America’s Good Neighbor Policy
The administrations of presidents Harding and Coolidge were not at all shy about interfering in Latin American countries’ internal affairs if it suited the interests of U.S. businesses. Starting with President Hoover, however, and continuing under Roosevelt, America began a good neighbor policy toward Central and South America. The policy basically pledged that the United States would maintain pleasant relations and generally mind their own business.
America tried to keep to that policy elsewhere in the world as well. In Asia, Japan was becoming more and more hostile toward its neighbors, and U.S. diplomats made periodic attempts to convince the Japanese to slow down.
But Japan had been insulted in 1924 when the United States closed its doors to Japanese immigration and wasn’t in much of a mood to listen. And Americans weren’t interested in a fight, even after Japan invaded China, nor even after Japanese planes accidentally sank a U.S. gunboat in a Chinese river in 1937.
In Europe, Italy, run by a buffoonish thug named Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 with not much more than a whimper from the United States. When Germany, under an evil madman named Adolf Hitler, took Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, President Roosevelt did send letters to both Hitler and Mussolini, asking them not to conquer any more countries. They laughed at him.
Roosevelt was not being timid as much as he was being a practical politician. America was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, and most Americans were more interested in figuring out how to pay next month’s rent than in who ran Austria. A 1937 survey found that 94 percent thought U.S. policy should be directed at keeping out of foreign wars rather than trying to stop them.
An isolationist movement, whose most popular leader was aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, gained strength and held rallies around the country, exhorting Roosevelt and Congress to keep the United States sheltered from the growing storm clouds in Asia and Europe. Congress and FDR agreed, approving laws in 1935 and again in 1937 that prohibited the sale of American weapons to any warring nation.
But much of the rest of the world continued to rush toward conflict. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Great Britain and France had signed a pact pledging to come to Poland’s defense and declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.
France was badly prepared for war and collapsed quickly under the German Blitzkrieg, or lightning war. By mid-1940, England stood alone against Hitler and his allies, which for the time being included the Soviet Union, led by its own evil madman, Josef Stalin.