Toward An Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism, and Europe, 1901-1950

By Ronald E. Powaski | Go to book overview
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Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Aggressors 1933-1939

Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Pragmatic Internationalist

As a young man, Franklin D. Roosevelt was an ardent admirer of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. Like Theodore, Franklin believed that the United States must play a major role in international affairs and that, to do so, America must have a great navy. He had no sympathy, he wrote in 1917, for those who tried to hide behind the Allegheny and Rocky mountains and the "impregnable" Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The oceans were impregnable, he insisted, only if the U.S. Navy controlled them.1

But the younger Roosevelt was a Democrat and a supporter of his cousin's archrival, Woodrow Wilson. Named the assistant secretary of the navy by Wilson, Roosevelt became a vigorous advocate of preparedness before America's entrance into World War I. Displaying little sympathy for pacifism, he complained to his wife, Eleanor, that what the country needed was a stronger army and navy "instead of a lot of soft mush about everlasting peace which so many statesmen are handling to a gullible public."2

Franklin Roosevelt, like Theodore, also believed that the United States must also play a major role in maintaining a European balance of power that was increasingly threatened by the growth of German power. He was disgusted when William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state because he feared that Wilson's warnings to Germany about her submarine attacks on passenger ships would lead to American involvement in the war. Roosevelt welcomed Congress' declaration of war because he believed that Germany was a menace not only to Europe but also to the United States.3

At first, Roosevelt had little use for Wilson's idealistic world view. But, if he was anything, Roosevelt was flexible, and he was an astute judge of public opinion. Although he continued to berate utopianism, he came to appreciate the importance of dreams and ideals in mobilizing the American people. This helps to explain why, after accompanying Wilson to the Versailles peace conference and, more important, after experiencing the president's tumultuous return to the United States, Roosevelt became a convert to the League of Nations. Instead of seeing it

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