History at Leicester

Internationalism Ideology and the debate over US entry into World War II 1937-41

AHRC (£32,893)

October 2012 - January 2013

Dr Andrew Johnstone

Why did the United States enter World War II in 1941? The obvious answer to that question is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 - "a date which will live in infamy," according to President Franklin Roosevelt. In the years immediately preceding the attack, the majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with the ongoing wars in Asia and Europe. However, this research focuses on organised groups of influential American citizens who argued for restrictions on trade with Japan, greater military support to Britain, and even an American declaration of war long before the Hawaiian attack. These internationalist Americans - through groups such as the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, Fight for Freedom, and the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression - worked to influence both the American Government and the broader American public about the need for greater American involvement in world affairs. They actively promoted a more global role for the United States long before war came to America.

The first key aim of the research is to create a more accurate definition of American internationalism. While the phrase is commonly used to describe any American involvement in the world (as opposed to isolationism), it has little real meaning unless we try to understand the particular nature of American internationalism. While the main debate in this period was whether the United States should go to war or not, consideration among internationalists of America's post-war role began as early as 1939. From this point onwards, tension can be seen between American interests and its ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights. Tension can also be viewed regarding ideas about international organisation: should the United States do more to work through multilateral institutions such as a revived League of Nations, or should it follow American traditions of unilateralism and avoid entangling alliances? As a result, tensions that later loomed large in America's Cold War foreign policy were clearly foreshadowed even before World War II.

The second key aim is to reassess the roles of the internationalist citizens' organisations and the individuals who led them. Who created and led these internationalist citizens' organisations, and for what purpose? This research reveals an internationalist movement led by an eastern establishment elite, but this was a broad elite that did not speak with a united voice. These elites sought to influence the American government through close personal connections; many had previously worked in government, and many would go on to do so during the war years. They also sought to influence the government by mobilising the American public behind their aims. Internationalists deliberately worked with different sectors of society - women's groups, labour and business organisations, youth groups, and African-Americans - so that they could claim to represent the broadest possible range of the American public. In summary, the organisations acted as an intermediary between the American people and the government in Washington.

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