Prompt: To what extent did the goals of American foreign policy change in the years 1930-1941? For what reasons did these goals change?
The 1930s were a difficult time for most Americans. Faced with colossal economic hardships—unprecedented in American history—many Americans turned inward to focus on the worsening situation at home. The United States became increasingly insensitive to the obliteration of fellow democracies at the hands of brutal fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. The U.S. was determined to stay out of war at all costs—even if its allies were in trouble; Americans believed that they were immune from Europe’s problems as long as they refused to get involved. However, as the “free” countries fell, one by one, to the Nazi war machine, Americans began to realize the folly of their foolish optimism and clamored for increasing involvement in foreign affairs. American foreign policy changed in the years 1930-1941 as Americans realized that fascism would likely conquer all of Europe unless Americans acted quickly. Ultimately, it was fear of the fascist threat to American democracy that triggered the end of American isolationism and inaugurated the era of American interventionism.
World War I had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans; many believed that the U.S. had been tricked into joining the war for the wrong reasons, and they were determined to avoid making the same mistake twice. After the Great War, Americans were disappointed to realize that the war was fought for null; World War I was not the “War to End Wars” as advertised by the government propaganda. The disappointment of being “suckered” into the Great War helped motivate Americans to adopt a largely isolationist policy during the 1930s. The situation was worsened when Britain and France defaulted on their loans from the U.S. after they were unable to collect reparation payments from Germany satisfactorily. In a political cartoon of 1932, Uncle Sam is seen wisely remarking that the only thing European nations are able to agree upon is that they cannot pay back their U.S. loans (Document B). Isolationism was also encouraged when Hoover approved the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, raising the tariff to an unbelievable sixty percent. The hiking-up of the tariff shut out foreign trade nearly completely—a fact which did not seem to bother too many Americans who were concerned with their own fortunes at the time. Many foreign nations responded with high tariffs of their own, largely destroying any prospect of international trade. Unfortunately, American isolationism had more dire consequences than the loss of trade or loan defaults.
As the 1930s dragged on, it became clear that fascism was destroying many democracies around the globe, but America still opted for neutrality rather than war. Hopelessly optimistic and naïve American politicians like Frank B. Kellogg created the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by fifteen nations, which would supposedly protect America from the threat of war. Although the nations that signed agreed not to use war as an instrument of national policy, the Pact was utterly useless because it could not be enforced. Similarly, the Nine Power Treaty attempted to keep the Open Door in China open by affirming the territorial integrity of the country; however, the agreement was easily broken by the Empire of Japan in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. Although Americans lambasted Japan for disregarding international treaty agreements, there was nothing the U.S. could do—short of war—that would stop Japanese aggression (Document A). In order to avoid any unintentional disasters that might plunge the U.S. into war, Congress passed three consecutive Neutrality Acts from 1935-1937 aimed at keeping Americans impartial and out of harm’s way. If Americans were not able to secretly aid belligerents on either side, as they had in World War I, then, presumably, the U.S. would not be drawn into the conflict (Document C). Although Americans were upset with Japanese aggression, they opted to maintain peaceful relations as long as possible, as evidenced by the Public Opinion Poll results in 1939-1941 which show that a majority of Americans opposed war during this period (Document E). However, the fall of France demonstrated to the American people, more than anything else, the true threat fascism could pose to American democracy.
President Roosevelt realized that Britain needed aid or else the U.S. would become a lone “free” nation in a fascist-dominated world. The American military needed to be mobilized in order to assist the Allies or democracy would be in grave danger. Roosevelt plead his case to the American people in his famous “Quarantine Speech” in which he called for an end to dangerous isolationism; however, his speech was not well-received and he was criticized for his desire to “entangle” the U.S in European foreign affairs (Document D). With Britain the only remaining power fighting against Germany, Roosevelt felt compelled to offer aid in some way. In 1940, Roosevelt boldly transferred fifty World War I destroyers to Britain in exchange for eight valuable defense bases stretching from Newfoundland to South America. As bombs dropped over Britain, Americans began to realize that their interests were intricately tied to Britain’s and that they must offer aid or else the battle would come to American soil soon. The goals of American foreign policy were reversed when Congress repealed the now defunct Neutrality Acts and officially ended their Neutrality. The U.S. began openly selling weapons to Britain on a “cash-and-carry” basis so as to avoid attacks on American ships. When this was not enough, Roosevelt devised the “lend-lease” system that allowed Britain to borrow billions of dollars of American military equipment to be returned at the end of the war. Americans finally realized that the Atlantic Ocean would not protect them from Germany in the age of modern warfare, and that they must actively protect their country. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the Atlantic Conference to discuss the idealistic motivations behind the war and create the Atlantic Charter, a document similar to Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” explaining the values that Britain and the U.S would seek to uphold at the war’s end. The biggest departure from traditional 1930s American isolationist thinking was in the provision that affirmed the right for people to determine their ruler, and declared a new League of Nations to uphold this “peace of security” (Document D). By the end of 1941, the U.S. was preparing for war at full speed, egged on by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
During the last few years of the Roaring ‘20s the Hoover administration had set up policies that isolated America from the rest of the world. The U.S. was prospering and the quality of life in America had never been higher—why meddle in European affairs? However, as the 1940s approached, Americans realized that amid the growing Fascist threat presented by Hitler and Mussolini, the U.S. could no longer hide behind the false illusion of safety offered by isolationism. Americans slowly but surely realized that their nation’s ultimate fate was tied to Britain’s. As American support for international intervention grew, the U.S.’s foreign policy goals changed to accommodate aid to Britain in an effort to avoid risking American lives in all-out war. Unfortunately, the attack on Pearl Harbor angered Americans so much that they called for immediate revenge against Japan—permanently erasing isolationist ideas from American minds forever.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "American Foreign Policy: Isolationism to Interventionism (DBQ)" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/american-foreign-policy-isolationism-to/>.
Isolationism vs. Internationalism: False Choices
By Meredith Friedman
May 10, 2016
Since World War I, US policy has been split between isolationism and internationalism. From debates over joining the League of Nations to intervention in Europe, Americans have found odd comfort in siding with one of these two camps.
The isolationists wanted to avoid being mired in foreign intrigues, wars, and crises. The internationalists argued that without involvement, the world would evolve in ways that lacked US influence and thus threatened its national security. On December 7, 1941, the internationalists won the debate.
The problem was that the friction was not between true isolationists and internationalists. The fact was, there were no genuine isolationists. The debate was actually between two internationalist strategies. The clash between these two camps has been ongoing since the founding of the United States. It is an issue that is simmering towards a boil again today.
During the 1930s, this debate centered on the best way to handle Europe. One side argued that the US had to play a role in shaping Europe.
The counterargument—dubbed isolationism—was that trying to shape Europe was a trap. The Europeans had been engaged in an endless struggle. The US had fought in World War I without ending the continent’s conflicts, and it should not be drawn into another war.
It should be noted that the so-called isolationists did not, in general, object to US involvement in China. The US sent gunboats to patrol its rivers, gave military aid to China, and permitted American airmen to volunteer to assist the Chinese.
The story was different for Europe. There was no desire for US engagement. This reflected the reality that the US Army was extremely small, but was the largest force it could field. If deployed, it would be readily overwhelmed by German forces.
So, the internationalists wanted to involve the US in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in China. The isolationists pressed to avoid involvement in Europe and for limited action against Japan. This was not, however, a struggle between isolationists and internationalists. This was a contest between competing internationalist strategies that both supported some degree of foreign engagement.
A Revolutionary Idea
Those that support what they believe to be isolationism frequently cite Thomas Jefferson’s warning against involvement in entangling alliances. Yet, the American Revolution was won only because the colonies used extensive diplomacy and alliance building.
Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris to recruit the French government to the side of the US. Franklin used the conflict between Britain and France to try to position the US as a French ally. The French, at first, provided some covert supplies to the US during the revolution. France would later make a large-scale commitment to the US because it wanted the British defeated in North America.
Jefferson himself had been deeply involved in the first US foreign policy crisis after the French Revolution in 1789. France had formed a republic and, therefore, had a moral bond with the American republic. But the US had reached a reasonable understanding with Britain, a major US trading partner. Britain also controlled the North Atlantic and could blockade American ships, strangling the American economy.
The US had to choose between alignment with Britain and its old ally, France. The US chose Britain. When faced with a choice between reality and morality, the US chose to protect its own interests.
George Washington summed up the ideal American strategy in his Farewell Address:
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence, she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Washington feared European controversies. The priority for the US was commercial relations, avoiding politics as much as possible. The US, he argued, had formed some alliances that must be honored, but there should be no more.
When his address is read carefully, it is clear that Washington was not promoting isolation. That was impossible given US commercial interests. Rather, he was calling for a minimal level of political engagement. That level will vary over time and is not a fixed point. But Washington believed that the US should pay the lowest price possible to protect its commercial relations.
Moral Versus Strategic
During World War II, the isolationists wanted the European balance of power to hold. They expected war and assumed it would resemble the extended bloodbath of World War I. Some believed that intervention was impractical, given Germany’s power. The internationalists supported some means of containing Germany. The British could not stabilize France, and it was doubtful that any military force the US would deploy could do so.
The isolationist strategy was to allow France and Britain to block Germany. If that failed, then accept a German-dominated Europe. The internationalist position was that if Germany conquered the Continent, Britain would have to capitulate to Germany. That would hand Germany the British and French fleets, allowing it to dominate the Atlantic and threaten the US.
The internationalist position was to aid Britain after the fall of France. The isolationists objected, saying the war was over. After December 7, 1941, when the Germans declared war on the US, the isolationists’ strategy proved catastrophically wrong.
The critical point is not that there were two competing moral principles regarding US behavior, but two competing strategic concepts. One was proved wrong under the circumstances, but neither was absurd. Had France not collapsed in six weeks, the isolationist strategy might have proved sound.
Nevertheless, the US adopted the position that maximum involvement was optimal.
The internationalist position turned from a strategy into an existential stance. The US must be involved in the world. Fortunately, it was the right strategy for confronting the Soviet Union. Here, the strategy was containment, which required an extensive network of alliances, a constant deployment of troops, and massive economic involvement. Except for a direct assault on Soviet forces—a military impossibility—it was the only viable strategy, and it worked.
From this emerged a lesson. Isolationism had failed, and internationalism was the only doctrine possible. In the post-Cold War world, it was accepted that the US had to be deeply involved in global affairs. There was no strategy beyond the principle of involvement. Given that the US was the only global power, it was assumed that it had an inherent interest in managing global affairs.
The Limits of Power and Duty
But the US was in no way omnipotent. The idea that the US had an interest in the world’s military, political, and economic affairs confronted the reality of the limits of American power. Inevitably, the idea that everything was an American responsibility was countered with the idea that nothing was in the American interest. It necessarily proceeds to a strategic argument.
One side is committed to maintaining the institutions created to fight the Cold War. This includes NATO, various bilateral agreements, and economic structures such as the International Monetary Fund. The supporting argument is that these were successful in the Cold War, and they remain a useful platform for broad US engagement in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The counterargument is that the Cold War was a contest with a peer power, the Soviet Union. As such, it required the US to create a vast alliance web based on the United States’ guarantees. Today, no peer power threatens American interests. Therefore, the Cold War structures are irrelevant and too expensive. More important, they are no longer designed to deal with anything that is essential to the US.
World War II and the Cold War required maximum global effort from the US. That effort is no longer needed. What is needed is to clearly identify American interests and relationships, and forces tailored to those needs. Everything cannot be an American duty, since American resources are limited. Involvement in affairs not central to American interests strain the treasury, and cause wars that can neither be won nor abandoned.
I am not arguing which is the more persuasive view. There is, perhaps, even a third option. But to label as isolationist a view that argues for a shift in prior US policy is in error. The isolationists in the past may have been wrong, but they weren’t really isolationists.
The US can’t be isolated from the world, as George Washington made clear. That being the case, the question is what should the United States’ involvement be? Washington did not have an expansive view of US involvement. He had a realistic view, seeing that the US had minimal resources at the time. His doctrine was to limit American involvement to what was necessary. Necessity shifts with circumstance, but Washington’s doctrine is self-evidently correct.
There are those who now argue that maintaining Cold War relationships when there is no Cold War is irrational. Others argue that these institutions are flexible enough to deal with multiple events, all of them requiring American involvement for the American interest.
This is a necessary strategic discussion that must be had now. I will discuss my own view on this in the coming weeks. However, the strategic discussion is impossible until the concepts of internationalism and isolationism are clarified. Otherwise, the two concepts, particularly isolationism, will be used to end the discussion. Only then can we define what the American strategy should be—and, more important, how to define American interests—under current circumstances.
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