Though often forgotten today, most Americans were less than enthusiastic about joining a crusade for democracy against the Axis powers prior to Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941). To be sure, even before the Japanese attack in December 1941, most Americans held deep suspicions regarding the Japanese and clearly favored Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. Such sentiment, however, did not translate before December 1941 into majority public support for sending American soldiers to fight and die in foreign wars. One has to recall that in two decades following the Great War (World War I), many Americans wanted nothing to do with another European conflict in particular, especially after President Woodrow Wilson’s promises to the American public during World War I had proven false. He had promised Americans that U.S. participation in World War I that would “make the world safe for democracy” and prevent future war between nations (“a war to end all wars”).
Given American opinion in the late 1930s and early 1940s, President Roosevelt, who had served in Wilson’s administration during World War I and followed in the tradition of Wilson, proceeded cautiously in his attempt to mobilize the public in favor of aiding the British, and after June 1941 the Soviets, in the war against Nazi Germany. In part, he did this because his political opponents accused him of entangling the US in foreign conflicts, partly as a means of covering up for the failure of the New Deal to revive employment and as a means to secure an unprecedented third term as president.Keep in mind also that initially FDR had had his own private doubts regarding Britain’s willingness and ability to fight Germany, put to rest thanks to Churchill’s actions at Mers-el-Kebir (July 1940).
To reassure the American public, Roosevelt noted that he stood for preparedness in the event of war. He claimed that he did not intend to seek a war that would involve sending American soldiers overseas. Most famously, in October 1940, while campaigning for an unprecedented third term as president, he told a crowd in Boston that “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”A master politician, Roosevelt did leave open that possibility of going to war if the United States was attacked.
After successfully winning re-election in November 1940, Roosevelt more openly supported the British.Listen to the following examples of FDR’s speeches in which he makes the case for aiding the British (Arsenal of Democracy), outlines the Four Freedoms, calls for loaning American destroyers to the British (Lend-Lease) and involves the US in Battle of the Atlantic (Greer Incident in September 1941); these were speeches made prior to Germany’s official declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor.Unknown to the American public at the time, the U.S. and British military planners meet early in 1941 to formulate joint plans for how to conduct the war prior should the U.S. find itself involved in the conflict.In his October 1941 Navy Day speech, FDR went so far as to claim to be in possession of a “secret map” that revealed German plans to dominate North and South America.After the war, this map turned out to be phoney in terms of showing German designs of North and South America; instead it outlined German airline routes in South America.On the other hand, Roosevelt feared that should Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, along with Fascist Italy, come to dominate the rest of the world, the United States would inevitably be strategically weakened and threatened by outside subversion and even invasion.
As for the non-interventionist (“isolationists”) or people who opposed U.S. involvement in foreign wars, they included people from across the political spectrum. For example, beginning in 1939, American Communists opposed any American support for Great Britain until told to reverse their position by Moscow following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Others opposed the prospect of war for religious reasons, for example Quakers and other pacifists. Still others supported Hitler and his policies, such as the German American Bund.
These three groupings mentioned above, however, represented only a minority of those who opposed Roosevelt and his policies. In terms of political beliefs, more typical American opponents of direct military intervention on the side of Britain included Joseph Kennedy (who served as FDR’s U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain until late 1940!)and his son, the future president John F. Kennedy, as well as the young Gerald R. Ford, another future U.S. president. Many of those who opposed Roosevelt believed that the US had been duped into supporting the British and French in 1917 and, as a result, had been needlessly involved in World War I.
Taking such a non-interventionist view was the most popular opponent of Roosevelt, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, Jr., a celebrity at the time and leader of the America First Committee. His views reflected in part a skepticism regarding the aims and interests of East Coast political and financial elites, both of which stood to gain from American entry into war. Lindbergh feared American involvement in war inevitably would cause American citizens would lose their civil liberties, as had happened to German Americans during World War I, as did indeed infamously happen to Japanese-Americans during World War II, along with some German Americans and Italian Americans. Lindbergh’s fears also reflected his mistaken conviction that Nazi Germany would inevitably defeat Britain. In addition, Lindbergh’s enemies (who included the Leftist political cartoonist later known as Dr. Seuss) accused him of being in league with Hitler and anti-Semitic, charges that plain spoken aviator disputed and found bewildering.
For Lindbergh’s views regarding the war, see transcripts from his 1939 radio broadcast and his 1940 broadcast. His call for American air defense can be found here. His most controversial speech (which by the way his wife advised him against giving) regarding American intervention from September 1941 can be found here.
Transcript Assignment: Compose two (2) transcripts (200 words each) that could have been used in the early 1940s prior to Pearl Harbor, one for President Roosevelt presenting the case case for aiding the British short of war and one for Charles Lindbergh presenting the case for non-intervention in European affairs.
Each transcript should use evidence to support its claims. Follow the examples linked above. NOTE: the Roosevelt speech should not call for a declaration of war against Germany or Japan. Also, the Lindbergh speech should not use the anti-Semitic language of a Nazi.Do not quote from any source. Use your own words but try to come close to the spirit and tone of the two speakers.
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