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 expansion.


*In 1934, Congress approved a plan to give the Philippines independence in ten years, 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 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 act.


*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 leader.


*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, 1941.


*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 extermination.

*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 Commons.”

*Blitzkrieg had been successful in the past, because Poland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France had all fallen in less then 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 Patriotic War.  The Russian Orthodox Church was even freed from some of its restrictions in return for its support for the war against Germany.

*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 German. 


*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 9 November, 2018.
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