- The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the final resolution of the struggle between internationalism and isolationism that had been the dominant motif of U.S. foreign relations since World War I. Having struggled and failed to keep out of the developing world conflict that developed in the late 1930s, the United States became the leading partner in the Grand Alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the war against Germany and Japan. Furthermore, having rejected participation in the League of Nations in 1919, the United States now led the way in establishing a United Nations organization. The onset of the struggle to combat the spread of Soviet-inspired communism in the Cold War after 1945 led to the total abandonment of George Washington’s advice to avoid “entangling alliances” as the United States became a member of the Organization of American States in 1948, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the Australia-New Zealand-United States Alliance in 1951, and later a party to both the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. By the mid-1950s, America’s role not just as a world power but as the leading world power was firmly established in terms of military and economic might and political influence. The Great Depression had an enormous impact on international relations, increasing nationalism and bringing new elements to power in Germany and Japan that destabilized the existing world order. Economic nationalism was evident at the London Economic Conference of 1933 in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s refusal to have the United States remain on the gold standard. Economic interest was undoubtedly partly behind Roosevelt’s reiteration of Herbert Hoover’s “Good Neighbor” Policy with Latin American countries that led to trade agreements and a trebling of U.S. exports to Latin America in the 1930s. Trade agreements were also reached with the newly recognized Soviet Union.While such measures helped improve international relations, the United States maintained its essentially isolationist position during much of the 1930s. Convinced that entry into World War I had been a mistake, many Americans supported the passage of Neutrality Acts from 1935 onward, imposing first a trade embargo with belligerent powers, then prohibiting the travel by U.S. citizens on belligerent vessels and forbidding loans to belligerent powers. In 1937, the laws were extended to include nonmilitary goods that could be sold to belligerent nations only on a “cash and carry” basis. These laws were applied during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, even though it was not a conflict involving warring nations. However, Roosevelt refused to invoke the legislation when Japan attacked China in 1937, instead calling for aggressor nations to be quarantined. His speech angered isolationists and following the Japanese sinking of the USS Panay on the Yangtze River in 1937, support grew for an amendment requiring a declaration of war to be subject to national referendum. The resolution was only narrowly defeated in Congress in 1938.In Europe, the reluctance of Great Britain, France, and the United States to risk war enabled Adolf Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland, forcibly establish a union with Austria, and in 1938 acquire the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. German troops occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia in 1939. However, when Hitler next demanded territory from Poland, the British and French guaranteed their support to the Polish government, and when Hitler invaded on 1 September 1939, World War II began.Although support among the American people was overwhelmingly behind the Allies, this backing was outweighed by the desire to avoid direct involvement in the war. The Neutrality Acts were amended to allow the sale of munitions, but only on the cash and carry basis. Nothing was done to stop the German armies from overrunning Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and most of France, but in the summer of 1940 Roosevelt established a Destroyers- for-Bases Agreement with Britain to strengthen U.S. security in exchange for outdated ships. In the election campaign of 1940, Roosevelt still promised that American males would not be sent into foreign wars, but having secured reelection, he bypassed the restriction on loans to belligerents with the passage of the Lend- Lease Act of 1941. When the Germans began to sink British ships carrying much-needed supplies, Roosevelt extended the American security zone into the mid-Atlantic and provided U.S. naval support. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, lend-lease was extended to the Russians. Not only was this short of war, but in August 1941 Roosevelt agreed on the principles on which a postwar world should be based in the Atlantic Charter signed with Winston Churchill in August 1941.Despite increasing U.S. involvement in the conflict in Europe, American entry into World War II came in Asia. As Japan continued its aggression against China, the Roosevelt administration responded by placing embargoes on iron, steel, copper, and brass products in 1940 and 1941. Following the breakdown of negotiations and further Japanese moves against Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies in the spring and summer of 1941, the United States stopped all oil shipments to Japan and froze Japanese assets in America. Japanese requests to pursue their expansionist policy and for the restoration of trade were met with proposals for a resumption of trade in return for a withdrawal. Reluctant to withdraw and needing to expand to secure raw materials, the Japanese anticipated war with a preemptive strike on the U.S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, a day which, Roosevelt said, would “live in infamy.” On 8 December the United States declared war on Japan, and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States in line with their agreements with Japan. With Great Britain and its Allies, together with the Soviet Union, the United States was now part of the Grand Alliance. While the Soviet Union called for an early second front to relieve the pressure caused by the German invasion of Russia, Britain and the United States wanted to delay an invasion of Europe until they had sufficient personnel and material. Instead, in November 1942 an invasion was launched in North Africa to divert German troops and open up the Mediterranean and provide a base for an attack on Europe’s “soft underbelly.” Having successfully defeated German and Italian forces in Africa by spring 1943, the invasion of Sicily was launched on 10 June 1943, and on 8 September Italy surrendered. However, the campaign on the Italian mainland continued until the war’s end in 1945.The Allied invasion of northern Europe began on D-Day on 6 June 1944, when British, Canadian, and U.S. troops landed on five beaches in Normandy. The German forces were pushed back, and, despite a counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the Allies crossed the Rhine into Germany in March 1945. Meanwhile, Soviet forces, having defeated German armies at Stalingrad in 1943, had been steadily driving forward from the east and entered Berlin in April 1945. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and the German forces surrendered on 8 May.In the Pacific, the seemingly inexorable Japanese advance was finally halted following naval battles in the Coral Sea and Midway in May through June 1942. With Australia secure, U.S. forces were able to begin their “island hopping” campaign, taking New Guinea in January 1943, Guadalcanal in February 1943, the Marianas in June 1944, Iwo Jima in March 1945, and Okinawa in June 1945. From these positions, the U.S. Air Force was able to launch bombing attacks on mainland Japan. Rather than a costly invasion of Japan, President Harry S. Truman approved the dropping of the new atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and a second on Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese agreed to U.S peace terms on 14 August and formally surrendered on 2 September 1945.During the war, the Allied leaders held several meetings to discuss military strategy and plan for the future. Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington, D.C, in 1942 and Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1943. They met with the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo, Egypt, in November 1943 before meeting the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Tehran. The next and most crucial meeting took place between the Big Three at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. There agreements were reached about the future military occupation of Germany, the issue of reparations to the Soviet Union, and the future of Poland, although these were vague on certain aspects that were to be problematic once the war was over. Agreement was reached about Soviet entry into the war against Japan. The final meeting took place in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. By then, Truman had succeeded Roosevelt, and Churchill was replaced during the conference by Clement Attlee. While Truman was happy that Stalin reaffirmed his intention to enter the war against Japan and agreement was reached on the new frontiers of Poland and the denazification of Germany, there was only vague agreement on the issue of reparations payments to the Soviets, and questions about the composition of the Polish government remained unresolved. There was also disagreement about the nature of the Soviet-imposed governments in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania.In January 1942, plans to establish a United Nations (UN) organization to replace the League of Nations had been approved, and details were further agreed on by the wartime leaders at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. The UN was formally established at a conference in San Francisco in April 1945. However, the UN was unable to prevent the growing conflict between the Soviet Union and its former Allies as relations quickly deteriorated. Stalin’s declaration to the Russian people in February 1946 that capitalism and communism faced inevitable conflict was countered on the U.S. side by George F. Kennan’s analysis that accepted the premise of inevitable conflict and called for a policy of containment.Encouraged by Churchill’s statement in 1946 that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Eastern Europe, and in response for requests for aid to resist left-wing elements in a civil war in Greece, Truman adopted Kennan’s position in announcing the Truman Doctrine to a joint session of Congress on 12 March 1947. This was reinforced shortly afterward with the introduction of the Marshall Plan to provide economic assistance in rebuilding Western Europe. For the Western powers, Germany was central to economic recovery. As they moved toward unifying the West German currency, the Soviet Union responded by imposing a blockade on Berlin, the jointly occupied capital, in June 1948. The challenge was met by a combined U.S. and British airlift that kept the city supplied for almost a year before the blockade was lifted, but the fear of future Soviet aggression led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. Under NATO, U.S. troops now committed to the defense of Europe.The Cold War, as the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union came to be known, was increasingly played out on many different fronts as the respective rivals competed for influence in different parts of the world. The Cold War was a major factor leading to the continuation of the “Good Neighbor” Policy and the hemispheric defense treaty agreed on with Latin American countries in the Rio Pact in 1947. This was followed by the formation of the Organization of American States at Bogota in 1948. In 1949, the conflict spread to Asia when Mao Zedong’s communist forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek, who was forced to relocate to the island of Taiwan. The United States withheld recognition from communist China until 1978. Following the loss of China, in April 1950 the National Security Council produced National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), arguing that given the clear intention of the Soviet Union to expand in Europe and Asia, the United States should build up its military strength through increased defense spending. This argument was strengthened when North Korean forces crossed into South Korea on 25 June 1950.Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910, but following its defeat, Soviet troops had occupied the northern areas, while U.S. troops were based in the south. A temporary divide was established along the 38th parallel, and following the creation of separate governments, Russian and U.S. troops withdrew. Believing that the invasion was Soviet-inspired, Truman secured a UN resolution calling for members to resist the attackers. Without benefit of a declaration of war, Truman committed U.S troops to what he called a “police action.” When the U.S.-dominated UN forces pushed toward the border with China in November 1950, the Chinese sent troops to aid North Korea, and the war settled into a stalemate that lasted until 1953. The Korean War cost the United States the lives of 34,000 men. It contributed to rise of McCarthyism and the defeat of the Democrats in the 1952 election. In the long run, it also confirmed U.S. commitment to the policy of containment in Asia, ultimately leading to the tragic involvement in Vietnam.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.
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