One of the great ironies of our past is that World War II—"the Good War," the one armed conflict that almost everyone now agrees was worth fighting—was just about the only war in modern American history that most Americans at the time did not support joining. Even the three most controversial and unpopular military engagements in our recent history—the wars in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1961-75), and Iraq (2003-present)—all enjoyed, at first, substantially greater public support than did our entry into World War II. Pollsters in 1950 found that a huge majority—about three-quarters of the American people—believed their country's military intervention in Korea to have been "worth it"; nearly identical three-fourths majorities backed the Vietnam War in 1965 and the Iraq War in 2003. (Only later, as casualties mounted and victory proved elusive, did public support for those conflicts begin to drop.) By contrast, as late as the summer of 1940—nearly a year after World War II began with Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg conquest of Poland—a full 79% of the American people told pollster George Gallup that they would vote "no" if the question of American entry into the war were put up to a referendum.2 It's hard to argue against the notion that the fight against global fascism was a good and just cause; it just happened to be one that the American people had to be dragged into, kicking and screaming, very much against their will.
By the time the United States finally joined the conflict in December 1941—in furious response to Japan's devastating surprise attack against the American naval station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—China had already been fighting against the Japanese for four and a half years. The British had been at war with Nazi Germany for more than two years, for much of that time standing utterly alone in Europe in opposition to Adolf Hitler's dreams of fascist empire. Even Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, which had shamefully negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Nazis in 1939, had been desperately fighting against a German advance on the Eastern Front for almost six months. America's late entry into the war came not a moment too soon for these beleaguered Allies, for whom the first years of the conflict had been marked mostly by devastating setbacks and catastrophic defeats.
The road to American entry in World War II was not, then, a straight or simple one. In fact, we might say that there were really three separate roads to war, each one seemingly pointing in a different direction until they unexpectedly merged at Pearl Harbor. The first, in Europe, was as straight and fast as the autobahn freeways Adolf Hitler built across Germany, as the Nazis' repeated acts of military aggression pushed the continent inexorably toward war. The second, in the United States, was not so much a road as a roadblock, as the American people and their representatives in congress did everything possible to avoid being drawn into the conflict. And the third, also in the United States, was as winding and rocky as a forgotten country backroad, as President Franklin Roosevelt slowly maneuvered the country into a position of support for the Allies despite overwhelming public opinion (and a series of restrictive laws) that demanded strict neutrality.
Franklin Roosevelt took office in the spring of 1933, his arrival in the White House coinciding almost exactly with the end of the bleakest winter of the Great Depression. Less than three weeks later, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler became dictator of Germany. (The same conditions of prolonged economic despair that ensured Roosevelt's election in the United States fueled Hitler's rise to power in Germany.) While Hitler's quick seizure of total control over the German government was troubling, most Americans at the time were far too preoccupied with their own dire problems to pay much attention.
Harder to ignore was Hitler's March 1935 order for German rearmament and reinstatement of a military draft—a blatant violation of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which supposedly barred Germany from building an army of more than 100,000 men. Britain and France responded to this first of Hitler's many provocations with nothing more than a weak word of diplomatic protest; the United States Congress responded even more nonconfrontationally by passing the Neutrality Act of 1935, which made it illegal for any American (including the president) to supply weaponry or other war-related supplies to any party in a foreign conflict. Congress's clear intent in passing the law was to tie the president's hands from ensnaring the United States in any potential European conflict by providing one side or the other with "aid short of war"; in the years since World War I, most Americans had come to blame American financial assistance to Britain in the period prior to 1917 for eventually drawing the country into a pointless and costly military intervention. The Neutrality Act embodied their determination not to let it happen again, even if staying out meant that the western democracies would have to stand alone against fascist aggression. Roosevelt—already growing concerned about the Nazi menace—chafed against the rigid requirements of strict neutrality but felt he had no choice politically but to sign the act into law.
The events of the next five years unfolded along much the same pattern, with congress and the American public responding to Hitler's increasingly provocative acts by hewing ever closer to a policy of isolationism and neutrality, while Roosevelt quietly (and quite possibly illegally) shifted the country's military and diplomatic apparatus onto an anti-fascist war footing.
Early in 1936, congress passed an even stricter new Neutrality Act, now forbidding all loans to foreign warring nations in addition to the ban on direct military aid. A month later, Hitler moved his army into the supposedly demilitarized Rhineland region along the German border with France. Still, the United States—like every other major western nation save the Soviet Union—sent a sizable delegation of athletes to participate in the Berlin Olympic Games that summer, helping Hitler to legitimize his regime and achieve one of his greatest propaganda successes. (The triumphant Berlin Games, perfectly stage-managed to glorify the "Aryan" German people and their Nazi regime, dramatically improved Hitler's public image around the world—though the führer was said to be enraged by the humiliation of witnessing African-American sprinter Jesse Owens crush "superior" white athletes while winning four gold medals before rapturously cheering German crowds.) Towards the end of 1936, a poll found that 95% of the American people opposed taking part in any possible military conflict in Europe.3
In 1937, World War II began in earnest in Asia when Japanese forces invaded China, a longtime American ally. Stories in the western press soon began to describe in horrifying detail the "Rape of Nanking," in which rampaging Japanese soldiers committed all manner of atrocities against the civilian inhabitants of that Chinese city. Still, few Americans favored strong action against Japan; as late as July 1939, a poll found that only 6% favored military intervention against Japanese aggression in China.4 In 1937, with crisis in Asia looming, Congress passed an even stronger Neutrality Act, now banning American ships from carrying passengers or goods of any type at all to foreign nations embroiled in war. The strict new law made it virtually impossible for the United States to offer any meaningful support to its allies if they were threatened by fascist aggression.
In 1938, Hitler's malevolent intentions in Europe became all but impossible to deny. In March, Nazi Germany swallowed up Austria through an act of annexation. Six months later, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia hand over to him the Sudetenland, a large region adjacent to Germany populated by many German-speaking inhabitants. Though Czechoslovakia was prepared to fight to defend its borders, French leaders joined British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in traveling to Munich to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Hitler. (Czechoslovakia was not allowed to take part in the Munich conference.) Hoping to appease Hitler by caving in to his demands, British and French negotiators allowed the German dictator to seize the Sudetenland in exchange for a worthless promise to abandon all plans for further territorial expansion. Chamberlain returned to London pleased with the deal, infamously proclaiming that the compromise had guaranteed "peace for our time." But Chamberlain's confidence proved to be tragically misguided, and history's judgment of the appeasement at Munich has been deservedly harsh. Neville Chamberlain is remembered today as one of the most despised and ridiculed public figures of the twentieth century. At the time, however, a large majority of 59% of the American people believed he had done "the best thing in giving in to Germany instead of going to war."5
By late 1938, it became impossible to deny the violent intentions of Nazi policies toward Germany's Jews. Since rising to public prominence, Hitler had always engaged in venomously anti-Semitic rhetoric, and since 1933 he had imposed a series of discriminatory laws that stripped Jews of most civil rights, but until 1938 his hatred of the Jewish people had not yet led to widespread violence against them. But that changed on 9 November 1938, forever remembered as Kristallnacht—the "Night of Broken Glass"—in which Nazi storm troopers and ordinary German citizens whipped into a fury by anti-Semitic propaganda organized a nationwide pogrom against Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses. Across the whole of Germany, hundreds of synagogues burned and an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were smashed and looted. At least 91 Jews were murdered, and many, many more—perhaps 30,000—were arrested by Hitler's special police and sent to concentration camps; for the first time, the Nazis had begun rounding up large numbers of Jews for no reason other than their ethnicity. Most historians now cite Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust. Although the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht was widely covered in the American press at the time, it still moved few Americans to reconsider their isolationist stance. As late as April 1939, 84% of the American people still opposed military intervention in what had come to be seen as an almost inevitable European war; a month later, 69% opposed even lending money to Britain and France to help them mount a serious fight against Hitler.6 Roosevelt begged congress to loosen its restrictions on aid to the Allies, but he was firmly rebuffed.
On 1 September 1939, German tanks rolled across the border into Poland, proving Neville Chamberlain's promise of "peace for our time" to have been hopelessly naive. Though neither Britain nor France had been able to fully prepare their armed forces to confront Adolf Hitler's ferocious military juggernaut, leaders of both nations felt they had no choice but to declare war against Germany after this latest intolerable transgression. World War II had officially begun. Roosevelt, by now determined to do everything in his power to aid the Allies, finally won a small concession from congress; the Neutrality Act of 1939 ended the absolute ban on the shipment of military supplies to warring nations, but still imposed a firm requirement that foreign states pay for all purchases in cash and transport all war materiel in their own ships. With the treasuries of Britain and France already depleted and German U-boat submarines dominant in the Atlantic, this "cash-and-carry" provision of the new Neutrality Act significantly impeded Roosevelt's ability to help the Allies carry on the fight.
The war in Europe took a disastrous turn for the worse in the early summer of 1940. After many months of "phony war"—in which Britain and France were nominally at war with Germany, but the countries' armies did little actual fighting—Germany launched a full-scale blitzkrieg invasion of France on 10 May 1940. Prepared for a repeat of First World War-style trench warfare rather than fast-moving tank combat, the French army found itself immediately overwhelmed. The German advance moved so fast that an entire British expeditionary force of more than 200,000 men was cut off and surrounded at the French port of Dunkirk; only a desperate naval evacuation—which included, as a last resort, the use of tiny civilian fishing boats and pleasure craft—saved the British army from capture or destruction.
Less than six weeks after the fighting began, the French government was forced to surrender. Triumphant Nazi soldiers marched down the Champs-Elysées in Paris, reveling in the total defeat of their age-old French enemies. In England, Winston Churchill took over as prime minister from the disgraced Neville Chamberlain and promised to carry on the fight against Hitler's seemingly invincible military force. "We shall not flag or fail," Churchill proclaimed before Parliament on 4 June 1940. "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, and we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Inspired by Churchill's resolve, most Americans began to sympathize with Britain, tilting against Germany in the conflict. Still, though, they had little interest in joining Churchill in the struggle directly; a month after his famous speech, a poll found that 79% of the American people would vote to "stay out of the war" if they were given a chance to participate in a referendum on the question. In those darkest days of the Second World War, as the British people endured constant aerial bombardment and braced themselves for an expected German invasion, as the specter of a Europe totally dominated by Adolf Hitler loomed as a very real possibility, four out of five Americans wanted nothing more than to stay out of the conflict.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, by this time, had begun devising ways to circumvent the isolationist restrictions of the Neutrality Acts in order to offer the maximum possible assistance to the British. "If my neighbor's house catches fire," the president explained to one of his advisers, "and I know that fire will spread to my house unless it is put out, and I am watering the grass in my back yard, and I don't pass my garden hose over the fence to my neighbor, I am a fool."7
Immediately after the fall of France, Roosevelt took the legally dubious measure of declaring millions of rounds of ammunition and American firearms to be "surplus" to military requirements, and thus supposedly exempt from the ban on direct shipment to England. Later in 1940, he worked around a congressional ban on sales of warships by agreeing to "trade" fifty aging destroyers to Britain in exchange for 99-year leases on several British naval bases in the Caribbean. Early in 1941, Roosevelt proclaimed that the defensive maritime perimeter of the "Pan-American Security Zone" extended all the way to Iceland in the North Atlantic; he thus authorized himself to dispatch American naval squadrons to defend convoys of merchant ships from German submarine attacks for nearly half the length of their journey to Britain. The result, by the second half of 1941, was undeclared but very real and sustained naval warfare between American ships and German submarines in the Atlantic. Acting against the clear intent of congress and, arguably, outside the law, Roosevelt had effectively if unofficially entered his reluctant country into World War II.
Only his country didn't quite know it yet. Through 1940 and 1941, one of the most powerful mass organizations in American politics was the America First Committee, which was formed in late 1939 and quickly won the support of at least hundreds of thousands, if not indeed millions, of Americans by arguing vigorously against U.S. entry into the war. America First had a powerful spokesman in aviator Charles Lindbergh, who had been a major national hero since the 1920s, and it embodied the fiercely isolationist attitude of a huge proportion of the American people. Right up to the moment when Japanese bombs began falling on American ships at Pearl Harbor, many—perhaps most—Americans continued to hope against hope that they could stay out of "the Good War" entirely. After 7 December 1941, of course, isolationist sentiment quickly vanished, as Americans demanded vengeance against Japan's surprise attack—although there is some question whether FDR would have been able to obtain a declaration of war against Germany, as well as Japan, if Hitler hadn't gratuitously declared war against the United States first. In retrospect, it became clear that America's entry into the conflict was the beginning of the end for the Axis powers. But—as the desperate British and French and Chinese and Soviets understood all too well during the difficult first years of the Second World War—it was a turning point that was painfully slow in coming.