Dictatorships Unleash World War II

As the real nature of totalitarianism became clear, and as Germany, Italy, and Japan continued their aggression, American apprehension turned to indignation. In 1938, after Hitler had incorporated Austria into the German Reich, his demands for the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia made war seem possible at any moment in Europe. The American people, disillusioned by the future of the crusade for democracy in World War I, announced that in 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 had, from the first, opposed such legislation. The President, who had done much to strengthen the American navy refused to recognize the puppet state of Manchukuo. Together with Hull he had made significant progress in establishing solidarity among 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 Hitler thundered against Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, the American spirit hardened. Although the first impulse of Americans had been to stay out of the European conflict, events finally forced the conviction that a combination of powers that threatened Europe's security threatened that of the United States as well.

The fall of France, demonstrating the might of the Nazi military machine, strengthened the conviction. When the air attack upon Britain began in the summer of 1940, few Americans were any longer neutral in thought. The United States joined Canada in a Mutual Board of Defense, and aligned with the Latin American republics in extending collective protection to the possessions of the democratic nations in the western hemisphere. Congress, confronted with the mounting crisis, voted immense sums for rearmament, and, in September 1940 voted the first peacetime conscription bill ever enacted in the United States.

The 1940 presidential election campaign demonstrated overwhelming American unity. Roosevelt's opponent, Wendell Willkie, lacked a compelling issue since he supported the President's foreign policy, and also agreed with a large part of Roosevelt's domestic program. Thus the November election yielded another majority for Roosevelt. For the first time in American history, a President was elected to a third term.

While most Americans anxiously watched the course of the European war, tension mounted in Asia. Taking advantage of an opportunity to improve her strategic position, Japan boldly announced a "new order" in which she would exercise hegemony over all the Pacific lands. 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 Indochina. As a countermove the United States, after the Japanese had joined the Rome-Berlin Axis in September, imposed an embargo on export scrap iron to Japan.