Sentiment in America before Pearl Harbor was decidedly anti-war

By Ron Milam, Ph.D. / Special to GateHouse Media

President George Washington warned the American people to “steer clear of permanent alliances,” and to “extend foreign commercial relations that could be mutually beneficial while maintaining as little political connection as possible.” These words were written in his farewell address to the nation as he watched Europe engage in wars that his own cabinet members had publicly taken diverse positions about, causing friction within his administration and creating concern among warring nations. His warnings have often been cited as the beginning of isolationism by both elected officials and by the American public.

Fast-forward over 100 years, and Americans were still heeding Washington’s words as Europe continued to fight “small” wars over ideology and geography. President Woodrow Wilson kept America out of World War I for three years because he did not want to send American boys to fight what he considered to be a European war. When he reversed his position in April 1917 by asking Congress to declare war to make the world “safe for democracy,” his decision was criticized by many peace organizations and industrial leaders such as Henry Ford.

And while American soldiers did affect the outcome of the war in France and Britain’s favor, the American people were not supportive of the decision, particularly when watching American boys return home with terrible wounds and lung damage from battlefield exposure to poison gas. Isolationism set in as polls indicated most Americans believed fighting “the war to end all wars” was a mistake, and some even believed that “merchants of death” had wanted American involvement in the war so that they could profit from selling war materials.

Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge sought to decrease the likelihood of another “great war” by negotiating limits to the size of naval armaments at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference. If the world’s powers – America, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy – could restrict their post-war construction of battleships to an agreed upon tonnage and gun size, perhaps the reduction in ship size would lead to less belligerence on the seas. Virtually all parties broke the treaty by 1935 as hostilities began in Asia with Japan’s invasion of China.

While most historians mark the beginning of World War II as 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, Japan had already conquered the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, and began to invade other provinces in 1937 when both Shanghai and Nanking were attacked. President Franklin Roosevelt wrote critical letters addressing this aggression, particularly when the American river gunboat the USS Panay was sunk by Japanese aircraft while attempting to rescue survivors of Nanking.

But the American people were not supportive of going to war with Japan, even though military planners had anticipated such a conflict by designing War Plan Orange as early as 1924. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 still in effect, it is unlikely that Americans would have supported further involvement in the Sino-Japanese War. Furthermore, with the American economy having been severely affected by the Depression and unemployed citizens standing in bread lines, events in Asia were not at the top of their priority list. They were, however, paying some attention to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

With the memory of World War I still fresh, there was not a movement toward involvement as long as America itself was not being attacked.

President Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease bill to give aid to Britain and China in 1941. Wikipedia

As President Roosevelt launched his New Deal to improve the living conditions of the American people, many congressional leaders became concerned about the various conflicts erupting around the world. In 1935, Italy conquered Ethiopia and proclaimed fascism as the new form of government most likely to succeed in Europe. With Benito Mussolini allying with Hitler, there was a growing concern by the president that America would have to take a more aggressive approach to world affairs.

However, the isolationist movement began to influence members of Congress, who believed that the best course of action to avoid wars was to pass neutrality acts that would have the effect of limiting America’s role in what was perceived to be regional conflicts. Since the president needed many of these isolationists to support his domestic policies, such as the enactment of the Social Security Act and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Act, he allowed a series of neutrality acts to be passed. While there were many internationalists who believed America had a role to play in these disputes, they were outnumbered by a wide array of conservatives, industrialists and peace activists who believed that American intervention would lead to participation in what could eventually become a new world war.

In 1938, Hitler negotiated an agreement with European leaders to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland areas of Czechoslovakia. President Roosevelt supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s acceptance of the Munich Agreement, even though there were cabinet members who predicted Hitler’s long-range plan to be much more expansive. When Germany then occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, then Poland, then France, and began the bombing of Britain, America had to at least become concerned about a Second World War.

But isolationists were still successful in keeping America out of both Asian and European conflicts. An America First Committee movement began across the country in 1940, led by businessmen, leftists and celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh. While there was also a group of internationalists that formed the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies in 1940, the isolationists were successful in keeping America out of what was now becoming World War II.

President Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940, and even though he was actively working with Britain to help them in their lone action against Nazism and fascism, his campaign rhetoric was still supporting the isolationists: “I have said this before but I shall say it again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, knew that only America could stop Hitler’s movement toward European domination, and he appealed to the president in a very personal way. Recognizing America’s vast industrial machine, Churchill asked for help that would not require American boys to fight a foreign war, but allow America to support Britain through rebuilding its naval armaments.

President Roosevelt sent a bill to Congress that gave him the authority to “sell, transfer, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of any war material to any nation whose defense was deemed vital to the defense of the United States.” And to assure the isolationists that this was truly a patriotic gesture, the bill was designated as HR1776.

British ships were towed to American shipyards to be repaired before re-entering service, and American vessels were “loaned” to England with commitments to return them to the United States after the war. The “lend-lease” program aided Britain’s war effort and minimally satisfied both the isolationists and the internationalists.

Water-cooled machine guns just arrived from the U.S. under Lend-Lease are checked at an ordnance depot in England. Wikipedia

But President Roosevelt knew that Japan needed oil and war material in the Pacific to continue its goal of Southeast Asian dominance. Only the United States could stop Japan’s conquest of the British Commonwealth possessions of Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaya and other islands, as well as the Philippines, French Indochina and China. The United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet stood in the way of Japan’s aggression, particularly since it had recently been relocated from San Diego, California, to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor would be an event that would finally bring the interests of both the internationalists and the isolationists together. America would declare war on Japan the next day, and Germany and Italy would declare war on the United States. With this attack, the attitudes and theories about economics, morality and politics were replaced by concern for the defense of the homeland.

– Ron Milam, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history, a Fulbright Scholar to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the faculty advisor to the Veteran’s Association at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He serves on the Content Advisory Committee tasked with writing the history of the Vietnam War for the new Education Center at The Wall in Washington, D.C., and is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Milam is the author of “Not a Gentleman’s War: an Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War” and is working on two book projects: “The Siege of Phu Nhon: Montagnards and Americans as Allies in Battle” and “Cambodia and Kent State: Killing in the Jungle and on the College Campuses.”