American Political History
World War II
|Prelude to WW II: Isolationism, Refugee Policy and the Roosevelt Administration|
|Pearl Harbor and Mobilization|
|Wartime Refugee Policy|
|The Atomic Bomb|
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.
I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.