The World Takes Advantage of American Isolationism | BETWEEN TWO WARS | 1933 part 3 of 3

Updated : Oct 24, 2019 in Articles

The World Takes Advantage of American Isolationism | BETWEEN TWO WARS | 1933 part 3 of 3

In 1933, more than a decade of American isolationism,
pacifism, and non-interventionism has allowed other major powers to use a military power
vacuum to reshape the status quo post Great War. Because, you know, when the cat’s away,
the mice will dance on the tables. But no longer it seems, as US President Roosevelt
now puts American remilitarization back on the agenda. Welcome to Between-2-Wars a chronological
summary of the interwar years, covering all facets of life, the uncertainty, hedonism,
and euphoria, and ultimately humanity’s descent into the darkness of the Second World War.
I’m Indy Neidell. Though the fighting of World War One ended
in 1918, the armament factories of the victorious belligerents didn’t stop working. While the
German High Seas Fleet is scuttled, the US, UK, France, Italy, and Japan are drawn into
a Naval Arms race that risks shuffling the newly established power balance of the world.
The US have planned to have 50 modern battleships by 1919, though this doesn’t happen. Japan
orders 16 new capital ships. Even Britain, already the owner of the world’s most powerful
fleet, keeps ordering new vessels. But the public has had enough of war, enough
of the expenditures, and American public opinion heavily favors isolationism. Moreover, many
believe that it was the pre-ww1 arms race that caused the conflict to escalate as it
did, so new measures to prevent this from ever happening again are now in the making. So in 1921, representatives of Britain, France,
Japan, and Italy travel to Washington to discuss global naval disarmament. President Warren G. Harding – who does see
an arms race as one of the major causes of the war, is afraid that American naval armament
might not only strain US resources, but will also lead to a future conflict with Japan
or even Britain in the Pacific. The Washington Naval Conference puts these fears to rest.
Under American pressure the five powers agree to limit the number of capital ships- battleships,
battlecruisers, and air-carriers. The US and Britain are allowed an equal amount
of tonnage for their capital ships. Japan is entitled a slightly smaller navy, the same
as France and Italy. The amount of smaller vessels below 10,000 tons is not limited.
Any ships above the limit set are to be destroyed, and construction of new ships is to be halted.
No new ships can be constructed for the next 10 years. Just to be safe, the US, the UK,
and Japan also explicitly agree to leave the status quo in the pacific as is. And with
the stroke of a pen or five, the anticipated naval arms-race is neutralized. But the Navy isn’t the only branch of the
US military subject to change. The Army and National Guard are also reformed. The 1920 Defense Act moves away from maintaining
a large standing army and toward a small defense force with an option of mass mobilization.
The Regular Army and the National Guard are extended with a new branch; the Organized
Reserves. The US Army will be downsized to no more than 130.000 men in 1922. The Army
will also be responsible, though, for training the National Guard and the Organized Reserves. American pacifist efforts increase throughout
the 20s. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signs the Kellogg-Briand Pact in Paris declaring
a “frank renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy”. In other words, war
is outlawed as a tool of geopolitics. 31 countries, including Japan and Germany, sign the pact
before it goes into effect in 1929. This treaty is revolutionarily in its idealism, and the
US negotiator – Secretary of State Frank Kellogg – will win the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
In 1930, The London Naval Treaty is signed, again restricting shipbuilding for the world’s
great powers and imposing strict regulations for submarine warfare, such as their total
displacement tonnage and gun sizes. And if you see it form a global conflict perspective,
and not just localized, the 1920s have been a time of comparable peace – unquestionably
in part because of naval treaties. So the US feels validated in its isolationist
stance, and it continues into the 1930s. And as the Great Depression begins, American Politics
are focused ever more on domestic issues to repair the ailing economy. In Latin America, the Monroe Doctrine gives
way to the 1933 ‘Good Neighbor Policy’. The Monroe Doctrine, established in the 1820s,
made the US the protector of the Americas against European colonialism and anything
that might interfere with US interests in the western hemisphere. It resulted in multiple
interventions or even invasions of places the Dominican Republic or Haiti. Following
the ‘Good Neighbour Policy’, though, the United States vows to no longer intervene in Latin
American domestic issues. The rising tensions in In Europe and Japan
that follows the rise of new militarist governments causes Americans to become even more isolationist.
America is not keen to enter yet another devastating war far from home, and when Japan invades
Manchuria in 1931, America does little. President Herbert Hoover issues the Stimson Doctrine,
which rejects recognition of any territory acquired by military force as legitimate.
It leaves Japan fairly unimpressed. Instead it interprets this as the US not willing to
take its responsibility to protect the status quo in the Pacific. So instead of a threat,
Japan sees an opportunity. This isolationist attitude has a significant
effect on military spending, and thus on the shape of the military in general. By the 1930s, the US army is still roughly
the same size as it was in 1922, mostly using WW1-era equipment and weapons. In general,
the military is low on the political priority list. With public favor of a pacifist and
isolationist foreign policy, the army doesn’t enjoy tremendous public support. As a result,
cut after cut in funding has left the US Army – like the navy – in a pretty dire state
by the time Roosevelt takes office in 1933. But one of Roosevelt’s first acts is the foundation
of the Civilian Construction Corps (CCC), designed to provide jobs to around 3 million
unemployed American men between the age of 18 and 25. The army runs the CCC Camps, though
FDR publicly states that it is not a military project. But the mobilization is carried out
exceptionally quickly, which gives Army officers valuable experience in speedy mobilization. And such experience might come in handy soon,
as some of the former signatories of the Washington Pact and London Treaty refuse to renew them. Since the signing of the Naval Treaties, the
international political and economic landscape has changed. Under new fascist or militarist
regimes, many countries begin beefing up their armies and expanding their navies. The US
does little, nearly nothing to intervene. But Roosevelt does grow increasingly worried
as Japan starts commissioning new ships. This does challenge the status quo in the pacific
and threatens US trade interests in the region. That fear is confirmed by the American ambassador
to Japan, who telegraphs to Roosevelt that “The Japanese fighting force considered the United
States as their potential enemy . . . Because they think the United States is standing in
the path of their nation’s natural expansion”. See, during the entire Hoover administration,
not a single ship, not even within the treaty allowances had been commissioned. In 1934,
the US Navy has 372 ships, 288 of which – around 75%, are in dire need of replacement. Many
of them are outdated WW1-era destroyers that are no match for a modern naval vessel. And
though Roosevelt might be worried, Congress refuses his proposals for naval rearmament.
Many politicians are still advocating isolationism, and the budget is already seriously stretched
because of the Great Depression. In 1934, Japan completes the first part of
its naval rearmament program – the Circle Plan – activating 39 new warships. An additional
48 warships will be completed by 1937. To a lot of people, it is clear that Japan is
preparing its navy, not just for war, but for full control over the Pacific. During
negotiations for a Second London Naval Treaty, Japan bluntly walks out when the US and the
UK are unwilling to allow Japan to have as many capital ships as they already have. Instead,
the Japanese announce that by the end of 1936 – when the Washington Naval Treaty expires
– they are no longer bound by any naval treaty limiting their naval construction. The US, France, and Britain do sign the Second
London Naval Treaty in 1936, and this gives Japan a head start for some hypothetical arms-race.
But precisely for this reason, Roosevelt has no interest in upholding it. The treaty has
a backdoor, so the US can increase its navy if Japan continues to threaten the status
quo in the pacific. Now, this is excellent PR for Roosevelt since to the public, he appears
to be a frontrunner for naval limitations and an advocate for peace and non-interventionism
– which becomes crucial as the 1936 elections come ever closer, but in reality he has opened
the door to rearmament. Roosevelt’s ally Carl Vinson, Congressman
from Georgia and avid naval rearmament advocate since the 1920s, now asks Congress for a 3.3$
billion public works program to fight unemployment. As soon as the bill is approved, Roosevelt
slices 237$ million off for construction of 30 new warships. The isolationist majority
in Congress angrily denounce Roosevelt, but he simply replies that he is creating nothing
but desperately needed jobs. Privately, Roosevelt sighs with relief, and tells his Secretary
of the Navy, Claude Swinson: “Claude, we got away with murder that time”.
But don’t think that most Americans are oblivious to the Japanese threat. In 1934, Vinson proposes
a new naval act in Congress. This bill, dubbed the Vinson-Trammel Naval Act, aims to gradually
replace old ships and build new ones, but still within the restrictions of the Washington
Naval Pact from the 1920s. 102 new vessels are to be built and commissioned over the
next eight years. The idea is that when construction is completed, the US Navy would be able to
withstand the Imperial Japanese Navy. But make no mistake, the US is nowhere near being
the powerhouse that they need to be to rule the waves. The first of their new capital
ships will only finish production well into the second half of the 1930s, while Japan
is already way ahead with its Circle Plan. As global tensions continue to rise, the army
also gets funds to modernize and expand its numbers slightly, starting in 1935. Horses
are replaced by motorized vehicles, new light M1 tanks and medium-sized M2 tanks are introduced
and incorporated in the infantry. The bolt-action M1903 Springfield rifles are replaced by semi-automatic
M1 Garand rifles, a significant advantage over any other countries still using bolt-action
rifles. Roosevelt bases his strategic doctrine on
the’ Fortress America’ concept rather than a war overseas, which he and especially Congress
wants to avoid at all costs. Some 50.000 men- a third of the army at this time, are deployed
to coastal fortifications and artillery positions as a second line behind the US Atlantic fleet,
America’s primary defense. In the ‘Protective Mobilization Plan’ of 1937, the National Guard
are to be incorporated into the army in the case of war, bringing effective wartime army
personnel up to 400.000. Mass mobilization could potentially add millions to that number,
of course. So here we are – as 1935 comes around the
US Army is growing and a Naval Arms Race in the Pacific seems unavoidable. The Japanese are still working on their circle
plan as the Americans try to catch up. But the Americans are late to the party, and public
opinion still heavily favors isolationism. Which begs the question: ‘Is it all too little
too late?’ As the Second Sino-Japanese War breaks out in 1937, which we’ll cover in a
future Between Two Wars episode, an American gunboat – the USS Panay – is on patrol in
the Yangtze River. 12 Japanese planes attack the boat, sinking it and causing 46 American
casualties. Roosevelt and Congress are furious. Japan claims that the pilots “didn’t see”
the US flags on the gunboat. They apologize and pay an indemnity to the United States.
Roosevelt is far from satisfied but is held back by the non-interventionists. He can only
issue a public condemnation of the Japanese. But this is a turning point. The Japanese
are not playing games and Roosevelt knows it. A second Vinson-Trammel act in 1938 aims
to beef up the army by 20%, and the Two-Ocean Navy act creates plans that could increase
the US Navy by 70% by 1940. Yet at this time it still seems unlikely that
they will ever be used. The US remain fiercely isolationist. In August 1935, the Congress
passes its first neutrality act, banning all export of arms and munitions to belligerent
nations. Roosevelt is not in favor of this. See, this restricts him so he cannot aid friendly
countries like France and Britain if they’re in need, and he even considers vetoing it.
But when Mussolini invades Abyssinia, FDR wants to prevent Italy from getting American
arms, which prompts him to sign the act after all.
The law also specifies that US citizens who are traveling to belligerent nations do so
at their own risk and that they cannot expect the US to intervene on their behalf. In early
1936, the act is renewed for another 14 months and expanded by banning loans and credit lines
to belligerent nations. Later amendments even ban all American citizens from traveling on
belligerent ships and forbid US ships from transporting any arms at all. There are some
backdoors though, through which allied nations can be supported. Belligerent nations are
allowed to buy American materials “not considered to be an implement of war”, like food and
oil, provided they are exclusively using their own ships and paying with cash on location.
This is clearly meant for Britain and France, who have the money and can safely cross the
Atlantic at will. This is the’ cash-and-carry’ system that I talked about on our World War
Two channel, and at least gives Roosevelt some cards to play with. With a clever maneuver, Roosevelt prevents
Japan from using the ‘Cash and Carry’ provision in the Second Sino-Japanese War. This is considered
partisan by FDR’s political enemies, who fear that Roosevelt is taking sides in a foreign
conflict with god knows what agenda. When the cash-and-carry provision’s term expires
in early 1939, Congress blocks its renewal, even after the German annexation of Czechoslovakia and
the outbreak of war in September. It isn’t until November 1939, when US public opinion
begins to sway towards the Allies, that FDR can renew and expand the cash-and-carry provision.
From then on, the cash-and-carry provision will include all materials, including the
‘war materials’ that weren’t allowed under the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and Cash and Carry
act of 1937. You could argue that US neutrality ended for
all practical purposes in 1937, when the cash-and-carry provision was introduced, designed by Roosevelt
specifically to aid France and the UK. Roosevelt is starting to pave the way for a US intervention
on the Allied side in case of war. However, years of pacifism, isolationism and non-interventionism
had caused the US Navy and Army to lag behind. Japan, Germany and Italy already start remilitarizing
in the early 1930s, and after Japan begins to wage war in 1931 and again in 1937, they
find themselves virtually unopposed by other major powers. The Japanese horizon gradually
expands, and new lands in the pacific seem up for grabs. Who would even dare to stop
them? The US? Well, the US is not ready for that, and it will have to make a considerable
effort if it will ever stand a chance to maintain dominion of its Pacific Interest. But in 1933,
pretty much everyone feels that Japan is land far, far away form any US harbor, right? If you’d like to know more about how the
US turned away from the world right after the First World War, check out our first episode
about US isolationism right here. Our Patron of the week is Torstein Fjukstad. Do like
Torstein and join the TimeGhost army at or Subscribe, click the bell… And as conservative pundit Stephen Colbert
once said: ‘If our Founding Fathers wanted us to care about the rest of the world, they
wouldn’t have declared their independence from it.’


  • This episode is very much about the global ramifications of the US's foreign policy. American inaction and isolationism left room for other nations to develop imperialist ambitions. There are of course a lot of other factors that influenced the rise of expansionist and militarist governments in Europe and East-Asia, many of which are explained in our other Between Two Wars episodes. In no way does this video have any connection to current-day events or our opinion on them. This is what happened, our future episodes will be about what followed. We're historians and that's all we want to do here.

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  • Uhm no comment as Its an awesome episode… But i would love to learn more about whats happening in other places like Africa and central america

  • Indy, who pinned that American Flag polow to your back? The presentation was most informative but the prop was a bit distracting.

  • You may wish to talk to the people of the Philippines or South America about that isolationism. The only mistake made was getting involved in the first war.

  • Holy Cow! Even a reference to the MLB expansion San Diego Padres! Trivia: Nate Colbert is one of only 2 players to hit 5 home runs in a single game.

  • Fun thing about Japan and the naval treaties is that their ships built in that period were about as compliant with the treaty requirements as Germany was with the war reparations.
    And that pronunciation of Panay was pretty good.

  • The Washington Treaty is more complex than set out here, for example aircraft carriers already under construct when the treaty covering them was signed were exempt from the terms of the treaty.

  • Good stuff as always.
    Enjoy your videos very much.
    I'm 70, people used to be taught this in school, and the importance of the past on the future.
    Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
    But now children learn about condoms and sodomy. Why Unisex bathrooms are important.
    The deteriorating quality of our country is depressing.

  • I think many of today's isolationist politicians in the US would be wise to draw conclusions from the ramifications of this policy in the 1920s and 1930s

  • Maybe due to the length of the show this fact was not mentioned, but the Japanese continued to feel slighted at their treatment as an Ally in regards to treaties after the First World War. This mistake by the major powers twenty years earlier factored greatly in the Japanese decisions remarked upon in this episode. In your defense, I know you mentioned it early on in this series or in the final episodes of the WW1 series. It just seemed like you missed an opportunity to illustrate where the politics of 1918-1919 (And those of the Washington and London Naval Treaties) came back to bite the major powers in the tail with respect to the Japanese treaty decisions in the 1930's. Japan wanted to be viewed as an equal on the world stage.

  • 1920s was also relatively peaceful due to WW1 post war exhaustion. however there was widespread heavy fighting in China which was a weapons sink for arms sellers around the world, the great powers and arms dealers made a LOT of money in the 20s and 30s selling surplus WW1 weapons to Chinese warlords and revolutionaries.

  • Hey Indi, Stockholmare and other staff. Now you made me really excited about maybe getting a bio pic about George Marshall and some talks about the purges he enacted on the US general staff. Love your work. Keep it up! -Merry Gothenburger

  • The US is always late to the party, but when we get there we have all the snacks and fireworks! I kept looking at your chair Indy and couldn't help but think it belongs in a house in Texas, then I had an epiphany, you take the boy out of Tx, but can't take the Tx out of the boy. <grins> Thanks for another superb episode.

  • We fought the wrong enemy in WW1; If were the president at the time- I would've jointed the central powers to fight the allies and absorb Canada into the united states.

  • Actually US isolationism made it into a superpower because it can enter the war after everyone bombed each other to stone age while selling supply, ammo and weapons to both side. It's a win win.

  • Hirohito: "Please dont wake the sleeping giant, please dont wake the sleeping giant, please dont wake the sleeping giant, please…"
    Tojo: "I woke the sleeping giant."
    Hirohito: "Fuck!"
    Japan: Gets nuked
    Tojo: surprised Pikachu face

  • American isolationism is so frustrating. Imagine if only the Americans (and the British and the French) would have finished the job after WW1 by defeating the Bolsheviks, a lot of future events would have been avoided. Perhaps WW2 would have been avoided.

  • Today we can difficult imagine that there are politicians who really care about their country.
    Abusing a law and searching for loophools to do good for a country is way better then abusing a law and searching for loophools just to benifit personally of it.

    When the US stayed srictly neutral and Japan didn't attack the US, Or the US kept ist monroe act the entire History of the world could be very different as we know it today.

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