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WWII Homefront: Pre-war Defense

A more detailed examination of this topic is planned for the future. In the meantime, this small archive and brief description is presented.

Between the two World Wars, the United States generally followed a policy of isolationism. Factors influencing this trend included:

  • A growing realization of the true cost of the World War.
  • Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations.
  • A focus on the domestic problems of the country following the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
  • A growing awareness of the possibility that the United States could be drawn into another European conflict following German rearmament & expansionism.

The United States congress reacted to these threats by passing the Neutrality Acts between 1936-1937. These laws prevented American companies from selling weapons to belligerent nations--even from sailing on ships of belligerent nations, and were a conscious attempt to avoid the steps that had drawn the country into the World War I.

I Want You poster
With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the country became split politically between isolationists and interventionists. President Roosevelt had already begun finding ways to sidestep the Neutrality Acts & provide some form of assistance to China following the Japanese invasion in 1937. Nation after nation fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg and England became the lone democratic holdout in Europe. During the Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe pounded London night after night, that division only intensified. Some modifications to American policy were made, however, to accommodate the crisis in Europe. In 1939 the fourth Neutrality Act modified the earlier trade policy to allow for the sale of weapons to belligerent nations as long as those nations paid for them in cash and provided their own transportation. Additionally, the first peacetime draft in American history was enacted in the Selective Training and Service Act of September 16, 1940.

America First Committee:
Only a few weeks before the draft became law, the America First Committee was created. The America First Committee originally had four major principles:

1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America
2. No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America
3. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
4. "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

At its peak, the AFC had about 800,000 members in 650 chapters. Although the group, strongest in the midwest, was often portrayed as somehow pro-Nazi, they were actually a disparate collection of Old Right Republicans, Mid West populists and left wing pacifists. Among these prominent Americans and AFC spokespersons was the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. Senators and Congressmen on both sides of the aisle were members, and shortly after the Committee's creation, several of them took to the nation's airwaves to state their case to the American people:

America First Committee Broadcasts
Senator David I. Walsh (D-MA)
sound Senator David I. Walsh (D-MA)
Congressman James E. Van Zandt (R-PA)
sound Congressman James E. Van Zandt (R-PA)
Senator Burton K. Wheeler
sound Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT)
Senator Edwin C. Johnson
sound Senator Edwin C. Johnson (D-CO)
sound William R. Castle, former Undersecretary of State
sound Messages from the Public
"America First" Wall Hanging from the Buckeye Grill, Kenton, OH
"America First" Wall Hanging from the Buckeye Grill, Kenton, OH (2 views)
J. Edgar Hoover
sound J. Edgar Hoover address, September 23, 1940
American defense thinking sometimes extended into fear of subversive elements at home, and sometimes the warnings were dire. On September 23, 1940, in an address to the American Legion, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned of the growing threat of subversive forces in the United States. Similar fears about the loyalties of foreign-born Americans abounded during the First World War, but here Hoover was referring to native-born Americans who were simply critical of growing American militarization. Hoover denounced such critics as traitors, "fifth columnists" whose real purpose to the support the totalitarian powers in their quest for world domination. Hoover said:
"Our people are accustomed to taking liberty for granted. As a result they have ceased to think seriously about it. But the foes of America have much to say about it. They construe liberty as a license and clamor for even greater license. Liberty and license are as far apart as liberty and tyranny. License breeds tyranny.
Popular culture presented a more literal vision of Hoover's fifth column. The idea that native-born spies, were actively working on behalf of totalitarianism by stealing American military secrets and sabotaging munitions factories exploded into dozens of plot lines in radio dramas, children's adventure novels, and especially American comic books.

Lend-Lease Act
But the threat to American national security from abroad was real. In a sobering speech in Washington by Secretary of State Cordell Hull only a month after Hoover's speech, the argument for a sweeping defense program and strategy was forcefully delivered. Just three months later, interventionists took the next step toward war by proposing the Lend-Lease Act. This legislation permitted the President of the United States to "sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government [whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States] any defense article".

Secretary of State Cordell Hull, October 26, 1940
sound Secretary of State Cordell Hull, October 26, 1940
The Lend-Lease legislative process was bitter and not without some subterfuge. Many politicians took their views directly to the American people via speeches recorded for or carried on radio. Speeches from notable critics of the Lend-Lease Act are presented below. Colonel Hanford MacNider, former acting Secretary of War, make numerous references to the circumstances that brought America into WWI in making a classic isolationist argument. Senator Wheeler uses graphic propaganda tactics to paint a scary picture of Lend-Lease, which he feels will bring America into the European conflict. Senator Robert Taft from Ohio criticizes the Roosevelt administration for poor organization when it came to helping England during the blitz of the previous fall. Charles Lindbergh, a member of the America First Committee, continued to push for American neutrality while also wondering how much longer free speech will be tolerated in the United States.

Speech Against Lend-Lease, by former Governor Alf Landon (R-KS)
sound Speech Against Lend-Lease, by former Governor Alf Landon (R-KS)
Speech Against Lend-Lease, by former Acting Secretary of War Colonel Hanford MacNider
sound Speech Against Lend-Lease, by former Acting Secretary of War Colonel Hanford MacNider
Speech Against Lend-Lease, by Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT)
sound Speech Against Lend-Lease, by Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT)
Speech Against Lend-Lease, by Senator Robert Taft (R-OH)
sound Speech Against Lend-Lease, by Senator Robert Taft (R-OH)
Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh:
sound On Neutrality, 9/1/41

sound On Free Speech, 10/3/41
Lend-lease not only became a critical factor in the success of the Allies during WWII, it linked American economic recovery from the Great Depression with that success.

In the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America embraced the defense build up. The United States wouldn't reach its full industrial war capacity, however, until at least a full year after war had been declared.
Defense Pop Culture Items
Junior Minute-Man National Defense Bank, 1941
Junior Minute-Man National Defense Bank, 1941
Defense Bonds & Stamps Minute-Man Bank
Defense Bonds & Stamps Minute-Man Bank (3 views)
Large Cardboard Philip Morris Advertisement
Large Cardboard Philip Morris Advertisement, 31 x 32 (2 views)
Photograph of Cigar Tank
Photograph of Cigar Tank, 1941
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Last modified July 21, 2012