Dictatorships unleash World War II
As the real nature of totalitarism became clear, and as Germany, Italy, and Japan continued their aggressions, attacking one small nation after another, American apprehension turned to indignation. In 1938, after Hitler had incorporated Austria into the Reich, his demands for the Sudeten land of Czechoslovakia made war seem possible at any moment. The American people, disillusioned by the failure of the crusade for democracy of the First World War, announced that under no circumstances could any belligerent look to them for aid. Neutrality legislation, enacted piecemeal from 1935 to 1937, prohibited trade with or credit to any belligerent. The objective was to prevent, at almost any cost, the involvement of the United States in a non-American war.
Both President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull from the first opposed this legislation. The President now undertook the task of bringing the American people to a realization of the destruction these forces were working and of arming America morally and materially. He had done much to strengthen the American navy; he had refused to recognize the puppet state of Manchukuo. Together with Hull he had made significant progress in establishing solidarity among the nations of the western hemisphere through the good-neighbor policy. When the Hull reciprocal trade treaties were reaffirmed in 1935, the United States concluded treaties with six Latin-American nations, pledging the signatories to recognize no territorial changes effected by force.
As totalitarian policy became more aggressive and Hitler thundered against Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, the American spirit hardened. The first impulse of Americans was to stay out of the European conflict; but after a time they were convinced that a combination of powers which threatened everyone's security also threatened their own.
This conviction quickened, as the fall of France demonstrated the might of the Nazi military machine. When the air attack upon Britain began in the summer of 1940 few Americans were any longer neutral in thought. The United States joined the Latin-American republics in extending collective protection to the possessions of the democratic nations in the western hemisphere. The United States and Canada set up a joint Board of Defense. Congress, confronted with the mounting crisis, voted immense sums for rearmament. In September 1940, the first peacetime conscription bill in American history was enacted.
The 1940 presidential election campaign demonstrated an overwhelming unity of American sentiment. Roosevelt's opponent, Wendell Willkie, supported the President's foreign policy, and since he also agreed with a large part of Roosevelt's domestic program, he lacked a compelling issue, and the November election yielded another impressive majority for Roosevelt. For the first time in American history, a President was elected to a third term in the White House.
While most Americans anxiously watched the course of the European war, tension mounted in the Far East. Eager to take advantage of an opportunity to improve her strategic position, Japan boldly announced a "New Order" in which she would exercise hegemony over the whole of the Far East and the Pacific. Helpless to resist, Britain receded, withdrawing from Shanghai and temporarily closing the Burma Road. In the summer of 1940 Japan won from the weak Vichy government permission to use airfields in French Indo-China. After the Japanese joined the Rome-Berlin Axis in September, the United States imposed an embargo on the export of scrap-iron to Japan.