Robert Kennedy's  United States History Class

Subtitle

World War II 1941-45

World War II was a major turning point in American history. To this moment, its effects are still felt. 


The following five areas are among the most important effects of World War II: 

(1) America's role as an economic and political superpower was expanded; 


(2) America became the world's leader in anti-communism; 


(3) growth and development of the military-industrial complexoccurred; 


(4) there was extraordinary expansion of the powers of the executive branch of government; and 


(5) the birth of the atomic age occurred and the nuclear arms race began


Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley

He is among the persons who are often called the "father of the atomic bomb" for their role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons

The first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico; Oppenheimer remarked later that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Learning Objective I:  
Discuss America‚Äôs attitude toward foreign affairs

The term "isolationist" can be misleading. It is true that Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt in their first terms avoided any sort of "entangling alliance." However, no one objected to America's continuing search for world markets and economic influence.  Before World War I, the main flow of investment capital ran from Europe to America. But during the war and after, the movement of capital had reversed itself and America had become the world's leading creditor nation.  Hence, isolationism as it is used to describe the mood and actions of the country between 1920-1941

The postwar mood of the 1920's led to a return of this political isolationist pattern. The retreat from an active world policy started in 1920 and turned into a headlong flight back to isolationism in the '30's.


The following factors explain America's movement into isolationism.


FACTOR ONE: First, isolationism was an American tradition which can historically trace its roots back to the days of George Washington and his Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793. From the 1790's until the Spanish American War, American neutrality remained unchallenged, and it developed into a tradition that was reasserted, at least initially, with respect to every major international conflict before World War II.


FACTOR TWO: The retreat to isolation started in 1920 with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and Americans entry into the League of Nations by the U S Senate. The actions by the Senate were overwhelming ratified at the poles in the 1920 election. In that election the voters expressed their yearning for normalcy, and President-elect Harding lost little time in indulging it by disposing of the League of Nations.

Clearly the League was an alliance, an open-ended commitment of the very sort which the Founding Fathers had warned against. Wilson in fact promoted American participation in the international organization as "an entirely new course of action" made necessary by the fact that the isolation of the United States was at an end "not because we chose to go into the politics of the world , but because by the sheer genius of this people and the growth of our power we have become a determining factor in the history of mankind and after you have become a determining factor in the history of mankind you cannot remain isolated, whether you want to or not."  The isolationists generally agreed with the contention that isolation was no longer a realistic aim, if indeed it had ever been, but took sharp issue with the proposed policy reversal.



Henry Cabot Lodge
of Massachusetts told his Senate colleagues in 1919, "Nobody expects to isolate the United States or make it a hermit Nation, which is sheer absurdity." But he warned at the same time against the injury the United States would do itself by "meddling in all the differences which may arise among any portion or fragment of humankind" and he urged continued adherence to "the policy of Washington and Hamilton ... under which we have risen to our present greatness and prosperity."

FACTOR THREE:  Next, since American intervention in World War I had clearly failed to make the world safe for democracy, this apparently demonstrated the wisdom that meddling in the affairs of others was useless and self-defeating. Consequently, as totalitarian regimes increasingly threatened the peace of Europe, the United States adopteda series of Neutrality Acts between 1935-1937 to help preserve its isolationist philosophy in order to avoid involvement in war.


The Neutrality Act of 1935 was explicitly designed to prevent a recurrence of the events that had pulled the United States into World War I. The Act, imposed an embargo on arms trade with countries atwar. and declared that American citizens could travel on belligerentships only at their own risk.


Congress expanded the Neutrality Act in 1936 to include no loans tobelligerents . In the spring of 1937 isolationism reached a peak, as the Gallup poll reported 94 percent of its respondents preferred efforts to keep out of war over efforts to prevent war.

Consequently in 1937, Congress passed a third Neutrality Act which was even stricter by adopting a "cash and carry" provision.  If a country at war wanted to purchase nonmilitary goods from the United States, it had to pay cash and pick up the supplies in its own ships.


Congress intended this restriction to prevent American trading ships from being the targets of attack as they were in World War I.


The neutrality legislation played directly into the hands of Adolf Hitler. Bent on the conquest of Europe, he could now proceed without worrying about American interference.  


FACTOR FOUR: Probably nothing did more to heighten American isolationism or anti-American feelings in Europe than the war-debt issue.   As discussed, during World War I when Allies had begun to exhaust their credit the United States government advanced them funds first for the war effort and then for postwar reconstruction.  A World War Foreign Debt Commission, created by Congress in 1922, renegotiated the Allied debt to America to a total of about  $11.5 billion. Adding the interest payable over sixty-two years to this principal, the Allied debt came to something over $22 billion.


To America at large it all seemed a simple matter of obligation, but Europeans commonly had a different perception.  The British noted that Americans had repudiated debts to British investors after the American War for Independence.


The Neutrality Act of 1935 was explicitly designed to prevent a recurrence of the events that had pulled the United States into World War I. The Act, imposed an embargo on arms trade with countries at war. and declared that American citizens could travel on belligerent ships only at their own risk.     Congress expanded the Neutrality Act in 1936 to include no loans to belligerents. In the spring of 1937 isolationism reached a peak, as the Gallup poll reported 94 percent of its respondents preferred efforts to keep out of war over efforts to prevent war.

Consequently in 1937, Congress passed a third Neutrality Act which was even stricter by adopting a "cash and carry" provision.  If a country at war wanted to purchase nonmilitary goods from the United States, it had to pay cash and pick up the supplies in its own ships.    Congress intended this restriction to prevent American trading ships from being the targets of attack as they were in World War I.

The neutrality legislation played directly into the hands of Adolf Hitler. Bent on the conquest of Europe, he could now proceed without worrying about American interference .    Probably nothing did more to heighten American isolationism or anti-American feelings in Europe than the war-debt issue. As discussed, during World War I when Allies had begun to exhaust their credit the United States government advanced them funds first for the war effort and then for postwar reconstruction.


A World War Foreign Debt Commission, created by Congress in 1.922, renegotiated the Allied debt to America to a total of about  $11.5 billion. Adding the interest payable over sixty-two years to this principal, the Allied debt came to something over $22 billion.


To America at large it all seemed a simple matter of obligation, but Europeans commonly had a different perception.   The British noted that Americans had repudiated debts to British investors after the American War for Independence.    The French also pointed out that they had never been repaid for their help (although the money they loaned was paid back) in that war.    Most difficult were the practical problems of repayment. In order to pay the debt, European debtors had to sell their goods to the United States, but tariff walls went higher in 1921 and 1922 as discussed and again in 1930, making debt payment impossible.

When the British and French insisted they could only pay their debts as they collected reparations from Germany, American bankers worked out a rescue plan in 1924 by lending Germany over $100 million.


The whole structure finally did collapse during the Great Depression. In 1931 President Hoover negotiated a moratorium on both German reparations and Allied payment of war debts, thereby indirectly accepting the connection between the two.


Once the United States had accepted the connection between reparations and war debt, the Allies virtually canceled German reparations, reducing them in 1932 to only $750 million, which was never paid.   At the end of 1932, after Hoover's debt moratorium ended, most of the European countries defaulted on their war debts to the United States. In retaliation, Congress passed the Johnson Debt Default Act of 1934, which prohibited private loans to any such government.


FACTOR FIVE: Further, between 1934-36 the country was much impressed b.Y Senator Gerald P. Nye's investigation into the munitions industry during World War I. The Senate Munitions Investigating Committee, headed by the isolationist Nye, probed for a possible alliance between the munitions industry, Wall Street banking houses, and the military.

It found no criminal conspiracy, but it did expose war profiteering and suggested the weapons industry had helped draw America into the war on the side of the Allies.   The Nye hearings strengthened the country's isolationist mood . No proof was forthcoming, but the public was prepared to believe the worst of businessmen during the Depression and accepted the "merchants-of-death" thesis developed by Nye.


FACTOR SIX: Also in the 1930's, highly respected historians charged that the country's involvement in World War I had been a tragic mistake. Not only munitions makers but greedy international bankers, clever British propagandists, and pro-British sentimentalists in the Wilson administration had caused the error. It must never happen again.  After World War I the conviction had grown that large armaments had been the war's cause, and that arms limitation was the lasting answer to peace.


Under a building program begun in 1916 the United States constructed a navy second only to that of Britain. Neither the British nor the Americans had much stomach for the cost of a naval armaments race with the other, but both shared a common concern with the alarming growth of Japanese power. 

To deal with the growing strains the glorious vision of abolishing war at the stroke of a pen culminated in a number of international conferences and treaties such as: 

(1) the Washington Armament Conference of 1922, 

(2) the Central American Conference of 1922-23,

 (3) the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, and finally

 (4) the London Naval Conference of 1930. 


A pact was signed by the United States and France and was an agreement to ban war. It was subsequently ratified by more than sixty countries but proved ineffective against the Nazi aggression of the 1930's.

Sixth, the Depression made foreign policy seem remote and unimportant to most Americans. As unemployment increased and the economic crisis intensified after 1929, many people grew apathetic about events abroad.

During his first term of office Roosevelt was an isolationist as he resisted entering into agreements or any alliances that might interfere with solving the nation's domestic crisis. Consequently, he also rejected any chance to deal with economic problems on an international basis because he wanted the freedom to experiment with currency manipulation as a device to fight the depression. Thus, he helped undermine an international monetary conference in 1933 which might have stabilized world currency--at the expense of the domestic economy.


Roosevelt's action dealt a severe blow to international cooperation . The epilogue was Europe's final default on the war debts and further American drift toward isolation.


In Latin America the spirit of peace and the principle of isolation was put forth by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. It was called the "Good Neighbor" Policy.

"In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor--the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others."


Roosevelt reinforced hemispheric goodwill in 1934: 


(1) by releasing Cuba from the Platt Amendment that had effectively made Cuba a United States protectorate after the Spanish-American War,


(2) U. S. Marines were withdrawn from Haiti where they had been since 1915,


(3) the United States signed a treaty with Panama that enlarged Panama's authority in the Canal Zone, and 


(4) by 1936 American troops no longer occupied any Latin American nation.


However, the Good Neighbor policy did not mean the United States had not changed its basic goal of political and economic dominance in the hemisphere ; rather , the new policy of benevolence reflected Roosevelt's belief that cooperation and friendship were more effective tactics than threats and armed intervention.


Mexico tried his patience in 1938 by nationalizing its oil resources, with admirable restraint, the President finally negotiated a settlement in 1941 on terms favorable to Mexico.  Yet this economic loss was more than offset by the new trade opportunities opened up by the Good Neighbor policy . American commerce with Latin America increased fourfold in the 1930's, and investment rose substantially from its Depression low.


Yet this economic loss was more than offset by the new trade opportunities opened up by the Good Neighbor policy . American commerce with Latin America increased fourfold in the 1930's, and investment rose substantially from its Depression low.


Most important, Roosevelt succeeded in forging a new policy of regional collective security. As the ominous events leading to World War II unfolded in Europe and Asia, the nations of the Western Hemisphere looked to the United States for protection against external danger. This represented Roosevelt's first step away from isolationism and toward intervention.   The spirit of isolation found other expressions as well: the higher tariff walls that have already been discussed and tight immigration laws by which a nation of immigrants all but shut the door to any more newcomers .