Printable Version
Isolationism Previous Next
Digital History ID 3483


In 1936, eight Princeton undergraduates formed the Veterans of Future Wars (VFW). The organization demanded a bonus of $1,000 for every man between the ages of 18 and 36--payable immediately so that they could enjoy it before being forced to fight the "next war." A women's auxiliary, the Future Gold Star Mothers, demanded government pensions for women so that they could afford to visit their son's graves in Europe.

World War I left the public suspicious of foreign crusades. Americans wanted to retreat from foreign affairs. "The people have had all the war, all the taxation, and all the military service they want," declared President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. During the 1920s, the United States tried to promote world peace through diplomatic means.

In 1921, representatives from nine Asian and European nations met in Washington to discuss ways to ease tensions in the Pacific. The conference resulted in a 10-year moratorium on the construction of battleships and an agreement that for every five naval vessels owned by the United States or Britain, Japan could have three ships, and France and Italy could own one and three-fourths ships.

In 1928, the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand, and Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg attempted to outlaw war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was eventually signed by 62 nations, renounced war as an instrument for resolving international disputes. The Kellogg-Briand Pact lacked an enforcement mechanism. Cynics said the treaty had all the legal force of an "international kiss."

Isolationism During the 1930s

During the Great Depression isolationist sentiment surged. In 1935, some 150,000 college students participated in a nationwide Student Strike for Peace, and half a million signed pledges saying that they would refuse to serve in the event of war. A public opinion poll indicated that 39 percent of college students would refuse to participate in any war, even if the country was invaded.

Anti-war sentiment was not confined to undergraduates. Disillusionment over World War I fed opposition to foreign entanglements. "We didn't win a thing we set out for in the last war," said Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota. "We merely succeeded, with tremendous loss of life, to make secure the loans of private bankers to the Allies." The overwhelming majority of Americans agreed; an opinion poll in 1935 found that 70 percent of Americans believed that intervention in World War I had been a mistake.

Isolationist ideas spread through American popular culture during the mid-1930s. The Book of the Month Club featured a volume titled Merchants of Death, which contended that the United States had been drawn into the European war by international arms manufacturers who had deliberately fomented conflict in order to market their products. From 1934 to 1936, a congressional committee, chaired by Senator Nye, investigated charges that false Allied propaganda and unscrupulous Wall Street bankers had dragged Americans into the European war. In April 1935--the 18th anniversary of American entry into World War I--50,000 veterans held a peace march in Washington, D.C.

Between 1935 and 1937, Congress passed three separate neutrality laws that clamped an embargo on arms sales to belligerents, forbade American ships from entering war zones and prohibited them from being armed, and barred Americans from traveling on belligerent ships. Clearly, Congress was determined not to repeat what it regarded as the mistakes that had plunged the United States into World War I.

By 1938, however, pacifist sentiment was fading. A rapidly modernizing Japan was seeking to acquire raw materials and territory on the Asian mainland; a revived Germany was rebuilding its military power and acquiring land bloodlessly on its eastern borders; and Italy was trying to restore Roman glory through military might.

Previous Next


Copyright 2021 Digital History