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Prelude to WWII, 1919-41

During most of the 1920s and 1930s, attention in the United States was focused on domestic events. This was especially true after the stock market collapse in October, 1929.

In Europe, the order established by the Versailles Treaty was unstable. Italy had become a fascist state under Benito Mussolini. Russia was under the control of the Communist, led first by Vladimir Lenin and the Josef Stalin. The Weimar Republic was unstable, suffering from the ill effects of the punitive peace treaty, and under attack by both conservatives and radicals. The Central European nations, in general, were week by the late 1920s and, to some extent, dependent upon private investments from the United States. Certainly, Germany was able to make some reparations payments, required by the Versailles Treaty, because of the inflow of US capital.

In Asia, Japan was becoming aggressive as it sought new sources of raw materials and new markets. Japan, one of the world's largest industrial powers, had been flexing its muscles for some time. In 1894-95, as a result of the First Sino-Japanese War, it annexed Taiwan and grabbed southern Manchuria. In 1910, it annexed Korea. The Washington Naval Conference (1921) was an effort to limit the size of the Japanese fleet in hopes that doing so would curtail Japanese expansionism. However, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and conquered it after Japanese secret agents had created an incident. Secretary of State Henry Stimson protested and asserted in January, 1932 that the US would not recognize any territorial or administrative changes the Japanese might impose upon China. The League of Nations passed a resolution based on the Stimson Doctrine. It made no difference and Hoover refused to put ant teeth into the doctrine. Japan left the League of Nations. In 1934, it created the puppet state of Manchukuo with the former emperor of China. Pu Ti, as head.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the World, 1933-1937

In the first years of the New Deal, US citizens were still reluctant to get involved in world affairs preferring to concentrate on the domestic problems created by the Great Depression. Roosevelt did announce the Good Neighbor Policy (the change in policy had begun under Hoover's administration). The US abrogated the Platt Amendment which had given the US to intervene in Cuban affairs. In fact, the US promised not to intervene in the internal affairs of any Latin American country. Given the crisis, the US became very nationalistic and wrecked the World Economic Conference on currency exchange stabilization. The US agreed the explore mutual tariff reductions instead of a general lowering of its high tariffs.

The world situation grew more dangerous. In 1935, Italy conquered Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The Emperor Hailie Selassie appealed to Western powers for aid; although the League of Nations condemned Italy, "Italian East Africa," became a realty. That same year Adolf Hitler began rearming Germany in violation of the Versailles treaty. He counted on the reluctance of the great powers to sop him. In 1936, he retook the Rhineland, territory lost by Germany because of the Versailles Treaty. Civil War broke out in Spain and lasted until 1939 as Francisco Franco, backed by conservatives and reactionaries as well as Italy and Germany, overthrew the democratic Spanish Republic. the Republic appealed for help but only the Soviet Union provided any. Italy, Germany, and Japan formed an alliance, the Rome=Berlin-Tokyo Axis, in 1936-1937.

The US response was to pass neutrality laws. Congress passed a law forbidding the sale of arms to belligerents. Many Americans accepted the erroneous report of the Nye Commission (1936) which asserted that the US had become involved in the First World War as a result of the machinations of bankers and munitions makers. In 1936, it forbade loans to belligerents. In 1937, the first two laws were made permanent and Congress forbade U citizens to travel on ships owned or operated by belligerents. It gave the President the power for two years to list which commodities that belligerents would have too pay for in cash and carry in their own ships. Clearly, Congress and the American people did not want to get involved in a war.

In 1937, however, the Japanese began a full scale invasion of China. In 1938, Japan proclaimed a "New Order in East Asia." that same year, the Germans absorbed Austria, claiming that the people there, German speakers, wanted to be part of greater Germany, the Third Reich. Hitler began threatening Czechoslovakia, claiming that the German minority in the Sudetenland region. The region had been part of the German Confederation in the 19th century but had been given to Czechoslovakia in 1919 because of the German defeat. Hitler had subsidized a Nazi Party there which demanded annexation to Germany. At the Munich Conference, Germany, Italy, England, and France agreed that Hitler could annex the Sudetenland; in return, Hitler promised not to make any more territorial demands in Europe. Excluded from the conference, at Mussolini's suggestion, were Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In March, 1939 Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia and began threatening Poland. France and England guaranteed the territorial integrity of Poland. Meanwhile, Italy invaded Albania.

FDR called for modest rearmament. It was clear to him that the world had become too dangerous for the US to continue have a small, ill-equipped military. The USSR and Germany signed a non-aggression agreement the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, 1939 allowing both top annex territory in eastern Europe and the Soviets a free hand in its war against Finland. Not free of the fear of Soviet resistance, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and England declared war on Germany but logistical factors made it nigh impossible to aid Poland. Some called the lull a "phony war." The US reaction in November, 1939, was to declare an arms embargo and require that all trade be on a cash and carry basis. It still believed the Nye Commission.

The European war got worse. Germany, having taken Poland and other eastern European territory, turned westward and invaded Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Germany then invaded France in June. The French put up a fierce resistance and many died; the French had lost a generation of men defending Paris in the First World War; seeing that the Germans could and would destroy Paris and that France was beaten, they surrendered.

People in the US were split about what the nation should do. Isolationists argued that what the Europeans did was not a US affair. Reformers were convinced that participation in a war would end the New Deal. Anglophobes wanted to see England get its comeuppance. But other Americans, including Roosevelt, were not neutral. FDR wanted to help Great Britain and, at first, thought he could without getting the US involved in the war. As events occurred, his opinion changed to thinking he might be able to keep the country out. Finally, he concluded that it was a matter of time. And Congress had changed its opinion, for it passed a one billion dollar defense appropriation bill in May, 1940. In September, the US loaned destroyers to Great Britain in return for bases in the Caribbean. The Selective Service Act, a peacetime draft, was passed that year.

In the 1940 presidential election FDR and his Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, favored aiding Great Britain although both said they wanted to keep US men out of the war. The US was too close to the British to allow the Germans to conquer them.

After FDR's election to a third term, US aid to Britain increased. In March, 1941, the Lend Lease Act, funded at $50 billion gave the President the right to aid any nation fighting the Axis powers. Most, $31 billion, went to Great Britain. By the spring, US and British officers were discussing common strategy. In August, FDR and Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, met an issued the Atlantic Charter, a statement of war aims. By the summer of 1941, the US was in an undeclared naval war with Germany and protecting convoys as far as Iceland (which the Us declared part of the Western Hemisphere!). By September, US naval commanders were given orders to shoot German subs on sight. The US was taking side.

German troops invaded Rumania in October, 1940, Yugoslavia in April, 1941, and the Soviet Union in June, 1941. The Soviet Union was the only nation fighting the Axis on land in Europe. The US started giving aid to the USSR.

War came not because of Germany but because of Japan. In 1939, the Japanese gave the required six months notice that they were abrogating the 1911 commercial treaty with the US. The US responded in July, 1940, by prohibiting the export of some oil and of scrap metal, an effort to cut off supplies to the Japanese war machine. Japanese troops occupied northern Indo-China and signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. While negotiating with the US, Japan sent its troops into southern Indo-China and then into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. (For an account of a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Java, see Bantjeuj). FDR froze Japanese funds in the US. In August, Prince Konoye suggested a Pacific conference to settle the differences between the US and Japan. FDR, believing that Japan was simply buying time while its armies conquered, refused unless their was some agreement on basic issue, something the Japanese would not do. In October, Konoye's government fell and the militarist, General Hideki Tojo, took power and gave the go-ahead for the attack on the US Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Meanwhile, Japanese diplomats were ordered to continue discussions with Washington while the secret battle plans went forth. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese military destroyed much of the American Pacific fleet.

On December 8, 1941, the US declared war on Japan; on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the US which then reciprocated.