Framing the “Great Debate” on World War II
From September 1939 to December 1941, Americans debated the role the United States should play in World War II, which was then ravaging Europe. Should America actively support the Allies, especially Britain, by providing direct financial and indirect military aid? Or should America maintain its traditional role of nonintervention? (World War I had been the sole exception.)
In 1941, the dispute intensified into what has been called the Great Debate, although the term is sometimes used to describe the entire discussion. Throughout most of the year, conflict raged in Congress, over radio waves, in print, on soap boxes, in lecture halls, from pulpits, and over kitchen tables.
Those who wanted to intervene had the great advantage of presidential power, but it is not clear which side would have prevailed had the debate continued. But on the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On December 8, the United States declared war on Japan. On the 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States; America reciprocated. Discussion was effectively over.
Defining the debate
In general terms, those who wanted to intervene argued that American security rested on defeating Germany, and so America should actively assist Britain and the Allied powers, largely through supplying their war needs (few called for military involvement before Pearl Harbor). The other side argued that America had no vital interest in the conflict. Active assistance would draw America directly into the war and, so, deeply damage America economically, politically, and in terms of lives lost.
The debate is often portrayed as “internationalists” versus “isolationists,” but this characterization is misleading. The so-called internationalists were often sympathetic to only a few favored nations. They were often “isolationist” or protectionist in other areas such as trade, where they advocated high tariffs to favor domestic goods and labor. Moreover, their definition of internationalism sometimes devolved to an advocacy of American dominance rather than that of global partnership.
The “isolationists” are even more difficult to fit under one label. In his essay “American Anti-Interventionist Tradition,” Justus Doenecke observed that
So-called isolationists often sought to increase foreign trade, endorsed noncoercive forms of international organization, fostered cultural interchange, and supported relief and recovery. In fact, they might take pains to deny they were isolationists, preferring the name anti-interventionist, neutralist, or nationalist.
What united them was a common opposition to America’s entry into World War II. The reasons for opposition varied as widely as did their political makeup, which spanned from far Right to far Left.
A more accurate description of the debate, therefore, is interventionist versus anti-interventionist.
The timing of the debate was significant in at least two ways.
First: Around the globe — e.g., in Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union — national-security states were consolidating. These were states at perpetual war with “the enemy,” both external (hostile nations) and internal (dissident citizens). America would either be drawn into a scenario created by such states or it would maintain neutrality and, so, remain American. Many noninterventionists believed that war would replace the free American system with government control in the form of labor conscription, monopolies, military-industrial corporations, price controls, and so on.
Second: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had assumed the presidency (1933–1945) with a clear focus upon domestic policy, especially the economy. Only as fascism spread across Europe and communism across Asia did FDR’s attention significantly shift to foreign policy.
Then, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Prior to the invasion of Poland, FDR’s foreign policy had stressed the protection of America’s strategic and economic interests in Europe. Afterward, America’s position remained officially neutral but FDR clearly favored the Allies. For example, in a September 3rd “fireside chat” broadcast, he declared neutrality, but he also waited two days before invoking the Neutrality Acts, so that the Allies could quickly buy the war materials they needed without impediment.
Prelude to the great debate
On September 21, FDR asked a special session of Congress to revise the Neutrality Acts to allow a policy of “cash-and-carry.” The policy allowed America to sell war materials to any belligerent who paid up front and assumed all risk of transportation. In effect, however, cash-and-carry assisted Britain and not Germany because the latter was cash-strapped and unable to travel safely across a British-dominated Atlantic. Thus the policy preserved a veneer of neutrality while aiding Britain and boosting the American economy.
Prominent anti-interventionists openly challenged FDR. Today, the best remembered of these voices may be Senator Robert A. Taft, but back then the one man with sufficient public appeal to counter FDR’s own was the renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh. In September, Lindbergh began broadcasting a series of speeches over the radio. The first, entitled “America and European Wars” argued that “by fighting for democracy abroad we may end by losing it at home.” Lindbergh also published articles in popular print venues such as Reader’s Digest. Although he was far from alone in his advocacy — for example, Senator Gerald P. Nye vociferously opposed the cash-and-carry policy — it was Lindbergh who was its popular voice.
During this time, the conflict in Europe entered a phase now known as the Phoney War. This period of inactivity spanned the winter 1939–1940.
In April 1940, the Phoney War ended when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Shortly afterward, Belgium, Holland, and France were invaded. Thus, an urgency suffused the debate.
At the same time, the British had taken huge losses in the materials they were shipping home due to German U-boat attacks; they could no longer afford a cash-and-carry arrangement. At a December 17 press conference, FDR proposed another policy, called Lend-Lease. FDR described Lend-Lease in terms of watching a neighbor’s house burn down. He asked, “What do I do in such a crisis? I don’t say … ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it’ — I don’t want $15 — I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.”
The policy aimed at giving the President broad power to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of” war materials. This would have allowed FDR to give war material to Britain (and others) without immediate payment. Instead, the recipients would give the materials back after the war or simply pay for them then in some manner. A September 1940 agreement called Destroyers for Bases provided one precedent; 50 U.S. WWI destroyers were exchanged for leases on several military bases to which Britain held rights.
In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR reiterated Lend-Lease and confirmed the fears of anti-interventionists who believed war would destroy the free American economy. FDR declared, “To change a whole nation from a basis of peacetime production of implements of peace to a basis of wartime production of implements of war is no small task.”
And, yet, the American people were in favor of actively assisting Britain. What they opposed was any direct entry into the war. A February 1941 Gallup poll found 54 percent of Americans approved of Lend-Lease without qualification; 15 percent approved with qualifications such as avoiding war; and 22 percent were absolutely against Lend-Lease.
In February, 1941, the Lend-Lease bill arrived at Congress, where it faced stiff opposition from Republicans. Nevertheless, the Democrat-dominated House voted along party lines and passed the bill; the Senate also secured passage. On March 11, the bill was signed into law. In April, the program was expanded to include China. America was now what FDR proudly called “the arsenal of democracy.” Neutrality was now a technicality.
The America First Committee
No organization better expresses the anti-interventionist side of the Great Debate than the America First Committee (AFC).
The immensely influential AFC was rooted in a student organization founded in 1940 by Yale Law School student and future CEO of Quaker Oats R. Douglas Stuart Jr., along with several other students, including future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and future President Gerald Ford. By September 7, the AFC announced its nationwide status and established headquarters in Chicago. It attracted high-profile activists including Lindbergh; Robert E. Wood, the chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company; Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt; John T. Flynn, a well-known journalist and founder of the New York chapter; Norman Thomas, a prominent socialist and pacifist; as well as Senators Burton K. Wheeler (D), David I. Walsh (D) and Gerald P. Nye (R).
On December 17, when FDR first proposed a Lend-Lease bill, the anti-interventionists were galvanized. The AFC aggressively criticized the policy as well as FDR the man. Calling FDR a liar, it petitioned nationwide for the enforcement of the Neutrality Act and to force FDR to fulfill his earlier pledge to stay out of war. The AFC announced four key principles to ensure America’s neutrality:
- The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
- No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
- American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
- “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
Passage of the Lend-Lease bill created more debate. For example, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Lend-Lease program was extended to that nation; the AFC protested vehemently that Stalin was no better than Hitler. When FDR attempted to assist British ships in the Atlantic by ordering the U.S. Navy to fire upon German submarines, the AFC accused him of waging war against Germany without a congressional declaration. At every step toward war, the AFC positioned itself as a barrier.
It sponsored rallies in small towns and cities, it promoted lectures and radio broadcasts, it distributed useful data to members of Congress and published rousing literature. One circular asked “Are you willing to give up democracy?” and referred to Lend-Lease as a “war dictatorship bill” that handed “absolute power” to FDR.
With some genuine success, Edgar J. Hoover and the FBI countered the AFC’s momentum; they attempted to smear its members as pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic or subversive. Nevertheless, the organization continued to grow, simply because the majority of Americans did not want to enter the war. At its peak, AFC boasted approximately 800,000 members in several hundred chapters.
And then Pearl Harbor occurred. Popular opinion turned on a dime and favored the rapid declaration of war. On December 11, the same day Germany and Italy declared war on America, the AFC disbanded and released the statement,
Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained. We are at war.
Today, it is common to view the anti-interventionists as “isolationists” who naively under-estimated Hitler or espoused Fortress America. But, as Doenecke observed,
They were presenting a competing world vision … that force, separated from abstract principles of international law and self-determination of nations, merely institutionalized chaotic and destructive power politics.
Anti-interventionists were also presenting a competing domestic vision
that lengthy foreign conflicts would only weaken a nation, limiting the freedom and opportunities of Americans in ways that they thought crucial. In short, real dangers were internal, centering on the nature of the American republic as they had understood and experienced it.
Wendy McElroy is the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998). She actively manages two websites: http://www.ifeminists.com and http://www.wendymcelroy.com.