Like the First World War, Americans tried to stay neutral during World War II. Fighting had broken out in both China and Europe in the 1930s as the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression and people and government leaders did not feel that it was in the nation’s best interest to join in another war.
Was this a good idea? World War II was very different from the war 20 years before. First, by the time fighting had started in the 1930s it was clear that the most important reason of the war in Europe, Adolf Hitler, was not interested in getting 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 entire groups of people.
Yet, the United States stayed neutral. It is true that before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that drew the nation into the fighting, Americans were giving the ships, aircraft, bombs to our allies.
Should the United States have joined the war sooner? Was it foolish 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 spread of the war?
At the beginning of the 1930s, foreign policy or problems with other countries was not important to the American people. The stock market had crashed, and each passing month brought more problems. American problems with Europe had brought war in 1917 and unpaid debt throughout the 1920s. Having grown tired of world events, people thought the important problems were domestic, or what was happening in America.
While there were some who wanted more involvement in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, most Americans, including many government leaders were tired of becoming involved with other countries that might make it difficult for America to be independent, or keeping with the isolationist tradition. Although the United States continued to be a part of the affairs of other countries, most people in America did not want to be in another war.
American leaders had the opportunity 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 fix problems with money by making a gold standard. However, Roosevelt did not want to use the gold standard because he needed to end the Great Depression. So, the US chose not to continue in the London Conference.
Roosevelt did realize that the Hawley-Smoot Tariff that had led to a global rise in taxes was hurting both the United States and the whole world and ended it.
While isolationists were afraid of European and Asian problems, they developed a strong sense of Pan-Americanism. They liked the idea of having all the countries in North and South American be more friendly. To have better relations with Latin American countries, Roosevelt started the Good Neighbor Policy. Marines in Central America and the Caribbean returned to America. The Roosevelt Corollary, which former president Theodore Roosevelt had started in 1904 giving the United States the right to be involved in Latin American problems, was ended.
Although the US had in a noninterventionist foreign policy, it did take steps to try to lower the chances of war and cut its defense spending at the same time. President Warren G. Harding’s administration join in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 and 1922, which lowered the size of the navies of the participating countries. Also, the Four Power Treaty, signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, and Japan in 1921, stopped these countries from taking any more 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 agreements would lead to peace, but they failed because none of them allowed any of the countries to take action when countries did not follow the rules.
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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. The crash of 1929, when the stock market prices dropped, led to many problems such as many people losing their jobs.
Many European countries had been hurting even before the Great Depression began. Franklin D. Roosevelt was President in the US, 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.
In Germany, the Nazi Party also came into power. Germany’s government and economic problems helped the Nazi Party become popular. Its leader was Adolf Hitler.
The Nazis won many followers during the Great Depression, which had hurt Germany a lot. By 1932, almost 30% of the German workers had no jobs. Not surprisingly, people were angry. Hitler promised to return Germany to greatness. 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 in Germany. 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 – the Allies that had written the Treaty of Versailles that hurt Germany so much, and also Jews who he said were ruining the world’s economy.
Another part of Fascism meant that citizens promised loyalty to Hitler, rather than their nation. Even Germany’s boy scouts became the Hitler Youth.
Hitler began to build up Germany’s military power. 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. However, France, Britain and the United States were all busy trying to fix their own economic problems. No one wanted another war.
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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.”
At the Munich Conference1938, Great Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and France’s prime minister, Édouard Daladier, agreed that Hitler could do some of the thing he wanted. This Munich Pact offered a policy of appeasement, the idea of giving in to the enemy to maintain peace. Chamberlain thought that thought Munich Pact meant “peace in our time.” He was wrong. Not long after the agreement, Germany occupied took over more land, Chamberlain and the idea of appeasement are remembered as wrong when dealing with aggressive countries.
Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union realized that Poland would next be attacked by Hitler. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a secret treaty and agreed to split Poland between them and not make war one one another.
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 nave, and become an important and respected nation. Japanese people and leaders did not like communism. They were worried about the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union and China. In 1937, Italy, Germany and Japan decided become allies and became the Axis Powers.
The military leaders in Japan thought that their country should grow. In 1931, they attacked Manchuria, in the northern part of China. As was the case with Hitler’s expansion in Europe, the British, French, and other League members did not want to go to war with Japan to protect a corner of China. The American government wrote the Stimson Doctrine, which said that the United States did not think Japan should have power in China. This was the first step by America to try to stop Japanese expansion and would lead to war.
Full war broke out between the Japanese and Chinese after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937. As the Japanese army moved into a new place, 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, the American public began to turn against the Japanese.
Japan was not only interested in land in China. They had taken 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 the problems with Nazi and Japanese ideas about taking land. Although he wanted to offer American support, most people 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 was afraid to make the isolationists mad, 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 that would have allowed more refugees to enter the country. 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 drawn into another war, Congress passed new laws called the Neutrality Acts. The Neutrality Act of 1935 stopped the sale of weapons to countries at war. Another Neutrality Act stopped the government from giving money to countries at war. Finally, 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 would be 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. Because of 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 to buy weapons in cash and carry 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, Paris had fallen. 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 quick moving war machine.
In the Far East, Japan took advantage of France’s surrender to Germany to take over French Indochina, including the areas that would later become Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. So, with the beginning of the Export Control Act in July 1940, the United States refused to sell things to Japan they might need for war, starting first with gasoline and tools, and then to scrap iron and steel.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
Following the surrender of France, the Battle of Britain began. Great Britain had the advantage of being an island nation. To beat his last enemy in Europe, Hitler would have to begin an attack by water, which would be very expensive and 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 and end the war, leaving 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 protected 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 where and 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 in the summer and autumn of 1940, Roosevelt got worried that Great Britain might not be able to hold out against the Germans.
In March 1941, Congress voted to start a policy of Lend Lease, a practice by which the United States could sell, lease, or give weapons to any nation that was important to the United States. Roosevelt said that if a neighbor’s house is on fire, nobody sells him a hose to put it out. Common sense said that the hose is given to the neighbor and returned 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 voted in favor of lend lease, and ended American nonintervention. This decision also made it clear that America was on th side of Great Britain and the Soviet Union 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 wok together during World War II. The charter said that the United States and Britain wanted no land from the fighting. It said that people of all countries should be given the right choose their own leaders, should be able to go back to their homes if they had been forced out by the war, and that countries should be able to do business freely. Further, the charter called for freedom of the seas, said that fighting was not the right way to settle arguments, and called for fewer weapons after the war. The Atlantic Charter stood as an alternative to the Fascist, hate-filled, ideas of the Axis countries. It told the world what the United States and the United Kingdom would be fighting for, not just whom they would be fighting against.
President Roosevelt went on to further describe the meaning of the war in his Four Freedoms Speech, saying that America would fight to protect four important freedoms: The freedom of speech, the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
By the second half of 1941, Japan was starting to be hurt by the American embargo. As it could no longer buy important things like oil from the United States, the Japanese wanted to find a new supply of oil by taking control of the Dutch East Indies, which is now the nation of Indonesia. However, they realized that doing this might lead to the US getting involved since the Philippines, still American territory, lay on the direct route that oil tankers would have to take to reach Japan from Indonesia. Japanese leaders tried to find a peaceful solution by working with the United States, but also prepared the navy for war. The Japanese government also 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 American final suggestion to the offers by Japan was for the Japanese to totally leave China and to agree not to go to war with all the Pacific powers. Japanese leaders knew that their smaller nation would probably lose a long war with the United States but felt that the American proposal was not ok. For Japan, pulling out of China was like being blackmailed by the United States.
Japan’s only hope, Hideki Tojo, the former army general turned Prime Minister believed, was to launch a surprise attack on the Americans that would show Japan’s power, stop America’s ability 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 Pacific fleet 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 brought some 353 fighters, bombers, and torpedo bombers down on the Americans who did not know they was coming. 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 aircraft were destroyed, and 2,400 servicemen were killed. Another 1,100 were wounded. Japanese losses were very few. In the end, however, the battle failed to achieve its most important goal. 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 actions against American and British forts. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines all soon fell to the Japanese.
Many American had not wanted to fight in World War II, but this changed after December 7, 1941. Americans’ surprise that Japan would take such a radical step quickly turned to anger, especially as the attack took place while Japanese diplomats in Washington were still working out a possible 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 diplomatic situation. There was no way for the military leaders in Tokyo to accept American demands and save face.
Also, we were also supplying China and Britain with the weapons of war. In some ways, it seems silly not to think the Japanese would not already have thought of us enemies.
In that way, the United States had already joined a war before the shooting began. However, throughout the difficult 1930s, Americans had hoped to avoid getting directly involved in another war. Congress had passed a series of neutrality acts, and only after a long wait had they agreed 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.