Overview of U.S. Foreign Policy During the World Wars

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

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.

In 30 years, the United States went from being just another country, although one with significant economic potential, to being one of the leading superpowers with influence that stretched across the globe. This lesson explains how.


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.

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  • 0:01 Isolationism
  • 1:30 Between the Wars
  • 2:22 First Years of World War II
  • 3:16 World War II
  • 3:58 U.S. as a World Leader
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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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.

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