What were the main tenets of isolationism in the 1930s in the USA
‘ We believe that the United States must now concentrate all its
We believe that today our American democracy can only be
. . . Even if Great Britain is on the verge of defeat, we demand
(R. D. Stuart, The America First Committee, 1940)
The above words, taken from a petition-letter sent by future AFC Chairman R. D. Stuart to New Haven residents seeking their support for his campaign, state concisely and precisely the two principal tenets shared by nearly all 1930s pro-isolationism groups: firstly, that the national physical security of America and American interests depended upon a single concentration of American resources on the bolstering of its own ‘hemispheric defence’ and the fortification of its own borders; secondly, that America would risk its entire political democracy, its cherished freedoms and its national way of life, it she chose to enter the war. The final part of the quotation given above, reveals the lengths to which isolationists were prepared to enforce the tenets of non-intervention: even to the point of allowing the destruction of America’s closest international ally.
Besides these two main tenets, a historian needs also mention another widely held tenet, allied to those stated above: that of the belief in the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the United States, in the conviction that America was powerful and vigorous enough, if left unmolested by international obligations of alliance or warfare, to determine its own future and destiny. Paired to this tenet was still another: that the United States had no jurisdiction to intervene in the affairs of other nations — even if those nations happened to be fascist dictatorships like Germany or Italy. A fifth major tenet of isolationism, and one arising from a quite different source to the others, was the belief that entry into the European war was religiously and morally unjustifiable; the United States did not (before Pearl Harbour) face any direct threat from Germany, Italy or Japan, nor had it exhausted all diplomatic options to engender peace — thus, according to pacifist and other religious groups, the two principal conditions needed to justify war had not been met.
The reasons that led isolationists to champion the above-mentioned tenets are myriad and rooted in a complex history of American isolationist policy going back to before the Treaty of Versailles; the task of untangling these intricate weavings with any comprehensiveness is a daunting one, and the historian does best here to select for analysis a few principal reasons, endorsed universally across the major isolationist groups.
Of these major perhaps two were of greater importance than all others for developing the popularity of isolationism: firstly, the ‘memory’ or ‘legacy’ of carnage and destruction from American participation in WWI, the squabbling of the European nations in its aftermath, and the mass unemployment which Americans believed it precipitated in the late 1920’s; secondly, an emerging awareness amongst Americans of a ‘sense of possibility’ as to the country’s future, its healthy massive economy, its institutions of democracy, freedom and law, and its ardent intent not to jeopardize these by costly warfare. Such reasons for supporting non-intervention found expression through numerous isolationist groups.
Of these the AFC was America’s the largest, and, whilst its personal membership was perhaps below one million , similar tenets to its own were endorsed across the country by millions of sympathizers. Other powerful isolationist groups included the Progressive Republicans, Roman Catholics, pacifist groups, Irish Americans, large swathes of the Mid-West, newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune and many others besides; and these groups found men like Colonel Charles Lindbergh, William Butler, William Randolph Hearst, Father Charles Coughlin among many others to champion the promotion of their beliefs.
‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed
to repeat it’
In 1930s America very many people had learnt something from recent history, and had no intention of repeating it; that it, a chief reason for opposition to intervention can be put under the broad head of ‘memory’. By the mid 1930’s, when the ‘Great Debate’ about American participation in Europe began to emerge again, little more than fifteen years separated many tens of thousands of American soldiers, their families, and a traumatized general public from the atrocities and horror of WWI . Before that war, America had also debated whether to send its troops and its aid to the rescue of its European allies; America had said ‘Yes’ with vast amounts of men and armaments, and had then looked on in disbelief as their soldiers were slaughtered and their resources ravenously consumed in seemingly senseless violence.
In the aftermath of the conflict, Americans watched in bewilderment as European countries fumbled through misjudgement upon misjudgement in their efforts to establish a successful international system of alliances that would prevent such a hideous waste of life and resources from ever happening again. Further, the product of these efforts was the beleaguered League of Nations which had, by the late 1930’s — after the Japanese invasion of China and Manchuria, and the German seizure of Austria and invasion of Czechoslovakia — been shown to millions of Americans as the most impotent international organization in modern history.
Moreover, after the war and after its generous help, it seemed to many Americans that their intervention had done little more than to preserve Britain and France their empires and to promote the extension of these and to the detriment of America — this being most evident in the persistence of British trade-barriers which were upheld against America even until the Lend-Lease Act. To compound these hostile memories, a majority of 1930s Americans attributed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the subsequent disintegration of the United State’s economy and the massive unemployment of these years, to American participation in WWI. With this accumulation of terrible destruction and poverty fresh in the memory of Americans, it was seemed natural and rational for many millions of Americans to endorse isolationist policies and so veer away from a repetition of such events.
Another set of powerful reasons for isolationist opposition to war might be grouped under the banner of ‘foreign policy ideology’ or ‘political theory’ . By the late 1930’s America had recovered sufficiently from the disastrous unemployment levels earlier in the decade, to see that its economy was beginning to bloom, that the engine of its massive economy was growing more efficient, and that prosperity, and perhaps even world-economic domination, lay over a not too distant horizon — perhaps over the horizon of a European war of mutual self-destruction? American politicians and businessmen were ever more conscious of all of these prospects, and the general public shared them too, even if not yet having a distinct concept of America’s potential role as a world-leader. These prospects naturally led to a tremendous self-confidence amongst Americans, and the development of a philosophy of the intrinsic values of ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘independence’ .
Americans were, by the late 1930’s, of the distinct opinion that the destiny and fate of their country was a thing to be shaped and accomplished by their own hands, that they did not require international co-operation to engender it, and that it would, indeed, be threatened or contaminated by such assistance. As Americans observed the elevation of their fortunes, and the ever darkening prospects of their European allies, they naturally asked ‘Why should we ever jeopardise this for the sake of that? Americans bemusedly asked of the European conflict ‘What has it do with us?’ and ‘Why ought we prefer our support for Britain than for France than for Germany?’.
This isolationist philosophy ran vertically from the highest to lowest levels of American society, and gave the chief impetus to the establishment of non-interventionist groups such as the America First Committee. Even after Kristallnacht in Germany, the reasoning behind this attitude extended to the person of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime he presided over; Americans did not concur or sympathize with fascism or dictatorial government — indeed such a thing was anathema to the most basic American beliefs — but, nonetheless, many Americans noticed similar regimes spread across the globe, and asked ‘If we do not intervene there, what is the difference that compels us to intervene in Germany?’.
For many isolationist groups these reasons taken either collectively, or confined to their practical or ideological categories, were sufficient to foster in them an immoveable and intractable opposition to war under any circumstances short of self-defence.
Perhaps the most powerful isolationist group in 1930’s America was the America First Committee . The AFC was founded on September 4th 1940 by R. Douglas Stuart Jr., was presided over by General Robert E. Wood, and boasted Charles Lindbergh as its most prominent spokesman. The AFC’s membership included numerous powerful political figures such as future American President General Ford, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, and Sargent Schriver. At its acme, the AFC perhaps had more than 800,000 members, collected in 650 Chapters chiefly within the vicinity of Chicago; a further 135,000 members were located in 60 Chapters in Illinois.
The AFC is estimated to have raised $370,000 from some 25-30,000 donators ; the bulk of these contributions being donated by prominent businessmen and companies such as William, H. Regnery, the publishing mogul Joseph, M. Patterson, Robert, R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune) and the Vick Chemical Company . The AFC also commanded the support of many celebrity figures such as writer Sinclair Lewis, author Gore Vidal, actress Lillian Gish, oet E. E. Cummings and numerous others.
‘Our principles were right. Had they been followed
war could have been avoided’
(The America First Committee, 1941)
The chief tenets of the AFC organization are clear from its public advocacy of four central principles: (1) ‘The United States must build an impregnable defence for America’, (2) ‘No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America’, (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war’, and, (4), ‘‘‘aid short of war’’ weakens national defence at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad’ . The first, second and fourth principles of the AFC are practical and pragmatic statements that demonstrate the clear conviction of the AFC, and in this they echoed the belief of many millions of other Americans, that a ‘properly prepared’ United States would be virtually invincible from military attack. In this instance, isolationism manifests itself in the need for single-minded national military protection.
By conserving its own resources and using them exclusively to fortify and ready American defences, the United States would nigh guarantee that no single nation, nor any group of nations, could threaten her security. The third principal is one of ideology: entry into the European war risked the destruction of American democracy. The AFC’s argument here was simple: countries at war are compelled to spend vast amounts of money on armaments, they are compelled to sacrifice numerous civil and judicial liberties for the war’s sake, and so they are compelled not only to invite a more authoritative and possibly dictatorial form of leadership upon themselves, but also engender a fundamentally different way of life . For the AFC the risks posed by involvement in the European vastly out-weighed the advantages, and as such war was to be opposed at all costs.
This pragmatic and ideological opposition to war was most prominently exhibited by the AFC in its petition for the enforcement of the 1939 Neutrality Act . The AFC was deeply suspicious of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intentions with respect to the European War, believing him to secretly desire entry into the war, and thus the organization sought at all costs to hold President Roosevelt to his earlier pledge, made at the time of the Neutrality Acts, to keep America out of the war. Similarly, on the same day that President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease bill was proposed to Congress, the new AFC President General Robert E. Wood stated that the organization would oppose the legislation with ‘all the vigour it could exert’.
To take specific examples, the AFC directly opposed policies such as the Atlantic Charter, the use of economic sanctions against Japan, and the convoying of ships. In promulgating isolationist policies such as this, the AFC bored down into the vast pool of American citizens who were of nearly an identical disposition in their opposition to war. Knowing itself to have the sympathy of such numbers, the AFC felt confident the successful application and enforcement of its four central tenets stated above.
‘ . . . I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for
The above quotation, taken from Charles Lindberg’s notorious ‘Who Are the Agitators of War?’ speech of September 1941 , rings as anti-Semitic and distasteful to many modern ears, but to many millions of 1940’s Americans, taken in a milder form, it fitted their sentiments exactly and expressed an isolationist view deeply entrenched in their beliefs. Charles Lindberg, America’s foremost exponent of isolationism, represented with his views a group of many tens of millions or ordinary American citizens ranged across all states, and penetrating into numerous sub-groups such as American Roman Catholics, Mid-West states and Irish immigrants.
As the above quotation exhibits so explicitly, Lindbergh draws a distinct ideological difference between the best interests of America and those of three other leading groups: the Roosevelt administration, the British government and American Jews. Lindbergh’s isolationism reached its acme in his speeches for the America First Committee. Lindbergh gave voice in these speeches to the widely held belief that America was impregnably protected from attack by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; and, as such, careful and meticulous preparation of its defences would render impossible any successful military attack upon the United States. Towards this end, Lindbergh spoke for much of the American military when he proposed the strengthening of American costal defences and the bolstering of its naval power as the surest way to guarantee American national security.
These points were made by Lindbergh as early as 1941 in his testimony before Congress, where he urged that America should sign a Neutrality Pact with Germany, thus guaranteeing American non-intervention in the European war. Lindbergh argued similarly in his speech of June 20 1941 to the Los Angeles ‘Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting’ , in which he scathingly rebuked the Roosevelt administration’s motives for entering the war, and drew the famous distinction between what the interventionists claimed was ‘the defence of England’ but which was in truth the quite different aim of ‘the defeat of Germany’. Thus, for Lindbergh and his supporters, there was a clear ideological and practical distinction between entering the war to defend Great Britain and between entering to defeat Germany.
Of the numerous other groups to oppose intervention, one of the most distinct was that of American Catholics, led most prominently by Father Charles Coughlin. Many American Catholics shared the belief of other pacifist groups that participation in the European war was morally unjustifiable. For Roman Catholics, war could only be sanctioned if it conformed to the doctrine of ‘Just War Theory’ . Of the seven main tenets of this doctrine, Catholics interpreted that several were clearly not met in the case of America joining the European war; for instance, the doctrine states that ‘War must be a last resort’, ‘All diplomatic solutions must first be exhausted’ and ‘War must be an act of self-protection’.
Clearly, said Catholics, not all diplomatic solutions had been exhausted in America’s Great Debate: Charles Lindberg for one had, for instance, proposed a Neutrality Act with Germany that would have engendered a peaceful end to the crisis. Likewise, before Pearl Harbour, the United States could not reasonably argue that entering the war would be an act of immediate self-protection: America was protected from attack by the vast distances of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and a direct threat to her security seemed most unlikely. As such, the third condition mentioned above, that was must be a ‘last resort’, had clearly not, claimed Catholics and pacifists alike, yet been met during the late 1930’s.
Father Charles Coughlin , presiding over a large group of American Roman Catholics, was one of the most vociferous opponents of intervention. Earlier in his career Father Coughlin had commended the policies of F. D. Roosevelt, proclaiming the famous slogan ‘Roosevelt or ruin’; but Coughlin’s attitude reversed spectacularly in the 1930’s when Roosevelt’s policies began to drift to war. Father Coughlin believed — and in this belief he was shared by millions of American workers ¬— that American entry into WWI and the subsequent depression and high unemployment of the early 1930’s had been engineered by powerful groups of international bankers and arms manufacturers, otherwise known as ‘merchants of death’, who had made vast profits from American participation in WWI.
Father Coughlin perceived in Roosevelt’s advancing preparations for war of the late 1930’s the influence and malevolence of these same powerful interest groups. In 1935 Coughlin established the National Union for Social Justice which as well as working for social reform in America, drew upon its members support — particularly in the Mid-West and amongst Irish Catholics — to oppose Roosevelt’s drift towards war. In October 1939 Father Coughlin used his alliances, including his newly founded Union Party, to lobby against any Roosevelt proposed repeal of the Neutrality Act 1935 ¬— something that would have facilitated American entry into the war.
In the last analysis, three tenets were most evident in American isolationism in the 1930’s: the first was practical: that America should conserve and use its entire financial and military resources to protect and fortify herself at home; the second was ideological and philosophical: America’s democracy, its laws and freedoms, and its ways of life would be endangered by intervention; the third was religious and moral: war may only be ‘Just War’ and thus justified as a last resort — intervention in European affairs certainly did not amount to this final resort.
The reason for such wide isolationist support for the first tenet seemed obvious to many isolationists at the time; within her own borders, protected by the endless tracts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and guaranteed of a nearly inconsumable quantity of armaments by the capacity of her manufacturers, America was believed to be a fortress, the only harm which could come to it being if it should foolishly decide to weaken itself by expeditions abroad. The reason behind the second tenet lay perhaps, paradoxically, in both the strength and weakness of America’s consciousness of itself as a relatively new nation.
Such novelty, unfettered to the centuries of privilege and tradition in Europe, gave Americans a vital confidence in her power to bring about change by herself and to make something by herself; at the same time, this novelty, and the only recent solidification of the country’s freedoms, democratic principles and laws, made her extremely unwilling to risk these by open war in Europe. The reason behind the third tenet of isolationism was self-contained and self-explanatory: Roman Catholics and other Christian pacifists could not perceive in the conditions of the 1930’s the justification or need for military intervention in Europe.
Nearly all of those isolationist groups who opposed intervention, despite outward differences in the nature of their opposition, shared at least the first two of the tenets referred to above. The largest such organization was undoubtedly the America First Association, outwardly representing the views of prominent businessmen, politicians and celebrities, but, inwardly and under the surface, also representing the unheard opinions of many millions of ordinary Americans who sympathised with its opinion. The range of such groups was nearly as diverse as America itself: Democrats and Republicans, old and young, Irish Immigrants, Roman Catholics, pacifists and many others. Indeed, had Japan not bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941, then it remains possible that these groups might have swelled and congealed together to form an immovable object of opposition to intervention.
Academic Books, Journals & Articles
— Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction. (1956).Abelard-Schuman Limited, New York.
— Casey, Steven. Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion and the War Against Nazi Germany. (2001). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
— Cole, Wayne S. America First. (1971). Octagon Books, New York.
— Doenecke, Justus D. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention. 1939-1941. (2000). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Boston.
— Doenecke, Justus D. In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-Interventionist Movement of 1940-1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee. (1990). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Boston.
— Elshtain, Jean B. (Ed.). Just War Theory. (1992). Blackwell, London.
— Robinson, Edgar E. The Roosevelt Leadership: 1933-1945. (1955). Stanford University Press, Stanford.
— Reynolds, David. From Munich to Pearl Harbour: Roosevelt’s America and the Origins of the Second World War. (2001). Chicago University Press, Chicago.
— Schneider, James C. Should America Go to War?: The Debate Over Foreign Policy in Chicago, 1939-1941. (1989). The University of North Carolina Press,Carolina.
— Wittner, Lawrence S. Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement. (1969). Columbia University Press, Columbia.
— Woods, John A. Roosevelt and Modern America. (1959). The English Universities Press Ltd, London.
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