A great book on the isolationist movement in America before the second World War is Marc Wortman’s 1941. Americans were told that the first World War was the “war to end all wars”. In that war, the U.S. lost 117,465 men. During the next 20 years, the Nazi party took charge of Germany, and eventually conquered country after country.
Many Americans strongly wanted to stay out of any new European war. Even while France was teetering on the edge of collapse, a Gallup poll showed that just 7 percent of Americans supported entering the war against Germany. Almost as many Americans were willing to fight for Germany. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) did want to help Britain, and in fact did one deed that was probably impeachable (letting Britain set up counter-intelligence operations in the United States), but he was constrained by public sentiment.
Isolationists included a Marine Major General named Smedley Butler, who was twice winner of the Medal of Honor. He said the following in a radio address to the mothers of America after Germany invaded Poland.
After you’ve heard one of those speeches and your blood’s all hot and you want to bite somebody like Hitler–go upstairs to where your boy’s asleep…Look at him…Look at this splendid young creature who’s part of yourself, and close your eyes for a moment and I’ll tell you what can happen…” He painted a graphic mental picture, and then ended with: “There’s a lot of tangled rusty barbed wires out there and a boy hanging over them–his stomach ripped out, and he’s feebly calling for help and water…He’s in agony.
There’s your boy. The same boy who’s lying in bed tonight.
The son of former president Theodore Roosevelt, Ted Roosevelt Junior, told an audience: “I went over to Europe with the first American troops to fight in Europe. We were told that it was the war to end wars, the war to make the world safe for democracy. We were told we had won.” Then he asked, “Did we? Conditions in Europe today give the answer. Nobody wins a war.” (Blogger note: Theodore Roosevelt senior was president of the U.S. from 1901 to 1909 and his fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt was president from 1933–1945. )
The Republican party candidate was Wendel Wilkie. The Republican radio ad for him went as follows: “When your boy is dying on some battlefield in Europe and he’s crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’–don’t blame Franklin D. Roosevelt because he sent your boy to war–blame YOURSELF, because YOU sent Franklin D. Roosevelt back to the White House!”
On the other side of the argument was Henry Stimson, a former secretary of state, now in his seventies. In a radio address he echoed Abraham Lincoln, saying that “The World cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Unfortunately, at this point the U.S. had a minimal army, and Japan alone had armed forces many times larger and far better equipped. (So did Germany).
Also on the interventionist side was William Shirer, a reporter who had been stationed in Germany and witnessed both Hitler and the Nazis close up. Shirer warned an audience in Memphis Tennessee that Hitler “would try to invade Britain and then, if successful, this hemisphere.” He predicted that once Germany conquered Britain and acquired her navy and gained possession of her colonies, he would never permit the U.S. to live on in peace as a last bastion of freedom.
While the debate about a peacetime draft went on in Congress, thousands of protesters marched outside the Capital building. These included Pacifist groups, the “mother’s movement,” the Young Communist League, the German-American Bund, and thousands of unaffiliated citizens. A Catholic priest with a huge radio following, Father Coughlin, told his listeners that the draft was part of a “communist plot” hatched by “a Hitlerized president and his American Gestapo.”
Another influential isolationist was Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was the first aviator to fly from Long Island across the Atlantic to Paris. He was hugely popular and very famous. Wortman describes the following scene on the evening of the election: “Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, passed the evening…at some friends’ Upper East Side apartment in New York. As the state-by-state tallies came in, the increasingly despondent gathering resolved on changing WHO should have the right to vote. Charles told his friends that the Negro voter should be disenfranchised, presumably because blacks were voting for FDR. Everyone in the gathering agreed on that point. Lindbergh also believed that Jews were exercising outsized influence, such as controlling the New York Times and most of the prominent Hollywood studios. He believed that they, and Anglophile British descendants, and Wall Street bankers, were pushing the country into an unnecessary war. He said he feared there would be an anti-Jewish movement. Ted Roosevelt Jr. also worried that mounting anti-Semitism would spiral into violence. He said to a friend that ‘all of us [should] take up the battle [against anti-Semitism] ourselves and get other prominent Christians to do it. It is folly to wait. If we wait we may find the fire has gained such proportions that we cannot put it out.’
As it turned out, the decision was made for America when Japan bombed the American fleet stationed at Hawaii, and Hitler then declared war on the United States. If Shirer was right and war with Hitler would have come in any case, then Britain saved America, by holding out until American forces were built up by a peacetime draft, and by providing a jump off point from which to invade Nazi Europe. Conversely, FDR also helped save Britain, by devices such as trading warships to Britain for leases on naval property on various British possessions. An outright sale of the ships would have violated neutrality, but a swap was less controversial.
There are lessons for today here as well. FDR was not a warmonger. He saw war as inevitable, and perhaps not winnable if Britain were defeated. The U.S. has been involved in several wars recently, some of which had more justification than others. None concluded as successfully and decisively as World War II. We could ask, what criteria makes a war necessary? And is preemptive war ever justified? In the acknowledgements section of Wortman’s book, he says: “…in hindsight, earlier interventions in Europe and Asia might have saved countless innocent lives.” (at least one advisor of FDR thought a preemptive war with Japan was necessary, and that was before Pearl Harbor). Winston Churchill wrote this in the preface of his book The Gathering Storm:
One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once “The Unnecessary War.” There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.
Some ironies: Ted Roosevelt Junior told his closest friend that after the first World War, he felt “…no matter what we failed in doing, at least we stamped out intolerance in the United States, for our common service shoulder to shoulder [blacks and whites]. He lamented that “The actual result was the Ku Klux Klan and bigotry.”
Ted Jr. served on the board of the NAACP as well as on the board of an American Zionist committee. But he strongly felt that the United States should not lose a single soldier in Europe, despite the reports of massacres of Jews coming out of Europe.
Another irony is that the New York Times, which was run by a Jewish publishing family, far from dragging the U.S. into war, during the war downplayed the holocaust. Jewish organizations in general bent over backwards to avoid being seen as pushing American into a war to save their coreligionists. Anti-Semites blamed the Jews anyway.
A third irony was that FDR himself did not like Jews. This did not prevent Nazi propaganda from inventing the story that his real name was Rosenfeld, and that he was Jewish!
I emailed Marc Wortman and told him his book would make a good movie, but he doubted Hollywood would pick it up.
1941 – A Divided America in a World At War – – Marc Wortman.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA-HH4yf5Vg (William Shirer talks about Hitler Youth in a film produced by the Army Information Branch)