It appears that in the years preceding the Second World War, finding any historical controversy over Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy is extremely difficult. From the start he had been dedicated to an American policy of isolationism and there are no records to suggest otherwise. However, with the birth of new theories in more recent times, the otherwise flawless nature of FDR’s foreign policy as been brought into question. Where once before it was thought that the US were brought into the war because of the attack on its naval fleet in Pearl Harbour, and later the declaration of war from Germany, now new theories have surfaced which involve deception and lies on behalf of Roosevelt. Despite ongoing arguments and lack of factual evidence, I intend to outline the issues involved and formulate some of my own conclusions about Roosevelt’s foreign policy and the path of the US into World War II.
Isolationism in the 1930’s was not a new policy to America. In fact, the concept had existed ever since 1795 and the start of the republican reign in the US. In one of George Washington’s speeches he talks about how the ‘US should stay at home’ and stay well clear from far-off continental affairs. Later, President James Monroe, in a famous speech in 1823 described the world as being two hemispheres, which he saw as us and them. American policy for the last century had been to stay clean of contamination from, and alliances with other nations. The impact of the First World War had a huge impact on American foreign policy, so much so that public opinion following the war in 1920 – 1930 reinforced the thinking of isolationism in the US.
America refused to join the League of Nations purely because of ‘Article X’, which meant that all members were to act on behalf of another under threat from an aggressor.1When President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power in the 1930’s, he maintained the US isolationism policy.
In fact Roosevelt changed very little in terms of foreign policy, ‘he tended to ignore foreign policy as he concentrated on problems of economic recovery at home’.2 His concentrations were on domestic matters, having taken office during the financial crisis of the early 1930’s following the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Roosevelt managed to revive the nation’s confidence and it showed through his re-election.
Public opinion was something that FDR was very wary of, and therefore he kept a close eye on opinion polls and used them to determine his policy.He thought it unwise to tell the public everything and usually kept his most controversial thoughts to himself. However, he spoke out frequently on the topic of isolationism and backed most of the US neutrality laws passed by congress. He refused to commit the US to any European conflict and supported this statement on many occasions. It is due to these contradictions that conspiracy theories have emerged; how could a man so adamant on staying out of a war end up leading his nation into one? One sceptic of Roosevelt describes him as a split character, ‘..
a concept of two Roosevelt’s, one the public figure saying what the people wanted to hear, the other the private man with an entirely different set of beliefs.’3In 1935 as the beginnings of European strife became more evident, American thinking was sharpened. Events such as the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and German rearmament showed the serious threats from the fascist powers in Europe.
These external factors caused the introduction of the Neutrality Laws. These laws were introduced in 1935, 1936 and 1937. These prohibited the sale of any arms to any nations at war; they prevented US citizens from travelling on belligerent ships, they later extended the arms embargo to any third party involved even if it wasn’t militarily and introduced the “cash & carry” provision on non-military goods.
Roosevelt was torn between his hatred of foreign aggressors and his determination that America would not be drawn into any war. Isolationists were not happy with the introduction of these Neutrality Laws as they said FDR managed to manipulate them. He refused to acknowledge the Sino Chinese war, meaning that he could continue to sell arms to China. The problem with the Neutrality Laws was that they saw both actors in the same light. Roosevelt wanted the power to choose between powers, but congress wouldn’t allow it. This was one of the ideas behind the cash and carry scheme. It was first introduced so that US ships wouldn’t have to traverse the Atlantic, thus removing the threat of being sunk by a foreign power.
However, in doing this Roosevelt also knew that it would mostly benefit the British and French as they held naval supremacy. There are clear signs that Roosevelt had strong feelings towards the non-aggressors in Europe.It was this feeling that provoked the President of the United States to make a speech on over seas aggression. In 1937 in Chicago, Roosevelt made a famous talk known as the ‘Quarantine Speech’. Although he makes no specific reference to any nation it is apparent that the war in China is at the forefront of his thinking.
He talks of the terror that is plaguing our world and in a significant chapter goes on to say ‘if those things come to pass in other parts of the world let no one imagine that America will escape…’4 Dramatically FDR has said that no longer is it possible for the US to remain free from international politics, that the nation for the first time was threatened from over seas aggressors. He also outlined for the first time that 90% of the world are peace keepers but they must chip in together to over come the other 10%. In a famous analogy from which the speech takes its title, Roosevelt said ‘When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.
‘5 From here on he reasserts the fact that America will not be involved in a war and that they strive for peace.It was this speech that has sparked off such rich debate about the intentions of FDR. Charles Beard thinks that this was the point where Roosevelt revealed his intentions to leave the policy of isolationism by making ‘.
..a valiant effort to lead the nation away from isolationism only to be overwhelmed by a massive public reaction against the speech.’6Internationalists who were pleased by the speech soon grew disappointed when nothing happened.As Roosevelt grew wearier of war in Europe he obviously felt it necessary to test public opinion on the matter. We know how much he cares for opinion polls and this was his way of finding out if he had the people’s backing to move towards a plan for collective security. Although maintaining a strong isolationist policy, we now see a clear change in Roosevelt’s thinking.
He wanted to bring America away from the long extreme period of isolationism and move the nation forward. He acknowledged that more than a policy of isolationism was needed in order to secure the national borders. The times were changing and so must the US. It seemed clear that by the end of 1938, Roosevelt was no longer the isolationist he had been earlier in that decade.FDR’s real test came in 1938 with the Czech crisis which in turn lead to the Munich Conference.
At this conference Hitler experienced a number of political victories over Britain and France involving the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. On top of these victories Hitler issued further territorial demands which made the chance of an international war very likely. Roosevelt pleaded with all parties to come to a peaceful solution. The materialization of the final conference between the European powers has later been attributed to the work of FDR.
Historians still debate how true this fact is but Basil Rauch interprets it as ‘an effort to bolster the willingness of Chamberlain and Daladier to stand up to Hitler.’7Realising that a policy of appeasement only delayed the inevitable, Roosevelt gradually attempted to divulge this to congress through his annul message. He said now the aggressors from Europe actual posed a serious and genuine threat from across the Atlantic. ‘The world has grown so small and weapons of attack so swift.’ Roosevelt was critical of the existing Neutrality Laws, which he said were encouraging rather than deterring foreign aggressors.He called for the revision of them stating that the US should take an active role in Europe. What Roosevelt wanted to do was to reverse the arms embargo so as to allow the US to supply Britain and France but yet he cleverly worded his appeal so as to suggest a return to international law would better place the US to avoid entry into any conflict. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people.
This was a huge victory for FDR. The sale of arms to Britain and France meant that they could resist the German onslaught for longer. Roosevelt had clearly aligned himself with the Allies in Europe.The so called spring offensive in 1940 did more for Roosevelt’s cause than he could ever have imagined. Hitler through the use of new modern warfare tactics swept across northern Europe defeating many countries including ousting the British from the continent. This swift and rather impressive manoeuvre acted as an eye opener to the American people. Although debate over foreign policy still continued the fact that all Americans now recognised the dangers from the Germans would be useful to Roosevelt in his attempt to move away from isolationism. Immediately the President turned to congress to up defence spending in order to secure national borders.
‘No old defence is so strong that it requires no further strengthening and no attack is so unlikely or impossible that it may be ignored.’8On 10th June 1940, President Roosevelt delivered a speech at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Speaking very boldly to the students, FDR ‘condemned the concept of isolationism.’9 The very policy that he had backed for the last decade was now being overturned. Instead he clearly stated that he backed the countries fighting against fascist aggressors. This was the first foreign policy change the US had seen in many years.
America had pledged to support Britain and France in any way it could to repel the threat from Germany and maintain her own security. Roosevelt had put everything he had on British success against the Germans. The Charlottesville speech had paved the way for the new foreign policy of the US.
Basil Rauch argues that after this speech ‘America lost her neutrality in this matter.’10Since becoming apparent that the US had changed her stance on foreign policy both the British and the French pushed one step further, for American troops to be deployed to Europe. The immediate response from the President was that of a neutral country. He explained that he would need congress’ support to send troops. With the lack of American help the French surrendered to the Germans leaving the British fighting on their own. With this being the case Roosevelt accepted the British destroyers for bases deal. The British had requested up to 50 destroyers to help win the battle in the Atlantic and in return the British would allow the Americans to build naval or air bases on British Islands within and around the western hemisphere.
What was so interesting about this destroyer for bases deal was the time it took to accept.In the Charlottesville speech he announced that he intended to give all out aid to Britain and yet he stalled when it came to this deal. Roosevelt had waited for strong public support from interventionists as well as from the leader of the opposition.
FDR had made sure that this deal was practically flawless. He had to make sure that this deal could not be construed as an act of war towards Germany, and it was only after he persuaded himself that the deal was in the best interest of US defence that he went ahead with it. Roosevelt was again testing public opinion before he made any decisions. ‘He moved two steps forward and one step back before he took the giant leap ahead. He could not go forward until he had tested the ground, studied all the reactions, and weighed all the risks.’Following on from the destroyers for bases, the US headed up a number of other deals which would help Britain in her fight against fascism. The US passed the lend-lease bill which meant that the US could lend or lease all sorts of arms to Britain. Roosevelt argued that the fall of Britain could potentially see America next on the Germans list.
Roosevelt used National defence to pass the lend-lease bill. Roosevelt strongly believed that the lend-lease bill would not lead to US entry but to British victory which would guarantee the US keeping out of the war. With the lend-lease bill helping Britain financially it only left them with one problem. German U-boats were experiencing great success in the Atlantic.The convoy issue was a delicate one. The British wanted the US navy to convoy their ships. Eventually Roosevelt settled for a compromise.
He extended the US patrol area and instructed the ships to report the movement of German boats. He argued that this was purely for reconnaissance but it was believed that this was a deliberate attempt to provoke the Germans into a hostile act. Roosevelt maintained that all aid to Britain was based on concern for US security. He said ‘As long as Britain hold out, America will be safe.
‘ Following an attack on a US destroyer- the Greer, the President gave the order for all out convoys. He described the attack as a deliberate sign of aggression from Germany and now the US navy was to do all in its power to see that supplies made it across to Britain.In1941 the US was at its fullest state of war without actually being at war.
There were troops deployed in Iceland, a manoeuvre taken to protect the island against invasion from the Germans, All supplies to Britain were coming from the US and US navy ships convoyed across the Atlantic. It is strongly argued that the US were well on they way to war despite what FDR was saying formerly. Many people in America thought that the time was right for the US to go to war but still Roosevelt maintained their non-involvement. Was he waiting for German attacks on the US convoys, if so and this was the case he could easily declare war with the support of congress, but why choose such a strange tactic for entry into a war. Basil Rauch argues that he had no choice because isolationists were still far too strong in the US.It is close to impossible to understand what the plans of FDR were? Was he deliberately waiting for an attack on US ships? It is argued that when the German attack didn’t come due to there offensive deep into Russia, Roosevelt turned his attentions to Japan. By this time the US were certainly involved in an economic battle against the Japanese and with the continuous aid the Americans were sending China in their war against Japan, relations with Japan were at an all time low. The conspiracy theorists explain that the placement of the US fleet at Pearl Harbour was done on purpose as an excuse to get into the war in Europe through the back door of the pacific.
I think it is very difficult to know if and when Roosevelt planned to go to war but one think is for sure, his personal hatred of war was deep and genuine and I think his continuous assertions that US troops would not be sent to war are a good template to what he was thinking. Certainly, Roosevelt was responsible for the change in foreign policy from isolationism to internationalism but to say this was a conspiracy to go to war is a little far fetched. I believe it was more the external factors, i.e. the attack at pearl harbour that saw the US drift into the war rather than a devious calculated plan that he had been concocting in the years leading up to it. Roosevelt clearly wanted a move away from the old isolationism days, and saw the threat the aggressors posed.
He did all he could to help bring about the defeat of Hitler with out actually involving his nation, he saw his role in society as being responsible for world security. He maintained that from the start he had a policy of neutrality and although he clearly took the Allies sides I don’t think war was his ultimate plan.Bibliography* Shaw, G.
313HIS Coventry University Lecture notes* Beard, C. American Foreign Policy in the Making, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946)* Rauch, B. Munich to Pearl Harbour, (US: Creative Age Press, 1950)* Divine, R.A. ‘Roosevelt and World War II’, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1969.
)* Tansill, C. Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941 (NY: Henry Regnery, 1952)* Heinrichs, W. Threshold of War: F. D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II (London: Oxford University Press 1962)* Beard, C.
President Roosevelt and the Coming of War 1941, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948)1 Geoffrey Shaw, 313HIS lecture 29.10.042 Robert A. Divine, ‘Roosevelt and World War II’ pp83 Beard, C.A. American Foreign Policy in the Making 1932-19404 President F. D.
Roosevelt, Quarantine Speech 05.10.19375 Ibid6 Rauch, Munich to Pearl Harbour, pp477 Rauch, Munich to Pearl Harbour, pp748 Robert A. Divine, ‘Roosevelt and World War II’ pp309 Ibid pp3110 Rauch, Munich to Pearl Harbour, pp212;