Should America Intervene?
“This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well…Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience."
- Franklin Roosevelt, radio address, September 3, 1939
When war erupted, Americans were divided about how to respond. They sympathized with the victims of aggression. But, remembering the horrors of World War I, most wanted to stay out of the conflict. Isolationists argued America should look to its own defenses rather than aid other nations. And neutrality laws passed by Congress during the 1930s prohibited American arms sales to warring nations. The country’s military was also woefully unprepared. All these factors placed limits on FDR’s ability to act.
In the dark months that followed, Roosevelt demonstrated his belief that America’s security depended on the defeat of the Axis Powers. His actions sparked a great national debate. Should the United States remain wholly neutral? Or should it find ways short of war to assist nations resisting Hitler?
The Reluctant Neutral
When World War II erupted in 1939, most Americans felt their nation could safely remain isolated from foreign troubles. But FDR recognized the grave danger the Axis Powers posed to American security. For two years, he pursued a cautious but deliberate policy of aiding Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union in their war with Germany and Italy.
At every step, the President had to contend with deep-seated American fears about involvement in the war. He also had to manage a growing crisis in the Pacific, where Japan was expanding its empire into China and threatening Southeast Asia.
“It is easy for you and for me to shrug our shoulders and to say that conflicts taking place thousands of miles from the continental United States … do not seriously affect the Americas—and that all the United States has to do is to ignore them… . Passionately though we may desire detachment, we are forced to realize that … every battle that is fought, does affect the American future.”
- Franklin Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, September 3, 1939