Were Americans really isolationist before WWII?

There are a few things you will read almost without fail in any history of the U.S., from textbook to blog: the Puritans had a strong work ethic; Americans were the underdogs in the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson was a champion of the common man; Mary Todd Lincoln was insane; and Americans were isolationists before each of the World Wars. Generally, the more you read about any “given” subject, the less certain you become of the common knowledge dispensed about it, and sometimes you do a complete 180, realizing that the traditional take on a historical moment is just not true. That’s where Truth v. Myth comes from, and that’s what we’re looking at here.

American isolationism is a tricky topic. Generally, the cult of American isolationism has been built on these cornerstones: the lack of political action taken against Germany by the U.S. government until war was declared; Americans’ over-arching concern with the domestic economy during the Depression, which precluded any real or sustained interest in foreign affairs; and Roosevelt’s struggles to get Congress to authorize material support for Britain from 1940-1941.

The first and last of these concerns official government action; the second addresses the man in the street. They are often connected by saying, The man in the street did not want war with Germany and so the government tried to stay out of it. Only when Pearl Harbor was attacked did Americans rise up and demand war, and so Congress declared it.

But it’s clear when you study the U.S. in the interwar period that there was no single, national opinion on Europe and whether to intervene in German policy. The majority of Americans were concerned about what was happening in Germany; the increasingly oppressive and criminal policies the Nazi government introduced from the start of its rule in March 1933 were fully covered in the U.S. press, and that coverage alarmed and angered many Americans. More Americans had ancestors from Germany than from any other European nation, so millions of German-Americans were outraged at what they considered to be the Nazi destruction of German culture and civilization. Other Americans worried that Germany would provoke another war in Europe—not simply because they didn’t want the U.S. to fight another war, but because the  struggling U.S. economy needed a strong European export market. Communist and Socialist Americans were united with Democrats and Republicans in decrying the rise of fascist dictatorship. And Jewish Americans spread the word of the growing persecution of Jewish Germans through every available outlet.

So we see that there was a great deal of concern and anger about the Reich and its policies, and there was also real activism against Nazi Germany. Jewish Americans led the way, in particular Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, who organized an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1933 that drew 25,000 attendees. In the depths of the Depression, Wise called for an economic boycott against Nazi Germany that was supported by the American Federation of Labor and the International Trade Union Congress as well as the Jewish Labor Committee. The determination to isolate and attack Nazi Germany thus cut across religious lines.

Why didn’t the U.S. government act against the Nazis if so many Americans were against Germany? That is a very complex topic for another post (and has been addressed in many books), but suffice it to say, for here, that there were several factors at play: the government did not want to provoke another war if there was a diplomatic solution; the government did not receive any real support from any European nation for ostracizing Nazi Germany; and, significantly, the government, like most governments in Europe, simply did not believe that a government so oppressive, so cartoonish, so ridiculous and unstable, could possible last very long. Just as the Founders wrote slavery protections into our Constitution because they felt certain that slavery could not possible endure for very long in our democracy, so the U.S. (and Europe) continued to maintain as normal a relationship as possible with Nazi Germany, certain that it would quickly fall apart or be destroyed by an uprising of the German people.

In the meanwhile, Americans who also could not believe the Nazi regime would last did not ignore the growing threat. Local newspapers in big cities and small towns published the criminal actions of the German government. Many people with relatives in Germany worked to get them out of that country. Jewish Americans continually broadcast details of the emerging Holocaust. And, as we’ll see in the next post, there was an extraordinary demonstration against Hitler on March 7, 1934, that infuriated Germany and impacted relations with the U.S.

Next time: Hitler on trial in Manhattan