In 1938, Nazi Germany’s actions worried European leaders. Leaders met in Munich, Germany in October of that year to discuss the matter. British Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain returned from Munich thinking he had helped Europe and Britain avoid war. Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, and
Nazi Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler had signed an agreement that allowed Germany to occupy part of Czechoslovakia.
“My good friends, for the second
time in our history, a British Prime
Minister has returned from Germany
bringing peace with honor. I believe
it is peace for our time. Go home and
get a nice quiet sleep.”
September 30, 1938
Prime Minister Chamberlain was wrong. Hitler would violate the agreement within months, occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia,
and launch a war to conquer Europe. Today history is a harsh judge of Chamberlain’s miscalculation, though historians recognize that the devastation of World War I made European
leaders anxious to do anything to prevent war from occurring again. The desire to avoid another war in Europe was widespread in the United States as well.
Americans watching from afar had sympathy
for the Czechoslovakians, but most were
quite sure that they wanted nothing to do
with Europe’s problems. President Franklin D.
Roosevelt (1933-1945) sent a telegram to Hitler
just before the Munich meeting asking him to
negotiate to avoid war. He concluded his telegram
by saying that the United States had “no
political involvements in Europe….” Public
opinion polls showed that after Munich, 95
percent of the American public opposed participation
in another war. Two-thirds opposed selling war materials to either side.
Events in Asia seemed to point towards conflict as well. Japan invaded China in 1937. In November 1938, Japan proclaimed that it had established a “new order” in Asia. American
policy-makers worried about Japanese expansion into Asia.
Japanese and German aggression led Roosevelt and his advisers to believe that the United States needed to begin to prepare to
meet the threats in Europe and Asia. But many Americans were not so sure. In 1940 and 1941 a great debate took place in the United States about America’s role in the world and what to
do about events in Europe and Asia.
“There have been a number of fierce
national quarrels in my lifetime--
over communism in the later Forties,
over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over
Vietnam in the Sixties—but none so
tore apart families and friendships
as the great debate of 1940-1941.”
—Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Historian
The debate raged until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941.
In the readings you will explore the debate that occurred in the United States about how to respond to the gathering storm
in Europe and Asia. You will consider the following questions:
Why did so many Americans want to avoid war?
What was Roosevelt’s view of the issue, why did he believe that war was coming, and how did he try to convince
the country to prepare?
Finally, you and your PVA peers will recreate a debate in the U.S.
Congress about whether to supply aid to Great Britain when it remained the last hold-out to Hitler’s war of conquest.