Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Foreign Affairs

Through his first six years in office, Franklin Roosevelt spent much of his time trying to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. The President, however, certainly did not ignore America's foreign policy as he crafted the New Deal. Roosevelt, at heart, believed the United States had an important role to play in the world, an unsurprising position for someone who counted Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson among his political mentors. But throughout most of the 1930s, the persistence of the nation's economic woes and the presence of an isolationist streak among a significant number of Americans (and some important progressive political allies) forced FDR to trim his internationalist sails. With the coming of war in Europe and Asia, FDR edged the United States into combat. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, however, brought the United States fully into the conflict.

Balancing Internationalism and Economic Problems at Home

In contrast to President Hoover, who believed that the Depression arose from international circumstances, Roosevelt believed that the nation's economic woes were largely home-grown. As a result, FDR rejected Hoover's numerous entreaties (delivered during the period between FDR's election and inauguration) that the incoming administration support Hoover's approach to the upcoming London Economic Conference. Hoover hoped that in London the United States and other leading industrial nations would devise a currency stabilization program and pledge its support for the international gold standard.

In rejecting Hoover's approach, FDR essentially embraced a form of economic nationalism and committed the United States to solving the Depression on its own. He scuttled the London Economic Conference in the summer of 1933 and devalued the dollar by removing the United States from the international gold standard. With this latter maneuver, Roosevelt sought to artificially inflate the value of the American dollar in the hope of putting more currency into the hands of cash-poor Americans. Unfortunately, this measure further destabilized the world economy. Roosevelt soon recognized his mistake and his administration worked with England and France to stabilize the international economic system, negotiating monetary agreements with those nations in 1936.

Despite his early approach to foreign economic policy, FDR quickly demonstrated his internationalist leanings. In 1934, FDR won passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, which allowed him to grant "most favored nation" trade status to countries with which the United States worked out trade agreements. In 1933, Roosevelt dramatically altered America's relationship with the Soviet Union, establishing official ties between the two nations. FDR hoped that improved relations with the U.S.S.R. would expand American trade opportunities and deter Japanese expansion. Ultimately, the agreement accomplished neither. Another indication of FDR's commitment to international cooperation came with his unsuccessful fight in 1935 for U.S. membership in the World Court.

During this early period in his administration, Roosevelt scored his greatest foreign policy success through his "good neighbor" policy towards Latin America and countries of the Western Hemisphere. In actuality, Hoover began the "Good Neighbor" initiative and Roosevelt merely followed his predecessor's course. But under FDR's watch, the last American troops withdrew from the Caribbean, and the United States abrogated the Platt Amendment, wherein the government of Cuba had pledged to recognize the right of the United States to intervene in its country. Moreover, the United States supported the 1933 Pan-American Conference resolution which stipulated that no country had the right to intervene in the internal or foreign affairs of another country. FDR even accepted Mexico's 1938 nationalization of its oil industry—which expropriated American assets—rejecting calls for intervention and ordering the State Department to work out a compensation plan instead.

Confronting Germany and Japan

FDR kept a wary eye on events unfolding in Europe and Asia during the mid-1930s, especially the increasingly bellicose behavior of Japan, Germany, and Italy. Roosevelt wanted to curb Japan's growing power in Asia by supporting China, although this policy had strict limits. Previously, the Hoover administration had acquiesced in Japan's flagrant occupation in late 1931 of Manchuria, a Chinese territory, rich in minerals, and the Roosevelt Administration proved no more willing in the intervening years to actively oppose Japanese aggression. Instead, like Hoover before him, Roosevelt merely refused to recognize Japanese control of Manchuria. Likewise, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 provoked no significant response from the United States. To be sure, Ethiopia's dismemberment failed to spur Britain or France to action, either.

The leaders of Japan and Germany surely noted the democracies' failure to respond to aggression in Manchuria and Ethiopia. In Japan, a militarist and expansionist government, still smarting from what it perceived as shabby treatment in the aftermath of the Great War, eyed regional domination. Japan's developing grand strategy involved gaining access to the oil and other raw materials of East Asia and establishing a colonial empire, or what Japanese leaders in 1938 called a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." In Germany, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, blaming old enemies and Jews for his country's woes. Hitler spoke menacingly of the German people's need for more living space ("Lebensraum") and his belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. He also flagrantly announced that Germany would begin to re-arm itself, repudiating disarmament agreements it had signed in the 1920s.

In this ominous environment, the United States adopted an official policy of neutrality. Indeed, between 1935 and 1939, Congress passed five different Neutrality Acts that forbade American involvement in foreign conflicts. The impetus for these laws came from a revitalized American peace movement, the revelations of war-profiteering by American munitions businesses during the Great War, and a widespread belief among Americans that their intervention in the European war had been fruitless. Roosevelt tried to water down these laws—which often made no distinction between the aggressor and the victim—to mixed success. And while he often talked a tough game, especially in his famous Chicago speech of 1937 which warned of the need to "quarantine" aggressors, the President more often than not proved unwilling to buck isolationist sentiment.

Unsurprisingly, then, the United States stood idle as Europe moved closer to war. In 1936, a civil war in Spain erupted, pitting the Republican Spanish government against the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco received support from Germany and Italy, while England, France, and the United States—citing their desire to keep the Spanish conflict from becoming a second world war—ignored the Republican forces' calls for aid. Franco emerged victorious in 1939.

Descent into War

Hitler began his ruinous conquest of Europe in 1936, marching his troops into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone that bordered France, Belgium, and Germany. In late 1936, Germany allied with Italy and Japan; it annexed Austria two years later. As Hitler eyed the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia), France and Britain, who feared a continent-wide conflict, met with Hitler at Munich and struck what they thought was a peace-saving bargain: they would accede to Hitler's conquest of the Sudetenland in exchange for his agreement not to pursue more territory. The deal was struck without the participation of the Czechs—and with the approval of FDR.

Six months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, in outright defiance of the Munich agreement. It was clear that Hitler's next target was Poland, and Britain and France pledged themselves to its defense. In a masterful diplomatic move, Hitler concluded a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in late August 1939, removing an adversary to his east. On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. World War II had begun.

In the Spring of 1940, Hitler turned his attentions towards Western Europe, invading and conquering Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and France. Nazi Germany (along with its allies Italy and the Soviet Union) now controlled all of continental Europe. Only Britain remained free of the Nazi yoke. In the summer of 1940, Hitler began a massive air war against England to soften its defenses in preparation for a full-scale invasion of the British Isles.

Roosevelt's sympathies clearly lay with the British and French, but he was hamstrung by the Neutrality Acts and a strong isolationist bloc in American politics. Upon the outbreak hostilities in September 1939, FDR re-asserted American neutrality, noting, however, that he could not "ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well." He did his best, then, to nudge the United States towards supporting Great Britain, supplying that nation with all aid "short of war." This strategy had three main effects. First, it offered Britain both psychological encouragement and materiel aid, though often more of the former than the latter. Second, it bought the United States time to shore up its military preparedness, which was inadequate for a world war. Finally, it made the United States an active, if undeclared, participant in the war.

In the fall of 1939, FDR won a slight revision of the Neutrality Act, which now allowed belligerents to buy arms in the United States, but only with cash and only if they transported their purchases themselves, a provision called "cash and carry." Nearly one year later, the United States and Great Britain struck a deal in which the Americans loaned the British fifty mothballed destroyers in return for the use of eight British military bases. And in March 1941, FDR won enactment of a Lend-Lease program that allowed the British and other allies continued access to American arms and supplies despite their rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The huge sum of $7 billion that Congress appropriated would eventually reach more than $50 billion.

The war took a vital turn that same year. After failing to subdue the British through the air—the so-called "Battle of Britain" in which the Royal Air Force emerged victorious over the German Luftwaffe—Hitler made two fateful decisions. First, he launched a massive invasion of his former ally, the Soviet Union. Second, he tried to conquer the British by choking that island nation from the sea, ordering Nazi submarines to attack British shipping in the North Atlantic. The two decisions only drew the United States more deeply into the war. FDR extended lend-lease aid to the Soviets. More important, he ordered the American Navy to the North Atlantic first to "patrol" that region and then to "escort" British ships. This latter order allowed the Navy to fire on German subs at sight. By the fall of 1941, Germany and the United States were at war in all but name.

Roosevelt's leadership during this period was crucial, although far from flawless. He and British prime minister Winston Churchill formed an effective team, and crafted a joint statement of their nations' war goals, called the "Atlantic Charter," in August 1941. This cooperation extended to both leaders' subordinates, who began planning in earnest for the coming war. At home, FDR managed to quiet the isolationist howls that greeted his "short of war" strategy and to further the process of rebuilding and re-arming America's military.

Still, FDR rarely staked out policy positions which committed the nation to a clear course of action. Roosevelt's actions essentially placed the United States at war but FDR refused to acknowledge the danger, often responding with evasive answers to press queries about the difference between the nation being "short of war" and at war. Finally, FDR often proved a confusing, frustrating, and spotty administrator as he directed the nation's military and industrial preparations for war. Prominent members of his cabinet and staff found all these failures exasperating.

The immense challenges that Roosevelt faced in the European conflict were compounded by the worsening situation in Asia, and particularly by the downturn in U.S.-Japanese relations. In 1937, that relationship deteriorated further after Japan attacked China, a nation to which a number of Americans had a strong attachment. FDR offered aid to China, although the neutrality laws and the power of the isolationist bloc in American politics ensured that such assistance remain extremely limited. Instead, FDR's strategy, in concert with other Western nations, was to contain and isolate Japan economically and politically. If he could keep the "Japanese dog"—as Churchill referred to Japan—at bay, FDR reasoned that he could deal with what he saw as the more pressing German problem. In practical terms, FDR also realized how difficult it would be for the United States to prepare for—much less to fight—wars simultaneously in Asia and Europe.

The strategy turned out to have significant drawbacks. By isolating Japan, the United States and its allies exacerbated Japan's fears of being denied access to the resources it needed to prosecute further its war in China. By the summer of 1941, Japan's leaders felt increasingly hemmed in by a coalition of America, Britain, China, and the Dutch (the ABCD powers) and adopted overtly aggressive foreign and military policies.

Japan invaded southern Indochina in the summer of 1941 to secure industrial supplies it deemed necessary to maintain its empire and military advantage. The Roosevelt administration responded by freezing Japan's assets in the United States, and restricting its access to petroleum products. Japanese leaders were both furious and even more convinced that the United States imperiled their national interest. Roosevelt and his advisers, meanwhile, girded for war.

War came, but in a most unexpected fashion. On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, America's vital outpost in the Pacific. The attack greatly damaged, but did not devastate, America's Pacific fleet, whose aircraft carriers were at sea. Congress declared war on Japan on December 8; three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which the U.S. Congress acknowledged in a resolution accepting the state of war. By December 1941, the United States had finally entered the war—now a true world war—as a participant, following several years as an interested and active bystander. The country would never be the same.

World War II

The fortunes of the Allies looked bleak in the first months of 1942. By January, the British and the Soviets—who in May would sign a formal treaty of alliance—appeared to have halted the Nazi onslaught, at least temporarily. By no means, however, were these two nations, even with American aid, ready to turn the war decisively in their favor, especially with the Nazis in control of Western Europe and the American war machine still in varying states of readiness. Moreover, during the first months of 1942, German submarines sent nearly one million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom of the Atlantic. In Asia, Japan racked up a string of victories over the United States and its British and Dutch allies as it moved from island to island, evicting Allied defenders; the United States suffered costly defeats in the Philippines (April and May), as well as in the Pacific at the Battle of Java Sea (February).

Allied strategy, agreed upon by the United States and Britain before America had entered the war, called for the United States to fight a holding action in the Pacific while the Allies concentrated on the defeat of Nazi Germany. America's first significant gains, however, came against Japan as the U.S. Navy scored a series of victories in 1942, first in the Coral Sea in early May and then at Midway Island in June, effectively halting the Japanese advance. In Europe, the Soviet Union absorbed devastating attacks from the German Army on the Eastern front, with the Nazis advancing to within thirty miles of Moscow.

In the North Atlantic, British and American ships—utilizing the convoy

strategy and superior technology—reduced the effectiveness of German submarines. By November, Britain and the United States were able to mount a coordinated offensive against Germany, launching an attack in North Africa.

The tide turned against Japan and Germany, and in favor of the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, the following year. In the Pacific, the United States began to tighten the noose around Japanese through an island-hopping campaign. The Americans won major victories at Guadalcanal (February), Bougainville (November), and Tarawa (November). The fighting, however, was exceptionally brutal and casualties were high on both sides; at Tarawa, a 300-acre spit of land, the Americans took 3,000 casualties.

In Europe, the British and the Americans completed the North Africa campaign in May 1943 a few months after the Soviets had turned back the Nazis at Stalingrad, the decisive battle on the Eastern front. Churchill had convinced FDR at the Casablanca conference in January 1943 that the Allies should next invade the "soft underbelly" of Nazi Europe: Italy. Stalin disagreed—he wanted a major assault on France to force the Nazis to shift troops to Western Europe—but to no avail; the joint Anglo-American invasion of Italy began in the summer of 1943. It was a brutal and bloody fight that lasted for two years. In November, the "Big Three"—FDR, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, where FDR and Churchill promised a skeptical Stalin that they would invade France in 1944.

Under the command of American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies landed in northwestern France on June 6, 1944, The "D-Day" operation was a grand success, and Paris was liberated by the end of the summer. During the fall of 1944, American and British forces swept across France. The war appeared to be heading towards its final chapter as the Soviets made quick progress on the Eastern front and the Americans and British closed in on Germany.

The Allies made similar gains in Asia in 1944, winning key battles in the Philippines, New Guinea, Saipan, and Guam. These two latter victories gave the United States control of islands from which they could launch bombers to attack major Japanese cities from the air. This air war began in earnest in late 1944, decimating Japan's industrial centers and terrorizing its people. The invasion of Japan, however, lay ahead in 1945 and American war planners feared it would be as bloody as the Pacific campaign that preceded it, only on a larger scale.

Against the backdrop of these developments, FDR and his aides fleshed out plans for the structure of the post-war world, a task they undertook beginning in the early 1940s. In 1942, FDR played a key role in forging a coalition of twenty-six nations which affirmed the ideals set down the Atlantic Charter; FDR called this coalition the "United Nations." The President hoped that the United Nations, as an organization, would outlast the war and thenceforth adopt a new agenda: world peace and cooperation. At Tehran in 1943, FDR managed to secure Stalin's agreement to join that proposed body.

Discussions between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin continued at Yalta, in the Crimea, in January 1945. By this time, FDR was a weak and sick man, run down from his years in office, his energetic campaigning, and his medical condition. The Yalta meeting, moreover, was extremely tense. Victory in Europe was almost assured, but the Allies had not yet agreed on post-war Europe's political or economic future. Stalin was angry that the Americans and British had not crossed the English Channel earlier, leaving the Soviets to absorb the brunt of Germany's military power. Roosevelt appreciated Stalin's complaints, though as early as 1943 he was preparing to recognize a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. For its part, Moscow interpreted the Yalta arrangements, which included a signed Declaration of Liberated Europe, as granting it a free hand to set up puppet governments throughout the region.

One month after Yalta, Allied troops crossed the Rhine River into Germany. German soldiers were now surrendering in the tens of thousands as the Nazi regime crumbled. As they advanced, Allied troops uncovered the realities of Hitler's race policy; the concentration camps that had been built for resettling and working political prisoners from all over Europe, and the extermination camps, set up primarily in central and eastern Europe, charged with exterminating entire groups of people, with Jews as the primary target. FDR and his administration had known for much of the war that the Nazis were killing Jews—although they probably did not, and could not, conceive of the scale of this operation. FDR's policy was to win the war first, which would in turn stop the killing. Many years later, this policy would come under attack by those who believed that America could have, and should have, done more to help European Jews.

As the Allies closed in on Berlin, Hitler, surrounded by a small flock of loyal followers, implored his armed forces—now numbering increasing numbers of teenage boys—to continue the fight. On the other side of the globe, U.S. forces tightened the ring around Japan. Franklin D. Roosevelt would not live to celebrate victory over either adversary, however.