From the keyboards of babes…
I often surf the web looking for well written essays by high school and college students. Why? Because in this digital era of Googled everything, and Buzzfed bullshit, their still evolving academic skills, supervised under the tutelage of our waning crop of talented teachers, consistently produces better researched, and often better written essays on important topics than most of what our cash- and time-strapped academics, and their feckless and lazy corporate journalist counterparts produce (or more correctly, don't produce) every day.
And they tend to focus on vital topics that never really go out of style to serious and thoughtful people. Topics that need ongoing discussion and attention every day if they are to fertilize the seeds of critcal thinking and vital discourse that we so desperately need if we are to attack the complex problelms that we, our nation, our species and our planet are facing on a daily basis. Problems which our politicians, corporate elites, and their media lapdogs are largely ignoring until they are salacious or sensational enough to sell some web traffic with.
Those survival seeds of our humanity are being plowed asunder and then paved over with a dumbed down ethos of churlish and malignant ignorance; an apathetic asphalt that is a mixture of conservative bullying, media malpractice, and radical Republican dumbfuckery that has made anti-intellectualism as stylish as trucknuts on the back of a Birther's F-150 in the 1990s.
The essay below on Isolationism is a classic example.
It has some problems, factually, stylistically, and gramatically, as should be expected from a work by someone so young. But on the whole, it's an excellent paper, and a very good primer on a topic on isolationism with a level of detail you won't hear coming from David Brooks, Glenn Greenwald, Bob Herbert, The Nation, Foreign Policy, The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor of any other part of our professional punditocracy and overrated raconteurs. They no longer bother to factually document anything with any kind of concise historical framing. Nope. They blog or essay a few hundred words of opinon, and leave the facts and serious articulations of relevance to the high school students. They need to focus on having sushi with Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown or Ben Smith.
Scholarship and serious treatments of complexity are just not marketable today. But we'd better find a way to make higher thinking and writing fashionable again, or our species will soon be heading for Trilobite status. In a few hundred million years, some future archelogogist (probably a robot from Alpha Centauri) will find a pair of truck nuts embedded in limestone on the shores of Lake Huron, right next to a Ron Paul 2016.
Note: I'm going to be writing a lot more posts like this in coming months, as I prepare to bring to market some new tools for making serious and vitally needed information more timely, accessible, and applicable to our real-world problems.
American Isolationism Before World War II
by Matthew Brown (Harwich High School, Harwich, MA 2005)
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europehas a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. – George Washington (U-S-History – Isolationism, par. 5)
Since the creation of this great country, a debate has raged back and forth whether to remain in a bubble on our separate continent from the rest of the world and to remain neutral, or to become involved in world affairs, and thus gain prestige, or destruction. Since World War II, the United States has increasingly “meddled” in the affairs of other nations, such as many Latin and South American countries, the Middle East, and Vietnam to name a few. Now, there is little of this non-intervention sentiment in the United States. Leading up to World War II, though, was the period of perhaps the greatest anti-war surge in the United States.
Isolationism, the term for this anti-war sentiment, was led by many congressmen and other influential people, such as the well-known Charles A. Lindbergh. They did not want America drawn into another World War, and so created the Neutrality Acts to punish warring nations. Roosevelt struggled greatly against Isolationism, but vowed to the American people that he would never send their sons into war, a promise that was soon broken. When England was under attack from the Germans, Roosevelt convinced the American people to push aside Isolationism and give the British greatly needed war materials under the Lend-Lease Act. When Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution fled to the United States on the S. S. St. Louis, they were rejected and sent back because of the United States’ 1924 immigration policy limiting immigration from Eastern andSouthern Europe. The anti-war sentiments were nudged along by the Germans, who funded many congressmen to continue lobbying for Isolationist views. Isolationism in American influenced American policy in the late 1930s and early 1940s and greatly delayed its entry into World War II.
A great proponent of American Isolationism, and also a source of much criticism, was the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh. One author even refers to part of the isolationism debate as “eleven moths of oratory between Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh” (Berg 413) when Lindbergh had first joined the America First Committee. Lindbergh had his own views on America and the Germans. “[…] It seemed to me essential to France and England, and even to America, that Germany be maintained as a bulwark against the Soviet Union” (Berg 376). This prophetic view of American intervention fueled him to advocate an isolationist policy in America.
On September 11, 1941, Lindbergh spoke in Des Moines, Iowa, giving a lengthy speech urging the United States to not get involved in the War. He alluded to American debts from the First World War. “As you all know, we were left with the debts of the last European war; and unless we are more cautious in the future than we have been in the past, we will be left with the debts of the present case” (Ranfranz, par. 20). This is a reference back to the Nye Committee and its biased conclusions made about the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. He then accused the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration of being “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war” (Jenkins 127). If, he suggests, any one of these three groups ceases pushing for war, our country will be safe. “If any one of these groups—the British, the Jewish, or the administration—stops agitating for war, I believe there will be little danger of our involvement” (The History Channel, par. 1). He also accused them of plotting a means of forcing the U. S. into the war.
When hostilities commenced in Europe, in 1939, it was realized by these groups that the American people had no intention of entering the war […] They planned: first, to prepare the United States for foreign war under the guise of American defense; second, to involve us in the war, step by step, without our realization; third, to create a series of incidents which would force us into the actual conflict. (Ranfranz, par. 34)
Lindbergh denounced war propaganda for influencing the American population. “Our theaters soon became filled with plays portraying the glory of war. Newsreels lost all semblance of objectivity. Newspapers and magazines began to lose advertising if they carried anti-war articles” (Ranfranz, par. 36). He lamented the bigotry towards “individuals who opposed intervention”. Lindbergh then moved on to criticizing the Lend-Lease Act and the supposed “verge of war” it led the U. S. to. “First, we agreed to sell arms to Europe; next, we agreed to loan arms to Europe; then we agreed to patrol the ocean for Europe; then we occupied a European island in the war zone” (Ranfranz, par. 43). He then commented that it would be very difficult for America to be victorious in a war with Germany, stating that the German forces were “stronger than our own” (Ranfranz, par. 47). This controversial comment was met by many boos in the middle of a speech full of relatively nothing but cheers. This speech led to accusations of Lindbergh as an anti-Semite. Also, his name was removed from his hometown watertower in Little Falls, Minnesota (The History Channel, par. 2). This shows the great movement against isolationism and towards war among the American population nearing Pearl Harbor. Earlier, though, there was much less resistance against the isolationists in America.
During the spring of 1934, Fortune magazine published an article connecting European politics with the armaments industry. Then it discussed the activity of the American steel companies and the political ties in America. This article prompted a Senate investigation headed by Senators Pittman and Nye, a very isolationist Republican of North Dakota. The (incorrect) results of this investigation were that “American entry into the war was the work of wicked Wall Street bankers” (Perkins 96). In response to this thesis, Congress quickly began work on “neutrality legislation” (96) to prevent the U.S. from being drawn into another war. These laws became known as the Neutrality Acts. They “forbade American ships to sail into war zones or ports of belligerent nations, citizens to travel on merchant vessels belonging to belligerents, banks to lend money to nations at war, manufacturers to sell any armaments or other specified war-related products to warring countries” (Cooper 6). The most amazing part of these acts, though, was the proposed “Ludlow Amendment”. This amendment would allow the United States to go to war only after a national referendum. “The American people, faced perhaps by some instant danger, were supposed to debate the issue in every part of the land, expose their divisions to the possible enemy, and fracture their national unity in time of peril by sharp and perhaps bitter discussion” (Perkins 101). This obviously opinionated idea of the Ludlow Amendment gives a worst-case scenario showing how very flawed such an idea would be. Although this extreme measure could put the country in grave danger, seventy-five percent of the public was in favor of such an idea in 1935, and still sixty-eight percent in 1938 (102). “When the issue was brought to the floor of the House in , it was clear that a great parliamentary battle impended. The President spoke out against the proposal; so, too did the Secretary of State” (102). In the House there were 209 votes for the amendment, and 188 votes against, not enough for the two-thirds vote required (102). It is very serious, though, how very divided the House was on this outrageous matter. It reflects how extremely distrustful the American people were of the President and how intense the anti-war sentiment was during that time period. Dexter Perkins describes this:
The Ludlow amendment represents the isolationist sentiment in its most extreme form. It was based on distrust of the executive on a conception of foreign policy which would have accentuated internal division and made effective action impossible, on that kind of fear of war which encourages others to war. It was the high-water mark of the movement of American withdrawal. (102)
The Neutrality Acts greatly hindered both the aggressor and the victim nations in war. Roosevelt made this connection and attempted to get Congress to allow loopholes in the act. “[Roosevelt] recommended the stepping-up of defense appropriations and expressed the opinion that the neutrality legislation of 1937 might operate unevenly, might ‘actually give aid to an aggressor and deny it to the victim’” (106). Basically, by cutting off support to both the aggressor and the victim, the victim would only grow weaker, while the aggressor would grow more powerful. Once World War II began, this proved to be the case for Nazi Germany and Britain. Britain was suffering much more greatly from the Neutrality Acts thanGermany was. Roosevelt’s beliefs about these acts greatly reflect his general motives during his last two terms in the Whitehouse. He wanted to keep the isolationist American population happy while keeping the U. S. safe from foreign threats. He believed that “the country would be more likely to keep out of the war if the arms embargo were repealed. […] If the democratic nations could win, there was less chance of the United States being involved than if Germany were victorious” (108). He therefore “pursued a settled policy of weakening the Neutrality Acts” (Cooper 7) and helped out the Allied nations against the German aggressors.
This policy led to the creation of the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, a great achievement of Roosevelt against the flow of isolationism, but first came a prelude in the summer of 1940 – the bases-destroyers deal. In this negotiation with Britain, America received many British bases “extending from Trinidad on the south to Newfoundland on the north” (Perkins 114). This ingenious idea was accepted by the isolationists because the bases would strengthen the U.S., but also greatly aided the British navy. “Almost half their destroyers had been damaged or demolished” (113). A year later, the situation was much worse and Britain was in serious need of armaments, but this time the isolationists were harder to persuade. Roosevelt, to sway the American people, made a comparison between Britain and a house burning down. “He made a parable about a man whose house was on fire and a neighbor who lent his garden hose – without demanding payment for it – in order to put out the fire” (Daniels 320). This comparison went over very well with the American people, and led him to continue this idea of aiding England. The American people now understood that the British “wanted materials, not men” (321). Isolationists, though, saw this idea as one step closer to war. According to theChicago Tribune, the Lend-Lease bill would “destroy the Republic” (321). One Senator called it a “triple-A foreign policy: it will plough under every fourth American boy” (321). Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana claimed the bill was “a bill to enable the President to fight an undeclared war with Germany” (Grapes 37). The America First Committee was immediately against it, and Lindbergh drew great crowds to the Congressional Hearing for the bill (Daniels 321).
Even the former isolationist Republican candidate for president, Wendell Willkie supported the bill. In the Senate Caucus Room onFebruary 11th, 1941, Willkie spoke in support of the Lend-Lease Act. “He proposed sending Britain all American bombers except those needed for training. He advocated a steady flow of more and more destroyers” (Daniels 322). In retaliation, Senator Nye quoted Willkie’s earlier statement towards Roosevelt, “on the basis of his post performance with pledges to the people, you may expect war by April, 1941, if he is elected” (323). After a long pause, Willkie shrugged and admitted, “It was a bit of campaign oratory” ruefully. A roar of laughter went up among the room, and “Nye and his like seemed swept aside in the applause. […] Isolationist righteousness was routed” (323). Soon after, the bill was signed into law.
Many opponents of the Lend-Lease Act, including Senator Wheeler of Montana realized that in order to send materials to the British across the Atlantic, armed convoys would be needed. “[…] American warships would have to be assigned convoy duty. That meant putting American ships and American lives in the line of fire and it increased the possibility of an armed exchange between German and U. S. naval forces” (Grapes 37). This point, did, in fact, become reality on September 4th, 1941. During this incident, the U. S. destroyer Greer exchanged fire with a German submarine (37-8). “A week later, on September 11, Roosevelt reacted to this attack in a speech in which he announced that he had given orders to the Navy to ‘shoot on sight’ and warned that Axis warships entering the American defense zone did so ‘at their peril’” (Shirer 882). More incidents like this occurred in coming months including two in October of 1941. On the 17th, the USS Kearny was torpedoed by the Germans, and eleven American sailors were killed when the U. S. destroyer Reuban James was torpedoed on the 31st. Following these attacks, “Roosevelt declared an unlimited national emergency” (Grapes 38) which many realized brought the U. S. very much closer to the joining the war than before.
The crowning “achievement” of isolationism was the incident of the S. S. St. Louis. On May 13, 1939, the S. S. St. Louis left Hamburg,Germany with 937 passengers (one account, by Bryan Grapes, claims the number to be 936 passengers, but 937 is more likely), 930 of whom were Jewish refugees (Wiaik 6). The ship’s destination was Havana, Cuba. Fourteen days later, though, when they arrived at Havana, the Cuban government had revoked their landing permits and they were unable to land. Instead, they sailed north to Florida where they waited off the coast ofMiami, close enough to see the lights from the city at night. The U. S. government, with full knowledge of the persecution that had come to these people, and the plight they faced if forced to return, sent them away.
This incident reflects the United States’ unwillingness to become entangled in European affairs. The government could not admit the Jews into the country because of harsh immigration laws imposed in 1924 under the Coolidge administration. Although by some accounts, this harsh act was completely unnecessary and was a terrible example of American indifference to the plight of the Jews, others speak of it differently. According the Bryan Grapes, the American government greatly assisted the Jews in finding safe places to live, although not in the U. S. “None […] of the passengers of the St. Louis were returned to Nazi Germany. They were all resettled in democratic countries – 288 in the United Kingdom, and the rest in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark” (Grapes 211). What he fails to state is that four out of five of these countries mentioned were taken over by the Nazis within a few years. This incident is truly an error in judgement of the American government. An exception should have been made to keep hundreds of people from suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
The Germans put great effort into keeping America out of the war. They funded isolationist sentiments throughout the United States for a long period of time before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Germans not only saw the United States as a threat to join the war, but they also thought that if there was no chance whatsoever of U. S. entry, then England would finally give in to the Germans. Therefore, the Germans went to great lengths to keep the U. S. neutral. “In the United States the German Embassy, under the direction of Hans Thomsen, the chargé d’affaires, was spending every dollar it could lay its hands on to support the isolationists in keeping America out of the war and thus discourage Britain from continuing it” (Shirer 747). Thomsen put particular effort into the party conventions occurring in 1940. He tried influencing both parties to include anti-war planks, especially the Republicans (748). According to German papers captured after their defeat, a Republican Congressman was paid $3,000 “to invite fifty isolationist Republican Congressmen to the Republican convention ‘So that they may work on the delegates in favor of an isolationist foreign policy’” (748). This same individual also wanted $30,000 for full-page ads in American newspapers including one in the June 25th, 1940 New York Times (748). In this ad, many Democratic Senators spoke against Roosevelt and a recent change of cabinet officials. The advertisement begins, “The Democratic Party, we believe, is the interventionist and war party and is rushing us headlong into war in efforts to quarantine and police the world with American blood and treasure” (New York Times 19). This is a reference to Roosevelt’s 1937 “Quarantine” speech, in the Midwest, where he “urged peaceful countries to unite and ‘quarantine’ international lawlessness” (U-S-History - Roosevelt, par. 8). Senator Johnson of Colorado goes on to give his opinion that “[…] If the democratic Party fails to do its duty and makes the mistake of nominating an interventionist for the office of President, so far as I am concerned, my country will come before my Party” (New York Times 19). This quote insinuates that the Democratic party, by renominating Roosevelt, is unpatriotic and will be ruining the United States, a very harsh jab at the Democrats, by a Democrat isolationist. Another Senator quoted in this German-funded isolationist advertisement is Senator Walsh ofMassachusetts, another Democrat isolationist. He accuses the Roosevelt administration of not thinking of the poor or the majority of the American public, and of charging into war.
[…] Oh, the tragedy of it, that a powerful group of men of property should be challenging the peace desires of the millions of poor people who toil and labor and sacrifice to whom war brings more poverty, whose children are made for generations to eat the bread of poverty of war (19).
Senator Walsh of Massachusetts, and Senator Joe Kennedy, also of Massachusetts, although being Democrats, were very influential isolationists. This lack of sympathy towards Great Britain probably stems from their Irish backgrounds.
These Senators were bribed into making statements betraying their parties, their countries, and themselves. The German attempts to push the Presidency to Willkie failed, thankfully, and Roosevelt was able to bring about his ideas of Lend-Lease, to which Willkie joined in. There was still a large group of the United States population that was isolationist, though, right up until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After World War I, the people of the victor nations were exhausted by the war. This tiredness of war led to a great aversion for the war by the people of Britain, France, and the United States. Among these countries “sentiments among politicians and the public turned rapidly and decisively in an anti-interventionist direction” (Cooper 5). In Britain and France, this attitude became known as appeasement. In America, it was called Isolationism. This shift in attitudes led to many new laws proclaiming the United States’ neutrality in the world. “Starting with the Senate’s surprise rejection of membership in the World Court in 1934 – which had previously been pushed by Republican presidents as well as now by the Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt – both houses of Congress swung overwhelmingly isolationist” (6). From 1934 on, isolationism grew steadily stronger with the creation of the Neutrality Acts, one after another, in 1935, ’36, and ’37. Some historians believe isolationism was extreme throughout the late 30s because “The American people did not as yet feel insecure. It was when fear was added to moral condemnation that their temper began to change and that in increasing measure they began to feel that they might be compelled in their own interest, to combat the advance of totalitarianism” (Perkins 105). This opinion of isolationism as an idea that only thrives during times of safety is completely true. Even today, the American people feel safe, so a great percent of the population feels no need to be at war with Iraq. That is how the human mind works, and how it will continue to work in times of peace.
Although it seemed to make sense at the time that the U. S. would be safe as long as it stayed out of the war, there is a moral dilemma that must be confronted. This dilemma, whether to help those in need, was brought to the spotlight during the S. S. St. Louis incident, America made the wrong choice and turned away 937 people in need of shelter and protection. The question is, when is it more important to protect the people of your fellow nations at your own nation’s expense? This debate has continued ever since George Washington’s famous farewell address denouncing foreign “entanglements”. These “entanglements” are what keep a nation alive and thriving in the world, and must be maintained to some degree. Franklin Roosevelt realized that one day we must go to Germany, whether the American people are in favor of it or not. He, therefore, tried to getAmerica involved as quickly as possible, against the will of his apathetic nation. Roosevelt said, wisely, “We must be the arsenal of democracy” (Daniels 321). This was true only until Japan attacked our men at Pearl Harbor and killed isolationism in America. This attack destroyedAmerica’s false sense of security and turned us into much more than the arsenal of democracy. We became the juggernaut of the free people of the world; ready to help all the people we turned away for years. We repented for our American Isolationism.