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Roosevelt and Approaching War

Roosevelt and Peace, 1933-35 | The US Economy and Political Opinion, 1936-37 | Fear of War and Jewish immigration, 1937-38 | Increasing Defense Concerns, 1938-39 | Debating Intervention, September 1939 to October 1940

Roosevelt and Peace, 1933-35

In a message to Congress on May 16, 1933, a little more than two months after taking office, President Roosevelt spoke of savings through disarmament. Arms competitiveness, he said "...more than any other factor today is responsible for governmental deficits and threatened bankruptcy." He said that "the way to disarm is to disarm" and he called on nations to scrap all offensive weapons and to pledge not to send "any armed force of whatsoever nature across its own borders. On May 17, Hitler responded, calling Roosevelt's proposal "a ray of comfort for all who wish to cooperate in the maintenance of peace."

By the year 1935, Britain was announcing an increase in armaments and Hitler said Germany was rearming in response to the failure of other European powers to disarm. Then in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia.

In the United States in 1935 people were re-examining their country's entry into World War I. A best-selling book by Walter Millis, Road to War, was giving Americans a new vision about World War I. Some were saying that Americans had been "saps" or "suckers," that the atrocity stories during the war had been British propaganda, that Germany had not been as guilty as most Americans had thought in 1917, and that Germany had been treated unfairly at the Paris Peace Conference. Some were claiming that the United States had gone to war not because of German submarines or the rights of neutrals but because of a few greedy capitalists. And some people were calling for assurances that their country would not take itself into another war in Europe.

In the US Senate was the cantankerous Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, viewed as a fighter for the farmer, a Republican who chaired a committee investigating the munitions industry, described by some as the "merchants of death." Nye's committee dramatized the claim that the arms industry had made huge profits, had bribed some politicians and had evaded paying taxes. Nye was among others in the Senate who were opposed to the United States going to war again in Europe. They pushed for legislation that would prohibit the export of arms to any power at war and that would authorize the president to prohibit people from traveling on the ships of nations at war. Their bill, the Neutrality Act of 1935, passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Roosevelt on August 31.

It was more of the isolationism that had kept the United States out of the League of Nations. The idea of preventing war by being involved with allies in a readiness to punish aggression was not popular in the US. More popular was the idea that it was not America's business to be involved in deterring aggression in faraway Europe or Asia.

Following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, Roosevelt declared the United States neutral, and he invoked the Neutrality Act to place a blanket ban on all weapons shipments to Italy. But it accomplished little. Following the League of Nations failure in November regarding trade sanctions against Italy, merchants in the United States would continue sending to Italy the materials that Italians needed to conduct their aggression.

Roosevelt looked upon Mussolini with contempt. He saw Mussolini as part buffoon. Responding to a photo of Mussolini goose-stepping, he commented: "It's wonderful what middle-aged men can do when driven to extremes." note46

Many failed to see Hitler or Mussolini as much of a threat. Many saw Hitler as an anti-Communist and Mussolini as having saved Italy from communism. And there were those who found little wrong in Mussolini sending his troops and airforce into Ethiopia. Representing this latter view was one of Roosevelt's critics, Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Luce was a fervent anti-Communist. He had devoted his July 1934 issue of Fortune magazine to praising Mussolini. He might have tempered his admiration for Mussolini with some criticism, but in 1935 his magazine, Time, described Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia as a "civilizing mission" and it ridiculed the Ethiopians. Luce was no critic of the white man's mission to civilize the colored peoples of the world.note47


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