United States History, 1877-


U. S. Foreign Policy, 1901-1941

Kyle Wilkison

United States foreign policy between 1901 and 1941 can be characterized as generally confident, sometimes aggressive and, occasionally, even cautious.  The first twenty years of the century saw the U.S. leadership pursue confidently interventionist strategies in dealing with other countries.  The next decade-a-half witnessed a clear modification toward cautious non-entanglement if not outright isolationism.   With the election of Franklin Roosevelt to the White House a gap grew between the isolationist American public and an increasingly internationalist policy.  This gap temporarily disappeared with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. 

Period of Confident Intervention, 1901-1919

Theodore Roosevelt’s arrival as president could not have been less auspicious, coming as it did at the hands of an assassin who ended the life of President William McKinley. While others may have doubted Roosevelt's abilities, the new president gave no indications that such doubts ever troubled his over-sized self-confidence.

President Theodore Roosevelt relished the "strenuous life" almost as much as he enjoyed his status as a media celebrity.  Horseback riding was a favorite pastime and boosted his image as the Cowboy President.    (National Portrait Gallery President Theodore Roosevelt relished the “strenuous life” almost as much as he enjoyed his status as a media celebrity.  Horseback riding was a favorite pastime and helped boost his image as the "Cowboy President."  (Smithsonian Institution)
He moved aggressively to realize the long-held U.S. goal of building (and controlling) an inter-oceanic canal through Central America. For U.S. policy-makers the best choice lay through the northern end of the Republic of Colombia; the Colombian government, however, proved resistant to the notion of surrendering territory to the American government. Roosevelt promptly supported a highly suspect “independence movement” within the northernmost Colombian state of Panama and hastily recognized the government of a pro-canal American sympathizer there. Panama began its fight for independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. Read the preamble and first three articles of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granting the U.S. the rights to the Panama Canal.   Note the date the treaty was originally negotiated as well as the remarkable statement in Article I.

Alarmed at the prospect of European intervention in the internal affairs of Latin American nations, Roosevelt also toughened and extended the historic “Monroe Doctrine” (1824) with his “Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” After clicking on the following link, first read the editor’s note then scroll down and read the text of the "Roosevelt Corollary" as delivered to Congress in 1904. (See the section entitled "Policy Toward Other Nations of the Western Hemisphere.")  What did Roosevelt promise would happen if Latin American countries “invited foreign aggression”? What assumptions does he make regarding the relative status of the U.S. in comparison with its Latin American neighbors?  

Roosevelt further confidently intervened in world affairs by practicing a unique form of presidential diplomacy. In 1905 he personally led negotiations to end a war between Japan and Russia, resulting in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  A year later he successfully handled a similarly explosive colonial conflict between France and Germany.   Overall, Roosevelt sought to strengthen the U.S. Navy and solidify previous gains in the Pacific.

His successor, President William Howard Taft, more or less continued the Roosevelt strategy, minus some of the bluster and impetuousness.  Generally aimed at protecting American corporate interests around the globe, Taft called his policy "Dollar Diplomacy."

(Woodrow Wilson Library)

President Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy was much like his predecessors’ but informed more by paternalism than aggressiveness and opportunism.  Much of Wilson’s concerns focused on Asia where the rising Japanese Empire competed with the old European empires for dominance in China.  Seeking to maintain an “open door” for American trade with China, Wilson, like both his predecessors and successors in the White House, struggled to balance the dangers of either European or Japanese dominance in that region. 

Wilson preferred to characterize his “Roosevelt Corollary” style interventions as being in the best interest of the particular Latin American nation involved.  Often that conveniently mirrored U.S. commercial interests.   Such was the case in revolutionary Mexico where American investors (mainly oil companies) owned over forty percent of the nation’s property, according to diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber.  Convinced that Mexico and her neighbors needed to be “properly directed” toward stability, if not democracy, Wilson sent to or retained U.S. troops in Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba and Nicaragua.  The largest such operation involved General John J. Pershing’s 6,000 troops fruitlessly pursuing Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa across northern Mexico, 1916-1917. 

In early 1917 Wilson pulled Pershing and his troops out of Mexico for an even greater act of confident intervention to “make the world safe for democracy” with U.S. entry into World War I. Despite Wilson’s hopeful Fourteen Points and his proposed peace-keeping League of Nations, the U.S. Senate chose not to allow American membership in the League by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.  Driven by a variety of motives, the Senate was at least partially responding to a new sense caution among influential Americans. 

Period of Cautious Non-entanglement, 1920-1937

Traditionally historians have assigned the label of “isolationist” to American foreign policy in the 1920s and early 1930s.    Clearly the mood of the American people became more and more isolationist as the years went by.  The decision to reject the League of Nations certainly gave the appearance that U.S. policy was isolationist, as well.  Yet, recent historians have emphasized the continued role America played in world affairs.  What best describes the policy of the period, then, is cautious non-entanglement.  Policymakers sought not isolation but a “free hand” to operate, according to diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber.  Two notable foreign policy achievements from the era tend to bolster this view. 

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 sought to slow the rise of the intense rivalry between the great Pacific powers.  President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes shocked the international gathering of diplomats by announcing that Britain, Japan and the U.S. should each scrap dozens of warships to end the dangerous Pacific arms race.   The resulting treaty probably did stabilize the region temporarily; however, the Japanese were not as pleased with the outcome of the treaty as were the British and Americans, a circumstance that would come back to haunt the Pacific rim years later. 

The Herbert Hoover Administration’s Kellogg-Briand Pact serves as another good example of the “hit-and-run” diplomacy that characterized the 1920s.  The ambitious Kellogg-Briand Pact  (1928) “outlawed” war by having each of the eventually five dozen signatory nations promise never to wage offensive war against each other.  All of the major belligerent powers of the Second World War signed this document.  Notice that Kellogg-Briand was not an isolationist document and that the U.S. took the lead in negotiating it.   Yet, unlike the League of Nations, this pact required no definite commitment, no continuous engagement (entanglement) on America’s part.    

The dangerous 1930s

The international economic collapse of the 1930s helped to create an ever more dangerous world.  Beginning in the 1920s, totalitarian fascist parties rose to power throughout Europe promising both economic resurgence and protection from the communists.  Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany and Francisco Franco in Spain each rose to power by exploiting fears of the left.  In the case of Germany and Italy, a combination of calculation, ideology and megalomaniacal leadership would drive those nations toward ever more explosive confrontations with nearby states.  Meanwhile, a similarly militaristic coterie gained power in Japan and set that increasingly powerful nation down the path of imperialism.

The American public’s steady isolationism received a huge boost from the sensational Nye Committee findings.  Sen. Gerald P. Nye investigated the role of business in bringing America into World War I.  His committee’s reports, especially as simplified and exaggerated by the media, strengthened the public's determination to never be misled into another foreign war.   Catching the public mood, the Congress responded with the Neutrality Acts of the late1930s.  In their various versions the laws forbade American businesses from loaning money to, selling war material to or carrying goods aboard American ships to nation's at war.  The last few years of the 1930s, then, saw a battle for public opinion between President Franklin D. Roosevelt who watched the rise of fascism in Europe with growing alarm and zealous isolationists just as strongly committed to making sure America stayed out of European conflicts.   

Franklin Roosevelt’s Struggle to Return to Internationalism, 1937-1941

            The American people remained staunchly isolationist although the president tried to rouse them with the famously cautionary "Quarantine speech" of 1937.  Meantime, facing equally ant-war public sentiment, the governments of Britain and France charted a diplomatic path of appeasement in order to keep peace with Hitler.  The low point of this policy of appeasement arrived with the   Munich Peace Conference with Hitler, 1938.  Desperately gambling for peace at any price, the British and French countenanced the take-over of western Czechoslovakia under the terms of the Munich treaty.  The folly of appeasement became undeniably clear the following year when Hitler's war machine roared into Germany's neighbor to the east, Poland, starting World War II in Europe.

At first Roosevelt proclaimed U.S. neutrality while doing what he could to assist the French and British.  In 1939 the president persuaded the Congress to pass the "cash and carry" amendment to the earlier, tougher neutrality laws preventing the U.S. from getting any material to the Allies.  Then, as the rest of the world looked on in shock, the Germans (having already disposed of Poland and Belgium) knocked France completely out of the war in June of 1940.  Realizing that Britain stood alone against the Nazis in Europe, under Roosevelt's leadership U. S. "neutrality" became "measures short of war."  Just after the fall of France, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed an agreement to lease British naval bases in the Caribbean to the U.S. in exchange for fifty older American naval destroyers in the so-called "bases for destroyers deal."  Early the following year (1941) FDR managed to get appropriations through the Congress for a "Lend-lease" program to funnel war supplies to the British.   In June, 1941, the Germans made the unwise decision to attack the Soviet Union, thus bringing the Red Army into the war against Hitler. Thereafter, both the British and Russian war efforts benefited from America's "Lend-lease" assistance.  A few weeks after Germany widened the war to include the Russians, Roosevelt and Churchill met and signed the Atlantic Charter, a most remarkable step for a "neutral" nation.  The Charter outlined America's overall attachment to the ideal of self-determination and freedom but more pointedly declared that the "disarmament of [aggressor] nations is essential."  The leaders signed the Charter in August, the same month that a poll showed that less than twenty percent of the American people supported entering the war.  Yet, more telling, that same month nearly seventy percent reported being "willing to risk war with Japan" rather than allow the Japanese Pacific expansion continue unchecked.  The Japanese High Command would provide the final decisive event with the surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.  Afterward, President Roosevelt led a determinedly unified people to war.