted to have more trade and change the way they set the value of their money. However, Roosevelt did not like their ideas because he thought it would make the Great Depression last longer. So, the United States did not join the London Conference.
Roosevelt knew that the Hawley-Smoot Tariff that Hoover had signed had led to more taxes all around the world and was hurting the United States, so he ended it.
Many of the American leaders who were isolationist in the 1920s and 1930s, were most worried about staying out of problems in Asia and Europe. These leaders, however, did like the idea of Pan-Americanism, which meant that they liked the idea of having all the countries in North and South America be more friendly. To have better relations with Latin American countries, Roosevelt started the Good Neighbor Policy. American soldiers who had been sent to Central America and the Caribbean came home. The Roosevelt Corollary was ended. This was former president Theodore Roosevelt’s idea from 1904 that the United States had the right to act like the police officer for Latin America.
Although American leaders had an isolationist foreign policy, it did take steps to try to lower the chances of war. They joined in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 and 1922, where world leaders agreed to lower the size of their navies. This also was a way for the government to spend less money building ships.
Also, the United States signed the Four Power Treaty along with Great Britain, France, and Japan in 1921. In this treaty, they all promised to stop taking over land in Asia. In 1928, the United States and fourteen other countries signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which made war an international crime. People hoped that these treaties would lead to peace, but they failed because none of them said what would happen if a country broke their promise.
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Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, the fascist dictators of Italy and Germany led Europe into the carnage of World War II.
While the United States was worried about the Great Depression, problems started to grow in Europe. During the 1920s, the international banking system was helped by American loans to foreign countries. But after the crash of 1929, the United States stopped loaning money and European countries and their banks ran out of money. The Great Depression was just as bad in most of Europe as it was in America.
In some countries in Europe the economy had never recovered from World War I, so their Great Depression had started long before 1929. America was lucky to have Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, but other countries had leaders who did not believe in democracy.
In Italy, Benito Mussolini became the new leader. Mussolini liked Fascism or a type of government that is led by one person only, and loving the country is the same as loving the leader. Italy became a country with one political party and a leader with total control.
Germany tried to create a democracy with elected leaders after Kaiser Wilhelm quit at the end of World War I, but the new leaders were not good at fixing the country’s economic problems. This helped the Nazi Party and its, Adolf Hitler, become popular. They promised that a Fascist system with only one person and party in control would be faster at helping the people.
The Nazis started small, but won many followers during the Great Depression, which hurt Germany a lot. By 1932, almost 30% of the German workers had no jobs. Not surprisingly, people were angry. Hitler promised to make Germany great again. By the beginning of 1933, the Nazis had become the largest party in the German government. The Nazis gave Hitler the power to make all laws for the next four years. That is how Hitler took power. Unlike President Roosevelt who said the “only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” Hitler told his people to believe that their problems were because of outsiders. He blamed the Allies who had written the Treaty of Versailles and were making Germany pay reparations, and also Jews who he said were ruining the world’s economy.
Another part of fascism was that people promised loyalty to the country’s leader and not to their country. Even Germany’s boy scouts became the Hitler Youth.
Hitler began to rebuild Germany’s army, air force and navy. In 1936, Hitler sent his army into the Rhineland, on the border with France. In March 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. These broke the rules of the Treaty of Versailles. But, France, Britain and the United States were all busy trying to deal with the Great Depression and no one wanted another war, so they ignored what Hitler was doing.
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British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin holding up a copy of the Munich Agreement in his famous speech where he said that he had gotten “peace in our time.”
In 1938, Great Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and France’s prime minister, Edouard Daladier, met with Hitler in Munich. They agreed to let Hitler do some of the things he wanted. This is called appeasement, the idea of giving in to the enemy to try to stop a war. Chamberlain said that the Munich Pact would mean “peace in our time.” He was wrong. Not long after the Munich Conference, Germany took over even more land. Chamberlain and the idea of appeasement are remembered as good examples for the wrong way to deal with aggressive enemies.
Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union realized that Poland, which is between the Soviet Union and Germany, was probably the next country Hitler would try to take over. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a secret treaty and agreed to split Poland between them and not to fight each other.
JAPAN AND WAR IN ASIA
Army leaders came to power in Japan during the 1930s. The Japanese had worked for many years to modernize, build their army and navy, and become an important world power. Japanese people and leaders did not like communism. They were worried when communists took over in the Soviet Union and the growing communist movement in China. In 1937, Japan joined with the Fascist countries of Italy, Germany who also did not like communism. Together, they were called the Axis Powers.
The military leaders in Japan thought that their country should grow. In 1931, they attacked Manchuria, the northern part of China. As was the case with Hitler’s expansion in Europe, the British, French, and other League of Nations members did not want to go to war with Japan, so they ignored what was happening. The American government did not want Japan to control China. In America, this was called the Stimson Doctrine and it was the first step in the process of America and Japan becoming enemies.
Full war broke out between the Japanese and Chinese after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937. As the Japanese army moved through China, they did some of the most terrible things in human history, including in the city of Nanjing where Japanese soldiers raped Chinese women and murdered hundreds of thousands of people. When they heard about what was happening, regular Americans began to turn against Japan.
Japan was not only interested in land in China. They had taken over Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1918, and the islands of Micronesia as well.
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This map shows how many place Japan took over before and during World War II. Japan also took control of the islands of Micronesia.
President Franklin Roosevelt knew about what the Nazis and Japanese were doing. He wanted the United States to help stop them, but most Americans, and even some famous Americans, did not want to get involved in other countries. One leader of the America First Committee who believed in isolationism was the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh. The America First Committee was important in the United States and many government leaders liked their ideas.
Because Roosevelt needed people to support him and his New Deal, he couldn’t make the isolationists mad, so he chose not to help people who were trying to get out of Nazi Germany. Although Roosevelt knew about Nazi attacks on Jews, he did little to help them. He did not try to get Congress to change immigration quotas, or limits that would have let more refugees come to America. His failure to stand up to them is one of the dark marks on Roosevelt’s time as president.
To be sure that the United States did not get pulled into another war, Congress passed new laws called the Neutrality Acts. The first Neutrality Acts in 1935 stopped the government selling weapons or giving money to any country that was in a war. And the Neutrality Act of 1937 stopped American ships from being used to take weapons to countries who were fighting and stopped Americans from traveling on ships from countries at war.
Roosevelt, however, found ways to help America’s future allies without breaking the Neutrality Acts. Since Japan had not declared war on China, Japan and China were not legally at war and America could still send goods to China. In 1940, the president of China, Chiang Kai-shek, was able to get Roosevelt to send 100 planes to China and to allow Americans, who then became members of the Chinese Air Force, to fly them.
Roosevelt had to get even more creative in finding ways to help the British.
WAR BEGINS IN EUROPE
On September 1, 1939, Hitler used his newly rebuilt and updated army against his neighbor Poland. Using a new type of fighting called Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” the Germans used fast, surprise attacks with soldiers, tanks, and aircraft to quickly defeat the enemy.
Britain and France now knew that the agreement at Munich had failed and that Hitler could not be trusted. He would always want more land. On September 3, 1939, they declared war on Germany, and the European part of World War II began. After the German attack on Poland, Roosevelt worked with Congress to change the Neutrality Laws to a new law called Cash and Carry. This law said that countries at war could buy weapons if they paid cash and carried them home on their own ships.
In the spring of 1940, the German armies and air force defeated France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In just six weeks, France lost to Germany. The French, who had spent the past 20 years preparing to fight the trench warfare of World War I all over again, were not prepared for Hitler’s fast army and air force.
In Asia, Japan took advantage of France’s surrender to Germany to take over their colony of French Indochina, which is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After this, the United States passed the Export Control Act in July 1940. This law said that no one in America could sell things to Japan they might need for war, including gasoline, tools, scrap iron or steel.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
After Germany took over France, the Battle of Britain began. Great Britain had the advantage of being an island. To beat his last enemy in Europe, Hitler would have to land his army on the beaches of Great Britain, which would be very difficult. Instead, or at least to get ready for such an attack, the German air force started the Blitz, a bombing attack against British cities, factories, and military bases that went on day after day. Hitler thought he could get the British to give up, which would leave him in charge of mainland Europe.
The British leader was Prime Minister Winston Churchill and he did not want to give up. For more than three months, a small group of British fighter pilots flew their planes into the sky each day to meet the German bombers and protect their country. Below, the people of Great Britain operated anti-aircraft guns, hid in subway stations, covered their windows to make it harder for the German bombers to find their targets in the dark, and waited for help from America. What saved the British, in addition to their own air force, was that they had discovered the power of radar, and knew when the Germans were coming
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British children sit next to their home that had been destroyed during the Blitz.
As the battle was fought in the skies over Great Britain, Roosevelt got worried that Great Britain might not be able to hold out against the Germans. In March 1941, he got Congress to vote for a policy of Lend Lease. This new law said that the United States could lease, or loan weapons to any nation that was important to the United States. Roosevelt described Lend Lease by saying that if a neighbor’s house is on fire, nobody sells him a hose to put it out. Of course, you would give the hose to the neighbor, and they would return it when the fire is put out. The United States could just lend Great Britain the materials it would need to fight the war. When the war was over, they would be returned. Not everyone in Congress liked the idea of Lend Lease. Senator Robert Taft said that “lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum. You don’t want it back.” In the end, Congress for Lend Lease and isolationism came to an end. This decision also made it clear that America was going to be on the side of Great Britain and against Germany. In the end, the United States gave $45 billion worth of weapons and supplies to Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and other allies.
THE ATLANTIC CHARTER
In August 1941, Roosevelt met with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. At this meeting, the two leaders wrote the Atlantic Charter, the plan for how their two countries would work together during World War II. The charter said that the United States and Britain would not be fighting to win new land. It said that people of all countries should get to choose their own leaders, should be able to go back to their homes if they had been forced out by the war, and people should be able to have their own businesses without the government telling them what to do. Also, the charter called for freedom of the seas, said that fighting was not the right way to solve problems, and called for fewer weapons after the war. The Atlantic Charter was the opposite of the Fascist, hate-filled, ideas of the Axis countries. It told the world what the United States and Great Britain would be fighting for, not just who they would be fighting against.
After meeting with Churchill, President Roosevelt described what America would be willing to fight for in his Four Freedoms Speech, saying that America would fight to protect four important freedoms: The freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, to have enough money for what they needed which he called the freedom from want, and to live in safety which he called the freedom from fear.
By the second half of 1941, Japan was starting to be hurt by the American embargo. Since they couldn’t buy important things like oil from the United States, Japanese leaders wanted to find a new supply of oil by taking control of the Dutch East Indies, which is now the nation of Indonesia. But they knew that doing this might make the United States join the war since the Philippines, still an American colony, was between Japan and Indonesia. Japanese leaders tried to find a peaceful solution by talking with the United States, but also prepared the navy for war. The Japanese leaders decided that if no peaceful agreement could be reached by the end of November 1941, then they would have to go to war with the United States.
The talks did not go well. The last offer America made was that for the United States to sell war supplies again, Japan would leave China and to agree not to go to war with all the Pacific powers. Japanese leaders knew that their smaller country would probably lose a long war with the United States but felt that the American offer was not ok. For Japan, pulling out of China was like being blackmailed by the United States.
Hideki Tojo, an army general who had become Japan’s Prime Minister, thought that the only hope was to launch a surprise attack on the Americans. This would show Japan’s power, stop America from being able to fight back, and scare the American people. If such an attack could be done, Roosevelt would have no choice but to let the Japanese have their way in Asia. It was a dangerous gamble.
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The battleship USS West Virginia burning during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
At 7:48 in the morning on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the American navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They launched two waves of attacks from six aircraft carriers that had snuck into the Central Pacific without being found. The attacks included 353 airplanes. The Japanese hit all eight battleships in the harbor and sank four of them. They also damaged several cruisers and destroyers. On the ground, nearly two hundred airplanes were destroyed, and 2,400 soldiers and sailors were killed. Another 1,100 were hurt. The Japanese lost only a few airplanes. Even though the attack was a success, it did not have the effect the Japanese leaders had hoped for. In time, the workers in Pearl Harbor repaired many of the damaged ships, and the United States did not ask for peace.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was just the first of many attacks on American and British bases. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines all soon fell to the Japanese.
Even after two years of fighting in Europe, most Americans still wanted to stay out of World War II, but this changed after December 7, 1941. Americans were angry that Japan had launched a surprise attack while Japanese diplomats were in Washington working on a deal. President Roosevelt called the day of the attack “a date which will live in infamy,” and asked Congress for a declaration of war, which it delivered to Japan on December 8. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States because of their alliance with Japan. Against its wishes, the United States had become part of World War II.
Perhaps Americans should not have been surprised to be attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. We had certainly put them into an impossible situation. There was no way for the military leaders in Tokyo to accept American demands and save face.
Also, we were giving China and Britain weapons. In some ways, it seems silly to think that the Japanese would not have thought of us as enemies already.
In a way, the United States had already joined a war before the shooting began. However, all through the 1930s, Americans had hoped to avoid having to fight in another war. Congress had passed a series of neutrality acts, and only after a long wait had they agreed to vote for Roosevelt’s Lend Lease Act.
Was neutrality and getting ready for war slowly the right idea? Should the United States have decided to fight the Axis first instead of waiting to be attacked?
What do you think? Was the United States right to try to stay out of the war?
BIG IDEA: America tried to maintain its isolation from a growing war in Europe and Asia in the late 1930s. At first, the United States tried to use economic pressure to limit Japanese expansion and provided material support to Great Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany, but Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the conflict as a full combatant.
During the two decades that followed World War I, the United States maintained an attitude of isolationism. The nation had refused to join the League of Nations. As Europe was collapsing into turmoil with communism arising in the Soviet Union and Fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany, most Americans were happy to be far away and uninvolved.
The United States was not entirely isolationist. We cultivated better relationships with the nations of Latin American through Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and tried to limit the size of the world’s navies by participating in the Washington Naval Conference. However, organizations like the America First Committee had widespread public support and isolationism was popular.
Fascism, a system of government in which the leader and the nation become synonymous, was established by Mussolini in Italy and then by Hitler in more populous and economically powerful Germany. Hitler used anti-Semitism as a tool manipulate public opinion, gain support, win elections, and eventually take total control.
European leaders tried to appease Hitler by offering him control over some territories in exchange for promises of peace, but it did not work. After signing a secret peace deal with Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and then France. By 1940, only the United Kingdom was still holding out against Hitler.
Most Americans did not like the Nazis but wanted to remain neutral. To support the United Kingdom, President Roosevelt implemented Cash and Carry and Lend Lease programs to supply war materials to the British without declaring war. During this time, Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom to conclude the Atlantic Charter, which described how their two nations promised to offer a democratic alternative to Fascism. Roosevelt expressed his goals as Four Freedoms.
In Asia, Japan had been expanding into China. The United States opposed this expansion, especially after Japanese troops committed war crimes against Chinese civilians. In response, the United States instituted an embargo on war material to Japan. Under pressure to find an alternative source for oil, rubber, and other raw materials, the Japanese military command decided to attack the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), British and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore), and the Philippines, which was an American territory.
In order to prevent the United States from entering the war, Japanese commanders decided to destroy the entire American fleet in one surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the strike on December 7, 1941 was a tactical success, it was a strategic failure. The United States entered the war rather than suing for peace.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Benito Mussolini: Fascist leader of Italy during the 1930s and World War II.
Adolf Hitler: Fascist Nazi leader of Germany during the 1930s and World War II.
Nazi Party: Hitler’s political party. Their full name was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
Joseph Stalin: Second leader of the Soviet Union from 1922-1953.
Axis Powers: The alliance of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Japan during World War II.
America First Committee: Group that included many prominent Americans in the 1930s which advocated for isolationism.
Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Chinese during World War II. He led the nationalists against the communists in China’s civil war.
Winston Churchill: Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II.
Hideki Tojo: Army general and prime minister of Japan during World War II.
Isolationism: A policy of not being involved in international affairs or joining in treaties with other nations.
Fascism: Government system in which one person maintains total control and that leader and the country are synonymous. Thus, citizens declare loyalty to the leader, rather than the nation.
Appeasement: Attempting to avoid a conflict by giving someone what they want.
Blitzkrieg: German for “lightning war.” It described the German battlefield tactics which included the combined use of infantry, tanks, and aircraft.
A date which will live in infamy: Famous line from President Franklin Roosevelt’s war message to Congress the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Manchuria: The northeastern corner of China. It was administered by Japan in the 1930s as a puppet state.
French Indochina: French colony in Southeast Asia that included the modern nations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Washington Naval Conference: Meeting of nine world powers in 1921 and 1922 in which they agreed to limit the size of their navies.
Marco Polo Bridge Incident: Fight between Japanese and Chinese troops in 1937 that led to open war in China.
Rape of Nanjin: War crime in which Japanese troops raped, tortured and murdered thousands of civilians after capturing the city of Nanjin, China in 1937-38.
Battle of Britain: Air war between Germany and Great Britain in 1940. Hitler tried to force the British to sue for peace by bombing cities.
Attack on Pearl Harbor: December 7, 1941. The event that propelled the United States into World War II.
TREATIES, LAWS & POLICIES
Good Neighbor Policy: President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy during the 1930s with regards to Latin America. He withdrew the military and renounced intervention, reversing Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
Munich Pact: Agreement between Hitler and the United Kingdom in 1938. Hitler promised not to invade his neighbors in exchange for British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s agreement to let Hitler control the Sudetenland. Chamberlain believed the agreement would preserve peace. It actually convinced Hitler that the British would not stop his expansionist plans.
Stimson Doctrine: American policy toward Japanese expansion in China in the 1930s. The United States refused to recognize the legality of the Japanese occupation.
Neutrality Acts: Set of laws passed by Congress in the second half of the 1930s that prohibited President Roosevelt from actively supporting any side during World War II.
Cash and Carry: American policy in which the United Kingdom could purchase war materials so long as they paid in full and transported the materials on British ships. It was a first step toward joining the war.
Lend Lease: American policy starting in early 1941 to provide war material to the United Kingdom. Under the policy, the British did not have to pay for what they needed up front, thus ending the Cash and Carry policy.
Atlantic Charter: Agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom in August 1941 before the United States joined World War II. It outlined the Anglo-American war goals of preserving democracy and self-determination.