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The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.

Article

Not many bilateral relationships in modern world history have as many twists and turns as the one shared by the United States and Germany. Their relationship has waxed and waned like few others: from mild indifference to faint and uncomplicated appreciation in the 18th and 19th centuries, to growing awareness, rivalry, and then outright hostility in the early 20th century, to codependent enabling and then horrific existential conflict in the mid-20th century, and finally to occupation, reconstruction, and mutually supportive and global-stabilizing friendship after 1945. With early trajectories that informed and mirrored each other, the paths of the United States and Germany eventually collided in the First World War, a conflict born of issues that were only half-resolved in its immediate aftermath. The outbreak of the Second World War laid bare the incompleteness of the Versailles settlement, leading to the complete and utter destruction of German civil society and ushering in an era of American supremacy in the Western world. The United States’ ambitious effort to reconstruct German society along American lines defined the relationship during the postwar period, but a turn toward nationalism in both countries in the early 21st century resurrected old questions and fears.

Article

Justus D. Doenecke

For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements. Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy. If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.

Article

Wendy L. Wall

The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state. The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy. Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”

Article

Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung

From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.

Article

With the outbreak of war in Europe, a growing fear of and ultimately a concerted effort to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany defined American involvement. Competing Allied national and strategic interests resulted in serious debates, but the common desire to defeat the enemy proved stronger than any disagreements. President Franklin Roosevelt, understanding the isolationist sentiments of the American public and the dangers of Nazism and Imperial Japan perhaps better than most, carefully led the nation through the difficult period of 1939–1941, overseeing a gradual increase in American military preparedness and support for those standing up to Nazi Germany, as the German military forces achieved victory after victory. Following American entry into the war, strategic discussions in 1942–1943 often involved ambitious American military plans countered by British voices of moderation. The forces and supplies available made a direct invasion of northern France unfeasible. The American desire to launch an immediate invasion across the English Channel gave way to the Allied invasion of North Africa and subsequent assault on Sicily and the Italian peninsula. The Tehran Conference in November 1943 marked a transition, as the buildup of American forces in Europe and the overwhelming contribution of war materials enabled the United States to determine American-British strategy from late 1943 to the end of the war. The final year and a half of the war in Europe saw a major shift in strategic leadership, as the United States along with the Soviet Union assumed greater control over the final steps toward victory over Nazi Germany. By the end of World War II (May 1945 in Europe and September 1945 in Asia), the United States had not only assumed the leadership of the Western Allies, it had achieved superpower status with the greatest air force and navy in the world. It was also the sole possessor of the atomic bomb. Even with the tensions with the Soviet Union and beginnings of a Cold War, most Americans felt the United States was the leader as the world entered the post-war era.