Eighty years ago, FDR battles the strength of isolationism

President Roosevelt continued his manoeuvres to broaden his scope to conduct a more flexible foreign policy in the face of great isolationist resistance to anything that would have allowed him to involve the US in European affairs. Wholesale defections by Democrats almost eliminated the President’s majority and left votes in the House of Representatives on lifting the neutrality act with its a legal embargo on weapons sales to areas of conflict on a knife edge. Roosevelt’s Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover, spoke out strongly in favour of the isolationist stance, arguing that the US should not go to war against a European country unless that country had attacked the US directly in the West.

Tension grew in Danzig. Ever more arms-toting tourists from Germany were in evidence. They walked the streets openly, wearing armbands marked Heimwehr (home defence). Light tanks were imported through the Polish customs and kept securely, apparently to be used by the police force. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said that he appreciated the attitude of the Polish government, this was the trigger for an avalanche of abuse in the German press. He was accused of “scare-mongering.” A dinner in Paris for France’s Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and British war minister Leslie Hore-Belisha was denounced as a step in the supposed policy of “encirclement” against Germany.

In the meanwhile, British attempts to build some kind of alliance or partnership with the Soviet Union to face down Hitler, were not progressing, to Chamberlain’s private relief. He detested the idea of ties to the Soviet Union and treated the Communist leader far more visceral suspicion than he ever directed at the Fascist dictators. The proximate cause of the difficulty was the list of states which Britain, France and the Soviet Union would guarantee against aggression. The Soviet Union had added the Baltic States to the list, exciting the justifiable suspicion that they might not actually desire such protection, especially if it involved the arrival of Soviet troops. The British response was to argue that this would invite consideration of its special interests in the Netherlands (in line with long-standing British policy) and in Switzerland (in line with nothing at all.) The definition of “direct or indirect aggression” was also proving a fruitful source of disharmony.