The recent congressional impasse that resulted in a sixteen-day government shutdown recalled many political crises through American history, but I found myself drawn back to the period of heated public debates and bitter personal attacks in 1940-41 over isolationism. The political strength of the United States is based on representative democracy, loyal opposition, government by compromise, and the constitutionally defined system of checks and balances in the three branches of government. However, the collision of events, issues, ideologies, and personalities has often threatened to undermine this sturdy structure.
While not on the level of the great historical divides over states’ rights, civil rights, and human rights, a particularly vitriolic debate rose in 1940 between supporters of isolationism and proponents of intervention in global affairs. Given the national outrage in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the unified and rapid conversion to war footing, it’s hard to remember the long argument that preceded the U. S. entry into World War II.
In the 1930s the nation was mired in the Great Depression and the domestic economic crisis dominated the nation’s attention and resources. Isolationist sentiment escalated as the Senate Nye Committee investigated World War I munitions manufacturers and war profiteers and suggested that an unsavory collusion between government and business had drawn the United States into that war. In the late 1930s neutrality legislation ensured (in theory) that the nation did not actively aid or arm foreign belligerents. Isolationists varied widely across the political and social spectrum but they generally shared an aversion to U. S. involvement in foreign war.
By 1940 the world was at war again and the debate between isolation and intervention commanded the national attention. Japan, at war with China since 1937, signed the Tripartite Pact with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the fall of 1940. Western Europe had fallen before the German blitzkrieg and England stood alone against the Nazi attack. The United States faced growing dangers across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Congress debated the role of the nation in the growing global conflagration and the need for adequate national defense. Clubs and activist groups fueled the fires with anti-draft protests and other hot-button issues. As I describe in Building for War, the main focus was on the war in Europe, not Asia; the prevailing attitude called for caution in the Pacific where economic sanctions were intended to protest Japanese aggression without directly provoking Japan. But defense was the operative word: congress debated but would ultimately approve substantial defense appropriations. Majority public opinion generally sided with measures promising prudent defense, but stalwart isolationists argued that it was a slippery slope.
At the close of 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt argued that the Axis threat promised that the United States would be “living at the point of a gun” unless it stepped forward as the “great arsenal of democracy.” Lend-Lease, initially a $7 billion package of arms credits and aid to Great Britain, inflamed passionate debate in early 1941. Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana decried the president’s plan, calling it the “New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy: it will plow under every fourth American boy.” Roosevelt shot back that Wheeler’s comment was the “rottenest and most dastardly untruth.” Lend-Lease passed but the long argument continued. (Building for War, 63-64)
In Those Angry Days(Random House, 2013), author Lynne Olson describes the bitter division of these volatile prewar years and the two towering personalities that stood at the center of controversy: the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, staunch advocate of isolationism and President Franklin Roosevelt, champion of intervention and aid for Great Britain. Olson discusses the multiple layers of proponents and opponents of isolationism from the halls of congress to the “mothers’ movement” and other grass roots groups. The great debate even veered into the tawdry realm of spies and wiretapping. But the attack on Pearl Harbor slammed the door on those angry days as the nation united in commitment to the defense effort and the war it could no longer avoid. The stern warnings of the isolationists, Olson argues, fell by the wayside as the national economy surged, American soil remained (for the most part) secure, and social unity prevailed. In the end, the great debate of 1940-41 had allowed the nation to carefully examine the steps in the road to war, contributing to national commitment and unity when it came.
Our nation has always grappled with divisive issues. The American system allows for public dissent and open discourse and we are stronger when we make the effort to explore the pros and cons of all issues. Angry days can be constructive ones if the objective is not who “wins” but how we move forward together in the best interests of the nation. Our congressional representatives would do well to remember that.