Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
For much of the first 130 years of America's existence as an independent country, the foreign policy advice of George Washington, namely to avoid foreign entanglements, had served the country well. In those few decades, the United States had used its unwillingness to do anything really, aside from trade with the rest of the world, to become an economic powerhouse. In fact, from 1898 on, it even had the collection of colonies to go with it.
Clearly, America's place in the world was changing. Some leaders, like Theodore Roosevelt, recognized this, sending a fleet of updated warships, known as the Great White Fleet, around the world as a demonstration of American power.
However, by the outbreak of World War I, the United States was thoroughly isolationist, meaning that it wanted to isolate itself from the events of Europe. Trade was still encouraged, and it was eventually that trade that helped tip opinion towards entering the war. German submarines had been sinking ships indiscriminately, and American shipping and American lives were starting to be targeted. However, even with their entry into World War I, the United States maintained its independence. American army units operated independently of the Anglo-French command, much to the chagrin of the European Allies.
Between the Wars
At the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson tried to re-imagine the role of the United States in the world. Based off his plan for peace, the Fourteen Points, Woodrow argued for a world organization that would mediate disputes and avert future wars, the League of Nations. However, the American Senate was loathe to commit to such an open-ended system of foreign entanglements, so while the League became a reality, the United States never became a part of it.
That said, the United States did use a number of treaties to focus on pointed and specific areas of diplomacy. Famous among these were the Dawes Plan for the reconstruction of Germany and repayment of French and British debts, as well as the Washington Naval Conference to limit the size of fleets around the world.
First Years of World War II
In the long run, these plans did remarkably little to prevent war, and the League of Nations proved too weak to challenge aggressors. By 1939, war raged in both Europe and East Asia, with appeals made to the United States to join. For the first two years, America was officially neutral. However, as it became clear that the Axis powers could eventually prove victorious, many Americans started campaigning for increased involvement, even if not full engagement.
Few tried harder than the American president, Franklin Roosevelt. Going as far as to coordinate American naval escorts for British shipping, Roosevelt made it clear which side he was cheering for. Ultimately, the events of December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, forced American entry into the war.
World War II
Largely due to the close friendship between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the United States grew closer to the United Kingdom. Central to this was the mention of a special relationship between the Americans and British, based in no small part on shared language, history, and culture. American propaganda showed the British as a tough, lovable people who were natural friends to the Americans. In fact, some American generals even joked about the Anglo-American destiny of ruling the world after the war. Meanwhile, as the economies of the Axis countries crumbled, American capitalism proved to be very adaptable for the demands of total war production.
As the war drew to a conclusion, talk between the Allies returned to the issue of preventing such a catastrophic war from happening again. Rather than punishing the vanquished, the Americans instead offered low-interest loans and other assistance as a result of the Marshall Plan. Also, through the establishment of the United Nations (UN), and especially through its place as holder of a permanent seat on the Security Council, the United States made it clear that it had no intention of loosening its newfound influence in the world. In little more than 30 years, the country went from an isolationist giant to a superpower.
As this lesson shows, the foreign policy of the United States changed greatly during the years between 1914 and 1945. At the beginning of the First World War, the United States was committed to staying out of the war, focusing instead on trade. Even during the war itself, American troops fought independent of foreign command. However, by the end of the war, there was a movement to bring the U.S. out of isolation led by Woodrow Wilson.
While ultimately unsuccessful in getting America to join the League of Nations, a number of international agreements were signed. However, it would take World War II, and the threat of Axis world domination, to really bring the United States to embrace not only its special relationship with the British but also its role within the UN as a superpower.
Lesson at a Glance
For a very long time, the United States kept itself out of the affairs of other nations, using an isolationist approach. However, all of that changed during World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, the United States is recognized as a world leader and a superpower.
Once you've reviewed the lesson, your successive actions might include:
- Speak on the isolationist stance of the U.S. during World War I
- Note the purpose of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points plan
- Discuss America's neutrality during the first two years of World War II
- Highlight the positive relationship that developed between the British and Americans
- Describe America's development of the Marshall Plan and the United Nations as the country became a superpower
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