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The Road to Pearl Harbor

50a. 1930s Isolationism

U.S. Marines in the Caribbean, 1913
Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy" was instituted to foster good relations from other countries within the same hemisphere. As a result, Marines stationed in the Caribbean — like those seen here — were withdrawn.

"Leave me alone," seemed to be America's attitude toward the rest of the world in the 1930s.

At the dawn of the '30s, foreign policy was not a burning issue for the average American. The stock market had just crashed and each passing month brought greater and greater hardships. American involvement with Europe had brought war in 1917 and unpaid debt throughout the 1920s. Having grown weary with the course of world events, citizens were convinced the most important issues to be tackled were domestic. Foreign policy leaders of the 1930s once again led the country down its well-traveled path of isolationism.

The Hoover Administration set the tone for an isolationist foreign policy with the Hawley-Smoot Tariff. Trade often dominated international relations and the protective wall of the tariff left little to discuss. The Far East became an area of concern when the Japanese government ordered an attack on Chinese Manchuria. This invasion was a clear violation of the Nine Power Treaty, which prohibited nations from carving a special sphere of influence in China.

East Asia, 1903
Political boundaries in East Asia, seen here at the turn of the century, were increasingly challenged in the years leading up to World War II.

The Hoover Administration knew that any harsh action against Japan would be unpopular in the midst of the Great Depression. The official American response was the Stimson Doctrine, which refused to recognize any territory illegally occupied by Japan. As meek as this may sound, it went further toward condemning Japan than the government of Great Britain was willing to do.

One possibility for international economic cooperation failed at the London Conference of 1933. Leaders of European nations hoped to increase trade and stabilize international currencies. Roosevelt sent a "bombshell message" to the conference refusing any attempt to tie the American dollar to a gold standard. The conference dissolved with European delegates miffed at the lack of cooperation by the United States.

Roosevelt did realize that the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was forestalling American economic recovery. Toward this end, Congress did act to make United States trade policy more flexible. Under the Reciprocal Trade Agreement of 1934, Congress authorized the President to negotiate tariff rates with individual nations. Should a nation agree to reduce its barriers to trade with the United States, the President could reciprocate without the consent of Congress. In addition, FDR broke a 16-year-old diplomatic freeze with the Soviet Union by extending formal recognition. Roosevelt hoped to settle some nettlesome outstanding issues with the Soviets, and at the same time stimulate bilateral trade.

Japanese tank in Shanghai, 1932
The Japanese attack on Chinese Manchuria was in direct violation of the Nine Powers Treaty, which had been passed to prevent nations from establishing a special sphere of influence in China. Here a Japanese tank rolls through Shanghai, China.

Isolationists did not however designate the Western Hemisphere as a dangerous region. On the contrary, as tensions grew in Europe and Asia, a strong sense of Pan-Americanism swept the diplomatic circles. In the face of overseas adversity, strong hemispheric solidarity was attractive. To foster better relations with the nations to the south, Roosevelt declared a bold new Good Neighbor Policy. Marines stationed in Central America and the Caribbean were withdrawn. The (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary, which proclaimed the right of the United States to intervene in Latin American affairs was renounced.

The United States would soon been intervening in something much bigger.

On the Web
Diplomacy of Isolationism
This U.S. Department of State webpage features background on the Five Powers Treaty, the Kellogg-Briand Pact and a summary of the Stimson Doctrine — the United States' policy of isolation in response to Japanese aggression in Chinese Manchuria. There's also a bit on the Japanese reaction to the Doctrine — they simply ignored it.
Franklin Roosevelt: Foreign Affairs
From his early isolationist policies to the final days of World War II, FDR's foreign policy is dissected at the American President website. Includes a few photos of FDR and links to Churchill, Marshall, and some of the other big names of 1930s and '40s foreign policy.
Cordell Hull Biography
Cordell Hull went from learning in a one-room school in Tennessee to steering U.S. foreign policy for 12 years as FDR's Secretary of State. The Nobel Foundation presents this biography of Hull, winner of the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize and the man who helped lay the foundations of the Good Neighbor Policy.
The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
By stating that the United States was justified in using police power to end wrongdoing in the Western Hemisphere, Theodore Roosevelt rejected the Monroe Doctrine's policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs. Nearly 3 decades later, another Roosevelt — Franklin — would go against this corollary in favor of a Good Neighbor Policy. Read Theodore Roosevelt's 1904 address to Congress explaining the need for U.S. involvement in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
The Isolationist Myth
Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan claims that tariff protectionists Smoot and Hawley have unfairly been blamed for everything from starting the Depression to being responsible for WWII. In this essay from 1994, Buchanan argues that some ecomomic protectionism is good for America and that Smoot and Hawley's protectionist tariff had nothing to do with starting WWII.
Among the forces sent to aid China in its struggle against Japan was a squadron of "Flying Tigers" and a fellow who went by the name of "Vinegar Joe."
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Senator Key Pittman was a key player in 1930s U.S. foreign policy. But the circumstances surrounding his death are chilling! It's rumored that he died before his election and that his supporters kept his body in a bathtub filled with ice to hide the fact. All to keep his Senate seat under Democratic control.
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