In July 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt met with senators from both political parties at the White House in a final effort to persuade them to amend the Neutrality Act preventing America from aiding other countries. After drinks were poured, Roosevelt and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, argued that the world was approaching a catastrophic war. The 74-year-old Republican senator William Borah, who had led the fight against Woodrow Wilson and American entry into the League of Nations in 1919, shook his head in disgust. “There is not going to be any war in Europe this year,” he said. “All this hysteria is manufactured and artificial.” Two months later Hitler invaded Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany.
Now that it has become the good war fought by the greatest generation, the ferocity of the disputes over entering World War II has largely been forgotten. But the story of America’s anti-interventionist lobby is not only historically fascinating, it also echoes in debates today over whether America should engage abroad or hold back. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — whose memoir, Philip Roth said, inspired his novel “The Plot Against America,” about an alternative reality where the isolationists, led by Charles Lindbergh, defeat Roosevelt for the presidency — recalled the dispute as the “most savage political debate in my lifetime,” eclipsing those over McCarthyism and Vietnam in its intensity.
The debate was largely rooted in disappointment over the outcome of World War I, when Wilson’s promised crusade for democracy ended with the punitive Treaty of Versailles. Leading liberal historians like Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles Beard, both of whom had noisily championed Wilson’s decision to intervene, now denounced it. The Harvard Crimson declared in an editorial, “We refuse to fight another balance-of-power war.” And after Joseph Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, American Communists obediently heeded Moscow and denounced Roosevelt as a warmonger.
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