Guest Essayist: James Legee


In an address to Congress on July 4, 1821, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams voiced opposition to American interference in European affairs, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”  The ideal of America as a nation rarely departing the safety of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on adventures abroad is strewn throughout competing political ideologies, parties, and interest groups in American history.  Isolationism is the doctrine that a nation should avoid foreign entanglements such as (non-defensive) wars and treaties (particularly mutual defense, foreign aid, etc).

The revolutionary generation saw this manifest in Washington’s 1793 Neutrality Proclamation, and the early republic in John Quincy Adams’ quote above.  The nativist isolationism familiar from 19th century Know Nothings was even brought to life and transposed into New York’s draft riots in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.  Indeed, it seems less a debate and more a part of American culture to assume America’s isolationism, at least until the 20th Century, despite books like Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution seeking to provide a contrary historical narrative.

Regardless of which reality or narrative dominated American history, nowhere were the stakes of this tension between isolationism and interventionism higher than in the late 1930s.  As war again swept across Europe, this time in the form of the Wehrmacht, democracies quickly fell to the tyranny of the Nazi fascists.  Remilitarization in Germany was concurrent with a resurgence of isolationism in the United States, especially among Midwestern Republicans, including Gerald Nye (R-ND), Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), and William Borah (R-ID, though he passed in 1940), as well as the odd Democrat, such as Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT).  President Roosevelt sought to aid allied forces in their fight against the Nazis, but a sizable number of the electorate, major public figures, and a number of prominent Congressmen opposed any American involvement in another European war.

After the Great War, pro-war sentiment and anti-German sentiment waned as the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression and the 1930s.  A significant public outcry grew over the American expedition in Europe in WWI; so many young lives lost to a war so far from the shores of America.  How was it American boys wound up casualties in places like the Argonne Forest and the Marne?  Some began to believe that America was not pulled into war by a necessity to defend democracy, but instead was pushed to war by arms manufacturers.  In April of 1934, the Senate convened a committee to investigate war profiteering by large manufacturers such as DuPont, Colt, Westinghouse, and other military contractors.  The committee was chaired by Republican Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota.  Nye, initially supportive of the New Deal, became a staunch opponent of Roosevelt, an outspoken isolationist, and critic of big business.  The Nye Committee, or Senate Munitions Committee, ran afoul of the powerful Senator Carter Glass, then Appropriations Chair.  After interviewing hundreds, Nye made the unsubstantiated contention in a speech that Wilson withheld information from the Congress and American people about the entry into World War I.  Democrats, led by Glass, were outraged and cut funding to the Nye Committee.  The final report of the committee, from February of 1936, provides little of substance, but this would not be the last investigation Nye led and it certainly bolstered the status of Isolationists in Congress.

Isolationists certainly did not want for influence in the Capital.  As the Nye Committee publicized and questioned the “Merchants of Death” that brought America to war, Hitler consolidated power in Germany.  June of 1934 brought the Knight of Long Knives, where SS and Gestapo members assassinated Hitler’s political rivals, solidifying his political and military hold over Germany.  One of Hitler’s first actions was to leave the League of Nations and continue to remilitarize.  Despite this, just over a year later Isolationists in America won a major political battle in passing the Neutrality act of 1935.  The thrust of the 1935 Neutrality act outlawed arms trade with any combatants should hostilities commence.  For enforcement purposes, the Office of Arms and Munitions Control was created under the Department of State and chaired by Joseph Coy Green (a former professor who taught future diplomat George Kennan).  The office registered manufacturers of military arms and material around the United States.

October of 1935 witnessed Nazi ally Italy, under the dictatorship of Mussolini, invade Ethiopia.  Arms shipments were prohibited to combatants, though neither the United States nor Great Britain took any further action to stem aggression.  Congress in 1936 passed another neutrality act which continued the ban on arms sales to combatants, and extended the prohibition to loans to combatant nations.  Shortly thereafter, Hitler seized the Rhineland along Germany’s western border.   1937 brought yet another Neutrality that reaffirmed the munitions ban, but added an interesting caveat.  Belligerents were allowed to purchase arms, so long as they paid cash and transported them out of the United States in non-American vessels, the advent of the so called “cash and carry” program.  With the consent of isolationists, America added kindling to arguably the greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century.

1938 brought continued German aggression as Hitler orchestrated the Anschluss of Austria and later demanded that the Sudetenland, a Germanic area of Czechoslovakia, be ceded to Germany.  While Roosevelt and his closest advisors were largely unified in their opposition to the Nazis, the Executive branch was hardly unified, as one of the most important diplomats in the political chess match, Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, was a staunch isolationist.  The father of future President John F. Kennedy (himself a proponent of intervention who penned Why England Slept as an undergraduate Harvard student), Joseph Kennedy insisted war was not in the near future, even in a lunch with Winston Churchill where Churchill expressed concern over a militarizing Germany and comparatively vulnerable British Empire March of 1938.  Kennedy continued to marginalize himself from the administration and drift from its position over the course of 1938.  As the drift from Roosevelt continued, Kennedy took the irregular step of communicating outside official channels in order to directly reach Senators Burton Wheeler, Pat Harrison, Key Pittman, James Byrnes, and other government officials with his assessment and recommendations on the . Author Nicholas Wapshott points out that “The president was conspicuously not on the list.”

As Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement failed to mollify Hitler, Kennedy further alienated himself from the administration when, in a draft of prepared remarks, Kennedy wrote “I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would want to go to war to save the Czechs.”  Chamberlain’s government, of course, would not last much longer, nor would peace.  As the 1940 election approached, Ambassador Kennedy continued to operate in step with Congressional isolationists rather than the administration, and mulled a run at the White House himself.

As the pace and seriousness of events quickened, a broad coalition of isolationists and anti-war activists came together to form the America First Committee.  The America First Committee brought together Democrats and Republicans, pacifists and veterans, businessmen and farmers, Midwesterners and East Coasters, to oppose any American role in a European war.

James Legee, Visiting Lecturer, Framingham State University Department of Political Science

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