The United States and World War II
The Interwar Years: 1920-1939
Copyright © Henry J. Sage, 2010

Background: American Foreign Policy 1920–1939

America’s participation in the First World War came relatively late. Nevertheless, by the time the war was over and President Wilson had participated in the writing of the Treaty of Versailles, America was more connected with the rest of the world than it had ever been before. The American acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands as an outcome of the Spanish-American War and President Roosevelt’s sponsoring of the Treaty of Portsmouth also contributed to America’s new international standing. But Americans did not readily embrace their new position, feeling, as one U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain put it, that we were well out of the “European mess.”

The issues of ratification of the Versailles Treaty and America’s participation in the League of Nations were important in the election of 192. The United States was still technically in a state of war with Germany into the Harding administration, but a joint resolution of Congress declaring an end to hostilities was followed by treaties negotiated by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes with Germany, Austria and Hungary in 1921. The separate question of America’s participation in the League of Nations remained a significant issue throughout the 1920s, and opinions were sharply polarized. President Harding, believing that his electoral majority of 7 million votes was a vote against American participation in the League, was not in a mood to support the organization.

The question of whether American participation in the League of Nations would have had a significant impact on subsequent world events has been debated widely. Although it is impossible to say what impact such participation might have had, it is clear that the absence of the most powerful nation in the world detracted from the League’s potential to reduce conflict. Whether World War II might have been averted is, of course, moot; nevertheless, the ease with which Hitler aroused the German people in order to carry out his aggressive policies must be laid in part at the doorstep of American non-involvement. America’s powerful economy and potentially powerful military establishment might have served as an effective deterrent to aggression; instead, the United States chose disengagement while reducing her arms precipitously during the interwar years.
In any case, in the aftermath of the Great War, as American troops came home from Europe, the United States gradually became permeated by a sense of disillusionment as people observed the turmoil continuing in Europe in the years following that terrible conflict. Great Britain struggled to regain a peacetime footing as her economy recovered from the terrible costs of the Great War. Northwestern France was in ruins, and political turmoil dominated the French nation for twenty years. Germany established the Weimar Republic, an experiment in democracy that might have succeeded in less turbulent times, but the terrible inflation and a proliferation of small political parties kept the fledgling republic unstable. (Inflation in Germany during the 1920s far outstripped anything ever seen in America. Workers had to be paid twice daily, for their wages would be practically worthless after a few days. In 1922-23 prices rose 18,000%.) The door was open for radicals who were quick to criticize the humiliation of Versailles. Very soon after the negotiations had closed in Paris, it became apparent that the peace achieved was really only an armistice; war was more than likely to erupt once more. (See “The Rise of Nazi Germany.” )

Attempts at Disarmament. In 1921 Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes called for a naval conference in Washington to address the armaments race that many had seen as an underlying cause of the First World War, the first of many steps taken internationally to try to prevent the outbreak of further conflict. The resulting Washington Naval Conference convened in November 1921. In the opening address Secretary Hughes gave a candid speech in which he declared that “the way to disarm is to disarm,” and that the time to begin was immediately. Thus he proposed a ten-year holiday in the construction of capital ships—battleships and heavy cruisers—and recommended the scrapping of additional ships. One British reporter claimed that Secretary Hughes had in fifteen minutes “sunk more ships than all the admirals of the world have sunk over the centuries.”

Although Hughes’s proposals were welcomed by many peace advocates, traditional naval powers such as Great Britain were less than enthusiastic. Nevertheless, the pressure for disarmament was such that an agreement was finally reached to limit the ratio of capital ship tonnage among the five major powers: the United States (5), Great Britain (5), Japan (3), France (1.67), and Italy (1.67.) The Five-Power Naval Treaty was signed in February 1922 and was to remain in effect until 1936. The treaty placed a limitation on the numbers and sizes of major warships, although it did not affect smaller vessels such as destroyers, submarines, and cruisers. It called for a construction “holiday” of ten years. The aircraft carrier, which would become the dominant naval vessel of World War II, was still being developed and was not mentioned in the agreement..

The conference also agreed on a four-power treaty in which Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and France agreed to respect each other’s interests in the Pacific. Finally, a Nine-Power Treaty endorsed the Open Door policy in China. Those who signed it agreed to respect the “sovereignty, independence, and territorial and administrative integrity of China” and to uphold the principles of the Open Door.
Locarno. In 1925 a meeting was held in Locarno, Switzerland, and was attended by representatives of Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany. Under the leadership of Gustav Stresemann, the German foreign minister, the meeting settled a number of security issues involving France, Belgium, and Germany. Germany also signed agreements with its eastern neighbors. Just as important was the so-called “Spirit of Locarno” that emerged, an indication that the major powers intended to try to settle future differences peaceably. Following the signing of the Locarno Pact, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations. Along with Friedrich Ebert, president of the German (Weimar) Republic, Stresemann showed great statesmanship. Unfortunately for Germany and the rest of the World, Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise in the 1920s.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Washington Conference and the Locarno meeting were landmark events, and attempts to reduce armaments and corral the forces that tended to make war continued. In 1927 with rumblings of discontent in Germany, France approached the United States with a proposal that the two nations enter into a defensive alliance. It was an obvious attempt to provide protection in advance in case of German retaliation. Secretary of State Kellogg, not wanting the U.S. to become snarled in an alliance, suggested a wider pact that would “outlaw” war. The resulting Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed in 1928, though many realized that its goals were illusory; its intent was indeed to declare war illegal. One U.S. senator claimed it was “not worth a postage stamp”; another called it “worthless but harmless.” Nevertheless, the Pact was signed initially by fifteen nations, including France, the United States and Germany. It was eventually signed by 62 nations. (Kellogg-Briand Pact)

Further disarmament conferences were held at Geneva and London, and the League of Nations offered the possibility of defusing international tensions that might lead to war. But ultimately none of the agreements ever prevented anything significant. It was true that they were invoked from time to time to exert moral pressure on aggressive actions; in the end, however, it became apparent that moral force alone was of little use against dictators who had no qualms about violating or renouncing outright international agreements.

The Good Neighbor Policy. The United States had a history of intervention in Latin America going back to the time of Andrew Jackson in Florida, when it still belonged to Spain. Both Presidents Harding and Coolidge had to deal with growing “Yankee-phobia” south of the border. President Hoover rejected Wilson’s interventionist policies and went on a goodwill tour after the 1928 election. While giving a speech during the Sixth Pan-American Conference in Havana, he said, “We have a desire to maintain not only the cordial relations of governments with each other, but also the relations of good neighbors.” The Clark memorandum of 1930, formulated by Undersecretary of State J. Reuben Clark, rescinded the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The gradual removal of all American occupying forces  in Latin America soon began and was completed by 1934. The United States also renounced its right to intervene in Cuban affairs by terminating the Platt Amendment. Many problem areas still existed, and the United States had difficult issues to resolve with various individual nations, but the Good Neighbor policy improved relations enormously, so that by World War II the Western Hemisphere was reasonably unified, even though the United States was still seen as the “colossus of the North.”

In 1932 President Franklin Roosevelt affirmed the good neighbor policy in his inaugural address. He said he would “dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.” In 1936 Roosevelt attended the Buenos Aires Inter-American Conference. FDR’s address to the delegates was well received—he called himself a “traveling salesman for peace” and preached “mutual safety.” The Lima Declaration adopted at the International Conference of American  States in 1938 reinforced inter-American solidarity.

America in the 1930s: The Triumph of Isolationism: A “gloomy, pessimistic, negative pacifism”

Henry L. Stimson was one of the most remarkable public servants in American history. He served in the Justice Department under Theodore Roosevelt and was William Howard Taft’s secretary of war. He served in World War I and later became governor general of the Philippines. Following that position he served as Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover. He remained active in public affairs during the 1930s, and at age 73 he was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to be the Secretary of War, serving in that capacity until the war concluded in 1945. A lifelong Republican, he nevertheless worked harmoniously with men of both parties whom he respected and trusted.

stimsonIn his autobiography, On Active Service in Peace and War, written in 1947 with McGeorge Bundy, Stimson carefully outlined the events leading up to World War II, in which he was a vigorous participant and observer.

Unlike many who believed that the Kellogg–Briand pact was a useless exercise in paper diplomacy, Stimson argued that it gave moral force to the peace-loving nations and might have been used to resist aggression. Like virtually all observers, he found fault with the Treaty of Versailles and held France responsible for contributing to international tensions by refusing to ameliorate some of the treaty’s harsher provisions. Although he was a political opponent of Woodrow Wilson, Stimson argued that the failure of the United States to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, join the League of Nations or participate in the World Court contributed to the chaos of the interwar years. Stimson claimed that as the most powerful nation in the world, the United States could have been a force for good, but instead turned her back on the world and retreated into sterile isolationism.

The Rise of Imperial Japan. Henry Stimson claimed that the events leading up to World War II began with the Japanese incursion into Manchuria in 1931. Militarists in the Japanese Army had grown resentful of what they perceived as the westernization of Japan and vowed to return Japan to its traditional feudal samurai warrior culture. Seeking inroads into China, with whom Japan had had troubled relations for some time, army officers manufactured an incident in Manchuria. An explosion on a Japanese-owned railway was used as justification for the invasion of Manchuria, which Japan occupied. They renamed the territory the nation of Manchukuo under Japanese protection. Japan later bombed the city of Shanghai in retaliation for Chinese protests against the Manchuria invasion.

Secretary of State Stimson argued for a policy of non-recognition of any territorial acquisitions achieved by force. That policy, which became known as the Stimson Doctrine, was recognized by the League of Nations. In response, Japan withdrew from the League. In addition to her aggressive behavior toward China, Japan rejected the Nine Power Treaty, a reaffirmation of John Hay’s Open Door policy with regard to China, which was achieved during the Washington Conference of 1922. Thus, while the great democracies blindly pursued their own self interests, the fascists and militarists in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan were allowed to pursue their courses more or less unmolested. Thus they gained encouragement for their aggressive policies which ultimately led to the terrible holocaust of World War II.

Although Simpson as a conservative Republican found much he did not like in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, he nevertheless established cordial relations with the incoming Secretary of State Cordell Hull and with President-elect Roosevelt during the transition months of 1932-33. He maintained that good relationship with Secretary Hull through 1940, when the president wisely chose him as Secretary of War, along with another Republican, Frank Knox, as Secretary of the Navy. Although both men were criticized by some members of their party for participating in a Democratic administration, both of them placed duty to country above politics and served their commander-in-chief with remarkable loyalty and distinction, thus contributing heavily to the successful prosecution of the war.

During the crisis years of 1931–1939, Americans found themselves in the depths of the Great Depression and did not want to think of further war, so the country retreated into a deeper position of isolationism. Americans saw themselves as “innocent bystanders” in world affairs and began to feel as trouble arose in Europe that America’s participation in the First World War may have been a waste. In 1933 the United States finally recognized the Soviet government and established formal relations with the U.S.S.R—primarily for business reasons. By 1936, as Hitler was beginning to menace Europe, Americans wanted to stay out of it, but how? Former Secretary of State Henry Stimson claimed: “The only sure way to stay out of war is to prevent it.” But how was the United States, which had refused even to join the League of Nations and had reduced its armaments to a dangerously low level, supposed to accomplish that?

The Nye Committee Hearings. In 1934 Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota began a series of hearings that tried to show that munitions makers had made “huge” profits during World War I and were therefore somehow responsible for America’s involvement in the conflict. They were called the “Merchants of Death.” Arms manufacturers called to testify readily admitted that they had made large profits during war, wondering in the process why anyone should find that surprising. Although the results of the Nye Committee investigation were inconclusive, the isolationists nevertheless won the day; several Neutrality Acts were the result. The Committee also concluded that American freedom of the seas doctrine had become unreasonable because of the submarine. Neutrals, they concluded, should keep out of war zones and not traffic with nations at war.

The Neutrality Acts. As the hearings went forward, the isolationists firmed up their positions. Reading the political winds, President Roosevelt asked the Nye Committee to prepare legislation, which Congress subsequently passed.

Further neutrality acts were passed in 1936 and 1937, and the net result of those laws was to handcuff the United States, even if it had a legitimate desire to assist nations that were victims of international aggression. President Roosevelt made no attempt to block this legislation, but refused to invoke the laws when Japan invaded China, thereby allowing China to buy arms from the United States.

The Lure of Pacifism and Isolationism

Looking back at World War I as a meaningless effort, many Americans sought security in pacifism as well as in legal neutrality. They wanted a way to ensure that the United States would not be drawn into another European conflict. Most Americans suspected that they had been duped by the politicians, munitions makers, and bankers into going to war in 1917, and resolved never again to fight a meaningless war. Romantic notions of pacifism were not exclusive to the United States; in Great Britain college students pledged that they would never again fight in any kind of war. (Many of those same young men would die during World War II.)

A gradual breakdown of attempts at international cooperation developed as militaristic nations asserted their will with no regard for consequences or for maintaining the peace—conquest and revenge were their motives. The concept of collective security was, in effect, the same idea as the old “Concert of Europe.” Yet the toothless League of Nations brought nothing but head-in-the-sand optimism, not action. Aggressor nations ignored the League.

The isolationist impulse of the 1930s had various roots. One was that the Depression had been caused by World War I. The Bankers and “merchants of death” had dragged America into the conflict, which had left Europe in economic chaos, which in turn spread to the rest of the world. Thus America’s entry into the war had been a tragic mistake, as demonstrated by the political turmoil in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Although the United States had suffered relatively few casualties during the Great War, the magnitude of the carnage was widely known. The answer for many was pacifism, whose appeal was understandable. Unfortunately, American pacifism on the 1930s was hardly a deterrent to military aggression elsewhere in the world.

The Rise of Nazi Germany:  The SS-State

Adolf Hitler

GERMANY. The Weimar Republic which emerged in Germany following the Great War was a courageous attempt to establish democracy in Germany, but it was doomed because of structural weaknesses and economic disorders. The economic disorders stemmed from the sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was required to pay reparations in billions of dollars in gold, and in various commodities, including annual deliveries of seven million tons of coal. When Germany defaulted on its obligations in 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Valley, taking over transportation routes, jailing officials and forcing coal production with fixed bayonets. In response Germans practiced “passive resistance” in the form of sit-down strikes, which halted German production and created scarcity of necessary goods within Germany. The economic slowdown contributed to the hyperinflation later that year. In 1924 Germany’s international obligations totaled $132 billion gold marks, and the continuing chaotic inflation wrecked the German economy.

America’s interest in the German situation resulted from the fact that the Allies owed large sums of money to the United States from loans made during the war. It was clear that if Germany could not indemnify the Allies, they in turn would not be in a position to repay the United States. President Coolidge understood that dilemma, and his policies led to the Dawes Plan—the United States guaranteed that it would loan Germany money and help her reorganize her finances. In 1929 further problems arose, and President Hoover approved the Young Plan, which reduced German debts and set up an international bank for collection. But by the 1930s with the world depression affecting everyone, all debts were eventually defaulted or canceled.

The Weimar Constitution of 1919 allowed for the proliferation of small political parties, and during the chaotic 1920s in Germany, many small political emerged. One of them was created by Adolf Hitler. An Austrian by birth, Hitler had served with some distinction as an enlisted man during the Great War. Along with political cronies, many of the them also former soldiers, he formed the N.S.D.A.P. (Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—National Socialist German Workers Party—or “Nazi” Party). Concentrated in Bavaria and centered in Munich, the overzealous Nazis tested their power by attempting to take over the government of the state of Bavaria in the so-called “Beer Hall Putsch.” Hitler was arrested and convicted, and he served time in Landsberg prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), his political manifesto. Hitler was released after less than a year, and the Nazi Party gradually gained strength in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The growth of the Nazi party was facilitated by the creation of a political cadre known as the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers, or S.A., called the brownshirts from their uniforms.) The S.A., a paramilitary organization, was employed by the Nazis to whip up enthusiasm for Hitler and the N.S.D.A.P., and to intimidate and disrupt rival political groups. They conducted torchlight parades and rallies and grew in size, and eventually challenging the primacy of the German Army in military affairs. The S.A. was dominated by thuggish leaders who were not above using violence, and they occasionally clashed with police; nevertheless, they operated on the fringes of the law and avoided major confrontations with the authorities. Furthermore, portraying themselves as a working man’s party, the Nazis appealed to middle and working class Germans. By the early 1930s, the Sturmabteilung was a formidable political army.

Hitler successfully exploited the general discontent in Germany, which had arisen because of the above mentioned economic problems and festering resentment over the Versailles Treaty. In Mein Kampf he argued that in the hands of the right person, the treaty could be used as a propaganda weapon to fire up the German people in resentment against their former enemies. The resentment that had been exacerbated by the heavy-handed French occupation of 1923 played into Hitler’s hands. He exploited German discontent with great skill through the use of parades, speeches and other means of dispensing political propaganda. Sample of a Hitler Speech

Hitler Assumes Power, 1933. When the Nazis grew too strong to be ignored, having become the second largest party in Germany, Hitler was invited by German President Hindenburg to become Chancellor in a coalition government. He was sworn in on January 30, 1933. A few weeks later the Reichstag (Parliament) building was set on fire by an unknown arsonist. A Dutch Communist who had recently arrived in Germany was arrested near the scene of the fire, and the Nazi leadership immediately declared that the fire was a prelude to a communist coup d’état. Not a shred of evidence showed that the arson was planned by the Communist Party. Nevertheless, Hitler prevailed on President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution in nazi imagesorder to get the legislative process suspended. (Article 48 allowed the President to take extreme measures in the case of a national emergency.) Meanwhile, Communists throughout Germany, including all the Communist members of the Reichstag, were arrested. With the Communists removed from the Reichstag and other moderate parties intimidated by the S. A., Hitler was able to have the Enabling Act of Article 48 invoked, which suspended civil liberties and gave him the right to rule by decree. Thus ended democracy under the Weimar Constitution.

Hitler quickly set about consolidating his power. When President Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the offices of president and chancellor, abandoned both and began calling himself “The Leader” (Der Führer.) Next he forced all German Army officers to swear an oath of personal allegiance to him. The Nazi takeover was swift and thorough: Freedom of the press ended—Nazi organs carried news and distributed propaganda. In the last free election in Germany in March 1933, the Nazis got 44 percent of the vote, a strong showing but not a majority.

Hitler then used the Schutzstaffel,the SS, a special body guard he created within the S.A., to eliminate his political enemies. The SS eventually grew to more than one million men and reached into every facet of German public life, through direct controls, infiltration, informants, and intimidation. High school and university professors were purged unless they followed the party line. History was rewritten, extolling the virtues of ancient Germans such as “Karl der Grosse” (Charles the Great, otherwise known as Charlemagne.) The Secret State Police (Gestapo) were a subunit of the SS that dominated all German police forces down to the local level. Germans became enamored with Hitler, but many were frightened of what Germany had become, a totalitarian state. Dissent was no longer tolerated; the SS became the guardian of Aryan purity, a state within a state.

Note: Avoid seeing the SS as a super-efficient, well-oiled machine. There was much incompetence, petty bickering, waste, foolishness and backbiting. Reinhard Heydrich, Gestapo chief, kept a dossier on the whole ménage. He was finally assassinated in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, by Czech commandos in 1942, and everyone in the town was executed in retaliation.

1934. “The Night of the Long Knives.” To purge the Nazi party of men whom Hitler saw as threatening to his leadership, he ordered the SS to go out and ruthlessly assassinate hundreds of party leaders during a single night, including S.A. leader Ernst Röhm, leaving a residue of those whose loyalty he could trust. Lists of people to be executed were drawn up by Hitler, assisted by SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo. This organized murder campaign operated with disregard for the law, for the simple reason that Himmler’s SS and its Gestapo had spread its tentacles into the entire German legal and law enforcement system. The Nazi party was rapidly becoming the law, designed with one purpose: to do Hitler’s will.

Hitler and the Army. Hitler’s purge of the S.A. was also designed to appease the generals, who saw the brownshirts as the threat to the primacy of the regular German army. After consolidating his power, Hitler began moving gradually to restore Germany’s military might. Using the SS to carry out various forms of coercion by blackmail or whatever means sufficed, Hitler tightened his control of the army by removing top generals who resisted his policies and replacing them with officers sympathetic to Nazi goals. Hitler used the Hitler Jugend—“Hitler Youth,” a kind of Nazi boy scout organization that was mandatory for teenaged youth—as a means of preparing German boys to enter military service. The German education system in schools and universities was saturated with Nazi philosophy, so that junior enlisted men and officers were also indoctrinated in Hitler’s goals.

Even though many top German officers disapproved of Hitler and his methods, the rapid expansion of the army and the need to develop contingency plans kept high-ranking staff officers busy so that they would not have time to be overly concerned about politics. As a result, the German officer corps that, since the time of Frederick the Great had adhered to the mission of protecting the German state from all enemies, internal or external, failed in its duty; it allowed Hitler to bend its will to Nazi ends. No other German institution had the power to stop Hitler. In a clever but dangerous move, Hitler ordered German officers to take a new oath. Instead of allegiance to the state, officers were now required to swear an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler himself. General Heinz Guderian, an architect of the new form of war that would become known as Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”), wrote in his diary that the taking of the new oath was a “dark day for the German Army.” It was also a dark day for Germany, and the rest of the world.

Rearmament. With the generals on board, Hitler renounced the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and began the rearmament process. The German army, which had been limited to a strength of 100,000, was rapidly expanded, building on the existing cadre to create a much larger military force compatible with Hitler’s designs. In 1935 Hitler resumed the draft, raising the army to 500,000 for “defense.” The army was streamlined and condensed; every officer and NCO was ready to assume higher rank and responsibility as the ranks filled. Factories began turning out weapons and military vehicles, and the shipyards turned to rebuilding the German navy. Submarine production went into high gear, and the massive battleship Bismarck was launched in 1939.

1935. Nuremberg Laws. In September 1935 the Reichstag began passage of a series of laws that stripped Jewish people of their citizenship and basic human rights. From that time on, Jews would be unable to escape intensified persecution. Marriage between Jews and non-Jewish Germans was prohibited, as were extramarital relations between Jews and gentiles. Jews were not allowed to fly the German flag or to display Reich colors. Citizenship became limited to “only that subject of German or kindred blood who proves by his conduct that he is willing and suited loyally to serve the German people and the Reich.” A November 1935 law declared that “A Jew cannot be a Reich citizen. He is not entitled to the right to vote on political matters; he cannot hold public office.”

1936. Hitler took complete control of German foreign policy. His goals included the readjustment of eastern boundaries and the restoration of Germany to great power status. He repudiated the Locarno Treaty and ordered the army to reoccupy the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. The general staff was reluctant to carry out the order, arguing that the army was not yet prepared for a confrontation with the French. Hitler ridiculed his officers to their faces, declaring them cowardly and announcing that the French and British would do nothing. He demanded that his officer corps take on his fearless demeanor. The Rhineland was reoccupied, and the French and British did nothing. The League of Nations denounced Hitler’s action but also took no action, thus emboldening Hitler to go further.

1937. Hitler’s Campaign Against the Jews. In 1937 Hitler continued his campaign of purging Germany of what he saw as the poisonous influence of the Jews. The SS, cooperating police forces now under the heel of the SS, and hired thugs carried out what became known as Kristallnacht—the “Night of Broken Glass.” Windows of Jewish businesses were smashed; Jews were dragged out of their homes and beaten, arrested, hauled away, and otherwise terrorized. Dozens of Jews were murdered, and thousands were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Additional thousands of Jews began to flee Germany. The world was beginning to see Nazism for what it really was.

The Spanish Civil War. When a leftist government took over Spain, the army under General Francisco Franco rebelled. Germany and Italy rallied to Franco’s cause, which they identified as having common goals with their fascist philosophies. The conflict became a testing ground for German and Italian soldiers, pilots, weapons, technology, and tactics. The United States, Great Britain, and France decided to stay out to “localize” the conflict, but Russia supported the central government. Franco’s forces were victorious in 1939. The Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrated that the United States preferred to maintain a neutral status in European affairs.

1938. In March 1938 Hitler completed the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria. He announced as one of his major goals the unification of all German-speaking peoples under a common flag. Following an intensive propaganda campaign in Austria, and with the support of Austrian officials sympathetic to the Nazi movement, the German army, moved into Austria. Once again the general staff protested, declaring that the army was not yet ready for such a large operation. Hitler ignored the generals’ protests as well as warnings that he would not be welcomed in Austria. Instead of being greeted with animosity, Hitler rode through the streets of Vienna in an open car, returning the Sieg Heil salute given along the way and waving to thousands of Austrians, who in return waved Nazi flags and cheered Hitler as he rode by triumphantly. In violation of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler unified Germany and Austria, but there were only verbal protests from the West.

1938 September:  Appeasement

2The next crisis in European affairs focused on Germany’s neighbor, Czechoslovakia. In the Czech Sudetenland lived 3.5 million German-speaking people, the Sudeten Germans. Hitler’s threats to take over the Sudetenland caused British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (left) to travel to Germany to meet with Hitler in an attempt to resolve the crisis, telling Hitler his proposals were not acceptable. When Hitler refused to back down, Italian Premier Benito Mussolini suggested that Hitler hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France, and Italy in Munich. On September 29, 1938, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier capitulated to Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. It was a grievous error. Chamberlain returned to Great Britain claiming that the Munich Agreement meant “Peace for our Time,” but it was to be short lived. Within a few months Hitler swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia, and at this point France and Great Britain decided that Hitler had gone too far, but the policy of appeasement had backfired.

The Failure of Appeasement: Why Did Hitler Succeed?

Hitler had a well-mapped out plan, which he had laid out in Mein Kampf as he built the Nazi Party. He was a captivatiing speaker who touched nerves in Germany rubbed raw by the humiliating deafeat in World war I, made more painful by the harsh provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The economic crisis of the 1920s helped his cause, as did the political instability created by weaknesses in the Weimar Constitution and the absence of a democratic past in Germany. Hitler drew on tradition, evoking old notions of Germanic greatness—the Wagnerian themes of Volk, Blut, Einheit (People, Blood, Unity). Hitler’s program emphasized Prussian discipline and loyalty to state. The First Empire had been the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, begun by Karl der Grosse. (charles hte Great, better kbown to us as Charlemagne. The Second Empire was declared by Bismarck at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Hitler’s was to be the Third Reich, the thousand-year empire.

The Nazis tapped into historic and pseudo-scientific prejudices against Jews, Slavs, and other “Minderwertigen” (“unworthies”). Anti-Semitism in Europe was neither new nor unpopular and had a long history. National Socialism created an alliance between German government and business; industry remained in private hands, but production was directed toward the needs of the state. Hitler's rearmament program, creation of the Autobahns, and other public works boosted the German economy. Nazi practices appealed to the masses through such things as government-mandated cheap vacations: “Kraft durch Freude,”—strength through joy. Hitler ordered auto makers to produce a cheap people’s car, the "People’s Car" or Volkswagen. The Nazis exploited middle-class fears of Communism and promised power to army conservatives who hated the Weimar Constitution.

The Nazis organized massive parades and ceremonies, with patriotic speeches; Hitler was a powerful, captivating speaker. For the 1936 Nuremberg rally on the site of the 1936 Plympic Games, organizers used a ring of searchlights around the stadium pointed straight up to create the illusion of an ice palace; the audience was estimated at 200,000. Hitler had luck. Things broke favorably in the political world, such as the timely (for Hitler) death of President Hindenburg. Von Blomberg, the minister of defense, was a Nazi sympathizer. Hitler skillfully manipulated many potential political enemies into supporters. The rest of the Western World, still in shock from the Great War, failed to stand up to Hitler's aggressive moves.

The impact of the term “appeasement” on American foreign-policy history has been significant. While there can be no doubt that giving in to the whims of of an ambitious dictator can simply whet his appetite for further aggression, zealous resistance to foreign threats has its own drawbacks. During various debates over U.S. actions under consideration in the post-World War II era, the record of Chamberlain's appeasement in Munich was held up as an example of policies to avoid. Much of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s can be blamed on this anti-appeasement mentality. In debates over the Vietnam War, the phrase "no more Munichs" could be heard. Even as late as the debate over the first Iraq war in 1991, judgments about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were portrayed with reference to Hitler in the 1930s. The lessons of history must be learned, but must also be applied with careful forethought.

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