Roosevelt and Isolationism

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From Isolationism to War

Patrick Williams

Dr. B.G. McDonald
HIE 366
15 April 2011

On 7 December 1941, shortly after seven in the morning, Japanese airmen, amidst the cries of "Banzai", commenced the bombing of Pearl Harbour, leaving them to wonder if the Americans had ever heard of the 1904 surprise attack on the Russian Naval base at Port Arthur. In less than twenty-four hours after the Japanese aggression, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would address the congress:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.... I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.[1]

As a result of this short, but poignant address, FDR had led his administration and fellow countrypersons from a primarily isolationist posture reminiscent of the twenties, to a posture of armed belligerency in the forties. What caused American foreign policy so drastically to alter its direction from the relatively insular isolationist posture, towards entanglement outside the western hemisphere?

The Roosevelt administration's foreign policy can be viewed in two distinct phases, from 1932 to 1937 and from 1937 to 1941. The foreign policies in phase one were dominated by the small but influential senate members who were decidedly isolationist in posture. The second phase illustrates the receding influence of the isolationists and FDR's successful shift in foreign policy towards internationalism.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's initial foray into politics led him to adopt a roused internationalist posture. Woodrow Wilson's presidential success in 1912, in which FDR vigorously supported Wilson's progressive ideas, was the launching pad for young FDR's political career. In March 1913, Wilson, upon the advice of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, appointed FDR to the position of assistant secretary of the navy.[2] Fulfilling Wilson's expectations, FD shared the president's international perspective. During the pre-war years FDR pushed for the preparedness of American military forces, he believed that: "...the United States should defend its principles as well as its territory, and that sooner or later his country would enter the war."[3] In 1919, Allied victory and the ensuing Versailles Peace Conference gained FDR valuable international exposure to foreign policy. Accompanying Wilson, FDR was to act in the capacity to supervise the disposition of naval supplies and other related matters.[4] While previously an enthusiastic supporter of President Wilson's dream of American entry into the League of Nations, by 1920, as a result of the senate's rejection of the proposal, convinced FDR that the once favourable public support was growing weary of Wilsonianism.[5] Throughout the twenties FDR gingerly supported American entry into the League of Nations. His decision to run for the Presidency led FDR to drop his Wilsonian posture due to the perceived lack of public support for the league.[6] He reasoned that his alignment with the Democratic party towards the isolationist element was consistent with nationalist sentiment. FDR's change in policy also illustrates the need to make concessions in order to gain political backing. Under pressure from influential right-wing Democrat and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, in exchange for his support of FDR's nomination required a denunciation of his Wilsonian internationalism. FDR adroitly obliged to Hearst's request and, on 2 February 1932, FDR announced that he was in favour of staying out of the League but so as not to antagonize the former Wilsonians he stated that: "...the League of Nations today is not the league conceived by Woodrow Wilson."[7]...
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