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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Lecture LO III

Learning Objective II:

Discuss FDR’s political pragmatism as he shifts from isolationism to intervention

Also, listen to the following story, in addition to the lecture, to respond to the Learning Objective

Angry Days' Shows An America Torn Over Entering World War II

When Japanese forces invaded China in 1937, Roosevelt began to turn from isolation to intervention . During Japan's take-over of Manchuria in 1931, the United States had done little more than express outrage. But this time the Japanese bombed Shanghai, and sacked Nanking.


In a memorable address Roosevelt urged the world to "quarantine" aggressors, a clear call for collective security. The speech aroused the isolationist senators, who raised a new hue and cry against foreign entanglements .


Nevertheless, the internationalist in Roosevelt came more and more to the front. For example, he chose not to define the conflict between Japan and China as a war and thus he was able to back the naval rearmament of China and authorize the sale of some $86 million in munitions. Roosevelt didthis in order to get around the Neutrality Act of 1935 while at the same time making a belated attempt to preserve the Open Door policy in Asia


For the next four years, while the United States and the Axis powers moved on a collision course, isolationists and internationalists were locked in a great debate over foreign affairs.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler began World War II by invading Poland . England and France responded two days later by declaring war, although there was no way they could prevent the German conquest of Poland.

Russia had played a key role, refusing Western overtures for a common front against Germany and finally signing a nonaggression treaty with Hitler in late August. The Nazi-Soviet Pact enabled Germany to avoid a two-front war; the Russians were rewarded with a generous slice of eastern Poland.

In response to these events, Roosevelt embarked on what Time magazine later called his "thousand-step road to war." Once hostilities broke out, Roosevelt made no secret of his sympathies. "This nation will remain a neutral nation," he stated, "but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well."

Two weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe, Roosevelt called Congress into special session to revise the neutrality legislation. He wanted to repeal the arms embargo in order to supply weapons to England and France, but he refused to state this aim openly. Instead he asked Congress to replace the arms embargo with cash-and-carry regulations.


Belligerents would be able to purchase war supplies in the United States, but they would have to pay cash and transport the goods in their own ships. Public opinion strongly supported the President, and Congress passed the revised neutrality policy by heavy margins in early November 1939.

In 1940, the Nazi armies conquered Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Meanwhile, German planes bombed Britain in preparation for invasion. Technically, the United States remained neutral through these events, but Roosevelt and an ever growing number of Americans were clearly rooting for Britain and France and against the Axis.


In the climax of the great debate over foreign policy, the crucial turning point from isolation to collective security was the Lend-Lease Act of 1941.


This law was prompted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill's alarming report that Britain was running out of both cash and credit. Since direct American loans would arouse memories of earlier war-debt defaults--the Johnson Act of 1934 forbade such loans anyway--Roosevelt created an ingenious device to by-pass that issue and yet supply British needs, the "lend-lease" program.


In a fireside chat on December 29, 1940, he told the nation it must become "the great arsenal of democracy" because of the threat of Britain's fall.


In January 1941, in a speech to Congress he warned that only the British navy stood between America and the peril of attack. "They do not need manpower. They do need billions of dollars worth of the weapons of defense."

In March 1941, the Lend-Lease Bill became law and it authorized the president to sell, transfer, exchange, lend, lease or otherwise dispose of arms and other equipment and supplies to "any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States."


The accompanying $7 billion appropriation ended the "cash" part of cash-and-carry and ensured Britain full access to American war supplies.


Isolationists angrily denounced Lend-Lease as both unnecessary and untruthful. "Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum," commented Senator Taft. "You don't want it back." Thus, by March 1941, the country was traveling a far more dangerous path than it had a few years earlier. Neutrality acts had now given way to the Lend-Lease policy.


In leading the nation to the brink of war in Europe, Roosevelt opened himself to criticism from both sides in the domestic debate. Interventionists felt he had been too cautious in dealing with the danger to the nation from Nazi Germany. Isolationists were equally critical of the President, claiming he had misled the American people by professing peace while plotting for war.


Roosevelt agreed with the interventionists that in the long run American security would be threatened by a German victory in Europe.

However, he was also aware that a poll taken in September 1941 showed that nearly 80 percent of the American people wanted to stay out of World War II.

Realizing that leading a divided nation into war would be disastrous, Roosevelt played for time, inching the country toward war while waiting for the Axis nations to make the ultimate move. Japan finally obliged at Pearl Harbor.


On the morning of December 7, 1941, war came to the United States unexpectedly. On that day Japanese planes streaked out of the sky to bomb the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.


This carefully planned attack killed more than two thousand American servicemen and sank or disabled 19 ships. It dealt a terrible blow both to the nation's naval power and to its pride.


Congress declared war on Japan one day later, and Germany and Italy then declared war on the United States.