Once upon a dream in some far away time, the U.S. of A was snug as a bug in a rug in its policy of isolationism. The world was slower. Countries seemed further apart. Wars in Europe seemed like they were happening on another planet. (Planet Brie And Tintin.)
And we were happy to sit back, grandma-on-porch style, and watch the rest of the world duke it out. At least in theory.
But that style of policy began to dwindle in the beginning of the 20th century. We got involved in WWI. And then, when WWII (worst sequel ever) rolled around, we realized that a foreign policy that amounted to acting like a turtle withdrawing its head into its shell was…not good.
In his "Great Arsenal of Democracy" speech, FDR made it very clear that the actions of Adolf Hitler and the other Axis powers were a threat to all people everywhere—a threat to democracy itself—and that the U.S. needed to wake up and smell the coffee. Isolating ourselves from the problem wasn't going to make it go away—in fact, ignoring what was happening in Europe made it even more likely the U.S. would eventually have to send American military overseas. And no one wanted that.
FDR believed the U.S. could help by sending supplies to the British, who were in the middle of dealing with the Blitz (short for blitzkrieg or "lightening war"). They needed materials: tanks and shells and other fun stuff, to stop Hitler from occupying the entire European continent.
FDR knew that a Hitler-dominated Europe would be bad news bears—and that there was no way the U.S. would remain free and democratic if the Germans were the ones drinking tea in the shadow of Big Ben right across the pond.
Throughout his "Arsenal of Democracy" address, FDR made it clear no one was asking for American troops, and the government had no plans to send people overseas. However, producing some supplies for our European buddy-bud-buds wasn't at all out of the question—in fact, it was the least we could do. The United States was home to the largest democratic economy in the world, an economy which had suffered horribly less than a decade ago, and somehow rallied and survived through a terrible crisis.
Dory said it best, after all. Just keep producing jobs through the Works Progress Administration—er, we mean just keep swimming.
After the collapse of the economy in the late 1920s/early 1930s, the people of the United States had kept on swimming, and it was that dedication that would turn the tide of the war. At the end of 1940, the best way the United States could help with the war effort was to get to work producing munitions and other supplies, because the Allies needed more of everything.
Americans weren't going to be the ones shooting the guns, but becoming "the great arsenal of democracy," harnessing the power of American industry and dedicating all American labor to get supplies to the good guys, could very well be the thing that won the war.
(Of course, we all know how things really turned out. But we'll get into that later.)
If you were to put on a hardhat and go spelunking through American history, you'd find that since the Pilgrims came to the New World in the 1620s, people have been less than eager to involve themselves in conflicts happening all the way over in Europe.
In fact, into the 20th century, the American people acted pretty much like Mr. Chow from The Hangover—we basically screamed "Not my problem!"
That all changed with World War I, when German submarines were going crazy, attacking innocent civilians and military personnel alike. In February 1917, when Germany said all ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean were fair game, the U.S. declared war.
This was kind of the beginning of the end of isolationism. But the end of the end—the real death knell to all our "Not my problem!"-screaming foreign policy—came when FDR coined the oh-so-metal term "Arsenal of Democracy."
And, since the end of World War II, this policy has kept the U.S. pretty involved with the issues and conflicts of other nations.
Just check out some of these (relatively, in historical terms) recent articles:
A 2013 Foreign Policy article asks the question "How Many Wars Is The U.S. Fighting Right Now?" The answer? At least four. (Source)
In 2014, Public Radio International stated: "The U.S. is Now Involved in 134 Wars Or None, Depending on Your Definition of "War." (Source)
A 2015 headline in The Nation asks, "How Many Wars Is The U.S. Really Fighting?" They answer with, "Every day, in fact, America's most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations, practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar." (Source)
In other words: our era of isolationism is as dead as disco. (Or even deader—it's a lot easier to listen to the Pointer Sisters than it is to hear someone talking about isolationism.)
The question of course is, is our new approach to foreign policy a good or bad thing? And, honestly, to even begin to answer that question would take about a thousand paragraphs.
But what we know is this: when FDR killed American isolationism for good, he did so for a really good reason. (Because Hitler wanted to take over the world. Yeah, that's a really good reason.)
FDR argued that the preservation of freedom for all people required American sacrifice, and that's not always clean and pretty. Sometimes it even means sticking your nose in other people's business, but FDR believed that with the very basic foundations of democracy on the line, the risk was always worth it…even if Americans are still struggling decades later to find a balance and make everybody happy.
Detroit's Great Arsenal of Democracy
It only makes sense that the capital of the auto industry would play a big role in wartime production.
Uplifting Documentaries from World War II
This one's all about the Great Depression—lots of rainbows and sunshine.
Arsenal of Democracy: A Hearts of Iron Game
Nothing says good times like fighting Nazis in your underwear from the comfort of your living room.
A Fireside Chat on War
Don't worry—this isn't one of those.
The Great Arsenal of Democracy
Gotta love these vintage propaganda posters.
Even the great arsenal of democracy is full of controversy.