FDR Announces US Neutrality | 3 September 1939
When the Second World War erupted in early September 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt quickly sought both to reassure and admonish the American public with one of his famous “fireside chats.” Speaking via radio to households across the USA on September 3, FDR declared American neutrality. “The nation will remain a neutral nation,” the president announced, “as long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.” Yet while he pledged peace, Roosevelt postured for a more active U.S. role in the emerging conflagration. FDR warned his audience that neither neutrality nor distance could guarantee American security in a globalized world: “when peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.” He asked Americans to measure world events against their own safety and values. “I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought,” Roosevelt advised listeners, “even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind and close his conscience.”
Why did FDR send this paradoxical message over the air waves? Why did he pledge U.S. neutrality, while at the same time nudge Americans towards greater involvement in the new global conflict?
Fireside Chat #14 reveals FDR on the horns of a dilemma.
Fireside Chat Fourteen reveals President Roosevelt on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he believed America’s peace and security demanded that the nation offer material support to the Western powers standing against Nazi aggression. At the same time, FDR recognized that such action ran against a groundswell of public opinion strongly opposed to entangling the United States in foreign conflict. Horrified by the high cost of U.S. intervention in the Great War of 1914-1918, the anti-entanglement voices argued that political isolation, not engagement, would best shield the nation from harm.
As the 1930s advanced, many Americans viewed with alarm a pattern of increasingly aggressive behavior by totalitarian powers in Europe and Asia. In 1932 Japan seized resource-rich Manchuria, then launched an all-out invasion of China five years later. Meanwhile, Hitler forcefully extended German political and military control over the Rhineland (Germany’s formerly demilitarized borderland with France), Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Fascist Italy pushed into Ethiopia and Albania.
Sensing the growing danger, Congress codified isolationist sentiments in a series of Neutrality Acts passed between 1935-1939. Seeking to forestall actions that might draw America into an overseas conflict, these acts prohibited the sale or transport of arms to nations at war, forbade Americans from traveling in vessels registered under belligerent flags, blocked financial support to belligerent powers, and imposed other restrictions. Thus when the European war erupted in September 1939, Roosevelt had to balance the stringent neutrality mandated by public law with his own convictions that America should aid the Western democracies against fascist aggression.
While critical segments of public opinion opposed embroiling the United States in distant foreign conflicts, other Americans, including President Roosevelt, embraced a different view. During the late 1930s FDR concluded that the growing world turmoil instigated by Hitler’s Germany and other rogue states menaced America’s peace and prosperity. In his “Quarantine Speech” of October 5, 1937 Roosevelt called for international action to stem an “epidemic of world lawlessness.” “It impossible for any nation,” the president declared, “completely to isolate itself from economic and political upheavals in the rest of the world.”
With general war a reality two years later, Roosevelt worried lest the Nazi juggernaut overwhelm Western Europe, leaving the United States alone to cope with a world dominated by unfriendly totalitarian oppressors. However, as long as public consensus and federal law affirmed a relatively strict neutrality, the United States could offer no meaningful assistance to the anti-German coalition–which FDR regarded as America’s first line of defense. Ever the canny politician, Roosevelt knew that democratic process required him first to cultivate public support for sustaining the Western Allies more actively.
As an acknowledged master of the air waves, the president instinctively employed the new medium of radio to promote his policy agenda. From his earliest days in office, FDR had reached out directly to American homes and workplaces via radio to explain important issues and outline his plans and policies. During these broadcasts, the president utilized a folksy style that resonated with many listeners and earned him wide public acclaim. Throughout the 1930s, FDR focused his fireside chats upon economic policies aimed at recovering from the Great Depression. However, with the deepening international crisis of 1939 national security suddenly became the principal theme of his broadcasts. Instead of trying to win public support for domestic programs, Roosevelt now sought approval for an activist foreign policy.
Fireside Chat Fourteen thus laid important groundwork for shifting the United States from a rigid neutrality to a policy that allowed greater flexibility in dealing with belligerent powers. Congress signaled this shift two months later when it repealed the arms embargo provisions of the Neutrality Acts, and affirmed “Cash and Carry” procedures that allowed belligerents to transport war materiel purchased from U.S. suppliers in their own cargo ships. Although these arrangements applied to all warring nations, they benefited the Western Allies more than the Axis powers due to Britain’s command of the sea lanes between Europe and North America.
As Allied fortunes waned over the next two years, political momentum in the United States continued to favor the Western powers. Despite vociferous opposition from isolationist groups, Roosevelt pushed through the Destroyers-for-Bases deal with Britain (September, 1940), and earned Congressional blessing for the Lend-Lease program (March, 1941), among other measures.
The mixed messages embodied by FDR’s Fireside Chat Fourteen–his announcement of U.S. neutrality while encouraging American consciences to ponder a more interventionist path–reflected the challenges and strengths of crafting effective foreign policy while respecting democratic process.
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