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Paving the Road to War

By David M. Kennedy | HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

Between 1929 and 1945, the United States went through a devastating economic depression, an unprecedented New Deal social contract, and a war that would shape the world for the next half century. In his new Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Freedom From Fear: the American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy documents how the politics and events of this tumultuous era affected how ordinary people lived their lives and faced their country's challenges. The following excerpt illustrates the drawn-out controversy over America's ultimate involvement in World War II.

When Neville Chamberlain, who some six months earlier had succeeded Stanley Baldwin as British Prime Minister, raised the question in December 1937 of impressing Japan with a joint U.S.-British demonstration of naval force at Britain's great Asian base of Singapore, Roosevelt squelched the idea outright. "Though the President and the Secretary of State... had been doing their best to bring American public opinion to realize the situation," the British ambassador in Washington informed his government, "they were not yet in a position to adopt any measures of the kind now contemplated." The opportunity for showing a united Anglo-American naval front in the Pacific was lost. Chamberlain expressed his disappointment to his sister: "It is always best and safest," he said, "to count on nothing from the Americans but words."

The Americans offered ample confirmation for Chamberlain's lack of confidence in them. On October 5, 1937, Roosevelt spoke what sounded like some big words indeed. The occasion took on added drama because the president chose to speak them in Chicago, a city fed a daily diet of Roosevelt-be-damned invective by Robert R. McCormick's militantly anti-New Deal and obstreperously isolationist Chicago Tribune, on whose masthead McCormick emblazoned the motto THE WORLD'S GREATEST NEWSPAPER. McCormick himself, at six feet four inches, with a fifty-two-inch chest and thirty-six-inch arms, was a bullying giant of a man and towering colossus of provincialism. He routinely pronounced upon the world in steely aphorisms that left no room for nuance or argument. The Tribune, with its million daily readers, and its sister radio station, whose call letters, of course, were WGN, provided McCormick with incomparable pulpits from which he trumpeted his trademark prejudices across what he called "Chicagoland"--the five-state region that stretched from Iowa to Ohio, the very heartland of American isolationism. Little escaped the copious arc of McCormick's rage. Wisconsin he declared "the nuttiest state in the Union, next to California." The northeastern United States swarmed with the "dodging, obligation-shifting idle rich...diluted in their Americanism by other hordes of immigrants." Foreign service officers were "he-debutantes, dead from the neck-up." Herbert Hoover was "the greatest state socialist in history." Franklin Roosevelt was "a Communist." McCormick, said the British ambassador to Washington, was "stubborn, slow-thinking, and bellicose." He was also enormously influential. By speaking in Chicago, Roosevelt was apprently bearding the isolationist lion in his den.

"The epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading," the president declared, in what seemed to be a stout- hearted challenge to the insular prejudices of his hostile Chicagoland listeners. "When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease... Was is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared," he said, in obvious reference to the Sino-Japanese conflict. "There is no escape," he warned his presumably skeptical audience, "through mere isolation or neutrality.... There must be positive endeavors to preserve peace."

The "Quarantine Speech" seemed to throw down the gauntlet to the isolationists and to herald a presidential crusade to educate the American public about the necessity for international engagement. What could Roosevelt's words mean, other than a pledge of American support for a concerted plan of action against Japan? British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, who, like Winston Churchill later, made Anglo-American cooperation the supreme goal of British policy, pressed Washington for an "exact interpretation" of Roosevelt's remarks. What "positive endeavors" did the president have in mind? What, Eden wanted particularly to know, would be the American position at the nine-ppower meeting soom to convene in Brussels to discuss the Asian crisis? Eden advised that only a policy of active resistance to China combined with economic pressure on Japan would be effective. Was that what Roosevelt intended?

Roosevelt gave his answer through his emissary to the Brussels talks, Norman Davis. Tell the British "that there is such a thing as public opinion in the United States," the president instructed Davis. He could not afford, Roosevelt continued, "to be made in popular opinion at home, a tail to the British kite." In London, the Times opined that in the last analysis "Mr. Roosevelt was defining an attitude and not a program." That description seemed prophetic. The Brussels conference convened and adjourned in November without consequence. The last reasonable chance to settle the Sino-Japanese war by joint international action was lost. The Americans, Neville Chamberlain's sister acidly remarked, were "hardly a people to go tiger shooting with."

About the Author

David M. Kennedy is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. He is author of Over Here: The First World War and American Society and Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger, which won the Bancroft Prize.

Funding Information

Kennedy received two NEH-supported fellowships to write Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, (c) 1999 David M. Kennedy, part of the Oxford History of the United States. Reprinted by permission of the Oxford University Press, New York, NY.