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Domestic Politics During World War II: The Election of 1940

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  • 0:02 To Intervene or Not to…
  • 0:46 Isolationism vs.…
  • 2:48 The Candidates
  • 4:23 The Campaign
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Ryan Korn

Ryan taught elementary school and holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

The rest of the world was already fighting World War II, but the United States had a decision to make: should the nation stay out of it or try to save the day? Learn about this decision and more in this lesson.

To Intervene or Not to Intervene

Have you ever been in a situation where two of your best friends got into a fight? Maybe there was some yelling and screaming. Maybe even some cursing or fighting. What would you do? Would you stay out of it, or would you get involved? If you stayed out of it, what would it take for you to get involved, if anything at all?

The debate that you're having in your head is the same debate that America was having in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The world was at war once again, and America had to decide what role it would play, if any at all. This issue - whether or not to intervene in the world's affairs - dominated the political landscape and would have major repercussions for the country and the whole world for decades to come.

Isolationism vs. Interventionism

With the worst of the Great Depression beginning to subside, the United States faced a new challenge: a Second World War. In September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In April of 1940, they attacked Denmark and Norway. In May and June, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France fell under their control. By the summer, the Germans had begun bombing Britain. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Imperial Japan was at war with China and had started to seize other territory.

For much of its history, America preferred an isolationist foreign policy. Isolationism is the belief that it is in the country's best interest not to get involved in foreign affairs because that could lead to conflict or other unwanted responsibilities. In fact, this is exactly what George Washington advised the country in his farewell address. He said, 'Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalry, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.'

With regard to World War II, the isolationists believed that any level of involvement would inevitably lead to a costly war, and they wanted none of it. On the other end of the spectrum were the interventionists. Interventionism is the opposite of isolationist. Interventionists believe that it is in the country's best interests to get involved in foreign affairs because that means we can protect our interests abroad. In short, they thought that if we didn't save Europe, we would be next on the menu. President Franklin Roosevelt, or FDR, was an interventionist.

While some of the interventionists thought we needed to send troops to Britain and join the fight, others were more moderate. If you are moderate, it means you are not too extreme in your views. The moderates felt that providing money and weapons would be enough without fully engaging the country.

The Candidates

Though this debate occurred throughout the population, it was most intense in the Republican Party. After eight years of Roosevelt, the Republicans were very frustrated, but their strongest and most well-known contenders were all isolationists. This fissure left room for an interventionist 'dark horse' candidate to win the nomination. A dark horse is a candidate who is not well-known, but somehow manages to win anyway. In 1940, that candidate was Wendell Willkie.

Believe it or not, Willkie was actually a moderate former democrat who supported FDR after the Great Depression. But, after he launched the New Deal, Willkie, a lawyer and businessman, began to oppose some of the policies he viewed as anti-business. Because he had never been elected to any office, people saw him as a fresh face and a credible candidate.

Roosevelt's road to the democratic nomination was far less eventful given his continued popularity. Still, his greatest obstacle was the public's reluctance to accept a third-term president. Roosevelt considered dropping out of the race, but he ultimately decided that only he had the skills and experience to handle the Nazi threat.

Oh yeah. The other exciting thing was that Roosevelt's own vice-president, John Nance Garner, had become an opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal policies and decided to run against him. So, Roosevelt kicked him off the ticket and picked a new running-mate: his eccentric Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace.

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