1. Reactions to events in Europe and Asia, 1933 - 1941

This page looks at the reasons for US isolationism and the reaction of America to events in Europe and Asia. Also Roosevelt's actions with regard to Latin America.

Guiding questions:

To what extent did the US pursue an isolationist policy before 1933?

What was the US response to events in Europe after 1933?

How did the outbreak of war impact America's isolationist position?

What was the impact of events in Asia on US policy?

What was the Good Neighbour policy and what was its impact?

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbour in 1941?

1. To what extent did the US pursue an isolationist policy before 1933?

Starter

Following the First World War, the USA followed a policy of isolationism.

Watch the first 8 minutes of the video below to review the context of America's isolationism.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Following on from the video task, research (or review) the USA's attitude towards participation (or non-participation) in the following (also the reasons for actions of the USA):

  • League of Nations
  • Washington Treaties
  • Kellogg-Briand Pact
  • Dawes Plan
  • The Manchurian Incident of 1931
  • Clark memorandum

What are your conclusions regarding America's role in world events in the 1920s? To what extent was it isolationist in its foreign policy?

2. What was the US response to events in Europe after 1933?

While the US had been partly involved in international events in the 1920s, the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression turned the USA further inwards. Despite the growing power of Nazi Germany, the public mood continued to be strongly isolationist; the American public were determined not to be dragged into what they saw as a new European conflict. Most historians agree that Roosevelt was an internationalist but that he had no choice but to follow an isolationist policy given the economic and political situation in the US. He also needed the support of Congress, which included many isolationists, for his New Deal policy. However critics would argue that, given his strong electoral mandate, he could have done more to present the case against isolationism to the US public.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Continue watching the video Road to War: America (see above under Question one) from 11 minutes to 23 minutes.

  1. How did the Depression and the New Deal impact on the US’ attitude towards foreign affairs?
  2. Why was isolationism a ‘way of life’?
  3. How had the First World War impacted on the attitude of the Americans towards Europe?
  4. How did movies both reflect the attitude of the US and encourage the isolationist attitude?
  5. What was the significance of the Neutrality Acts?
  6. What was the condition of the US army at this time?

    Task Two

    ATL: Self-management and thinking skills

    Create a mind map to show the factors that would have influenced Roosevelt to support an isolationist policy when he took over as president in 1933.

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Use this interactive timeline to see in more detail the US' reaction to events in Europe from 1933. The timeline will allow you to see the key events that took place in Europe and then to consider possible options for America.

    1. Make a note of each key event in Europe that had international repercussions. Choose which option you think the US would have chosen.

    2. Using the information on the site, make a note of the actual option that was taken by the US and why the US took this option.

    3. Having looked at the choices available to the US at each stage, do you consider that Roosevelt made the right decisions regarding the actions of the US over events in Europe? Are you surprised at any of the responses?

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Roosevelt's Quarantine speech caused a stir at the time as to what exactly Roosevelt intended. Was he indicating a change in US policy or just testing the reaction of the US public?

    Read the Quarantine Speech which can be found here

    1. What techniques does Roosevelt use to try to convey the urgency of the situation? (consider language and tone as well as content)
    2. How does he link events elsewhere in the world to events in America?
    3. What do you think the overall aim of this speech was?

    Task Five

    ATL: Research and thinking skills

    1. Research further the terms and impact of The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1937 and 1939.

    Use this website to make notes on each act and how it affected the actions of the US government regarding conflicts overseas.

    2. To what extent do you agree with Neville Chamberlain's comment that: 'The greatest single contribution which the United States could make at the present moment to the preservation of world peace would be the amendment of the existing neutrality legislation. The legislation in its present form constitutes an indirect but potent encouragement to aggression.' ?

    3. How did the outbreak of war impact America's isolationist position?


    Starter:

    What is the message of this Dr Seuss cartoon regarding the America First committee?

    By Dr. Seuss - http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#ark:bb4642496p, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55537968

    '[To FDR] morality and self-interest... compelled America to aid Britain and France; the preservation of American values and national peace depended on the defeat of Berlin'.

    Robert Dallek, Franklin D Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932 - 1945 (1995)

    On the outbreak of war in September 1939, FDR made it clear to the American people that he intended to remain neutral. However in his 'fireside chat' of 3 September he made it clear that 'even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience'.

    Roosevelt believed that he needed to keep the US out of the war but that the best way to do this was to support the Allies to strengthen their position to defeat the Nazis. However, while there was growing support in America for the British, there was still a strong section of opinion opposed to giving aid.

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Continue watching the video: The Road to War: The USA (see above) from 23 minutes to 43 minutes

    Answer the following questions:

    1. What was the message of Roosevelt's speech made on the outbreak of war in September 1939?
    2. What actions were taken by the US in response to this situation?
    3. What was the 'cash and carry' provision?
    4. What were the arguments of the isolationists in defence of staying out of the war?
    5. What was Churchill's tactic regarding getting Roosevelt to help Britain more?
    6. What were the arguments of America First?
    7. What was the impact of the Blitz on American attitudes?
    8. What actions did Roosevelt now take to help Britain?
    9. How did the US now start preparing for war?
    10. What arguments were given for and against The Lend-Lease Act?
    11. How did the US become more directly involved in hostilities?
    12. What was the significance of the meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill?

    The following task could be done as a whole class debate or - as below - with debates in pairs. An alternative empathy style exercise would be for students to write a news article in favour of one side or the other.

    Task Two

    ATL: Communication skills

    1. Research further the debates of the time regarding US isolationism. A good starting point is to look at speeches e.g. by William Lindbergh, Roosevelt and Cordell Hull. Make a note of arguments given on each side of the issue.

    2. Divide the class into pairs.

    One of you should write a speech on behalf of America First setting out the reasons for US isolationism in 1940.

    The other in the pair should write a speech arguing the case for ending US isolationism.

    Each speech should consider the following: impact of the First World War, the domestic economy, National Security, US preparedness for war.

    Debate with each other; the best speeches could be read out to the whole class.

    Historians have debated the extent to which Roosevelt was an isolationist or an interventionist regarding events in Europe.

    Robert Divine argues that Roosevelt was an isolationist.

    Michael Simpson, however, argues that FDR was convinced that the US had a role to play in defending democracy and human rights, especially in the light of the danger of Fascism, 'Roosevelt meant to shape the world his way and bided his time'.

    Michael J Heale in Franklin D. Roosevelt argues that '[FDR] blamed the neutrality laws for encouraging fascist aggression.'

    Historians such as Michael Simpson and Robert Dallek support the view that Roosevelt carefully built a popular consensus in America which allowed the US to enter the war in 1941. Robert Dallek states that Roosevelt was justified in deceiving the American public, for example over the involvement in attacking a Germany U boat September 1941 (see Task Five above under Question 2) arguing that 'In the light of the national unwillingness to face up fully to the international dangers confronting the country, it is difficult to fault Roosevelt for building a consensus by devious means'. (Also quote from Dallek at the start of this question)

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    1. In pairs draw up a list of Roosevelt's actions and speeches after 1933 which suggest he supported a policy of isolation.

    2. Now draw up a list of his actions that suggest he was an interventionist who was constrained by American public opinion.

    Which of the historians' view points outlined above do you agree with?

    Go to 7. The Second World War and the Americas: Essay frames and writing exercises for an essay on the issue of how far Roosevelt supported isolationism.

    4. What was the impact of events in Asia on US policy?

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Use this interactive timeline to see in more detail US' reaction to events in Asia from 1933. The timeline will allow you to see the key events that took place in Asia and then to choose a possible option for America.

    1. Make a note of each key event in Asia that had international repercussions. Choose which option you think the US would have chosen.

    2. Using the information on the site, make a note of the actual option that was taken by the US and why the US took this option.

    3. Having considered the choices available to the US at each stage, do you consider that the Roosevelt made the right decisions regarding the actions of the US over events in Asia?

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Continue watching the video Road to War: the USA from 42 mins 45 seconds until the end.

    How did Roosevelt deal with the growing threat from Japan?

    Why did the US underestimate the Japanese?

    Task Three

    ATL: Self-management skills

    Create your own timeline to show US response to international events between 1931 to 1941.

    On one side of the timeline mark on all international crises from both Europe and Asia (you could use different colours to differentiate between Europe and Asia).

    On the other side of the timeline mark on the US response to the international crises.

    Note that the following task would work well using the The Silent Conversation strategy which is explained here: 2. Source work activities 

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read Roosevelt's State of the Union address in 1941 which also became known as The Four Freedoms speech. You may want to print it out so that you can annotate it.

    1. What are the key arguments that Roosevelt gives to justify increased US involvement in international events and increased aid to Britain?

    The American illustrator, Norman Rockwell painted four paintings to show these Freedoms. Look at these paintings here.

    2. What is the message of these paintings?

      Read this 2017 article from The Guardian newspaper. Discuss as a class how far you agree with the article regarding the current political message of these paintings.

    5. What was the Good Neighbour policy and what was its impact?

    Roosevelt with Brazilian President Getulio Vargas

    By Unknown - CPDOC/ GV foto 035/2 [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2436861

    “In the field of world policy, I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of agreements in and with a world of neighbors. We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take, but must give as well.” Roosevelt, 1933

    As indicated by the Monroe Doctrine the US saw itself, from the 1820s, as the regional superpower with economic and military influence and control over Latin America and the Caribbean. In the 1920s, US economic influence and investment in the region increased. However, the Clark Memorandum, which Hoover published in 1930 accepted that America no longer had a policing role in the Western Hemisphere and the US refrained from intervening in Brazil, Panama and Cuba in 1931 when revolutions broke out.

    Roosevelt continued this new approach to relations with Latin America pledging non-intervention at the Montevideo Pan-American Conference in 1933. He called this the 'Good Neighbour' policy. Although the US still maintained a strong economic influence in the region the Good Neighbour policy nevertheless represented a significant change in US foreign policy and resulted in considerable support for the US in Latin America when war did eventually break out.

    Task One

    ATL: Research skills

    How did The Good Neighbour policy show itself in US actions with regard to:

    • Haiti
    • Dominican Republic
    • Cuba
    • Panama
    • Mexico
    • The Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    In the 1930s Germany, Italy and Japan attempted to improve their economic and political standing in Latin America. However in 1938, American states signed the Declaration of Lima.

    Read the Declaration of Lima.

    What is the main message of this Declaration?

    Why is this significant (a) in the context of the 1930s and (b) America's relationship with Latin America?

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    What is the message of this extract from a modern textbook regarding the US' Good Neighbour policy?

    The US had significant economic interests in Latin America and took action when necessary to preserve these interests. In Nicaragua, the threat of communist influence led to US support for the Samoza family from 1936; this family would maintain a dictatorship in Nicaragua for the next 44 years. In Cuba, an attempted left-wing coup in 1933 failed due to US intervention and help was given instead to the military dictator General Batista who was to hold power until Castro over threw him in 1959. In the Dominican Republic yet another military dictator, Rafael Trujillo, was supported from 1930. These strong men provided internal stability which allowed the US to pursue their business interests.

    6. What was Canada's reaction to events in Europe?

    'All these European troubles are not worth the bones of a Toronto grenadier.'

    University history professor, Frank Underhill in 1935

    The Liberal government of William Lyon MacKenzie King hoped to keep Canada neutral. However, while French Canadians were isolationist, MacKenzie King knew that English Canadians would want to support Britain in a future war with Germany. It was also difficult to keep completely out of events in Europe.

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Research Canada's role in the following European crises.

    Did Canada's involvement have a positive or a negative impact on these events?

    • Abyssinia crisis
    • Spanish Civil War
    • Rhineland crisis, 1936

    With tensions growing, King sought closer relations with America, tightening economic ties. On a visit to Canada, Roosevelt pledged to support Canada against any military threat. Although this was an important pledge by the US, King was nevertheless nervous of a situation that could lead to the American military on Canadian soil. He thus ordered the upgrading of the air force and coastal defences. However, he did not give any assurances to Britain at this stage that Canada would get involved.

    The Sudeten crisis brought war closer, and a visit to Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth strengthened ties between the two countries. King was still worried about alienating the Quebecers if Canada joined Britain in war against Germany and very little was done to modernise the army. However, following Britain’s declaration of war in September 1939, the Canadian parliament voted overwhelmingly to join the war. King’s Québec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe spoke passionately about supporting Britain and France in a war against Nazi aggression but also promised there would be no conscription.

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read this article on the actions of Minister MacKenzie King which develops these points further.

    1. Why did King need to 'walk a fine line' in the 1930s?
    2. How did he try to do this?
    3. What factors caused a majority of Canadians to support the entry of Canada into the war?

      7. Why did Japan bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1941?

      The US declared war on Japan after its devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.  President Roosevelt described the attack as ‘unprovoked and dastardly’. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan involved the deployment of the largest naval task force to sail across the Pacific Ocean to strike at the heart of the US fleet. Yamamoto planned to use the new technology of aircraft carriers to deliver an aerial assault on the US fleet. If the Japanese could destroy US naval power, it could consolidate its position in Asia before the United States could recover its ships. On 7 December, the first wave of Japanese planes, launched from nearby aircraft carriers, struck Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt called on Congress to declare war on Japan the following day, and was joined by Britain. Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala, and Panama also declared war on Japan. Hitler’s Germany then declared war on the US on 11 December. Pearl Harbor therefore led to a global war and US direct engagement in the war in Europe and Asia.

      Task One

      ATL : Self-management and thinking skills

      Discuss the interrelationship between the following factors in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:
      • Japanese imperial and expansionist aims in Asia
      • Economic factors: US trade in the region and US oil embargo on Japan
      • Failure of diplomacy and negotiations
      • US support for and assistance to China
      • Japanese militarism
      • US and Japanese strategic concerns
      • Impact of atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing on US public opinion

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