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date: 24 March 2017

The 1930s and the Road to World War II

Summary and Keywords

The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.

Keywords: U.S. foreign policy, isolationism, neutrality, Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, public opinion, World War II origins

Between the Manchurian crisis of 1931 and Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the United States edged slowly and uncertainly along the road that led to World War II. Ultimately, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, closely followed by Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war, would make the United States a full belligerent. During the 1930s, however, the country largely preferred to remain a deliberate bystander, even going as far as enacting neutrality legislation in the mid-1930s, in a conscious bid to avoid involvement in any potential war.

Yet, as the international crisis deepened, it soon became clear that the United States was too powerful to remain truly neutral. Whatever it did mattered. As the British historian A. J. P. Taylor once remarked, the United States was like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night—its failure to do more was by far the most salient feature of its foreign policy, for this failure had a profound impact on all the other major powers.1 To understand the importance of America’s efforts to remain above the fray, we therefore need to establish its place in the international system, especially its massive underlying strength, which meant it was always a factor in the calculations of other states. Then we must look for the reasons why it failed to bark at key moments—or at least failed to offer more than a mild whimper—which in turn requires assessing two other levels of analysis: the public mood and the Roosevelt administration’s thinking about foreign policy.

From World War I to the Great Depression, 1917–1933

The United States’ uncertain path to the next war was heavily influenced by its experience in the previous one. The most important consequence of World War I was to cement America’s position as the preeminent world power. Even before its direct intervention in 1917, Wall Street loans had helped to keep the British and French war efforts afloat; thereafter, billions of dollars of government bonds flowed directly from Washington to London. American money arrived quicker than American troops, but when the doughboys did finally reach Europe in large numbers, they played a key role in the climactic battles of 1918, giving the ailing British and French armies renewed heart while exerting a profound psychological shock on the exhausted Germans.2

After the guns fell silent on the Western Front, President Woodrow Wilson also exerted a profound influence over the postwar settlement. At Versailles, Wilson did not get his way on many issues, but the emerging treaty nevertheless embodied key Wilsonian ideals, like collective security enshrined in the new League of Nations and the principle of national self-determination that was imperfectly applied in areas once ruled by the collapsed German, Russian, Austria-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.

Yet the United States never became a member of the system its own president had created. In 1919 the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty, which in turn meant that the United States would play no role in the League of Nations. But this did not mean that the country suddenly reverted to isolationism. On the contrary, the successive Republican administrations that governed between 1921 and 1933 created an alternative system, anchored in the Washington Conference of 1921–1922. Like any negotiated outcome, not every agreement made at the Washington Conference was entirely to the American government’s liking, but its central components nevertheless reflected the dominant thinking of Republican leaders: naval arms control to prevent an arms race that many blamed for causing the war and a Nine Power Treaty to stabilize great power competition in China, underpinned by an effort to integrate the region fully into the global economy. Nor was this the only effort to institute a new form of diplomacy. Although the United States played no role in the Locarno Pacts that sought to defuse Franco-German tensions, it did ultimately push for a multilateral version of what became the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, whose signatories pledged to outlaw war.3

In the economic sphere the United States played an even more critical role befitting a country whose industrial and financial muscle now outstripped all its competitors—the Germans having suffered defeat and a hefty reparations bill, the British needing to repay the astronomical debts clocked up to win the war. The Dawes and Young Plans formed the centerpiece of Washington’s attempt to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. But unlike the generous largesse extended to Western Europe after World War II, these plans were based on shaky foundations. Few Americans endorsed the idea—so prevalent in Britain and France—that they ought to cancel the war debts, on the basis that they had been incurred in a common cause. Instead, the Dawes and Young Plans renegotiated the terms of these debts, as well as German reparation payments. Wall Street then offered short-term loans to the Germans, who used this money to pay reparations to Britain and France, who in turn recycled it to repay their debts. This system worked tolerably well until Wall Street crashed in 1929. Then the American banks called in their loans. And within two years this whole financial edifice collapsed, with three profound consequences that would be felt throughout the 1930s.

The first was the radicalization of politics in countries where a significant group already viewed the Versailles and Washington Conference systems with profound suspicion, even hatred. Even before Adolf Hitler came to power, Germany had halted its repayments reparations, helped initially by a U.S.-imposed moratorium.4 On becoming chancellor Hitler then immediately challenged Versailles, walking out of both the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference in October 1933. By that time, Japan had already presented an even challenge to the Nine Power Treaty and Kellogg-Briand Pact. A group of well-placed “anti-internationalists” wanted to overturn a system that, they believed, gave too many concessions to China and left Japan “completely at the mercy of outside forces.” Their first move came in September 1931, when they used military conquest to obtain a formal empire in Manchuria—the prelude to a gradual military encroachment into northern China.5

While Germany and Japan began to challenge the systems created after World War I, the United States shied away from a decisive response. True, President Herbert Hoover and Secretary of State Henry Stimson both instinctively opposed Japan’s action in Manchuria, with Stimson especially concerned with the Tokyo’s challenge to existing treaty obligations. In January 1932, Stimson even proclaimed his nonrecognition doctrine, stating that Washington would not recognize any situation brought about by the use of force. Yet while this doctrine laid down a marker for the future, Stimson and Hoover both agreed to go no further. Not only were economic sanctions unappealing at a time of depression, they also knew that the public had no desire to back words with deeds.6

Indeed, the second consequence of the depression was to make the American public more inward-looking than ever. Although World War I had not turned the United States into an isolationist nation, it had created an intense abhorrence of modern war, that most extreme method of international interaction. During the 1920s Americans had mourned at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their hundreds of thousands, applauded efforts to create massive monuments near the sites of the French battlefields, and cheered on the Gold Star Mothers, who finally got Congress to fund widows’ trips to France to visit their husbands’ graves.7 Many also joined peace groups, pledged to avoid a repeat of the carnage of 1914–1918; others read the influential works of literature that sought to “expose the war” in all its bloody horror, while attacking the generals who had ruthlessly sent thousands to their death and “then tried to hide the truth about their demise.”8

Then came the Depression. As George Herring has observed, “The boxing aphorism ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ applies to the American economy in the 1930s.” Between 1929 and 1933 gross national product halved, while the value of manufactured goods declined to less than a quarter. By 1933, this was a country where more than 15 million people were unemployed and at least a million lacked homes, a country where people now waited in line at soup kitchens or lived in shantytowns known as Hoovervilles.9

It was also a country where the Democrats had returned to power after twelve years in opposition. On entering the White House in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s goal was to spark an economic recovery, while also reforming the banking, industrial, and agricultural sectors that had failed so disastrously. To this end, he initially turned to nationalist initiatives, and when these clashed with international efforts he left no one in any doubt where his priorities resided. In July 1933, as delegates from the other leading economies gathered in London for a World Economic Conference, Roosevelt was particularly dismissive of international cooperation. In his so-called “bombshell message” he told the other conference participants that he would neither participate in exchange-rate stabilization nor return the United States to the gold standard any time soon. “Old fetishes of so-called international bankers,” he instructed the delegates, “are being replaced by efforts to plan national currencies.”10

As the Depression bit deep, bankers continued to remain a target for Roosevelt and his liberal allies. In Congress, Senator Hiram Johnson (R-CA) argued that the U.S. government had been far too generous in its treatment of both international bankers and European governments, not only renegotiating the terms of their war debts but even providing them with a brief moratorium. He then contrasted this munificence with the plight of ordinary farmers and workers who had been forced into foreclosures, bankruptcy, and unemployment. Johnson’s message was clear. The U.S. government should end its compassion to those foreigners who still owed money. They should be forced to repay. And those who failed to do so should face the consequences outlined in a bill Johnson introduced and Congress ultimately passed: they should have no access to private American loans.11

The Johnson Debt-Default Act of 1934, as one historian has argued, “was more of an angry nationalist slap at Europeans than any real effort to win further payments.”12 But to those on the receiving end, the slap still stung. When combined with Roosevelt’s “bombshell message,” senior leaders in London and Paris never forgot what they considered to be America’s “desertion.” “The power that has the greatest strength,” Neville Chamberlain would continue to believe throughout the decade, “was the United States of America, but he would be a rash man who based his calculations on help from that quarter.”13 Hence the third significant repercussion of the Depression: in the last war, it had ultimately taken a coalition of Britain, France, and the United States to defeat Germany on the battlefield. By the mid-point of the 1930s, the poison generated by the depression made the prospect of ever reviving that coalition look very dim indeed, even when Japan, Germany, and Italy started to challenge the existing international order.

Searching for Neutrality, 1935–1937

Bankers were not Congress’s only target in the anti-business temper of the time. In 1934, Senator Gerald P. Nye (R-ND) began hearings into the munitions industry. Heavily influenced by a raft of new books with titles like Merchants of Death or Iron, Blood, and Profits, Nye believed that the United States had intervened in World War I not because it faced a real security threat from German aggression but rather because international bankers and U.S. munitions makers had had a financial incentive in ensuring that Britain and France prevailed. Although much of the resulting hearings focused on the dry and dull intricacies of the relationship between big business and government, Nye was an indefatigable publicist who toured the country promoting his central theme. “There may be doubt as to the degree,” he insisted “but there is certainly no doubt that the profits of preparation for war and the profits of war itself constitute the most serious challenge to the peace of the world.”14

Nye also had an ally of sorts in the White House. Roosevelt initially supported his hearings, and then in a move that surprised Nye at the time and has confounded historians ever since, he encouraged the committee to examine the possibility of neutrality legislation.15 Roosevelt was not happy with the result. He wanted a neutrality bill that gave the president discretion over when and where to implement it. If deployed discriminately, such legislation might work as an embargo against an aggressive state. Congress saw the situation differently, however. The last thing isolationist legislators wanted was an American policy that would effectively place sanctions on a power accused of waging an expansionist war. Rather, they were keen to avoid another situation like 1917, when U.S. economic support for one side had ultimately dragged the country into full belligerency. The bill they produced therefore made it “unlawful to export arms, ammunition, or implements of war … to any port of such belligerent states.”16

Despite its mandatory provision, Roosevelt ultimately decided to sign the bill. He did so largely because he remained fixated on his domestic agenda and fretted that to oppose his liberal allies on the Neutrality Act might provoke them into opposing key planks of New Deal legislation that were about to be debated on the Senate floor. Yet Roosevelt also realized that the first test of this mandatory neutrality legislation would hurt the aggressor more. Italy had been poised for months to invade Ethiopia in an effort to conquer an African empire that could supply it with valuable raw materials. When the war finally began in October 1935, Roosevelt recognized that Italy needed strategic supplies from the United States, including oil, cotton, and iron ore, while Ethiopia “had neither ships nor ocean ports.” He therefore decided to go beyond the letter, and even the spirit, of the law. As well as signing a neutrality proclamation, he issued what his advisers dubbed a “moral embargo,” calling on Americans to desist from trading materials not covered by the act but still vital to the Italian war effort.17

It was a popular decision, both with many isolationists who worried about a repeat of 1917 and the small group of internationalists who saw Roosevelt effectively aligning American policy with a League of Nations embargo against Italy. But it also failed. Neither Britain nor France pushed for a strong embargo that might have hampered Italy, while American business ignored the administration’s moral embargo to such a degree that the export of materials like oil actually rose. More troubling for the longer term, the clear partiality of Roosevelt’s actions, coupled with the League’s sanctions, alienated Mussolini to such a degree that he began his first tentative moves toward an alliance with Nazi Germany.18

This nascent German–Italian alliance was cemented still further a year later, when both powers intervened in the Spanish Civil War. At first, Roosevelt pushed for another arms embargo. He was keen to follow the lead of Britain and France, who were closer to the problem and had already announced their own policy of nonintervention. He also knew that such a policy was in tune with the dominant mood at home, and with a presidential election looming in November 1936 he could not ignore the views of powerful Irish- and Italian-Catholic communities who were repelled by the Spanish Republican government’s anticlericalism. This time, however, he soon recognized that American neutrality helped the wrong side.19

During 1937 Roosevelt became increasingly sympathetic to the Republic. As the rebel army of General Francisco Franco received more and more support from Germany and Italy, an increasingly vocal minority of Americans began to view Spain as the first round in a struggle with Nazism and fascism. While some joined pro-Spain relief organizations, others actually volunteered to fight in one of the international brigades. Ernest Hemingway became perhaps the Republic’s the most famous American booster, spending time in Spain as both a reporter and propagandist. In the summer of 1937, the author went to the White House where he showed the president his new film, The Spanish Earth. Roosevelt was impressed. “Spain is a vicarious sacrifice for all of us,” he remarked afterwards.20

But should the United States do more than offer empathy from the sidelines? Toward the end of the Spanish Civil War, Roosevelt made a rare admission of error, stating that the Spanish embargo “had been a grave mistake.”21 Not only did it deny the elected government access to American weapons, but it also had no impact Franco, who received both weapons and troops from Hitler and Mussolini, including the notorious Condor Legion whose brutal bombing of Guernica shocked the world.22 Yet Roosevelt also recognized that he lacked the power to overturn the embargo. By 1938 he was a lame duck president with seemingly little chance of running for a third term in 1940, and his authority with Congress declined accordingly. Nor did it help that his congressional critics had been both alienated and emboldened by his failed efforts first to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937 and then to “purge” his leading conservative opponents from the Democratic Party in 1938. For all these reasons, Roosevelt decided not to tackle the embargo head on. Instead, he resorted to aiding the Spanish Republic covertly, including sending it airplanes, in the type of underhand and furtive move that he would repeatedly resort to as the international crisis deepened.23

Appeasement Versus Deterrence, 1937–1939

While Spain suffered, Roosevelt grappled with ways to deal with the wider problems in Europe and Asia. His thinking on Japan clarified first, for the simple reason that Japanese aggression initially appeared more overt, if not necessarily more threatening, than anything Hitler was attempting. In July 1937 a full-scale, though undeclared, war erupted between China and Japan. American sympathies were clear from the outset. For the previous five years the American press had universally denounced Japanese actions in China. By 1937 a clear majority of mass opinion expressed sympathy for the Chinese cause; two years later almost two-thirds supported an embargo against the Japanese aggressor.24

Despite this groundswell of opinion, Roosevelt moved with extreme caution. Privately, he had no doubt that Japan’s aggressive “rule-breaking” posed a threat to the region. He also believed that a large Japanese empire in East Asia would have negative repercussions for the U.S. economy, for the Japanese would undoubtedly seek to exclude all American trade from this region so they could exploit it for their own narrow ends.25 Yet how to respond proved more problematic. On the one hand, he clearly wanted to help China. To this end, he used the loophole provided by the undeclared status of the war to avoid invoking the neutrality legislation, for, as Jonathan Utley observes, this “would have allowed Japan to buy raw materials from the United States that Japanese industry could transform into weapons of war, while unindustrialized China was dependent upon buying the already manufactured goods that would be embargoed under the Neutrality Act.”26 When Japanese planes then attacked the U.S.S. Panay on the Yangtze River in December, Roosevelt briefly contemplated going much further. He even asked his advisers whether he had the power to seize Japanese assets inside the United States “and hold them against payment for the damages done by Japan,” only to climb down when Tokyo offered a swift and fulsome policy.

Underpinning the prospect of sanctions was a crucial fact. The Japanese war economy was heavily dependent on crucial American imports, especially gasoline, iron, steel, and cotton. If the United States imposed sanctions on these materials, it might bring Japan’s aggressive war in China to a grinding halt: this was the view of the hawks in the Roosevelt administration. The doves, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, saw the situation differently. They feared that stiff sanctions would provoke Japan into an aggressive retaliatory act that might ultimately lead to war. And they managed to hold sway over American policy until the end of the decade.27

Roosevelt conceded to Hull largely because he increasingly saw Hitler’s moves in Europe as potentially much more threatening, although even here there remained an ambiguity in his thinking until the Munich crisis. Roosevelt was certainly worried about Hitler’s massive rearmament program, but he also hoped that its reckless speed would engender political and economic difficulties that might in turn result in the regime’s internal implosion. Even if Hitler survived, Roosevelt remained uncertain about his ultimate goals. Until Munich the president remained somewhat optimistic that perhaps the führer only wanted to revise the most objectionable clauses of the Versailles Treaty. This, after all, was what Hitler himself declared in public. And despite the rapid pace of German rearmament, the Nazi leader had yet to engage in an overt action that could not be explained away under the guise of seeking either equality of arms or national self-determination.28

Unable to identify the scope or nature of the German problem, Roosevelt was naturally somewhat ambivalent when it came to formulating proposed solutions. Occasionally, he was inclined toward ideas whose central thrust was to block Hitler, such as a direct appeal to the German people or a quarantine that would bring the fragile Nazi economy to its knees.29 But at this stage, Roosevelt’s attention was not focused purely on containment. He was also periodically attracted to a diplomatic solution—and if such an agreement was in the offing he was determined to be, if not a leading player, then at least an enthusiastic spectator.30

This explains the central thrust of his policies over the winter of 1937–1938. First he suggested some sort of multilateral diplomatic forum where all the major powers would discuss the issues that divided them, including the Welles Plan, which proposed “trying to achieve a general agreement on questions such as the fundamental rules which ought to govern international behavior.”31 Multilateral action proved difficult, however, especially with Neville Chamberlain still smarting at American actions earlier in the decade. Convinced that Roosevelt could not be trusted, the British prime minister preferred to deal with the dictators on his own. Rebuffed, Roosevelt intermittently expressed some sympathy for London’s bilateral attempts at appeasement, going as far as to state that he “would be the first to cheer” if Chamberlain succeeded in clinching a deal with Hitler.32

At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Chamberlain gambled that Hitler could be trusted, and that he had no more expansionist desires beyond the German-speaking region of Sudetenland. Roosevelt increasingly disagreed with this optimistic conclusion, not least because of Hitler’s actions during the crisis. In fact, Hitler’s obduracy in negotiations and his aggressive speechmaking finally clarified his thinking. To Roosevelt, these actions showed this “gangster” could not be trusted. Appeasement, he concluded, was doomed to fail. So between October 1938 and September 1939 he searched for alternatives.33

Roosevelt’s policy at this stage did not include direct American involvement in a possible new war. For one thing, he knew that the public would not tolerate any move that even hinted that the United States might get dragged into such a conflict. For another, he also thought a forceful and assertive U.S. response was unnecessary. In his opinion, the British with their massive navy and the French with their huge army were much better placed to deter or contain Hitler’s next moves. Instead Roosevelt’s policy revolved around trying to stiffen London and Paris’s resolve to stand up to Germany. If they could be persuaded to abandon appeasement, then Hitler might well think twice, especially if he thought Britain and France could again depend on American economic support. Roosevelt was particularly worried about Germany’s apparent superiority in air power, which he believed had emboldened Hitler and demoralized the democracies. “I must have something to back up my words,” Roosevelt told his advisers in November 1938. “Had we had this summer 5,000 planes and the capacity immediately to produce 10,000 per year, even though I might have had to ask Congress for authority to sell or lend them to countries in Europe, Hitler would have not dared to take the stand he did.”34

Yet if deterrence was Roosevelt’s main goal, he faced two main problems. One was the nature of his adversary. Hitler proved to be a reckless gambler who resorted to military force with abandon; unlike Joseph Stalin during the Cold War, it was doubtful whether he could have been deterred or contained short of outright war. The other was American opinion. Although it might have been impossible to deter Hitler during 1939, Roosevelt was never in a position to try for the simple reason that he was so constrained domestically that he felt he could only act secretly and furtively—and deterrence, to be effective, requires your adversary to be clear about what you will do and certain that you will do it.

There was little that was clear or certain about American policy during the last year of European peace. Privately, Roosevelt tried to convince Chamberlain that “in the event of hostilities with the dictatorships, he ‘would have the industrial resources of the American nation behind him.’”35 To bolster this message he also sought to provide France with some of the new airplanes the United States was starting to construct, although once again he made sure this was done as secretly as possible.36

Indeed, Roosevelt refused to go beyond such private pledges. As president, he was often attracted to indirect, even underhand, methods, but on this occasion his actions reflected the continued political reality. When Roosevelt convened a meeting of legislative leaders in July 1939 to discuss the necessity of neutrality revision, isolationist senators categorically opposed any change, even though if Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany the Neutrality Act would effectively hinder the former and help the latter. “Well captain,” Vice President John Nance Garner concluded at the end of the session, “we may as well face the facts. You haven’t got the votes, and that’s all there is to it.”37

All Aid to Allies Short of War, 1939–1941

It took the outbreak of European war in September 1939 for this basic political reality to change. Within two months, Roosevelt successfully managed both to repeal the arms embargo and obtain a cash-and-carry formula that allowed Britain, with its large navy, vital access to the American economy. For the next two years, the basic objective of Roosevelt’s policy remained constant: he would try to provide all aid to those countries fighting Nazi Germany short of war.

These last three words were key. Before Pearl Harbor, the American public remained determined to stay out of another world war. This was the animating idea behind America First, which soon boasted more than 800,000 members in 450 chapters and which used its vast reach to aggressively propagandize the antiwar message.38 Roosevelt had long been convinced that he was up “against a public psychology of long standing—a psychology which comes very close to saying ‘Peace at any price.’”39 In October 1940 he felt so intimidated by the antiwar consensus that, to win an unprecedented third term, he made a categorical pledge. “Your boys,” he told a large audience in Boston, “are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”40

Although no boys would be sent overseas, plenty of economic material headed in that direction. This was the other dimension of Roosevelt’s policy, and it had an important consequence, for one simple reason. These allies were losing the war, and they needed more and more American support to keep up their struggle against a rampant Germany. Britain’s plight was particularly important to the dynamics of American policy. First Britain required more weapons in the wake of France’s stunning collapse in June 1940. Then it needed credit to purchase these weapons. And finally it wanted U.S. naval support to ensure that these weapons made it safely across the U-boat–infested Atlantic. Roosevelt’s efforts to meet each of these requirements met with widespread public approval, for an increasing number of Americans not only sympathized with Britain, especially after German bombs began to fall on London, but also saw it as a bulwark against further Nazi expansion.41

Yet Roosevelt still faced important congressional obstacles, not least the Johnson Act that prevented loans to Britain. His response was typical. Rather than confront Congress head on by repealing the offending legislation, Roosevelt sought to maneuver around it, in this case by securing passage of lend-lease in 1941. His justification for this measure demonstrated how he now saw America’s role in the war. “The people of Europe who are defending themselves do not ask us to do their fighting,” Roosevelt stressed. “They ask us for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our security … Our national policy is not directed toward war. Its sole purpose is to keep war away from our country and our people.”42 And that remained Roosevelt’s policy until December 7, 1941, when war finally came to the United States.

Discussion of the Literature

Initial historiography on American foreign policy during the 1930s simply carried on the “great debate” that had raged before Pearl Harbor over whether or not the United States should directly intervene in World War II. A number of writers who had been close to, or worked for, the Roosevelt administration wrote the standard accounts, often with special access to the documentary record, including Robert Sherwood, Herbert Feis, and William Langer and Everett Gleason.43 Central to their task was a refutation of the so-called “revisionists.” These were historians like Charles Beard and Charles Tansill, who continued to argue the isolationist position that the United States had faced no real threat from Germany, Japan, and Italy and that Roosevelt had tricked the nation into war.44

Over time, the historical debate morphed from the rights and wrongs of Roosevelt’s foreign policy into explanations of what the president did and why he did it. Roosevelt’s style of foreign policymaking helped to fuel this new phase, for he had often been deliberately vague and obscure. Advisers referred to his “thickly forested interior” or characterized him as “the most complicated human being they ever knew.” Henry Stimson, who became his secretary of war, once complained that having a policy discussion with Roosevelt was “very much like chasing a vagrant beam around a vacant room.”45

Unsurprisingly historians have captured different variations of this elusive beam. According to Robert Divine, “Roosevelt pursued an isolationist policy, refusing to commit the United States to the defense of the existing international order.”46 Arnold Offner essentially agreed. Writing in 1969, the same year as Divine, he reached “the inescapable conclusion that from Roosevelt, through Hull and Welles, and down through the ranks of the State Department, in the Congress, and in all walks of life, with too few exceptions, there persisted a belief that Europe’s problems were Europe’s.”47 A decade later, however, Robert Dallek’s magisterial study portrayed Roosevelt as, at heart, an internationalist, who had to temper his basic preferences because of the dominant political mood.48 It was a view endorsed by James MacGregor Burns, who went even further. Roosevelt, in Burns’ account, “was more pussy footing politician than political leader,” who was “beguiled by public opinion, by its strange combination of fickleness and rigidity”; rather than seek to lead, he “seemed to float almost helplessly on [its] flood tide.”49

Because of its importance, the popular mood of this era has been intensively studied. The first accounts sought to explain the pervasiveness of isolationism during the decade, while also exploring the core beliefs that made Americans so leery of any involvement in the outside world. As Manfred Jonas argued, these included a belief in unilateralism, a faith in invulnerability, and a hatred of war.50 Other historians then assessed how isolationism operated at the level of national politics. Thus Robert Divine examined in great detail the executive-congressional debates over neutrality, while Wayne Cole looked at the fluctuating but increasingly tense relations between Roosevelt and isolationist legislators.51

Although not ignoring these domestic constraints, another group of historians wrote detailed histories of America’s response to various crises. Dorothy Borg’s seminal study on the United States’ reaction to events in China is a model of this type of detailed, primary-source driven monograph.52 In the 1970s and early 1980s, Christopher Thorne and David Reynolds produced highly sophisticated accounts of America’s policy toward the League of Nations and Britain at different ends of the decade.53 Meanwhile, Jonathan Utley emphasized the importance of bureaucratic debates inside the State Department in the evolution of U.S. policy toward the Sino-Japanese War.

More recently, specific books on various crises have placed Roosevelt at the center of events. Yes, he was certainly constrained by public, and especially congressional opinion, but by uncovering his underlying perceptions, while also looking at his complicated responses to a rapidly changing international environment, they have followed the lead of Warren Kimball and Waldo Heinrichs. These two eminent scholars, when writing about the 1940s, have depicted Roosevelt as a skilful leader, an active and purposeful policymaker, who kept “all the threads in his hands.” Kimball, for instance, believes that “Roosevelt moved with consistency and broad purpose, even while experimenting with various and superficially contradictory solutions.”54 Dominic Tierney’s work on the Spanish Civil War and Barbara Farnham’s theoretically rich book on the Munich crisis reinforce this point with respect to the late 1930s.55

Primary Sources

Many of the relevant primary sources relating to Roosevelt have been published. The best starting point is Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs. The first series, edited by Edgar Nixon in three volumes, covers 1933 to 1937; the second series, edited by Donald Schewe in eleven volumes, covers 1937 to 1939.56 These should be supplemented by Elliott Roosevelt’s edited collection of Roosevelt’s letters, FDR: His Personal Letters and Samuel I. Rosenman’s compilation of The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt.57 Every presidents’ public papers are also available digitally. The three volumes of Harold Ickes’s Secret Diary contain a number of useful records of important meetings.58

For those interested in delving deeper, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, is essential. Apart from the president’s own papers, the most useful collections are those of Adolf Berle, Harry Hopkins, and especially Henry Morgenthau’s copious diaries.59 For more detail on works relating to Roosevelt, see the Library of Congress’s online guide.

Congress played a major role in foreign policy throughout the decade. For the locations of legislators’ papers, as well as short biographical information and further readings, see the excellent Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Proquest has created the U.S. Congressional Hearings Digital Collection Historical Archive 1824–2003, which makes researching hearings much easier.

After the opinion poll fiasco of the 1936 election, when a series of straw polls predicted a Roosevelt defeat, the first scientific pollsters emerged. From 1937, the new journal Public Opinion Quarterly began to collate their findings, which give a useful insight into the mood of the time.60

Further Reading

“American Institute of Public Opinion—Surveys, 1938–39.” Public Opinion Quarterly 3 (1939): 581–607.Find this resource:

Borg, Dorothy. The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933–1938. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Casey, Steven. Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion, and the War Against Nazi Germany, 1941–45. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Coulter, Matthew Ware. The Senate Munitions Inquiry of the 1930s: Beyond the Merchants of Death. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Struggle over the Arms Embargo. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968.Find this resource:

Doenecke, Justus D. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939–1941. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.Find this resource:

Farnham, Barbara Rearden. Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis: A Study of Political Decision-Making. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Ickes, Harold L. The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes. 3 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.Find this resource:

Iriye, Akira. The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific. London: Longman, 1987.Find this resource:

Langer, William L., and S. Everett Gleason, Challenge to Isolation, 1937–1940. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1952.Find this resource:

Nixon, Edgar, ed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs. 1st ser., 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1969.Find this resource:

Offner, Arnold A. American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933–1938. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1969.Find this resource:

Reynolds, David. Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance: A Study in Competitive Cooperation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Reynolds, David. From Munich to Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt’s America and the Origins of the Second World War. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2001.Find this resource:

Schewe, Donald B., ed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs. 2d ser., 11 vols. New York: Clearwater Publishing, 1979.Find this resource:

Schmitz, David F., and Richard D. Challener, eds. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Thorne, Christopher. The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931–33. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1973.Find this resource:

Tierney, Dominic. FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle That Divided America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Utley, Jonathan G. Going to War with Japan, 1937–1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) Lloyd Gardner, “Isolation and Appeasement: An American Vision of Taylor’s Origins,” in The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered: The A.J.P. Taylor Debate after Twenty-Five Years, ed. Gordon Martel (London: Unwin Hyman, 1986), 210.

(2.) Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of World Order (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 206–207; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Allen Lane, 2011), 245–255.

(3.) Sadao Asada, “Between the Old Diplomacy and the New, 1918–1922: The Washington Conference and the Origins of Japanese Rapprochement,” Diplomatic History 30 (2006): 223–228; and Akira Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific (London: Longman, 1987), 2–5.

(4.) Charles H. Feinstein, Peter Temin, and Gianni Toniolo, The World Economy Between the Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 137.

(5.) Iriye, Origins of the Second World War in Asia, 5–14. On Japanese actions, see also Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(6.) Dorothy Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933–1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 9; and Christopher Thorne, The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931–33 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1973), 58, 246.

(7.) G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1995), 92–121; Mark Meigs, Optimism at Armageddon: Voices of American Participants in the First World War (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 1997), 147–148; and Lisa M. Budreau, “The Politics of Remembrance: The Gold Star Mothers’ Pilgrimage and America’s Fading Memory of the Great War,” Journal of Military History 72 (2008): 371–411.

(8.) David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 219–222; and Evan A. Huelfer, The “Casualty Issue” in American Military Practice: The Impact of World War I (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 34–35.

(9.) George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 486); William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 18–19; and David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 84–88.

(10.) Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 155.

(11.) Wayne S. Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 87–94.

(12.) Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 94.

(13.) Zara Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and David Reynolds, Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance: A Study in Competitive Cooperation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 10.

(14.) Matthew Ware Coulter, The Senate Munitions Inquiry of the 1930s: Beyond the Merchants of Death (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 51–65, 90–95; and Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 151.

(15.) For a good summary of different historical interpretations of Roosevelt’s motives, see Coulter, Senate Munitions Inquiry, 81–82.

(16.) State Department, Peace and War: The United States Foreign Policy, 1931–41 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1943), 266–271.

(17.) Robert A. Divine, The Illusion of Neutrality: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Struggle over the Arms Embargo (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968), 102–103, 111–117, 122–128.

(18.) For more detail, see Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 103–116; and Divine, Illusion of Neutrality, 128–134. On the Italian reaction, see John Gooch, Mussolini and His Generals: The Armed Forces and Fascist Foreign Policy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 311–317.

(19.) Dominic Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 39–52.

(20.) Douglas Little, “Antibolshevism and Appeasement: Great Britain, the United States, and the Spanish Civil War,” in David F. Schmitz and Richard D. Challener, eds., Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), 29–30; Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War, 34, 59–64. For more detail on Hemingway, see Paul Preston, We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War (London: Constable, 2008), 72–108. For more detail on the American response, see Allen Guttman, Wound in the Heart: America and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962).

(21.) Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), 2:569.

(22.) For an analysis of this reaction, see Herbert Rutledge Southworth, Guernica! Guernica! A Study of Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda, and History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

(23.) Dominic Tierney, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and Covert Aid to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39,” Journal of Contemporary History 39 (2004): 299–313.

(24.) Eleanor Tupper and George E. McReynolds, Japan in American Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1937), 319–326, 421–424. This survey points out that media opinion became “almost completely hostile to Japan” at the start of 1932, after a Sino-Japanese clash in Shanghai. See also, Gallup Poll, 159, 168, 177, 208, 246, 296.

(25.) Elliott Roosevelt, ed., FDR: His Personal Letters (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1950), 1:342–343, 732–733; 2:1093–1095. On Roosevelt’s perceptions of Japan, see Waldo H. Heinrichs, Diplomacy and Force: America’s Road to War, 1931–1941 (Chicago: Imprint Publications, 1996), 141; and Norman A. Graebner, “Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Japanese,” in Dorothy Borg and Shumpei Okamoto, ed., Pearl Harbor as History: Japanese-American Relations, 1931–1941 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 46, 41–42.

(26.) Jonathan G. Utley, Going to War with Japan, 1937–1941 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 13.

(27.) Utley, Going to War with Japan, 27–30, 43–63; and Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis, 493–500.

(28.) Ickes Diary, 2: 315; and Donald B. Schewe, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs (New York: Clearwater Publishing, 1979), 2d ser., 1: 11.

(29.) On public appeals, see Roosevelt, ed., FDR, 1: 625–626; and Ickes Diary, 2: 619. On a blockade, see Arnold A. Offner, American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933–1938 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1969), 105; Roosevelt, FDR, 1: 472–473.

(30.) Schewe, ed., Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 2d ser., 5: 904; 7: 898. Dallek, Roosevelt and Foreign Policy, 124, 138–139.

(31.) Dorothy Borg, “Notes on Roosevelt’s ‘Quarantine’ Speech,” Political Science Quarterly 72 (1957): 408–412; William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason, Challenge to Isolation, 1937–1940 (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1952), 22; and Callum A. MacDonald, The United States and British Appeasement, 1936–1939 (Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1981), 34–39.

(32.) Ronald I. Lindsay to Lord Halifax, September 20, 1938, copy in PSF (Diplomatic): Britain, FDRL; Callum A. MacDonald, “Deterrent Diplomacy: Roosevelt and the Containment of Germany, 1938–1940,” in Paths to War: New Essays on the Origins of the Second World War, ed. Robert Boyce and Esmonde M. Robertson (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1989), 300–301.

(33.) Arthur Murray, At Close Quarters: A Sidelight on Anglo-American Diplomatic Relations (London: John Murray, 1946), 95; Langer and Gleason, Challenge to Isolation, 76; and Barbara Rearden Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis: A Study of Political Decision-Making (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 114–115, 146, 164–165.

(34.) Viscount Elibank, “Franklin Roosevelt: Friend of Britain,” Contemporary Review 187 (1955): 365–366; Mark S. Watson, Chief of Staff: Prewar Plans and Preparations (Washington, DC: GPO, 1950), 136–139; and Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis, 184.

(35.) Nicholas J. Cull, Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American “Neutrality” in World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 22–23.

(36.) Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis, 188–202. For some useful evidence into Roosevelt’s thinking, see Elibank, “Roosevelt,” 362–368.

(37.) Langer and Gleason, Challenge to Isolation, 144.

(38.) Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 380–382; and Justus D. Doenecke, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939–1941 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 150–164.

(39.) Roosevelt, FDR, 1: 716–717.

(40.) Franklin D. Roosevelt, October 30, 1940; and Robert A. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, 1940–1948 (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974), 65–68, 80–81.

(41.) Steven Casey, Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion, and the War Against Nazi Germany, 1941–45 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 25–30.

(43.) Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper, 1950); Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War Between the United States and Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950); and Langer and Gleason, Challenge to Isolation.

(44.) Charles A. Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948); and Charles C. Tansill, Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933–41 (Chicago: Regnery, 1952).

(45.) Steven Casey, “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” in Mental Maps in the Era of Two World Wars, ed. Steven Casey and Jonathan Wright (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2008), 216–218.

(46.) Robert A. Divine, Roosevelt and World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), 5–6.

(47.) Offner, American Appeasement, 280.

(48.) Dallek, Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy.

(49.) James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 262; and Soldier of Freedom, 133, 152, 607.

(50.) Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America, 1935–41 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966).

(51.) Divine, The Illusion of Neutrality; and Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists.

(52.) Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis.

(53.) Thorne, The Limits of Foreign Policy; and Reynolds, Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance.

(54.) Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 7–8, 13; and Waldo Heinrichs, Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

(55.) Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War; and Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis.

(56.) Edgar Nixon, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1969); and Donald Schewe, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 11 vols. (New York: Garland, 1979–1983).

(57.) Elliott Roosevelt, FDR: His Personal Letters, 4 vols. (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1947–1950); and Samuel I. Rosenman, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 13 vols. (New York: Random House, 1938–1950).

(58.) Harold Ickes, Secret Diary (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955).

(59.) Excerpts from, or portions of, each can be found in Beatrice Jacobs and Travis Beal Jacobs, eds., Navigating the Rapids, 1918–1971: The Papers of Adolf A. Berle (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973); Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper, 1950); and John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959–1967).

(60.) See, in particular, “American Institute of Public Opinion—Surveys, 1938–39,” Public Opinion Quarterly 3 (1939): 581–607. A selection of polls can also be found in the first volume of George H. Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion, 1935–1971 (New York: Random House, 1972).