It is doubtful that any anti-war movement in American history has been as vilified as those lonely souls who opposed American entry into World War II. Activists like the anti-imperialists at the turn of the 20th century have simply been forgotten, left to be neither condemned nor lauded by posterity. Others, like the opponents to the Vietnam War, have been positively, if partisanly, celebrated.
But the active opposition to World War II enjoys no such luxuries. It was neither insignificant enough to be totally ignored, nor have its members been romanticized and praised. At best, the opponents of American participation in the war are said to have been on the wrong side of history. At worst, they are charged with being a Nazi fifth column undermining America from within.
The American Non-Interventionist Tradition
No group has been targeted with this latter smear more than the America First Committee, even though the evidence in support of the accusation has never been obvious. Founded by a group of Yale University law students, including Robert Douglas Stuart Jr, son of a Quaker Oats Company co-founder, and future President Gerald Ford, the committee boasted the membership or support of many prominent Americans. Among them were former President Herbert Hoover, later President John F. Kennedy, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, publishers Robert McCormick and Joseph Patterson, business magnates General Robert E. Wood and Sterling Morton, and military officers including Major (later General) Albert Wedemeyer.
The America First Committee was established in September 1940 to provide organized opposition President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, which members of the committee feared was steering the United States towards involvement in World War II. In arguing for staying out of the war, the committee appealed to what it said was the traditional American position on foreign wars.
“I believe in an impregnable national defense,” the AFC’s creed began, adding, “I believe we should keep our country out of the Old World’s everlasting family quarrels.” Reaching its crux, the creed stated,
I believe in the preservation of this Republic. Embroiled again in European affairs, we shall lose it. We shall be destroying the heritage our fathers fought for and sacrificed to leave us. In an effort to destroy totalitarianism, we shall be forced into totalitarianism ourselves. George Washington warned us of this day. His advice is better today than when he gave it.
This mention of George Washington referred to his 1796 Farewell Address in which he struck a markedly similar chord. “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Washington had asked. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” He warned against “inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others” and pleaded instead for Americans to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations [and] cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
A quarter century later, President James Monroe restated Washington’s policy in a slightly amended form when he warned European nations that the United States would view their interference in the Americas unfavorably, but also promised that America would not take sides in European conflicts. Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine became the unofficial basis for American foreign policy for the remainder of the 19th century.
While America didn’t apply this standard perfectly, neither did they go around the world seeking, in the words of President John Quincy Adams, “monsters to destroy.” Adams predicted that once America departed from its non-interventionist path, she
…would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the United States, influenced by Progressive attitudes towards the use and utility of war, began to move away from its non-interventionist past. Faced with these non-traditional notions, American anti-imperialists vehemently opposed the Spanish-American War and the imperialistic struggles that followed. Less than two decades later a smaller and less vocal group offered similar opposition to American participation in World War I. The opponents of American entry into World War II carried on this defense of the country’s traditional foreign policy.
The Broad Coalition
It would be inaccurate to say that all opponents of American entry into World War II were traditionalists, for joining conservatives in the fight against intervention were some liberals and socialists. Even American communists were initially opposed to intervention, since participation in the war would bring the United States into conflict with Joseph Stalin’s Russia, which had joined the war on Hitler’s side in September 1939. American communists’ opposition quickly evaporated, however, when Hitler turned on his co-belligerent and invaded Russia in June of 1941.
The America First Committee reflected this broad coalition. Historian Justus Doenecke wrote that “pacifists and liberals assumed crucial positions in drafting position papers” for the AFC, but “the more vocal members…were staunch conservatives…” As it did in World War I, the strongest resistance to intervention in World War II came, in the words of sociologist Robert Nisbet, “from those closely linked to business, church, local community, family, and traditional morality.”
Because conservatives led the opposition, many of the arguments against intervention took on a conservative tone and focused on the preservation of American tradition, liberty and virtue.
A Defensive Standard for War
While most non-interventionists were not pacifists, they held a distinctly defensive view of war. Republican Senator Robert Taft enunciated this position when he wrote in 1941 that “War is a vain policy, except a war fought at home to establish or preserve the freedom of a nation.”
For many Americans, World War I supported this belief. Historians Burton and Anita Folsom wrote that when the traumatized American veterans of the Great War came home and began telling their stories, “the public was stunned by the carnage of World War I, by the raw destruction, by the sheer numbers of dead or maimed.”
Two decades later, with war again raging in Europe and Americans again debating participation in it, non-interventionists worried that the hard-learned lessons from World War I would be forgotten. Herbert Hoover, who had personally witnessed the immense suffering of World War I, lamented that “Amid the afterglow of glory and legend we forget the filth, the stench, the death, of the trenches. We forget the dumb grief of mothers, wives, and children. We forget the unending blight cast upon the world by the sacrifice of the flower of every race.”
Like Taft, Hoover was not arguing for pacifism, but rather for war as a defensive last resort. “We may need to go to war again,” the former president wrote, “But that war should be on this hemisphere alone and in the defense of our firesides or our honor. For that alone should we pay the price.”
War’s Failure to Make the World Safe
World War I had further proven that wars to perfect society and liberate the world were fool’s errands. Woodrow Wilson had famously rooted the case for American involvement in World War I in the idea that “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Hoover had joined in this line of thinking, believing that by entering the war America “could impose an enlightened peace; that we could make it a war to end war.”
But the actual experience of World War I changed Hoover’s mind about war’s ability to effect positive social change. “If experience has any value to nations,” he wrote, “there are in the wrecking of these hopes a thousand reasons why we should never attempt it again…”
In a radio address in 1939, Hoover stated his new belief that, “This world can never reach peace by threats and force. If this is to be the blind leadership of men, nothing can save the world from a catastrophe to civilization.” Little did he realize the immensity of the catastrophe to come.
Imperiled American Liberty
If anyone was in a position to foresee this catastrophe, it was Hoover. In appreciation for his relief efforts during the World War I, which in the words of historian George Nash had “saved literally tens of millions of people from privation and death,” Hoover was invited to make a return tour of Europe so its people and leaders could thank him.
In February and March of 1938, Hoover visited 14 countries across Europe and had the chance to speak personally with many political leaders, including Adolf Hitler. What Hoover found on his journey was a continent increasingly driven towards totalitarianism by forces still reverberating from World War I. Upon his return to the United States, Hoover told a radio audience,
Let there be no mistake; a new way of life is rising in the world. It directly challenges all our American concepts of free men. And let me tell you that upon my recent journey over and over again men of responsibility breathed to me one prayer. They did not seek military alliances with us. They did not seek loans. What they prayed was that we hold the fort of liberty in America.
The demands of a new war, the non-interventionists believed, would place this fort of liberty under siege. Here again World War I, with its attendant economic and social regimentation, served as a cautionary tale. When Roosevelt established the War Resources Board in 1939, conservatives reacted strongly, seeing in it not just another New Deal boondoggle, but an indication that the administration was going to use the war to further its control of the economy.
Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg predicted that, before long, prices and wages would be set by the government, goods like food and fuel rationed and relations between business and labor more heavily regulated. Vandenberg remarked that in this environment, “The Bill of Rights would need a gas mask, and liberty of action would swiftly become a modern memory.”
The Rising American Dictatorship
In September 1939, soon after the war in Europe began, Roosevelt called a special session of Congress to ask for the repeal of the neutrality laws that banned the sale of weapons to belligerent nations. Doenecke wrote that, “Though FDR was far from explicit, his bill obviously had one aim: to aid the Allies.” For his opponents, this not only revealed Roosevelt’s intention to take sides in the conflict, it seemed to be the first step on the road to war.
Roosevelt’s proposal easily passed, and non-interventionists could only take solace in the fact that warring nations could purchase American weapons solely on a cash and carry basis – that is, they were required to pay for the weapons at the time of the sale and with the understanding that American vessels would not transport them.
Whatever comfort this stipulation provided lasted only 15 months. By December 1940, with France in German hands and Russia still on Hitler’s side, the British Empire faced the Nazis alone. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed Roosevelt that Britain would soon be unable to pay cash for American weapons. Roosevelt needed a solution, and found it with what became known as Lend-Lease, a program which would give or loan supplies to Britain in exchange for leases on military bases. Roosevelt likened Lend-Lease to loaning a garden hose to a neighbor whose house is on fire, to which Taft quipped that “Lending arms is like lending chewing gum. You don’t want it back.”
While claiming to simply allow to America to continue supporting the British, the bill also gave Roosevelt unprecedented power, allowing him to “manufacture…or otherwise procure…any defense article whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Doenecke wrote that “If he so desired, the [bill’s language] could cover virtually everything, military secrets included.” The Folsoms noted that, “if Congress approved Lend-Lease, the president would have enormous power and control and allocate what the United States produced and where supplies went.
For non-interventionists, Lend-Lease presented a dual problem of risking war and of creating an American dictator. Taft believed the bill authorized Roosevelt to “take us into the midst of the war, and once we are there his powers will be unlimited.” The Christian Century called the bill “the most un-American proposal which the American people have ever had seriously to consider.” John Bassett Moore, an expert on international law, said that Lend-Lease raised the ultimate question of “whether we shall have a government of law or a government of men.”
For his opponents, Lend-Lease continued Roosevelt’s troubling tendency to bypass constitutional limits on his authority. Just three months before, he had unilaterally agreed to send 50 destroyers to Britain in exchange for leases on military bases on British-owned territory in the Atlantic and Carribbean. This Destroyers for Bases deal was a step too far, even for Wendell Wilkie, the interventionist Democrat-turned-Republican who was battling Roosevelt for the presidency. The deal, Wilkie said, “was the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any President in the history of the United States. It does is no good to solve the problems of democracy if we solve them with the methods of dictators…”
Nor would Lend-Lease be the last time Roosevelt would behave as if he had already received a declaration of war from Congress. In January 1941, wrote historian Waldo Heinrichs, “British army, navy, and air planners secretly met with their American counterparts in Washington” to develop joint war plans based on the possibility of American entry into the war. The agreement went so far as to prioritize the defeat of Germany over the defeat of Japan – before the United States was at war with either. A great deal of secrecy and subterfuge surrounded the meeting, with Roosevelt aide Robert Sherwood remarking that the goal was to avoid any publicity which “might provide ammunition for the opponents of Lend-Lease.” Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, noted that the effect of the secret agreement, withheld from the American people and their representatives, was that “The question as to our entry into the war seems to be when, and not whether.”
In August 1941, with the United States still nominally at peace, Roosevelt met with Churchill on a warship off the coast of Newfoundland. At the meeting, the two leaders developed the Atlantic Charter which, in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, laid out their vision for the postwar world, enunciating goals like self-determination for all people and the “abandonment of the use of force.”
Among the Charter’s eight points was a statement about the two countries’ desires for the peace that would follow “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.” The America First Committee voiced concern that, through the Charter’s language, Roosevelt had “committed us to active participation in the present war.” Churchill, reporting to a British radio audience after the meeting, seemed to confirm this, saying, “the President of the United States and the British representative…have jointly pledged their countries to the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.”
These actions by Roosevelt were taken without a constitutional grant of power or declaration of war and came at a time when over 80 percent of Americans polled said they did not want to go to war. Non-interventionists were critical of both Roosevelt’s penchant for giving himself new powers and his lack of candor regarding his activities and intentions. On this latter charge, even Roosevelt’s defenders have concurred.
The charter’s language about self-determination seemed particularly fatuous since one of its signatories held the largest empire in the world. Considering the extent of the British Empire, North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye called Great Britain “the ace aggressor of all time.” Non-interventionists noted Britain’s long history of oppression in its colonies in Africa, the Middle East and India. Even the beleaguered French were criticized for their imperialism.
The British further alienated non-interventionists by their behavior after the war began. As European countries began to fall in the face of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the fate of civilians in conquered countries caused concern in America. Hoover, sensing an opportunity to renew his humanitarian efforts, came up with a plan to, in Nash’s words, “import and distribute food to the civilian populations of German-occupied Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where, he said, there were 18,000,000 persons ‘who are going to die unless food is gotten to them at once.’”
In order for the food to reach the civilian populations under German control, it would first have to pass through the British naval blockade of the continent. Despite German promises that all of the food would reach the civilians that needed it, Nash recorded that Churchill “categorically refused to permit food to pass through the blockade,” reasoning that the “conquered populations were the Germans’ responsibility…and the Germans had food enough to meet it if they desired.”
The civilian populations of Europe were to be left, then, to the generosity of the Nazis. An incensed Hoover would later describe Churchill as “a militarist of the extreme school who held that the incidental starvation of women and children was justified if it contributed to the earlier ending of the war…” The Christian Century remarked that “the inhumanity of starving your friends to hurt your enemies reaches depths of moral degradation which cannot possible serve any moral end.”
To non-interventionists, the historical ruthlessness of the European empires, combined with their callous attitudes towards suffering European civilians, made a mockery of the Atlantic Charter’s idealism.