CHAPTER 27 America and the World, 1921–1945
This chapter traces America's increasing involvement in world affairs. It covers the
1920s and 1930s, when the United States refused to take any responsibility for
maintaining world order; through World War II, when the United States became the
dominant world power, and into the Cold War, when Americans learned they could no
longer live in isolation.
I. RETREAT, REVERSAL, AND RIVALRY
American diplomacy in the 1920s was permeated by a sense of disillusionment. The
United States refused to be bound by any agreement to preserve international peace.
A. Retreat in Europe
The United States increased its economic dominance each year in the 1920s, but
refused to enter into any European collective security arrangement. The sole
exception was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war, but bound none of
its participants to do anything to preserve peace. The United States refused to
recognize the Soviet Union and even quarreled with its old allies, England and
France, over repayment of the loans they had received in World War I.
B. Cooperation in Latin America
The United States continued to dominate Latin America politically and
economically, but relied less often on direct military intervention. Roosevelt
continued the policies of Coolidge and Hoover by substituting cooperation for
coercion. The United States would be a "Good Neighbor," but its domination of
the area would remain unchallenged.
C. Rivalry in Asia
Japan had long been interested in an Asian empire and already occupied Korea
and key parts of Manchuria before the 1920s. When Japan sought to gain
supremacy in China, the United States, committed to the Open Door policy,
protested. In 1921 the tensions in the Pacific led to the Washington Conference,
at which several treaties were signed. England agreed to American equality in
naval strength, Japan was accepted as the third largest naval power, and all
nations agreed to limit naval construction. The Open Door policy was
reaffirmed, and the status quo in the Pacific was frozen. In less than a decade,
Japan violated these agreements by seizing Manchuria, but the United States
took no punitive action.
Americans became even more determined to avoid foreign entanglements in the 1930s,
when the Depression made domestic concerns seem more important and when the rise
of militaristic regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan made war seem likely.
A. The Lure of Pacifism and Neutrality
Most Americans suspected that they had been duped by the munitions makers
into going to war in 1917 and resolved never again to fight a meaningless war.
Led by Senator Gerald Nye, Congress passed neutrality legislation in 1935 that
prohibited U.S. trade with or loans to any nation at war. Roosevelt made no
attempt to block this legislation, but refused to invoke the laws when Japan
invaded China, thereby allowing China to buy arms from the United States.
B. War in Europe
Roosevelt generally approved of English and French efforts to appease Hitler,
but when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, FDR attempted to revise the neutrality
acts to give an advantage to England and France. Congress, however, refused.
By July 1939, Roosevelt openly attacked the neutrality acts, but when World
War II began in September 1939, Roosevelt reluctantly declared the acts in
III. THE ROAD TO WAR
From 1939 to 1941, the American people gave their moral support to England and
France and moved slowly into active alliance with them.
A. From Neutrality to Undeclared War
From 1939 on, Roosevelt led the nation gradually into a position of helping
England without actually entering the war. In November, 1939, he persuaded
Congress to allow any belligerent to buy American goods on a "cash and carry"
basis. When Germany knocked France out of the war in 1940, Roosevelt stepped
up aid to England, especially after his election to a third term in 1940. America
began to give or loan war supplies to England and even began to transport these
goods across the Atlantic, thereby creating incidents with German submarines.
The nation debated the neutrality question intensely, and a consensus began to
develop that a Nazi victory in Europe would threaten Western civilization. FDR
tried to mold public opinion, but feared getting too far in front of it.
B. Showdown in the Pacific
Japan had added to her conquests while the war raged in Europe. When she
invaded and occupied large areas of China, the United States responded by
limiting exports to Japan of strategic materials such as oil. This action in no way
restrained Japan, who promptly allied herself with Germany and Italy in 1940
and pushed into Indochina. In response, the United States ended all trade with
Japan. Japan decided to negotiate with the United States, but to attack her if all
Japanese demands were not granted. Japan wanted a free hand in China and the
restoration of normal trade relations. The United States demanded that Japan
take her troops from China. When diplomacy failed, the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbor on December 7, 1941, in a surprise attack that crippled the Pacific fleet.
The next day Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, and it was granted
immediately. Germany and Italy then declared war on the United States. It had
taken years for the American people to realize their stake in defeating the Axis
powers, but after Pearl Harbor, the American people were united in their
determination to win the war.
IV. TURNING THE TIDE AGAINST THE AXIS
When America came into the war, the Axis was on the offensive everywhere. It took
two years before the United States, England and Russia could seize the initiative, and
another two years to crush their enemies.
A. Wartime Partnerships
One of the greatest advantages the Allies had over the Axis powers was the
complete partnership between the United States and England, cemented by the
personal friendship between FDR and Churchill. The Soviet Union was less
satisfied with the alliance. Despite receiving American supplies, the Soviet
Union often felt it was fighting alone against the Germans in Europe. These
wartime tensions persisted even after victory.
B. Halting the German Blitz
The United States agreed to England's strategy of chewing on the edges of
German strength, and invaded North Africa in November 1942. By May, 1943,
German troops there had been defeated, and the United States and England
invaded Italy. Mussolini fell from power, but the Allies advanced slowly up the
peninsula, sustaining heavy casualties. In the meantime, Russia decisively
defeated Germany at the battle of Stalingrad and began to push into eastern
C. Checking Japan in the Pacific
The conquest of Japan was given second priority, and a two-pronged drive was
planned to defeat her. The army under Douglas MacArthur began a drive
through New Guinea to the Philippines, while the navy under Chester Nimitz
attacked westward from Pearl Harbor, island hopping to the Philippines. After
the American victory at Midway in June 1942, U.S. forces moved into
V. THE HOME FRONT
The war ended the Depression as American factories began to turn out tanks and aircraft
at a tremendous rate. The economy was regulated for a maximum military effort, and
scarce items, such as canned food, were rationed for civilians. Roosevelt tried to keep
all special interest groups satisfied and committed to the war effort. The return of
prosperity especially benefited the lowest-paid wage earners. Their income actually rose
faster than that of the rich, and since much of the population saved their newly
increased incomes, the basis for postwar prosperity was laid.
A. The Arsenal of Democracy
Though American soldiers were certainly important to the Allied victory,
American industry was the single most important contribution of the nation to the
war effort. The rapid increase in production led to many problems including
shortages of critical materials like aluminum, steel, and copper. In 1942 the War
Production Board was formed to answer such complex logistical concerns. One
result of the wartime economic expansion was increased incomes for both workers
B. A Nation on the Move
During the war, the American people began to move to the South and West. The
war encouraged early marriages and the birth-rate began to climb. The result
was a series of problems, such as housing shortages, more divorces, and
Some groups improved their conditions during the war. Women took jobs
formerly reserved for men and saw their incomes rise by 50 percent. African
Americans, despite persistent prejudice, demanded and got equal opportunities
in war-related industries, which encouraged even greater migration from the
rural South. Mexican Americans also migrated to the cities and found factory
One large migration was a forced one. About 120,000 Japanese residents, many
of them United States citizens, were moved from the West Coast and placed in
detention camps. In 1944, the Supreme Court rejected their appeal for release,
but in 1988 the Congress finally acknowledged the injustice that had been done
and voted compensation for the survivors of a horrible experience.
B. Win-the-War Politics
Republicans did well in the 1942 elections and allied with the southern
Democrats to control Congress. To regain his party's moderates, Roosevelt
chose Harry Truman as his running mate in 1944, and won a fourth term in
office. By that time, however, his health was rapidly deteriorating. After
attending the Yalta conference, he died suddenly on April 12, 1945. Harry
Truman, totally unprepared, became president.
After 1943, the Allies began the task of conquering Germany. U.S. and British forces
landed in France in June 1944 and in less than a year made a junction with Russian
soldiers, who had overrun Germany and taken Berlin. On May 7, 1945, Germany
A. War Aims and Wartime Diplomacy
The United States and Russia divided over what they hoped the war would
accomplish. Russia believed that eastern Europe should be her prize for having
suffered the most to conquer Germany. The United States wanted a collective
security arrangement that included the United Nations. In a series of conferences
at Yalta and Potsdam, the differences between the United States and Russia
became more evident.
B. Triumph and Tragedy in the Pacific
In 1944, American forces cleared the Japanese from New Guinea and the
Central Pacific, took the Philippines, and began intense air attacks on Japan.
Japan's defeat was inevitable, but would be costly if an invasion had to be
launched. On August 6, 1945, the United States used the atomic bomb against
Japan. This weapon had taken nearly seven years and billions of dollars to
develop. After a second A-bomb attack, Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945.
VII. CONCLUSION: THE TRANFORMING POWER OF WAR
World War II had a significant impact on American life. It was the first time the United
States reached its full military potential. The United States emerged from the war the
strongest nation in the world and fully committed to a global role. The war also brought
about economic recovery and unprecedented prosperity while establishing political and