Prelude to War: US Foreign Policy in the 1930s


I. Pre-occupied by the Great Depression and domestic affairs, foreign policy was largely an afterthought during much of the 1930s. Still, there were some very important developments that showed that Roosevelt himself was acutely aware of the challenges facing the US on the international front. 

A. One of the early foreign policy initiatives undertaken by the US was in the arena of trade. 

1. As we have seen, the world trading system basically collapsed following the passage of the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930. Other countries followed the American example and a global trade war took place, hurting everyone. 

2. Roosevelt, along with several European leaders, believed strongly that the collapse of global trade was THE major factor in the continuing global depression and sought to put the US on a new path as far as trade was concerned. 

a. A World economic conference was held in London in 1933 to discuss trade liberalization, but the meeting did more harm than good because no one could agree on what the fundamental problems were or how to deal with them. 

b. The US decided to act unilaterally and in 1934, the US Congress delegated its authority over trade matters to the President by passing the landmark 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act. 

c. The Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act authorized the President to negotiate bi-lateral trade agreements with other countries and to present Congress with the agreement for a simple “Yes or No” vote. This was a major change in the way the US conducted trade policy because the US Constitution gives the Congress full control over trade. Before 1934, one of the major jobs of Congress was passing trade legislation, and they did it by designating tariffs for thousands of items separately. With the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act, this authority was delegated to the President and he was authorized to make trade arrangements based on loose reciprocity rather than item-by-item tariffs.  

d. Under the terms of the new trade system, Roosevelt negotiated deals with major US trading partners and trade slowly began to increase. 

e. The Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act has been changed, of course, but it is still the basis of the system used today.  

B. Trade policy reform was important, but other issues also demanded US attention. As I have mentioned several times, beginning in 1931, Japan became much more aggressive in Asia, invading Manchuria and generally trying to cement its position as the dominant power in the region.

1. Although the US continued to advocate the Open Door Policy, it was not willing to take significant action against Japan. Instead, Roosevelt sought to contain Japan by offering, finally, diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. 

2. Since the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the US had refused to recognize the communist government of Russia. The Bolsheviks had negotiated a separate peace with Germany, had repudiated all of its debts to the West, and had declared its intention to spread its revolution worldwide. In addition to this, Stalin, the Soviet leader since the death of Lenin, had pursued murderous domestic policies, with a variety of “purges” and the brutal forced industrialization of Russia. 

3. Though Stalin had developed his notion of “Socialism in One Country” in the early 1920’s, following the failure of bolshevism to catch-on elsewhere in Europe, it was not until the 1930’s that the US was willing to believe that he meant it. Because of the gloomy global trading system and because Roosevelt concluded that the Soviet Union would serve as a buffer against Japanese aggression in Asia, the US finally recognized the Soviet government in late 1933. 

a. Hopes for a bountiful trade relationship with the Soviets failed to materialize, but the Russians did serve as a brake on Japanese aggression for some time. 

C. Roosevelt also saw the need for better relations with Latin America and to this end introduced his “Good Neighbor Policy” in December of 1933. The Good Neighbor policy repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and the US accepted the idea that it did not have the right to intervene in the affairs of its Latin American neighbors whenever it wanted to. At the same time, the US basically declared that any attack on any country in the Americas would be treated as an attack on the US. 

1. This was welcome news in Latin America, and largely because of this, every Latin American country followed US policy toward Germany and Japan with the exception of Argentina. When the US finally entered the war at the end of 1941, it brought with it the countries of Central and South America, as well as Mexico. 

D. Even as Roosevelt was working behind the scenes to improve the US diplomatic position in response to increasingly alarming news about the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan, the US Congress was busy trying to ensure that should another war break out, the US would not become involved. 

1. In 1935, the Congress set up a commission (the Nye Commission) to investigate the role of the arms industry in pushing the US into the First World War. Not surprisingly, the commission found that, indeed, American manufacturers of weapons of war profited greatly from the war. This led to a series of Neutrality Acts that effectively prevented Roosevelt from responding to the renewed Japanese aggression of 1937 and Hitler’s aggression in 1939. 

a. The first Neutrality Act was passed in 1935. The Congress declared that once the President had made the determination that a state of war existed anywhere in the world, the US could not trade with either side in the war.  

b. The following year, Congress extended the act and added that US banks could not lend money to either side in any war. 

c. In 1937, the Neutrality Act forbad Americans from traveling on the ships of any country at war. It allowed nations at war to purchase non-military goods from the US, but only on a cash basis—the US would not extend any credit for such purchases. 

2. When Japan launched its invasion of China in 1937, Roosevelt deliberately ignored it—not because he didn’t care but because for him to acknowledge the aggression would have triggered the Neutrality Act. He was thus able to send munitions and supplies to anti-Japanese forces in China. Still, recognizing the isolationist mood of the American people and the Congress, he was limited in how involved the US could get in the conflict. 

a. Eventually, convinced that Japan would never challenge the US militarily, and pre-occupied by developments in Europe, Roosevelt turned to economic devices to try to stop Japan. When Japan ignored US calls to withdraw from China, the US placed embargoes on scrap iron, steel, industrial chemicals, and oil for Japan. The US also froze Japanese assets held in American banks. 

b. These actions put Japan in a desperate situation. They needed oil in particular, and the closest source was in Indonesia. Still, as long as the Soviet Union remained a threat in the region, Japan was unwilling to attack the US, which it knew it would have to do to gain access to Indonesian oil. This inhibition was solved for the Japanese by Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. 

E. It was events in Europe which occupied Roosevelt, and eventually the American people, at first. 

1. Benito Mussolini was the first Fascist leader in Europe, taking power in the 1920’s. 

2. Fascism represented a challenge to capitalism and democracy as much as communism did, with centralized state control of the economy and its proclamations against the follies of liberty and freedom and in favor of a regimented society. 

3. Moreover, Fascism seemed to work—the economies of Italy and Germany did comparatively well in the 1930’s. 

4. Fascism was unapologetically aggressive—it was believed that that the highest purpose of the state was territorial expansion and that only through war could a people achieve their full greatness. 

5. In Germany, Fascism, or National Socialism, began a slow rise in the early 1920’s and finally won 33% of the seats in the German Bundestag in 1933. They were able to appoint Adolph Hitler to the position of Chancellor, an office he took at the end of 1933. 

a. Hitler immediately began to restructure the German economy and defied the Versailles Treaty by rebuilding both the German Army and Navy. In 1936, in response to alleged mistreatment of Germans in Czechoslovakia, he marched on the Sudetenland, an area belonging to the Czechs that had a significant German population. He also joined Italy in supporting the Fascist side in a civil war raging in Spain, and Francisco Franco seized power there because German and Italian intervention was not matched by assistance to the Republican side by France, England, or the US. 

b. As Hitler moved aggressively to rebuild the German army and navy, he began to involve himself in the internal affairs of Austria as well, engineering close relations with members of  that government and effectively turning Austria into an exclusive trading partner of Germany. 

c. In early 1938, the Austrian government was facing so many problems from pro-Nazi sympathizers that it called for an election to consider union with Germany. The Austrian leadership was sure that the people would reject it. However, before the vote could be held, Hitler marched his army into Austria and annexed it (this is called the Anschluss). 

d. Before the world could even react to what Hitler had done in Austria, he began to put pressure on Czechoslovakia. There was a large ethnic-German population living in the border region near Germany, and Hitler insisted that the German people had a right to be united in one territory. He wanted Czechoslovakia to cede to Germany border provinces with a large German population. 

e. War seemed inevitable, but neither France nor England were ready for war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled to Germany several times to talk with Hitler and eventually the two forged the infamous Munich Accords—Hitler could take the Sudetenland, but promised to settle all future disputes without war. This policy of “appeasement” would haunt Chamberlain for the rest of his days. 

f. Just four months later, Hitler reneged on his agreement and took the rest of Czechoslovakia. 

g. Though Hitler paused his aggression temporarily, he began making speeches making clear that Poland would be his next target. The British unilaterally declared their intention to fight for Polish independence, hoping that the Soviets, also very worried about German aggression toward the East, would follow suit. 

i.                 However, Hitler had already made a secret agreement with Stalin—Hitler promised not to attack the Soviet Union if they did not object to his taking of western Poland. Moreover, the Soviets would be allowed to occupy Estonia the eastern side of Poland. 

h. With the non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany in place, Hitler invaded Poland, overrunning its defenses in a matter of days. Russia sent troops into Estonia. With the invasion of Poland, World War II had begun. 

F. Back in the US, reaction was mixed, but isolationism remained the dominant position. The US refused to enter the war and even continued to insist that Britain pay for everything it bought from the US with cash. It would be almost 2 years before the US would enter the war.