After the attack on Pearl Harbor, American opinion changed dramatically. by United States Office of War Information/Wikimedia Commons
"Even as he was promising to keep the country out of the war, Roosevelt was conniving to maneuver the United States into it."
- Charles Austin Beard
Part 1: Public Opinion After World War I
In this section, we will learn how the American experience in World War I and historical research after the war shaped Americans' opinions about foreign policy and military intervention. We will also see how American public opinion conflicted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy goals.
Every schoolchild learns the story of America's entry into World War II: that the United States was minding its own business, and was forced into the war by an unexpected, unprovoked Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. As a result, America was also drawn into a war with Japan's allies, Germany and Italy. The inference is that if Americans want to be safe, we cannot afford to mind our own business, but must instead take an active part in other nations' affairs throughout the world. According to this viewpoint, a non-interventionist foreign policy (often erroneously referred to as "isolationism") will expose Americans to the danger of attack by evil countries. This danger can be kept at bay by projecting superior military strength throughout the world.
The problem is, most of it isn't true.
In fact, historical research has shown that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was deliberately provoked by FDR to overcome American public opinion, which was overwhelmingly opposed to entering the war. Japan wasn't even the primary target of the Roosevelt administration, whose goal was to help Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany.
Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Act on September 6, 1940. by Selective Service System/Wikimedia Commons
During World War I, most Americans were opposed to entering the European conflict. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with the campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." The Encyclopedia of the New American Nation quotes H.C. Peterson's observation that, "To Americans a vote for Wilson had meant a vote for peace. Through the only medium available to them they had expressed their unmistakable desire to keep out of the European conflict." But reports of German atrocities, U-boat attacks on commercial ships like the Lusitania (which was later found to be transporting ammunition to Great Britain), and the Zimmerman telegram convinced Wilson to join Britain and France in fighting the war.
After the Allies defeated Germany and Austria-Hungary, revisionist historians like Sidney Fay, Harry Elmer Barnes, and Charles Tansill began to question the conventional explanation of how the war began, and the justification for American involvement. They concluded that, contrary to the claims in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was not solely responsible for causing the war. Instead, England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had all played a part in it. They noted that instead of "making the world safe for democracy," the war had actually resulted in more authoritarianism and militarism, and they blamed political leaders for misleading a gullible public. In his book, Genesis of the World War, Barnes documented the secret agendas of the belligerent nations and decried the "dishonesty and unreliability of diplomats and statesmen."
The historical revisionists' views gained influence, and according to the Encyclopedia, "By the end of the 1930s, the dominant interpretation of World War I was that of the revisionists." Many popular figures like Charles Lindberg opposed American intervention in foreign wars. But this was a problem for FDR. According to Robert Higgs:
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, the U.S. government fell under the control of a man who disliked the Japanese and harbored a romantic affection for the Chinese because, as some writers have speculated, Roosevelt's ancestors had made money in the China trade. Roosevelt also disliked the Germans in general and Adolph Hitler in particular, and he tended to favor the British in his personal relations and in world affairs.
Or, as Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald put it in his book, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor; The Washington Contribution to the Japanese Attack:
There is every reason to believe that when France was overcome President Roosevelt became convinced the United States must fight beside Great Britain, while the latter was still an active belligerent, or later sustain the fight alone, as the last democratic stronghold in a Nazi world. Never, however, had the country been less prepared for war, both psychologically and physically. Isolationism was a dominant philosophy throughout the land, and the armed forces were weak and consequently unready.
So, the proponents of America's entry into the war began to implement a three-prong strategy: Proponents of American involvement began publishing articles to change public opinion. Meanwhile, the Roosevelt administration began a series of overt and covert operations to help Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and an attempt was made to provoke Germany into attacking American shipping. It was thought that if Germany could be goaded into attacking America, the public would surely support entering the war. Meanwhile, American military expenditures were increased to prepare for the fight.
As Robert Higgs wrote, American support for Germany's enemies included intelligence sharing, weapons development, and providing military supplies. Roosevelt also implemented a "shoot on sight" policy in which American warships protected convoys in the North Atlantic Ocean, even though some of those convoys included British ships.
The pro-war propaganda effort began to have an effect. According to Murray Rothbard in The Betrayal of the American Right:
In the late 1930s the Roosevelt administration moved rapidly toward war in Europe and the Far East. As it did so, and especially after war broke out in September 1939, the great bulk of the liberals and the Left 'flip-flopped' drastically on behalf of war and foreign intervention.... Gone was the old opposition to American militarism, and to American and British imperialism.
Meanwhile, anti-war writers like Harry Elmer Barnes, John T. Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, Paul Palmer, H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov lost their editorial jobs and their columns in magazines and newspapers. According to Rothbard,
In Roosevelt's own famous phrase, 'Dr. New Deal' had been replaced by 'Dr. Win the War,' and, as the armaments orders poured in, the conservative elements were back in the fold: in particular, the Wall Street and Eastern Establishment, the bankers and industrialists, the Morgan interests, the Ivy League Entente, all happily returned to the good old days of World War I and the battle of the British Empire against Germany.
Despite all this, and accusations of anti-Semitism being leveled at anti-war leaders like Lindberg, the war hawks still couldn't develop a consensus in favor of American intervention. According to Jeff Riggenbach in Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism,
As late as the summer of 1941, only a few months before the Pearl Harbor attack, [Thomas] Fleming points out, "polls revealed 68 percent of the people preferred to stay out [of the war in Europe], even if that meant a German victory over England and Russia."
A .30 caliber machine gun crew mans Ford Island's defenses. by U.S. Navy/ Wikimedia Commons
According to Admiral Theobald, "As the people of this country were so strongly opposed to war, one of the Axis powers must be forced to involve the United States, and in such a way as to arouse the American people to wholehearted belief in the necessity of fighting." Unfortunately for Roosevelt, despite the fact that he "offered Germany repeated provocations, by violations of neutrality and diplomatic usage," Germany refused to take the bait. But Roosevelt had one more card up his sleeve. He could drag America through the "back door to war."