1. Initial Response To Aggression

Posted: January 13, 2011 in World War 2
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In October 1937, America was a nation sharply divided between isolationists & interventionists. World War I had been a great disappointment. President Woodrow Wilson had promised in April 1917 that American entry into the war would bring about lasting world peace. Yet the onerous terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, never ratified by the United States, made another European war more, rather than less, likely.

American disillusionment intensified during the mid-1930s, when Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota sponsored a series of congressional hearings to investigate World War I munition sales. President Wilson had declared that the war was being fought to make the world “safe for democracy,” yet Nye showed that the war had also been fought, at least in part, to safeguard the US-backed international loans & enrich American war profiteers. Arms manufacturers were Nye’s favorite target because, as he revealed, these so-called merchants of death had made huge fortunes before 1917 selling exorbitantly priced munitions to both sides.

The resulting public outrage moved Congress to pass a series of four increasingly restrictive neutrality acts that shackled US foreign policy during the years leading up to World War II. The first of these laws, passed in August 1935, forbade all arms sales to belligerent nations once the president had determined that a state of war existed among them. Because the law made no distinction victim & aggressor, there was little the president or his interventionist cabinet could do to counter the expansionism then being practiced by Germany, Italy, & Japan. In fact, in July 1937, when Japan instigated a war with China, the president chose not to acknowledge the conflict formally because doing so would have forced him to bar all weapons sales to our Chinese allies.

Instead, Roosevelt made another sort of public statement. Motivated by Japan’s aggression in China (as well as German & Italian adventurism in Spain & elsewhere), the president decided to take on the isolationists directly in his famous “quarantine” speech. It’s often forgotten that, when immediate public reaction proved somewhat negative, Roosevelt quickly backed off the strong words he spoke that day in October 1937. Yet the Quarantine Speech nevertheless proved prophetic, expressing thoughts & attitudes that would only grow stronger in Roosevelt’s mind as the international situation worsened & war drew near.

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