The Road to War in Europe
Many people of the 1920s and 1930s referred to World War
I as the “war to end all wars.” But the vindictive terms of the
Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, in concert with the
international depression of the 1930s, actually created the circumstances
that led to World War II. In Germany, the harshly punitive Treaty
of Versailles provoked intense bitterness and resentment. These
feelings of anger and despair paved the way for the charismatic
demagogue Adolph Hitler to take power in Germany and
install a fascist regime in 1933. Eleven years earlier, a fascist
regime had risen to power in Italy under Benito Mussolini.
These two fascist governments combined their extreme nationalist
rhetoric with an aggressive desire to expand.
In October 1935, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia, gaining
control of the African nation by May 1936. Also in 1935, Hitler
announced plans for German troops to re-occupy the Rhineland, which
had been demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles. Troops marched
into the Rhineland unopposed in March 1936. Germany and Italy formed
an alliance, the Rome-Berlin Axis, in October 1936. In March 1938,
Austria joined this alliance when Hitler announced the Anschluss,
a union between Germany and Austria, and German forces marched into
Vienna. When Hitler declared his intention to take the Czech Sudetenland by
force if necessary, British and French leaders acceded to his demands,
signing the Munich Pact in September 1938, which granted
the Sudetenland to Germany in an attempt to appease Hitler and avoid
During the 1930s, Britain and France responded
to fascist aggression largely with inaction, hoping that Germany
would cease its expansionary actions on its own. The two powers
attempted to appease Hitler with the September 1938 Munich Pact.
Germany, however, did not cease its expansionary actions:
German troops invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and Poland in
September 1939. Two days after the invasion of Poland, Britain and
France declared war on Germany, honoring their treaty with Poland.
The United States and the War
In the mid-1930s, mired in the Depression, the
U.S. focused on its own problems. Isolationism and antiwar sentiments
ran high. A series of Neutrality Acts, passed between
1935 and 1937, reflected these isolationist currents. The acts made
arms sales to warring countries illegal and forbade American citizens
to travel aboard the ships of belligerent nations. President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt supported the neutrality acts only half-heartedly
but found it impossible to fight the will of the majority and urge
U.S. involvement in international affairs. FDR did succeed in helping
to defeat the 1938 proposal for a constitutional amendment, the
Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a national referendum
on any declaration of war not sparked by a direct attack.
American isolationism before World War II led
to the passage of a series of Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1937,
and to the proposal for a constitutional amendment requiring a national
referendum on any declaration of war not provoked by direct attack.
In this atmosphere of isolationism, American response
to the rise of fascist states in Germany and Italy was limited and
weak. During most of the 1930s, few Americans saw Adolph Hitler
and Benito Mussolini as dangerous. FDR urged negotiations with Hitler,
but never openly advocated military action before the late 1930s.
He suggested a plan to “quarantine” the aggressor nations in Europe
in 1937, but the plan received little public support.
The only sign of wavering in America’s isolationism during
the early and mid-1930s was its involvement in China. In 1931, Japan
invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria and in 1937 began launching
attacks on the remainder of China as part of its aim to build an Asian
empire. Alarmed that Japan’s aggressive expansionism might threaten
U.S. holdings in the Pacific, if not the U.S. itself, the U.S. refused
to recognize the Japanese government in Manchuria. In 1937, the
U.S. extended loans to China and urged a boycott of Japanese silk.
American public opinion began to turn against the fascist
powers during the late 1930s, mostly in response to the publicized
brutality of Hitler’s Nazis toward German Jews and other groups.
Nonetheless, many Americans continued to push for neutrality and
for immigration restriction, in part because roughly 60,000 Jewish
refugees fled to the U.S. between 1933 and 1938.
In early 1939, FDR asked Congress to appropriate
funds for a military buildup and an increased production of military
material. In September 1939, FDR succeeded in pushing Congress to
revise the Neutrality Acts to allow warring nations
to purchase arms from the U.S. as long as they paid in cash and
carried the arms away on their own ships. This cash-and-carry provision
appealed to a nation that was increasingly committed to aiding the Allied war
effort but did not want to get directly involved.
Opposition to war continued to fade as Hitler’s troops
invaded and conquered Denmark and Norway in April 1940, Belgium
and the Netherlands in May, and France in June, followed by the Battle
of Britain throughout the summer and fall, in which German
planes bombed British cities.
Early support for the Allies could be seen in
the cash-and-carry policy, which allowed warring nations to purchase
American arms only if they paid in cash and carried the arms away
on their own ships.
In this atmosphere of growing alarm, FDR decided to run
for an unprecedented third term in office. (George Washington had
established the convention that no president serve more than two
terms in office, which every president until FDR had followed.)
During his 1940 campaign, Roosevelt appointed a Council of National
Defense to oversee defense production, appointed Republican Henry
Stimson secretary of war, and approved a peacetime draft by signing
the Selective Service and Training Act. Although he
approved the draft, FDR pledged never to “send an American boy to
fight in a European war.” Isolationists opposed to FDR’s reelection
sponsored the Committee to Defend America First, urging
neutrality and claiming that the U.S. could stand alone regardless
of Hitler’s advances in Europe. FDR won reelection in spite of the