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World War II

Prelude to WW II: Isolationism, Refugee Policy and the Roosevelt Administration
Pearl Harbor and Mobilization
Internment Policy
Pacific Theatre
European Theatre
Wartime Refugee Policy
The Atomic Bomb

Prelude to WW II: Isolationism, Refugee Policy and the Roosevelt Administration

By the mid-1930's, the preoccupation of the Roosevelt Administration with the Depression and attempts to restore economic health began to compete with concerns over the deteriorating situation in Europe and Asia. In August 1935, President Roosevelt signed what would be the first of a series of Neutrality Acts that attempted to keep the U.S. from becoming a party to foreign conflicts by authorizing the President to prohibit shipment of military supplies abroad and to restrict the travel of U.S. citizens on foreign vessels except at their own risk. While the measures were initiated by members of Congress responding to the significant public sentiment against taking steps that might lead to U.S. involvement in a foreign war, Roosevelt evidently did not wish to risk provoking opposition to his domestic program through vetoing the bills.

Congress also resisted efforts to allow more European refugeees fleeing the Nazi oppression to enter the U.S. by easing the tight restrictions on immigration that had been enacted in 1924. With the country continuing in the grip of the Depression, many feared that refugees would compete for still scarce jobs. There also continued to be both open and covert expressions of antisemitism.

Only weeks after the President signed the first Neutrality Act in 1935, the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws that deprived Jews of their German citizenship and prohibited marriage or sexual relations between Jews and those of German blood. These acts were followed by increasingly harsher restrictions. In 1938, Jews in Germany were required to register their property, Jewish children were barred from attending school and Jews were prohibited from all public places, including theaters, movies, beaches, and resorts.

Even as the intentions of the Nazis toward the Jews became more obvious, there was little support for refugee relief. Four different polls taken in 1938 reported that between 71% and 85% of the U.S. public opposed raising the refugee quota. See Plater Robinson, Deathly Silence: Everyday People in the Holocaust, Southern Institute For Education and Research, Tulane University. In 1938, the President attempted to develop a multi-national approach to the refugee problem through the Evian Conference convened at his suggestion in France where 32 countries met for nine days.Most nations, however, including the U.S. and Britain, were unwilling to make commitments to significantly increase the numbers of refugees they were willing to accept and, apart from establishing a weak international refugee commission based in London, the conference ended with little of substance being accomplished.

The lack of a united international response may have encouraged the Nazis to broaden their anti-Jewish campaigns. On October 28, 1938, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship, many of whom had been living in Germany for decades, were arrested and relocated across the Polish border and then interned in "relocation camps" on the Polish frontier when the Polish government refused to admit them. On the nights of November 9 and 10, known as Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass", organized violence broke out as gangs of Nazis ransacked Jewish neighborhoods, breaking windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burning synagogues and looting. The violence led to 91 deaths and the destruction included 101 synagogues and almost 7,500 Jewish businesses. Sime 26,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

St. Louis refugees

In May 1939, several hundred Jewish refugees on the ocean liner St. Louis arrived off the Atlantic coast after being allowed to sail from Germany without U.S. visas; when the ship was denied permission to dock at ports in either the U.S. or Cuba, it was forced to return to Europe where its passengers disembarked at Amsterdam, soon coming under Nazi control after the invasion in May 1940 of the Netherlands.


Passengers on deck of S.S. St. Louis. Image Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization.

Statement of Franklin D. Roosevelt

The few exceptions to the immigration restrictions were largely limited to the elite of the refugee community, who often were assisted by influential Jewish patrons. The New Jersey retailer Louis Bamberger, for example, financed the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a center to accomodate leading thinkers fleeing Nazi rule such as Albert Einstein, who accepted an appointment to its faculty in 1933.

On February 9, 1939, Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to suspend the normal quota to allow entry of 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14. The Wagner-Rogers Bill died in committee, however, after failing to gain support from the Roosevelt Administration, which apparently feared that the measure might provoke a reaction by anti-refugee forces to cut the existing quotas. The President declined to intervene despite the efforts of his wife Eleanor who corresponded with advocates for the legislation on strategic options for generating sufficient support:

...My husband says that you had better go to work at once and get two people of opposite parties in [Congress] and have them jointly get agreement on the legislation which you want for bringing in children.

The State Department is only afraid of what Congress will say to them, and therefore if you remove that fear the State Department will make no objection,

He advises that you ... get all the Catholic support you can. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I talked with [a White House staffer] and he told me ... that pressing the President at the present time may mean that the people in Congress who favor drafting bills to cut the quota will present them immediately and that might precipitate a difficult situation which would result in cutting the quota by 90%...

I cabled [my husband] and he said ... he would be pleased to have the bill go through but he did not want to say anything publicly at the present time.

Excerpts from Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt to Justine Wise Polier

Source: The Jewish Virtual Library

The Administration also tried unsuccessfully early in 1939 to get Congressional support to ease the restrictions imposed by the Neutrality Acts in order to provide increased aid to the British. After the Germans invaded Poland in September, Congress approved repeal of the embargo against trading with combatants, and in March 1941 the Lend-Lease Act provided the British with 50 American destroyers in exchange for U.S. leases on British bases in the Western Hemisphere. After the Germans broke their treaty with the Soviet Union in June and invaded Russia, the Russians also received military aid and other supplies. Spending on defense was also sharply increased, which further helped to create jobs for domestic economic recovery.

Yet the Roosevelt Administration's shift toward more open actions to counter Nazi expansion continued to face strong isolationist opposition, often coupled with antisemitism, as well as objections by those generally opposed to Roosevelt's massive expansion of the federal government. While the President expressed outrage at the Nazi-organized riots against the Jews in November 1939 followed by the arrest of thousands of Jews, he still reaffirmed the government's opposition to any significant increase in the refugee quota. As the President began his campaign for an unprecedented third term in 1940, the America First Committee was formally established in July, ultimately growing to over 800,000 members.


America First

Image Source: The Forum: International Arts, Antiques and Collectibles Forum

Chaired by Robert E. Wood, chairman of Sears Roebuck and a retired Army general, the AFC energed as the most prominent group lobbying against American involvement in Europe. Its diverse composition included business leaders like Wood who were concerned over the economic consequences of war, as well as the rapidly growing size of the federal government under Roosevelt. Others, however, expressed a variety of nativist or antisemitic views. Charles Lindbergh, who had spent considerable time in Germany and accepted a medal from the Nazis, also joined the AFC executive committee, and became a controversial leader of the isolationist forces. Yet even some members of the AFC were embarrassed by some of the more extreme views of Lindbergh:

The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration. Behind these groups . . . are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles, and intellectuals who believe that the future of mankind depends upon the domination of the British Empire.The Roosevelt Administration is the third powerful group which has been carrying this country toward war.Its members have used the war emergency to obtain a third presidential term for the first time in American history....Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

Charles A. Lindbergh, speech given in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941


Roosevelt's controversial decision to run for a third term, which was opposed even by influential Democratic leaders, made his re-election prospects somewhat more questionable, and may have led to his continuing suggestions in his 1940 campaign that under his leadership the country would be able to avoid entering the war. During the 1940 campaign, the President also appeared to be reluctant to press for any relaxation of the refugeee quotas , supporting the State Department's position against easing entry into the country.

Excerpt from diary entry for October 3, 1940, of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who headed the State Department's immigration visa program, in which he notes that President Roosevelt supports his policy of encouraging consulates to "postpone and postpone and postpone" the granting of visas. "The War Diary of Breckinridge Long"; ed. Fred L. Israel; University of Nebraska Press, 1966. Source:

So when I saw him [President Roosevelt] this morning the whole subject of immigration, visas, safety of the United States, procedures to be followed; and all that sort of thing was on the table. I found that he was 100% in accord with my ideas. He said that when Myron Taylor, [the President's personal representative to the Vatican], had returned from Europe recently the only thing which they discussed outside of Vatican matters was the visa and refugee situation and the manner in which our Consulates were being deprived of a certain amount of discretion by the rulings of the Department...The President expressed himself as in entire accord with the policy which would exclude persons about whom there was any suspicion that they would be inimical too [sic] the welfare of the United States no matter who had vouchsafed for them and irrespective of their financial or other standing. I left him with the satisfactory thought that he was wholeheartedly in support of the policy which would resolve in favor of the United States any doubts about admissibility of any individual.

While his margin in the November election dropped sharply from the landslide win in 1936, Roosevelt still easily defeated Republican Wendell Willkie, who argued for greater support of the anti-Nazi forces in Europe, by about five million popular votes and by 449 to 82 electoral votes.After his re-election, Roosevelt called for "lend-lease" aid to the anti-German allies. This aid, approved by Congress, greatly increased the flow of supplies to Britain. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, lend-lease went to the Russians as well. a dinner party at the White House, Roosevelt said to [Postmaster General James A.] Farley's wife that he was having a terrible time. People were trying to make him run and he didn't want to. To which she replied: "Well, you're the President, aren't you? All you have to do is to tell them you won't run." He looked very much surprised and turned to the lady on his right. It was at this point that Farley knew definitely that Roosevelt was going to run again and after this the President virtually ignored Farley, and a White House assistant secretary was ordered not to assist Farley in a speech he was about to make. [Secretary of State] Cordell Hull says that from 1938 to July, 1940, Roosevelt told him definitely that Hull would be his successor. But all the time he was laying his plans for a "draft" ­ and acting out the comedy with Hull, who apparently still believed Roosevelt wanted him to run.

The whole story is a chapter of duplicity, in which Roosevelt, who had definitely decided to run if he could make it, was putting on before Farley the pose that he didn't want to run and before Hull the pose that Hull was his candidate, while all the New Deal agents, with his full knowledge and approval, were scouring the country for delegates and Roosevelt was using every artifice and pressure he could command to kill off every possible contender for the nomination.

Source: The Third Term, Henry Hazllitt, The Henry Hazlitt Foundation

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Japan had invaded Manchuria. In July 1940, Roosevelt reacted by shutting off American trade with Japan, a move forcing the Japanese to aggressively seek resources from other parts of Asia to support industrial and military expansion. Japan then invaded the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia followed by attacks on French Indochina in September. In July 1941, all Japanese assets in the United States were frozen. Similar action by Great Britain and the Netherlands affected shipments of oil from the East Indies. This created such a critical situation for Japan that its cabinet decided that, unless the United States made concessions, the oilfields to the south would be seized by military operations.

...Shortly after three o'clock I went to the White House, where I talked with the President and others for forty minutes. Mr. Roosevelt was very solemn in demeanor and conversation. The magnitude of the surprise achieved by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor was already becoming evident But neither he nor any of us lost faith for a moment in the ability of the United States to cope with the danger.

We had a general discussion preparatory to a conference that the President decided to hold that evening with Stimson, Knox myself General Marshall, Admiral Stark, and other principal advisers. We discussed in a tentative way the many different steps that would have to be taken, when and by whom. The President early determined to go to Congress with a message asking for a declaration of a state of war with Japan....

The Memoirs of Cordell Hull

Source: Spartacus Educational

The Atlantic Charter was published on August 14, 1941, by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. The eight point declaration aimed at achieving a peaceful world for all nations and was an important diplomatic step in the defeat of the Axis powers.


The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, U.S. immigration policy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War II,

Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Center

Great Depression and World War II >> Library of Congress

American Isolationism,

1932: Roosevelt defeats Hoover, Department of Political Science & International Affairs, Kennesaw State University

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Deception: Was It Successful?, Gifted Education and Special Education Lesson Plans and Resources, Edmund J. Sass, Ed.D., College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University

New Deal Network>> Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University

Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s, >>

Charles Lindbergh's Noninterventionist Efforts & America First Committee Involvement,

The American First Committee, Sheldon Richman, The Future of Freedom Foundation

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Educational Tools

Educational Lesson Plans on the Holocaust >>, A Cybrary of the Holocaust

New Deal Lesson Plans, New Deal Network>>Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University

FDR and the Supreme Court, New Deal Network >> Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University

Teacher Resources: S.S. St. Louis >> U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum