September 8, 2017

1937. The New York Times Criticizes American Isolationism

America's Aloofness
"Thousands gather at an America First Committee rally in the Chicago Arena to listen to organization's chairmen, Gen. Robert Wood and Col. Charles Lindbergh give speeches advocating for isolationism and cutting off aid to Britain, April 17, 1941" (source)
This article is part of a series of posts on how The New York Times covered the rise and fall of fascism in Europe. In 1937 the Times published an editorial critical of American isolationists, who the Times believed were hindering American leadership in the world and giving authoritarian regimes free rein to pursue aggressive expansion.

From The New York Times, November 30, 1937:

The United States has lost its leadership in world affairs and to that fact can largely be attributed the impotence of the Nine-Power Treaty Conference in Brussels. The reason for this loss of influence is plain: treaty-breaking Governments and dictators have become convinced that no cause short of actual invasion will the United States initiate or join in any effective movement to assure world peace.

For this conviction on the part of these treaty-breakers the "isolationists" and "pacifists" in Congress and their vociferous supporters in the country are chiefly responsible. These groups include persons who believe that we can stay out of any world conflict. They attribute our entrance into the last international war to British propaganda and the schemes of bankers to enrich themselves; and they oppose any strong peace measures by this Government, even though to abstain from such might mean the loss of freedom to those who regard it as highly as they themselves, and an impairment of liberty to men and women in this very hemisphere.

It is the assertion of such groups and their Congressional representatives that, because of the gifts of nature and geography, the United States can retain its institutions and live its full life alone in a world where democracy does not elsewhere exist, even though Great Britain and France were shackled by despotisms which turn human beings into machines for conquest and consign liberty to the fallacies of the past.

The power of these groups and their spokesmen has been in the ascendancy, as acts and events plainly indicate. In recent years they have seized upon every indication when the American government was seeking to express the inscruples of conscience against treaty-breaking and aggression, to proclaim that, in no circumstances, would this people do anything effective to restore moral standards among nations. Organizing, writing pamphlets and using the Congressional Record as their gazette, they gave notice as early as when Japan seized Manchukuo that the fixed future policy of the United States would be to keep out of war abroad, and that it would take no steps to prevent it, however clear the threat to their own institutions.


The attitude took from the so-called Neutrality Act of 1936, with its "declaration of a state of war" and its "cash-and-carry" provisions. By the first named, the President was instructed by Congress, upon discovery of a state of war abroad, to withhold war materiel from all concerned, regardless of whether an invaded nation, fighting for its own as in the case of Ethiopia, was left at the mercy of a most ruthless aggressor. By the second named, American vessels were virtually swept from the seas, and only those warring nations which have navies and trade fleets were given access to our markets.

Attempts, in the name of international decency, to distinguish between honest and dishonest Governments and to permit aid to nations clearly acting in self-defense against banditry, were beaten down in Congress. The world was put on notice that the United States was out to save its own skin from immediate dangers; and the dictators were informed that an American group controlling policy was prepared to see the world remade on fascist lines without interference and apparently without understanding that this would mean anything dangerous to us at all.

When the President, recently voicing this people's indignation against the invasion of China by Japan and horror at the butchery of Shanghai, recalled that there still were "quarantines" against Governments which did these things, a wholesome fear arose in certain capitals that the Neutrality Act might not represent enduring policy for the United States. And when next day the State Department named Japan as aggressor, the fear spread. But a little inquiry sufficed to prove that the pacifist and the isolationist groups would not thus be led. Their Congressional representatives denounced the expressions as violations of the spirit of the Neutrality Act, which in truth they were, and, as soon as Congress met, the press cables carried abroad proposals of war referenda and other evidences that the group which framed the act is unchanged in its attitude. The Japanese Ambassador to Washington did his duty, and did it accurately and well, when he informed his colleagues at Brussels that pacifism was still the American mood. The circulation of this report in the conference capital both tempered the messages to Tokyo and stiffened the rejections therefrom and in its atmosphere the Brussels conference went to its inevitable, inept doom.

Meanwhile, on the pretext that a world alliance against communism is the first essential to peace, Japan, Germany and Italy have signed a treaty. Outwardly it pledges these governments to stand with force against the encroachment of Soviet teachings and the Soviet form of government. But in some European chancelleries and in Washington the pact is interpreted as a pledge, necessarily not stated in the treaty, that each of these three nations will stand by the two others, defensively and offensively, until each has gained its territorial and other objectives. To illustrate: If Italy further threatens in the Mediterranean and Great Britain steps in to check, Japan will proceed against Hong Kong and Singapore. If Germany thrusts southeastward in Europe and Great Britain and France move to check, Italy will extend her Mediterranean spheres and Japan will strike at French and British possessions in the Orient.

The ability of the three fascist States to carry out the arrangement outlined above is, of course, open to the most serious doubts. Germany's Baltic coast is bare to the attack of the British fleet, and experts are far from convinced that Mussolini could have his way in the Mediterranean, even with Britain greatly preoccupied in Northern European waters. The fact, however, that such a construction by responsible statesmen is placed upon the large treaty, which was heretofore largely regarded as a mutual envisioning of bugaboos, now places the alliance where the democracies of the two hemispheres must consider it in stating their policies. And nothing could more effectively give expression to realization of the danger implicit in it than a tangible expression of the determination of this country to stand by the other democracies should the need arise.


This is not a preachment for war measures. The people of the United States are set against military expeditions, and rightly so. But there are effective peace measures, the most recent illustration being the decision of the British and American Governments to negotiate a trade treaty. This should be supplemented by every possible kind of private and public cooperation between Britons and Americans and others who speak, if not the same language, at least the same spiritual tongue. Understandings on trade, money and credit will serve as certain weapons against treaty-breakers.

Our statesmen and leaders of public thought could aid peace mightily if, losing fear of the blind peace groups and gaining confidence that plain common sense and self-interest can be trusted, they engaged in public exchanges to put the enemies of peace on notice that the great democracies are aware of what is planned and will stand together against it. The sure shadow of economic starvation on the spendthrift Governments which cannot wage war unless we supply them, and deny supplies to their victims, can be made sufficiently effective as a deterrent without resort to the substance of sanctions or war.

Should such cooperations be publicly and steadily revealed, and such changes of thought take place, The New York Times believes the American people will awake to the facts which menace this nation; and the world will learn that events are conceivable, that circumstances can arise, outside this hemisphere, which will instantly range American public opinion behind an effective peace policy and make junk overnight of the so-called Neutrality Act. In the face of such exchanges of thought the policy of democratic nations will be stiffened and grooved; and treaty-breakers and dictators will take prudent counsel among themselves.

In such a manner can this nation restore a will for peace in the world and re-establish its lost leadership in international affairs. By such means the ravishers of small or weak neighbors and the enemies of democracy will discover that the United States has not become so timorous and so stupid as to abandon its responsibilities and imperil its greatness and its freedom. It will be wiser to put them on notice at once.