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

By Ronald E. Powaski | Go to book overview

4
The Road To War, 1939-1941

The Outbreak of War in Europe

The outbreak of war in Europe moved Franklin Roosevelt to assure the nation that he would do all in his power to keep the United States out of the conflict. "I give you assurance and reassurance," he told the American people in a fireside chat on Sunday evening, September 3, "that your government will make every effort to prevent a black-out of peace in the United States." Two days later, as required by the Neutrality Act, he placed an embargo on arms shipments to the belligerents. Yet, while Roosevelt sincerely desired and expected to keep the country out of war, he rejected strict neutrality. "I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought," as Woodrow Wilson did in 1914. "Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or conscience."1

Personally and privately, the president believed that the preservation of America's values and security obliged him to do all he could to help Britain and France beat Hitler. The defeat of the Allies would give the führer control of the European continent, and with it, Hitler would be able to strike at the Middle East, Africa, and even the Western Hemisphere. As a result, Roosevelt specifically delayed implementation of the arms embargo until September 5 in order to give the Allies additional time to procure weapons and munitions from the United States. He also virtually ignored violations of international law caused by the Allied blockade of Germany. Further help came by way of the Declaration of Panama on September 25. In it the administration declared the Western Hemisphere south of Canada and from 300 to 1,000 miles off the Atlantic coast a neutral zone. While he publicly justified the action as a way of keeping war away from the Western Hemisphere, he privately hoped that it would reinforce the British blockade.2

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