The period between the late 1920s and mid 1940s represented a tumultuous era in United States. America was facing the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States, a crisis that was threatening with the collapse of financial institutions and also big companies sending thousands of Americans to the unemployment gallows. During this period too, America was under threat from the growing superpowers and consequently received debilitating blows that reawakened the Giant from a self imposed slumber.
The challenges faced during this period were overcome through the effective tutelage of Fredrick Delano Roosevelt who was able to steer America to survive the threat to its international dominance. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the presidency of President Roosevelt and the decision to enter into the Second World War.
President Franklin D Roosevelt reign in the seat of power was unique in spite of having served in one of the most challenging times. He is the only one in the history of the United States that has served more than two terms. Born in 1832, Roosevelt presidency has been hailed by critics and supporters alike not only because of the economic legacy but most importantly due to his successful marshalling of the United States forces into the Second World War despite his physical disabilities.
His presidency took off in 1933 to a rocky start. He took the mantle of leadership from Herbert Hoover at a time the United States was facing a financial crisis that had resulted to a wane of the public’s confidence in the institutions of governance. His vigorous campaigns gave rise to the famous New Deal with a promise to revamp the economy. Roosevelt was able to muster the support of the Americans especially from the people in the lower income bracket. He was swept to power by his lofty promises to the already demoralised public who saw in him a savoir to escape the incumbents spending policies. His immediate duty was the economy. Within the first 100 days, he had initiated a massive recovery plan to save the country’s economy. During this time, he “sent congress numerous pieces of legislation to help factories, banks, farms and unemployed people.” (Michael, 2004, 32). The Great Depression may have taken the toll off a number of developed countries but America was the worst hit. All arms of the government hence were directed towards providing a remedy for the raging ailment.
While the United States was initiating measures to deal with its economic woes a row was developing in the international scene. Europe was on the verge of collapse as the feeble structures of the League of Nations were giving way under the pressures of the raging rivalry between the various powers. Majority of the scholars agree that the Second World War was a continuation of the Great War. The issues that were left unresolved during the First World War and the seed of discontent and hatred planted during the First World War re-emerged and gave way to one of the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world. A similar incident had happened more than a decade earlier towards the end of the First World War. After a prolonged silence and non interference into the global conflict, the United States under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson had entered into fray after having strived “to preserve American neutral rights and sensibilities” (Alan & Davis, 2004, 304). A similar parallelism can be drawn during the build up to the Second World War. Roosevelt maintained the need for the country’s neutrality and isolationism so as to pay more attention to the domestic woes bedevilling the country. The first tenure in office for President Roosevelt was unique compared to other presidents.
The economic woes and the disillusionment engulfing the mood of the nation required more than an immediate attention. Both the First and the Second New Deal were specifically aiming at reducing government’s spending on non essentials. He cut the governments spending in the military and also on veteran benefits. Research and education also suffered during his tenure leaving him to concentrate on the more urgent programs. Prohibition was brought to an end and big businesses had to cough more in terms of taxes to feed the economy and other domestic problems facing the nation.
However, this would change with the rise of fascism in Germany and the threat it was placing on the world order. “The onset of world war II reconfigured the priorities of Roosevelt’s presidency” (Alas & Davis, 2004, 359). The ambitions Wilsonianism policy of interventionism would come cropping back.
An analysis of the United States entrance into the war reveals a process that was highly scrutinized by both the public and the congress. The economic woes in the United States had altered the perception of Americans towards the foreign policy and majority were against the engagement of military abroad even in resolving international conflicts. Indeed the world together with the United States was watching the rise of fascism but no countermeasures were being taken. Instead, a number of appeasement resolutions were being passed in the hope that Adolph Hitler would fade away. Roosevelt’s hands in the conflict were tied not only due to the fact that he had a handful of problems to worry about at home but also by the rigid nature of the congress. The first Neutrality Act was passed by the congress in 1935 specifically with an aim of preventing the United States from engaging in any mission in regard to Ethiopia and Italy the two warring countries. The United States had placed embargo on trade through the neutrality bill despite Roosevelt’s insistence that the congress “inflexible provision might drag us into war instead of keeping us out” (Cited in Ronald, 1991, 67)
The second neutrality bill was also passed in 1937 and “was designed to close the loopholes in the first act.” (Ronald, 68) With the tradition and precedence of isolationism being set by the congress in line with the prevailing national mood, Roosevelt’s involvement into the war was not certain and the United States could only watch from a distance. The opposition of Roosevelt to the Neutrality Act has been a point of focus amongst many scholars with majority noting that he was arm twisted by the congress. He also took note of the publics sentiments towards the issue. He was decrying the insistence of neutrality even when the US could have stepped in to save Ethiopia which was the aggrieved party.
The rise of fascism under Hitler in Germany was not causing as much ripples to the United States like those being caused by Japan. Japan was fast rising as a big challenge across Asia and in its rise was a big threat to the United States interests. The past decades prior to the Second World War had seen the star of Japan rise and it was becoming a force to reckon with. This sudden urge to initiate an expansionist program by Japan was premised upon the assumption of impotence by the European powers as Churchill (1954, 213) observes, “pride in their (Japan) martial triumphs and confidence in their leadership was strengthened by the conviction that the western powers had not the will to fight to the death”. The imperialistic program initiated by Japan was indeed perilous to the interests of the United States, a fact that Roosevelt was keenly watching and explains why he urged the congress in 1937 to allow the United States to assist China during the Sino-Japanese war.
Signs that the Roosevelt was ready to shelf the prior stance taken by Woodrow Wilson during the First World War emerged later in 1937 when he delivered the famous quarantine speech. To Roosevelt, countries that were breaching the security of the world would be contained. It was in this light that he initiated programs that aimed at securing the United States submarine defence system. This was in recognition of the threat posed not by Hitler but by Japan. Japan may have had it eyes locked on dominating East Asia but it was aware that it would ruffle the feathers of the western powers. “The Japanese army anticipated war with the Soviet Union sooner or later, but the navy considered the United States its chief hypothetical enemy.” (Waldo, 1988, 5)
The isolationism that had dominated the foreign policy of the United States and the aloofness of most European powers had painted a picture of unwillingness by western democracies to contain the surge of German’s and Japanese imperialism. Roosevelt’s preoccupation with the domestic affairs, as he had been brought power by the promise to revamp the economy, meant that he “spent his energies and influence on enacting the New Deal, raising prices, and putting people back to work” (Waldo 7). This preoccupation hence made it hard for many Americans to perceive any aggression by Germany and Japan towards the United States. Germany was being seen as preoccupied with its European rivals while Japans hands were full in East Asia. Again, most analysts claimed it would be imprudent for Japan to contemplate provoking the United States whose resources it could not match and to whom it had huge trade interests. Though Roosevelt may have been aware of the moves being made by Japan it was “not to the point of sacrificing his domestic objectives” (Waldo 7). His involvement was only limited to moral support to the European powers to whom he was prevailing upon to resolve the conflict.
With the war having broken out and Hitler’s expansionist moves paying off, the isolationist spirit being imbued by the nation and by the congress did not deter Roosevelt from sending troops abroad for patrol purposes. In addition to such patrols, Roosevelt was devising ways through which to offer support to Britain whose resources. Though the publics support at home was for neutrality, the raging war in Europe and the increasing threats from Japan and Germany were strengthening. Roosevelt’s conviction on the need to play a more active role in the prevailing events of the war had led Roosevelt to take a pro war stance and forward grants to countries such as Britain and China. Military spending by then was conveniently increased to help the western powers fend off the expansionism of Germany. The events of the war too were having an impact on the opinion of the public. German forces were making an inroad across Europe and the capture of Paris by Hitler’s forces resulted to a turnaround to the opinion in the congress and the public. The earlier isolationist stance was being traded off by the need to sanction for a build up of the military. A combination of Roosevelt charisma and intense propaganda was slowly changing the perspective of the public in regard to the war. The build up to the military had a number of benefits to Roosevelt’s domestic plans. It was able to deflate attention from the woes of the great depression and at the same time able to spur huge economic growth. The large manufacturing firms were expanding and the demands for labour increasing with each day as America rose to meet the requirements of the military. The transformation of the public’s opinion was creating a different urgency to Roosevelt and domestic policies ceased to be his major concern.
A look at the events prior to the entrance of the United States into the war reveals that though Roosevelt had not committed the Americans forces to the war, he was aptly armed and prepared for such an instance. Of keen interest to most historians has been the vigilance through which he was watching the movements of the Japanese. American forces were patrolling the seas in readiness for any escalation of the conflicts. It is this particular keenness in the Japan’s moves that has prompted a number of scholars to allude to the claims that Roosevelt was well aware of the impending attacks but turned a blind eye “and thereby sanctioned the death of 2403 men and the crippling of the pacific fleet” (Alan & Davis, 360).
Indeed a look at the United States indicates that it was drawn to the war by the events of the Pearl Harbour. The entrance of the United States into the war was swift and ruthless as was the response of Germany which immediately declared war against the United States. To gain leverage in the war, the US joined forces with Britain and Russia to form the Allies. The entrance of Germany into the fray meant that the US had to focus its attention to the Nazi Regime in the belief that its destruction would mean the end of the war. Roosevelt had been able to draw a well marshalled plan of the war; this was coupled by the mobilization of millions of soldiers and volunteers to aid in the ensuring a victory despite his ailing health.
Indeed a look at the Roosevelt’s presidency and the decision to enter into the war indicates that this was only done after it was established that the nation was under eminent threat. The United States prior to the war was undergoing a tumultuous period due to the great depression. Attention hence was solely focused on how to revamp the economy. The isolationist policy had received immense publics’ support and Roosevelt had a hard time convincing Americans on the need to enter into the fray. This was only made possible after the pearl harbour attack when the publics opinion was swayed by the face of the eminent danger posed by japans and Germans expansionism.
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Waldo H. Heinrichs (1988). Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II. Oxford University Press US.
Alan Brinkley, Davis Dyer (2004). The American Presidency. Houghton Mifflin Books.