The Gathering Storm
For the United States and other democratic nations, the 1930s was a time of growing peril.
Across the globe, economic depression bred mass unemployment and despair. In some nations, financial strife aided the rise of totalitarian leaders. These leaders offered simple solutions to their countries' problems, solutions based on military expansion, extreme nationalism, political violence, and doctrines of racial superiority.
In Europe, German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Italian counterpart, Benito Mussolini, began to threaten their neighbors. In Asia, the military-dominated government of Japan, hungry for land and raw materials, plotted a path of territorial expansion.
As the decade progressed events overseas cast an ever-widening shadow over America. Increasingly, FDR and the nation found their attention drawn away from domestic economic concerns.
Between 1931 and 1939, totalitarian nations in Europe and Asia embarked on paths of aggression and military conquest.
In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria. Six years later, it began a full-scale invasion of China. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. In Europe, Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and absorbed much of Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939. Hitler next set his sights on Poland.
At first, the democratic nations reacted meekly to these acts of aggression. But by 1939, Britain and France were determined to resist Hitler. They pledged to come to Poland's defense if Germany attacked.
Separated by two oceans from these troubles, Americans hoped to avoid involvement in foreign conflicts. Yet some - including President Roosevelt - began to view events overseas with increasing alarm.
FDR wanted to deter international aggression. He believed America's physical distance from Europe and Asia no longer assured its long-term security from foreign threats. But his ability to act was severely restricted by deep-seated American isolationism.
Since the nation's birth, the bedrock of American foreign policy was avoiding entanglement in foreign military alliances and conflicts. While Americans sympathized with the victims of aggression, most felt overseas troubles had little to do with their country's national security. Many regretted American involvement in World War I. Concerned about economic difficulties at home, they hoped to stay out of international disputes.
With public opinion limiting his options, FDR proceeded with caution. He spoke out against violations of international law, but avoided a direct confrontation with the isolationists.