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Franklin D. Roosevelt's Foreign Policy Prior to World War II

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  • 0:05 From Isolation to Intervention
  • 0:51 Applying the New Deal Abroad
  • 3:03 Roosevelt the Interventionist
  • 7:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy focused on moving the United States from isolation to intervention. Learn more about Roosevelt's foreign policy on the eve of the Second World War.

From Isolation to Intervention

There is no doubt that President Franklin Roosevelt's foremost goal upon entering office in 1933 was the American economy and combating the ills of the Great Depression. Yet, Roosevelt never lost sight of the international arena. Roosevelt was an ardent internationalist and believed that many of the issues within the United States could be solved through a strong international agenda. He believed that the Great Depression, for instance, could be mitigated by strengthening ties with foreign markets rather than weakening them like the actions taken by his predecessor President Herbert Hoover.

Roosevelt understood that he had to tread carefully. The move away from isolation had to be nurtured, especially since the First World War was still ingrained in the minds of Americans. Let's take a look at how Roosevelt shaped his foreign policy prior to the American entrance into the Second World War.

Applying the New Deal Abroad

While Roosevelt's New Deal was a significant domestic legislative program to rejuvenate the economy, the president was able to tie aspects of the program into his foreign policy. At first, Roosevelt was cautious to solely protect the interests of the United States. A good example of this was when Roosevelt removed the nation from the World Economic Conference in London in June 1933 because he believed that any financial agreement reached at the meeting would negatively impact commodity prices in the United States.

After Roosevelt passed through his first 100 days as president, he began expanding American involvement in the world. In November 1933, Roosevelt met with diplomats from the Soviet Union and agreed to establish friendly relations. This may seem unusual to you considering the fear of communism that ran rampant throughout the United States during the 1910s and 1920s. Roosevelt's diplomatic outreach to the Soviet Union was important for American trade markets. Most nations never received access to the Soviet Union, but Roosevelt was able to derive an agreement that allowed American businessmen to buy and sell within the Soviet market.

Roosevelt used the same concept of friendly diplomatic relations to cool tensions with Latin America. In December 1933, he established the Good Neighbor Policy, which ended a policy created by President Theodore Roosevelt (and even further back to the Monroe Doctrine) that granted the United States the right to intervene in hemispheric affairs.

Roosevelt removed American forces stationed in various Latin American nations, returned controlling power to Cuba and granted more Panamanian autonomy in controlling the Panama Canal. The Good Neighbor Policy was an excellent way to rebuild strained relations while opening new markets to the United States. Roosevelt's hope was that the cordial relations with new markets would alleviate the economic strain of the Great Depression.

The concept of applying the New Deal to foreign relations was cemented in 1934 when Congress passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreement. In essence, the legislation established a quid pro quo policy. That is, Roosevelt was allowed to drastically lower tariffs within the United States as long as the overseas trade partners did the same. Again, this was another way of developing relations and building trade markets. Unfortunately, foreign leaders, such as German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, believed in building internally and rejected the idea of reciprocal trade.

Roosevelt the Interventionist

Hitler's rejection of foreign trade agreements was minor compared to his other actions throughout Europe. His establishment of a dictatorial regime in Germany caught the attention of Roosevelt. The problem, however, was that most Americans believed in remaining out of military engagements after living through the horror of the First World War.

That isolationist sentiment was widely felt when Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936. These restrictive pieces of legislation called for an embargo on weaponry and funding to any nation involved in a conflict and prohibited Americans from traveling aboard ships that belonged to nations engaged in war.

Soon after, Congress passed a second round of legislation known as the Neutrality Acts of 1937, which established an embargo on all trade to nations at war, except those who were able to pay cash and carry the products away on non-American vessels. This legislation temporarily handcuffed Roosevelt's foreign policy and allowed for Hitler to begin acquiring land via force throughout Europe, as well as Japan establishing control in the Pacific.

To his credit, Roosevelt was a masterful tactician and was able to cautiously circumvent Congressional attempts at isolationism. For instance, during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Roosevelt refused to send American troops to fight alongside of the Spanish republican rebels, but he did not stop them either.

The 'Abraham Lincoln Battalion' entered into the fray, assisting the Spanish republicans and Soviet forces to fight against General Francisco Franco's fascist regime. Roosevelt knew that American involvement in international affairs could not remain limited, especially with the actions of Hitler, Italian leader Benito Mussolini and the Japanese.

In 1937, Roosevelt called for an international quarantine on nations that were sparking conflict throughout the world. Simultaneously, he began petitioning Congress for a reappraisal of the neutrality legislation. He finally achieved success in 1939 when Congress removed the ban on selling arms to those at war. The new legislation established a 'cash-and-carry' provision to those who could purchase arms with cash and carry them away on non-American vessels. This was extremely beneficial to Britain and France, considering they were a short distance from the United States.

After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Roosevelt ramped up his interventionist foreign policy. He quickly helped enact the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940, which established a peacetime draft. Then, much to the chagrin of the isolationists, Roosevelt agreed to the 'destroyers-for-bases' deal, which transferred several dozen naval destroyers to Britain in return for the right to build American military bases on British-controlled territory in the Pacific and Caribbean.

Further deteriorating American isolationism was Roosevelt's approval of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941. This legislation now permitted the loaning of arms to the United States allies at war, such as Britain and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt began referring to the United States as the 'great arsenal of democracy.'

Following the Lend-Lease Act, Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941 and established the provisions for the Atlantic Charter. This agreement led to an alliance between the United States and Britain in regard to postwar security, free trade and the right to self-determination, which is the power of a nation to choose its own destiny.

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