UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Arsenal of Democracy
*As most of Europe turned to totalitarianism, or was taken over by
it, and as Japan expanded the Co-Prosperity Sphere throughout East
Asia, the United States did their best to look away. After
all, in the 1920s, America was too flush with success to worry
about distant problems, and in the 1930s, there were plenty of
problems at home to worry about. Besides, America had learnt
her lesson in the Great War, and had no wish to be drawn into such
a conflict again. Most Americans were isolationists again.
*In fact, to the extent Americans paid attention to other
countries at all, their goal was to get along.
*In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt recognised the Soviet Union, not
because he liked it, but because he accepted the reality that
ignoring it was not going to make it go away. Furthermore,
he hoped that trade might develop between the USA and USSR (and it
did, but not much) and that the USSR might hinder Japanese
*In 1934, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, a plan to give
the Philippines independence in ten years (or possibly a little
more), more to get rid of cheap labour that competed with American
unions and American sugar plantations and to be free of the cost
of protecting and maintaining them than out of benevolent motives
of liberty. The US did retain the right to keep naval bases
in the Philippines after independence. Anti-imperialists
(and unions and sugar planters) approved this plan, while to the
Japanese it made America look weak.
*In Latin America, Franklin Roosevelt put away the big stick of
Cousin Theodore's Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and instead
tried to establish a Good Neighbour Policy towards Latin
America. For one thing, US businessmen were not making as
much money in Latin America as they had been, so the Marines'
protection was needed less often. The Platt Amendment was
even revoked. When Mexico nationalised American oil
companies' land in 1938, some businessmen demanded that FDR send
in the Marines, but he did not.
*To promote further trade, Secretary of State Hull and FDR
convinced Congress to pass the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act in
1934, which let the president lower specific tariff rates by up to
50%, and like a low-tariff Southern Democrat, Hull negotiated
individual trade agreements with 21 countries by 1939 without
having to get Congressional approval. While manufacturers
and farmers complained, it improved the overall American economy.
*As Europe became more belligerent after Hitler's rise to power, a
Senate committee headed by Gerald Nye (a Progressive Republican
from North Dakota) investigated current theories of what got
America into the Great War, and the Nye Committee concluded that
weapons manufacturers had supported (or perhaps even instigated)
the war to make money, and that bankers had led America into it in
order to protect their loans to the Allies.
*To prevent American repeating these mistakes, Congress passed a
series of Neutrality Acts in 1935 (the same year Italy invaded
Ethiopia), 1936 (the same year Hitler and Mussolini formed the
Axis), and 1937 (the same year Japan captured Peiping and began
the Rape of Nanking) which said that when the president announced
that a foreign war was in progress, no American could sail on a
belligerent ship (to prevent a repetition of the Lusitania
tragedy), or sell or transport weapons to a warring nation, or
lend money to a country at war. America would no longer
defend the Freedom of the Seas.
*Furthermore, although America had always depended on a navy to
defend our shores, and had negotiated the right to have one of the
largest on Earth at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, the
Navy was allowed to rust away, the Army remained small, and the
air forces (not yet their own branch of service) were neglected.
*Americans were so fearful of going to war that the Panay incident
in 1937 was almost completely ignored, and the fact that it did
not cause a war resulted in relief rather than indignation.
*When Hitler and Stalin began to mobilise in Europe, the United
States were shocked. Congress lent $30 million to Finland
for non-military supplies after Stalin invaded in 1939, and
perhaps this did help the Finns hold off the Soviets in the Winter
War of 1939-1940, although it did not keep them from losing 10% of
their eastern territory, mostly in populous and valuable areas.
*Six weeks after Poland fell, in November, 1939, Congress passed a
new Neutrality Act, which allowed 'cash-and-carry' arms
deals. Foreign powers, whether at war or not, could now
purchase American-made weapons, but had to pay cash (no entangling
loans) and carry the materiel on their own ships. While this
was neutral in name, in reality it favoured the Allies over the
Axis, because the Royal Navy could protect Allied merchant ships
far better than the German navy could protect German ships.
*After Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and
France fell to blitzkrieg in rapid succession in 1940,
and Britain stood against Hitler alone, Roosevelt, who had never
liked the ideas of appeasement of isolationism, felt forced to
*He asked Congress for the funds to rebuild America's military
might, and within a year Congress granted him $37 billion, more
than the entire cost of the First World War.
*On 2 September, 1940, FDR negotiated the Destroyer Deal with the
new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Under this
agreement, the United States gave Britain 50 old destroyers in
return for 99-year rent-free leases on naval bases in British
colonies in the Western Hemisphere. This deal was more
symbolic than anything else, but it opened the door for future US
aid. In fact, Roosevelt soon said that America should offer
Britain 'all aid short of war.'
*On 6 September, 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service and
Training Act, creating the first peace-time draft in American
history. Initially it provided for drafting and training 1.2
million soldiers and 800,000 reserves a year. Later it was
expanded to match the growing world conflict.
*At the same time, anti-war Americans were becoming better
organised. On 4 September, 1940, the America First Committee
was founded to oppose anything that might lead the United States
into war. At its peak it had 800,000 members, including many
people who were famous then or later, such as Senator Nye,
Sinclair Lewis, e. e. cummings, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Walt
Disney, Yale law student Gerald Ford, and the most famous American
of all, Charles Lindbergh, who had recently toured Germany and
concluded that the German Luftwaffe was
unstoppable. Furthermore, Germany was all that was holding
back the USSR.
*All this came in the midst of the last year of Roosevelt's second
term in office. The Republicans surprised everyone (even
themselves) by nominating a former liberal Democrat, Wendell
Willkie, for president.
*The Democrats also surprised America by deciding that they could
not change horses in the middle of the stream, and re-nominated
FDR for an unprecedented third term (after he defeated his own
vice-president and his former campaign manager in the nominating
convention. He chose Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace to
be his running mate this time around.
*In truth, there was not much difference between FDR and
Willkie. Willkie supported the New Deal (he just wanted to
make it more efficient) and he wanted to help the Allies without
actually having to fight beside them. Ultimately, America
chose FDR again, in large part because most Americans felt that if
war did come, Roosevelt's experience would make him a better
*Roosevelt still said he wanted to keep America out of war.
In a fireside chat in December, 1940, he said that America should
be an Arsenal of Democracy, providing the weapons so that other
countries could fight.
*By 1941, though, Britain was running short on money, and did not
have the cash for cash-and-carry. In desperation, Roosevelt
proposed lending or leasing the Allies American weapons, which
could be returned after the war. As FDR put it in a
fire-side chat, ‘Suppose my neighbour’s house catches fire, and I
have a length of garden hose.... If he can take my garden
hose and connect it to his hydrant, I may help him to put out his
fire’ before it spreads to my house.
*This would also, FDR said, help defend the Four Freedoms that
were threatened by the Axis: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of
Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
*On 11 March, 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. Not
only did this result in about $50 billion worth of weapons and
supplies being sent to Allied countries between 1941 and 1945, but
it also helped American factories get ready to produce weapons for
the US Army when the time came. In response, a German U-boat
sank the unarmed merchant ship USS Robin Moor in May,
*In June, America found a new recipient for Lend-Lease aid, the
Soviet Union, when Hitler, having given up on conquering Britain
for the moment, violated the Nazi-Soviet Pact by invading the
Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941.
*At first it was wildly successful. The Soviet Army was
still weak and poorly-led thanks to Stalin's purges, although that
was beginning to change. Many of the people of the western
Soviet Union--Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and others welcomed the
Nazis as liberators from Stalin’s cruel regime. However, to
the Nazis, these Slavs and Balts were mere untermenschen,
and suitable only for slave labour and future candidates for
*This brought the USSR into the war as one of the Allies.
Although Churchill had always viewed Communists as enemies of
civilisation, Hitler was worse, and he welcomed the help. In
fact, Churchill claimed that ‘if Hitler invaded hell I would make
at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of
*Blitzkrieg had been successful in the past, because Poland,
Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France had all fallen in less
than six weeks. Russia, though, is big and it is cold.
Hitler planned to knock the USSR out before winter, but his forces
could not win in six weeks and they outran their supply
lines. Although they surrounded Leningrad and pushed deep
into Russia, the Germans had to stop when winter came.
*Russia then began to fight. Although Communism is
internationalist, Stalin invoked the history and culture of the
Russian people to whip up a nationalist fervour for the Great
*Although the Soviet Union was not able to defeat Hitler with the
speed it had beaten Napoleon, it did stop him, and the Nazis’ aura
of invincibility was weakened.
*In August of 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had a secret meeting
off the coast of Newfoundland, at which they drafted the Atlantic
Charter (which was publicly released on the 14th) detailing the
English speaking powers’ general plans for the War (if America
should have to enter it). The guiding plan for the war would
be to defeat Germany first. In the aftermath, neither the US
or UK would try to take over new lands, borders would be
determined by the peoples living within them, and the post-war
world would be disarmed and peaceful, with civil rights, freedom
of the seas, low trade barriers, and a new international body
would be created to maintain world peace.
*As American ships began to travel in armed convoys, Germany
U-Boats continued to attack them. USS Kearny was
shot (but not sunk) on 17 October, 1941. On 31 October, USS
Reuben James became the first US warship sunk by
*Still, isolationists opposed open warfare with Germany and,
indeed, it would not be an attack by Germany that brought America
into the Second World War.
This page last updated 17 November, 2020.