The Committee to Defend America and the Debate between Internationalists and Interventionists, 1939-1941

By Namikas, Lise | The Historian, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Committee to Defend America and the Debate between Internationalists and Interventionists, 1939-1941


Namikas, Lise, The Historian


By the end of 1939 all hope for a lasting peace in either Europe or Asia had vanished. German leader Adolf Hitler had already incorporated into Germany both Austria and the German districts of Czechoslovakia. In March he trampled all over the rump of Czechoslovakia and made staggering demands on Poland, in May formed an alliance with Italy, in August signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, and finally in September invaded Poland. On the other side of the globe, the Japanese military refused to give up any ground in their two-year war with China and maintained a tight grip on Manchuria, causing the United States to cancel the reciprocal trade agreement of 1911.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that war in Europe and Asia could threaten American security despite the nation's traditional policy of political isolation, and he determined to subtly educate the public about recent world events in order to generate support for aid to the allies. In December 1939 Roosevelt confided to William Allen White, the influential Republican editor of the Emporia, Kansas Gazette, that he wanted to "warn the American people that they, too, should think of possible ultimate results in Europe and the Far East." Roosevelt believed that Americans should understand the consequences of the conflict, though he did not want to scare them "into thinking that they are going to be dragged into this war."(1) His overture to White craftily bridged political party lines and helped the president avoid appearing to directly influence public opinion.

The following May, White, along with well-known peace activists Clark Eichelberger and Frank Boudreau, senior J. E Morgan partner Thomas Lamont, and lawyer Frederic Coudert, discussed and designed what they would formally name the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDA). The new organization would expand upon their 1939 cooperative endeavor, the Non-Partisan Committee for Peace through Revision of the Neutrality Law. The Non-Partisan Committee had shown the usefulness of national pressure groups by helping to secure the revision of the 1935, 1936, and 1937 neutrality laws that forbade the sale of arms and loans and limited trade with belligerents. The 1939 revision eased these restrictions by requiring purchaser to take possession of the goods immediately and assume responsibility for shipping them, hence keeping U.S. ships out of belligerent waters.(2)

White sent a "Manifesto" to 650 prominent citizens asking them to join "his" national committee--the possessive pronoun was no exaggeration since the CDA would be popularly known as the White Committee--with the expectation that they would encourage the formation of local chapters. The new committee's task would be to educate the public on the atrocities of fascism and "mobilize" public opinion behind a foreign policy to aid the Allies, specifically Britain. Eventually about 600 chapters formed, ranging in active membership from one or two, but usually with five to 20, with several over 100, and a total estimated membership of 6,000-20,000.(3)

The question of whether or not Roosevelt "dragged" the United States into war has dominated the historiography of American foreign relations for the period 1939-41. When did FDR decide that U.S. participation in the war was necessary or inevitable? How did he persuade the American people of the need to defend the United States from Germany and Japan? David Reynolds argues that by June 1940 Roosevelt questioned Britain's ability to survive alone, by August he accepted the need to aid Britain with the deal to trade old destroyers for leases on bases in the Western Hemisphere, and in the spring of 1941 he firmly entangled the fates of the two great powers with the plan to lend or lease to Britain goods it needed for the war. Warren Kimball and Waldo Heinrichs agree that only by mid-1941 had Roosevelt determined American participation in the war in all likelihood would be necessary but find that public opinion and a lack of military preparedness hampered Roosevelt. …

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