In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States pursued a policy of neutrality and isolationism. In order to understand the reasons for this policy, we must examine the lingering impact of World War I.



The United States had been reluctant to enter World War 1. Fighting had begun in Europe in 1914, and the United States stayed out of the war until 1917. Between April 1917, when the United States formally declared war, and Germany’s surrender in November 1918, some 48,000 American soldiers were killed in battle, 2,900 were declared missing in action, and 56,000 soldiers died of disease. These losses were far less than those of the European nations, some of which had lost millions of soldiers and civilians. Nevertheless, the American losses were great enough to cause Americans to take a close look at the reasons for the entry of the United States into the war and at the nation’s foreign policy.


Isolation and Neutrality

Isolationism and neutrality are similar foreign policies, but an important difference exists between them. Isolationism is a national foreign policy of remaining apart from political or economic entanglements with other countries. Strict isolationists do not support any type of contact with other countries, including economic ties or trade activities.


When a country chooses a policy of neutrality, it deliberately takes no side in a dispute or controversy. Countries following this path are often referred to as being nonaligned or non involved. Neutral nations do not limit their trading activities with other nations, unless a trading partnership would limit that country’s ability to stay politically noninvolved.






Isolationism in the 1930s


In 1934, when the United States was trying to recover from the worst economic depression in its history, Senator Gerald Nye led an investigation into the reasons the United States entered World War I. The committee concluded that the United States had gone to war at the encouragement of financiers and armament makers, eager for profits. As a result of this investigation, many Americans supported a return to isolationism. They believed that the country would be secure without worrying about the actions of the rest of the world.


The refusal of the United States to join the League of Nations was reinforced by the Senate’s move in 1935 to forbid the United States to  join the World Court. That same year, Congress also passed the first of a series of neutrality acts, intended to prevent Americans from making loans to nations at war. Any sales of goods to such nations were to be strictly on a “cash and carry” basis. In 1937, President Roosevelt made this famous quarantine speech, in which he likened the spreading world lawlessness to a disease. He stated that the United States would attempt to quarantine the “patients” in order to protect the rest of the community of nations.









The rise of totalitarian governments in Germany and Italy in the 1930’s the stage for World War II.





The Rise of Totalitarian Governments

In totalitarian governments, one political party has complete control over the government and bans all other parties. Totalitarian governments rely on terror to suppress individual rights and silence opposition. In other words, totalitarian governments are the opposite of all that the United States believes in.







In Germany and Italy, totalitarian governments were established based on the philosophy of fascism. Fascism places the importance of the nation above all else, and individual rights and freedoms are lost as everyone works for the benefit of the nation. Nazi Germany (led by Adolf Hitler) and Fascist Italy (led by Benito Mussolini) were two fascist governments characterized by extreme nationalism, racism, and militarism (desire to go to war).





Hitler and Mussolini provided military assistance to Francisco Franco, a Fascist leader in Spain who was attempting to overthrow the republican government there and establish a totalitarian one. The devastating Spanish civil war that erupted in 1936 would become a “dress rehearsal” for World War II. The war in Spain was a testing ground for new weapons and military strategies that would later be used in World War II.



In the United States, opinions about support for the Spanish civil war were divided. Some Americans traveled to Spain to fight for the republican cause. The United States government, however, continued to pursue a policy of neutrality. Congress passed a resolution forbidding the export of arms to either side in 1937. Franco won the Spanish civil war in 1939, established a fascist government, and remained leader of Spain until his death in 1975.






Major World Events, 1919-1941



With this agreement, Great Britain and France allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large German-speaking population. Hitler convinced the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the French premier Edouard Daladier that Germany would make no further territorial demands.




When Chamberlain returned to Britain with this agreement, he told the world that he had achieved “peace for our time.” Six months later, however, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia.






Great Britain and France had resorted to the policy of appeasement, which means to agree to the demands of a potential enemy in order to keep the peace. Hitler demonstrated by his action that he could not be permanently appeased, and the world learned a costly lesson.







Although the United States was officially committed to a policy of neutrality, President Roosevelt soon found a way around the Neutrality Acts to provide aid, including warships to Great Britain. In 1941, Roosevelt convinced Congress to pass the Lend Lease Act, which allowed the United States to sell or lend war materials to “any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Roosevelt intended to keep the United States out of the war, but he said that the nation would become the “arsenal of democracy,” supplying arms to those who were fighting for freedom.





The United States did lot enter World War II until 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lad promised that the United States would not fight in a war in which the country was not directly involved. However, on December 7, 1941, Japanese war planes attacked the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Roosevelt called the attack a day that would “live in infamy,” a day that Americans would never forget. This surprise attack shattered the American belief that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would safely isolate the United States from fighting in Europe and Asia. The attack on Pearl Harbor fueled American nationalism and patriotism. Suddenly the war was no longer oceans away. The day after the attack, Congress agreed to President Roosevelt’s request to declare war on Japan.





World War II began in 1939, when German forces invaded Poland. The United States entered the war two years later, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. War in Europe ended in May 1945, and fighting in the Pacific ended on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrender brought World War II to a conclusion.


Major Powers

The war pitted 26 nations united together as the Allies against eight Axis Powers. The major powers among the Allies were Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Germany, Italy, and Japan were the major Axis nations. Leaders of the major powers are listed on the next page.




Major Events

World War II was fought primarily in two major regions: Europe and North Africa, and in the Pacific.



Wartime Diplomacy

During the war, leaders of the Allied nations met in a series of conferences to discuss wartime strategies and plans for the postwar world. Key meetings are described below.





Roosevelt and Churchill met on battleships in the North Atlantic to agree on certain principles for building a lasting peace and establishing free governments in the world. The document containing these agreements was called the Atlantic Charter.



Roosevelt met with Churchill to plan “victory on all fronts.” They used the term “unconditional surrender” to describe the anticipated victory.


CAIRO, 1943

Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek of China planned the Normandy invasion.


TEHRAN CONFERENCE, 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill met with Stalin to discuss war strategy and plans for the postwar world.


MALTA, 1945

Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin outlined the division of postwar Germany into spheres of influence and planned for the trials of war criminals. The Soviet Union promised to enter the war against Japan.



Allied leaders (with Truman now replacing Roosevelt) warned Japan to surrender to prevent utter destruction.





The Atomic Bomb

In an effort to bring the war to a speedy conclusion and to prevent I further destruction and loss of life, Allied leaders decided to embark on an atomic research project.







In the spring of 1943, a group of scientists from the United States, Canada, Britain, and other European


Countries began work on the top-secret atomic research program mown as the Manhattan Project. The research was done primarily at Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. Many of the scientists involved in the projects were refugees from Hitler’s Germany. By July 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico. The success of this project left the United States in the position of determining the ultimate use of the weapon.







Within days after the first atomic test, Allied leaders warned Japan to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.” Since no surrender occurred, President Truman made the decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs killed more than 100.000 Japanese instantly, and thousands more died later from radiation sickness. For a time after World War II, the United States held a monopoly on atomic weapons. The world had entered the atomic age.







JAPAN SURRENDERS Within days of the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan formally surrendered, and World War II came to an end. Following Japan’s surrender, the United States occupied Japan under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. A new constitutional monarchy went into effect introducing democratic reforms to Japan. Emperor Hirohito retained his throne, but only as a figurehead.









When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany he did so by finding a scapegoat, someone to blame for Germany’s problems after World War I. By appealing to anti-Semitism, feelings of hatred against Jewish people, Hitler encouraged the Germans to turn viciously on all Jewish citizens.





The “Final Solution”

Early in his rise to power, Hitler had seized Jewish property, homes, and businesses and barred Jews from many jobs. At the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the Nazis set as a primary goal the total extermination. Or genocide of all Jews under their domination. This effort was to be kept secret from the German people and from the rest of the world. Hitler’s plan to eliminate the Jews was known to the Nazis as d the Final Solution.






The Horror of Concentration Camps

In the 1930s, the Nazis began to build concentration camps to isolate Jews and other groups from society and provide slave labor for Industry. As Hitler’s conquest of Europe continued, the camps became factories of death.






More than six million Jews were killed in the camps as were another four million people—dissenters, Gypsies, homosexuals, the menially and physically handicapped, Protestant ministers, and Catholic priests. Today, concentration camp names such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Dachau stand as memorials to the incredible human suffering and death of this time, a period now called the Holocaust.





The United States and other nations failed to take strong action to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany before World War II. In 1939, the St. Louis, a passenger ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, left Europe for Cuba, but when they arrived, most of the refugees were denied permission to land there. The refugees were also denied permission to enter the United States, and the ship was forced to return to Europe. Most of the ship’s passengers eventually were killed in the Holocaust.







After war broke out, the Allies still failed to speak out forcefully against the treatment of Jews or to make direct attempts to stop the genocide. Only toward the end of the war did the United States create the War Refugee Board to provide aid for Holocaust survivors.






War Crimes Trials

The final chapter to the Holocaust occurred in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1945 and 1946. At that time an international military court tried 24 high-level Nazi for atrocities committed during World War II. By finding former Nazis guilty of “crimes against humanity,” a precedent was established that soldiers, officers, and national leaders could be held responsibilities for such brutal actions. Escaped Nazis who were found alter the end of the war-even decades later-were also brought to trial for war-related crimes.





Among the most infamous Nazis who were tried and convicted was Adolf Eichmann. He was captured in Argentina in 1960 and tried in Israel for the torture and deaths of millions of Jews. Eichmann was convicted of crimes against humanity and was hanged in 1962. Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon” (France), was also apprehended and tried in 1987 for his wartime brutality to Jews.





War crime trials also occurred in Japan. These trials led to the execution of former premier Tojo and six other war leaders. About 4,000 other Japanese war criminals were also convicted and received less severe sentences.






After the United States entered the war, the nation moved to full-scale wartime production and mobilization of the armed forces. Americans allied behind the war effort.


With the exception of the attack on Pearl Harbor and battles on several Pacific islands, World War II was not fought on American soil. Nonetheless, Americans were constantly preparing for attack. America’s coastal areas and large cities held blackout drills. Americans were encouraged to support the war effort by rationing food, gasoline, and other necessities and luxuries. Government campaigns encouraged Americans to have “meatless Tuesdays,” and many Americans planted “victory gardens” of their own to increase the food supply. Hollywood entertainers made special presentations to encourage citizens to buy war bonds to help the government finance the war.






The Role of American Women

World War II brought dramatic changes to the lives of American women in the military and in the civilian workforce.



By the end of the war, more than 200,000 women had joined the military services. Although women served in separate units from men, such as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), women performed a variety of vital military duties. They operated radios and repaired planes and vehicles. They also were assigned, along with men, to clerical duties.







As millions of men joined the military, new employment opportunities opened up to women. Women who had been employed before the war eagerly applied for better-paying jobs, and many women who had worked inside the home now entered the paid workforce.





Many women took jobs that had once been open to men only. More than five million women eventually worked in factories devoted to wartime production although their pay never came close to equaling men’s pay of the time. One song about a woman named Rosie the Riveter became popular during the war years because it captured the sense of duty and patriotism felt by millions of women. The term “Rosie the Riveter” became a slang term for all women who worked in wartime factories.







The entry of so many women into the paid workforce during World War II marked the beginning of a long-term trend, as women continued to enter the workforce in greater numbers throughout the rest of the century. New issues became important. For example, child care became an important issue during the war years, and it remains an important one today.




African Americans

The experiences of African Americans during the war years provided the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  



Nearly one million African American men and women served in the military during World War II. Military units were segregated, and initially, African American soldiers were limited to c support roles. As the war went on, these soldiers soon saw combat, where many distinguished themselves.




Japanese Americans

Thousands of Japanese Americans faced hardship and economic losses after the attack on Pearl Harbor.




Immigrants from Japan began arriving in the United States shortly after the Civil War. These immigrants settled mainly on the west coast of the United States. By 1941, thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, called Nisei, had been born in the United States and were American citizens. Thousands of them had never been to Japan, and many had no desire to go there.






After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans feared that Japanese Americans presented a threat to national security. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew, and in 1942 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, establishing military zones for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. More than 100,000 people of Japanese descent were forced to leave their homes and move to WRA camps, hastily constructed military-style barracks ringed with barbed wire and guarded by troops. This discrimination was focused entirely on Japanese Americans; no such action was taken against citizens or residents of German or Italian descent.





KOREMATSU V. UNITED STATES In the 1944 landmark case Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation as a reasonable wartime emergency measure. However, no acts of Japanese-American sabotage or treason were ever identified, and thousands of Nisei fought honorably in the war. Almost 50 years after World War II, the United States government admitted that the wartime relocation program had been unjust. In 1988. Congress voted to pay $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000 surviving Americans who had been interned. The first payments were made in 1990, and the government also issued a formal apology.








Despite the injustices endured by Japanese Americans, thousands proved their loyalty by serving in the U.S. I armed forces, primarily in Europe. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese Americans, won more medals for bravery than any other unit of its size in the war.







During the war, American factories, geared up for wartime production, had helped the nation recover from the Great Depression. Now the challenge was to convert from a wartime to a peacetime society. The United States underwent a period of demobilization, or the movement from a military to a civilian status. The United States armed forces reduced from 12 million members to 1.5 million. Factories that had made planes and tanks now began producing consumer goods. It also meant ensuring that the nation would not slip back into depression.


During President Truman’s administration, legislation was passed to deal with different issues raised by demobilization.





Also known as the GI Bill of Rights, his act authorized billions of dollars to pay for veteran benefits, such as college education, medical treatment, unemployment insurance, and home and business loans. The GI Bill made it possible  for more people to attend college and buy homes than ever before.





This act made full employment the national goal and set up a Council of Economic Advisors to guide the President on economic matters.



Wartime legislation had put controls on the prices of most goods. In 1946, the government moved to end most such controls. However, the end of controls coupled with a tax cut caused a rapid increase in inflation. For example, food prices soared 25 percent in just two years.



Workers’ wages could not keep up with inflation after the war. Major strikes were held as unions pushed for higher wages. Anti-union feelings grew and led Congress to pass the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto. The act


Provided an 80-day “cooling-off’ period through which the president could delay a strike that threatened national welfare


Barred the closed shop, under which workers had to belong to a union before being hired


Allowed states to pass “right-to-work laws,” which said workers could take jobs and not have to join a union


Banned union contributions to political campaigns


Required union leaders to swear they were not communists




National Security Concerns

Truman also moved to help the nation meet postwar international concerns. The National Security Act of 1947 created the National Military Establishment, which later became the Department of Defense. The act also created the Central Intelligence Agency to oversee intelligence gathering activities. As commander in chief, Truman also issued an executive order banning discrimination in the armed forces. 




The Baby Boom

In addition to problems caused by converting to a peacetime economy, the nation also had to cope with the largest population explosion in its history. The economic hardships of the Great Depression that had encouraged smaller families were gone. Families grew larger once more. This “baby boom” brought with it the expansion of many public services, especially schools. You will learn more about the long-term effects of the baby boom in the next unit.





The Election of 1948

Many voters had become dissatisfied with Truman’s presidency because of inflation, strikes, Truman’s actions on civil rights, and the developing cold war. Polls predicted that the Republican candidate Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, would defeat Truman easily in the 1948 presidential election. Yet Truman pulled off one of the greatest upsets in American political history by winning reelection. He then attempted to build on this victory by proposing a program called the Fair Deal that aimed to extend reforms started under FDR’s New Deal.