HIS122: United States History II
Dr. Noah Cincinnati
Unit 3 Primary Sources: The Contested Meanings of Isolationism, Interventionism,
and the Coming World War
Background: The collapse of Wilsonian idealism and internationalism signaled a
broader shift in American political culture by the early 1920s. National disillusionment
and an American desire to disengage from the world became pervasive. Then, in late
1929, the Great Depression began, signifying fundamental structural flaws in
American and global capitalisms. The Depression, its social turmoil and divisive
politics, also cemented a now-profound American isolationism by the early 1930s.
With the United States largely disengaged, the contours of a second world war
began to take shape. In Europe, few of the problems that had sparked World War I had
been addressed. By the early 1930s, fascist and authoritarian regimes were threatening
to come to power across the European continent. Most alarming was the election of
Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new Chancellor in 1932. Following World War I, Germany’s
new democracy was severely destabilized by economic depression, massive inflation,
and political turmoil. Across Germany, an array of nationalist and fascist
organizations had emerged, with Hitler’s Nazi Party garnering a significant amount of
popular support. Hitler was a World War I veteran who was profoundly affected by the
war and what he saw as the immoral victimization of Germany afterwards. Using
Germany’s democracy to gain power, Hitler and the Nazis then dismantled the
democracy and embarked on the creation of an all-powerful fascist and race-based
homogenous state. Germany’s rapid campaign to remilitarize and expand its borders
raised tensions across Europe. For many, the prospect of war felt inevitable.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Liberals came to power in 1933, they
carried with them a renewed desire to reassert U.S. leadership in global affairs and, at
the bare minimum, prepare for what FDR saw as the inevitability of a second world
war. But FDR’s commitment to American interventionism and a more muscular
foreign policy to assert both U.S. national security interests and liberal principles (self-
government, individual liberty, free trade) was consistently met by both isolationist
Republican opposition, as well as misgivings in the more conservative wings of the
Democratic Party. The following sources demonstrate the struggle between
isolationism and interventionism through the late 1930s. Ultimately, the only thing that
would break an American desire to retreat from world affairs would be war coming to
American shores on Dec. 7, 1941.
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