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American isolationism in the 1930s

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What Impact did American isolationism have on global politics during the 1930s?

Before examining the impact of American isolationism it is imperative that we define isolationism, to decide whether in fact America was actually isolationist during the 1930s. Then we can look at the impact any American action or inaction had on global politics during the period. Global politics also needs to be defined, given the limited space available to this essay some degree of discretion will have to be used in examining American influence on world politics in a very busy decade.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany seems to this writer to be one of, perhaps the most, important developments in the political world of the 1930s, in terms of the legacy, and influence on the political situation in the world at the end of the decade. Given the comparative lack of material focusing on the American role of the emergence of this force, there will be special focus on this important aspect of global politics.

The question implies that America was isolationist during the 1930s, but rather than unquestioningly accepting the assertion that America was only focused on domestic issues following the economic crash of 1929, it seems important to look at the evidence of American action. The notion of a nation living in some sort of blissful state of ignorance and innocence until Pearl Harbour shattered that illusion and forced America, reluctantly, once again onto the world stage, is patently simplistic. This does not do justice to the complex relations America had with the outside world, socially, politically and economically.

A good definition of isolationism comes to us courtesy of Assistant Proffessor. Bear F. Braumoeller of Harvard University:

Isolationism is the voluntary abstention by a state from taking part in security-related politics in an area of the international system over which it is capable of exerting control.

This definition is a good one, and would serve our purpose well, but it only deals with the politics of isolationism, not the business of isolationism. I feel it would be important to look at American business, and how involvement of certain companies with certain governments could have a major impact on international politics of the 1930s.

For a state to be truly isolationist there would not be only political abstinence, but social and economic abstinence from the involvement in areas in which they otherwise could be. Perhaps the best example of a state isolating itself from the world would be Japan of the Tokugawa shogunate, which managed to isolate Japan for a good two centuries. I think it will become clear that American isolationism was not in the same league.

America throughout the early 1900s had a large number of immigrants arriving annually, by 1930 there were nearly 14 million foreign born residents in the US. During the 1930s, partly due to the depression, mainly due to quotas, there were only 500,000 immigrants into the US, compared to the almost 8 million of 1900-10 this number was low, but all of these figures show that America, socially, was far from Isolationist during the 1930s.

There seems to be a consensus among those who are of the view that America was isolationist, that American isolationism was first indicated by the non-ratification of America?s membership of the League of Nations on the 18th November 1919. The vote was actually 49-35 in favour of joining the League; this was seven votes short of meeting the required two-thirds majority the senate requires for passing such legislation. Given there are 100 members of the senate, this writer wonders where the other 16 voters were and wonders ?what if?. The lack of American participation in the League was, it seems, not due to an overwhelming desire for isolationism on the part of the US Senate, but an unfortunate constitutional technicality, which has been misconstrued by many since then.

Rather than looking at what the legislative body of America did or did not pass into law, we should look at actions that were taken by American concerns in various parts of the world, and the impact of American caused events not words, on the global politics of the 1930s.

Prior to the 1930s America in its treatment and attitude towards South America, Latin America and the Caribbean rigidly adhered to the Monroe Doctrine, a self serving piece of imperial legislation that was the antithesis of Isolationism. America had been busy in the early 20th century in its own backyard; this testimony from General Smedley D. Butler of the US Marine Corps gives a broad overview of the type of involvement the US was embroiled in, close to home and further a field.

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ?right? for American fruit companies in 1903. In China I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested?

Looking at the 1930s to the immediate south the United States it appears there was a period of relative calm, that American interests were not being too actively or violently pursued in the region. The ?threat? of communism had not yet made it to the South American continent, economy and favourable political regimes had been secured by previous interventions and this secured the region as a market for US exports; ?by 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America.? . This situation good for the industrialists and good for those in the south making money on cotton, the situation was rather tame compared to what had gone before, the military involvement slowed during the 1930s, perhaps America was settling into a period of isolationism after a major economic trauma to the nation.

Or perhaps it was because the likes of Standard Oil, Brown Brothers and JP Morgan, had found another, more lucrative playground for America. Europe.

JP Morgan owned broker, Owen D. Young formulated an economic plan for Germany in 1928 to help the nation in its continuing post war economic crisis. This plan was cited by self-confessed Hitler financier Fritz Thyssen as the moment which

?I turned to the National Socialist Party only after I became convinced that the fight against the Young Plan was unavoidable if complete collapse of Germany was to be prevented.?

That the Young plan should be one of more important reasons for the rise of Hitler warrants study in itself. It seems co-incidental that Owen D. Young had close financial ties during the 1920s to Franklin D. Roosevelt. These ties manifested themselves in backing for Roosevelt when he was a Wall Street financier. It seems even more co-incidental international bankers based on Wall Street, New York and industrialists in both countries were instrumental in bringing both Roosevelt and Hitler to power in America and Germany in 1933.

I feel that I should cite some evidence to show that certain business interests and individuals, such as Owen Young, helped advance the progress of Roosevelt and Hitler.

General Electric, for example, is prominent in both Nazi Germany and the New Deal. German General Electric was a prominent financier of Hitler and the Nazi Party, and A.E.G. also financed Hitler both directly and indirectly through Osram. International General Electric in New York was a major participant in the ownership and direction of both A.E.G. and Osram. Gerard Swope, Owen Young, and A. Baldwin of General Electric in the United States were directors of A.E.G. However, the story does not stop at General Electric and financing of Hitler in 1933?

?[the] executive offices of General Electric were also at 120 Broadway. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was working in Wall Street, his address was also 120 Broadway. In fact, Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, the FDR Foundation, was located at 120 Broadway. The prominent financial backer of an early Roosevelt Wall Street venture from 120 Broadway was Gerard Swope of General Electric. And it was "Swope's Plan" that became Roosevelt's New Deal.

There were then both corporate and individual bridges between FDR?s America and Hitler's Germany. The first bridge was the American I.G. Farben, American affiliate of I.G. Farben, the largest German corporation. On the board of American I.G. sat Paul Warburg, of the Bank of Manhattan and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The second bridge was between International General' Electric, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric Company and its partly owned affiliate in Germany, A.E.G. Gerard Swope, who formulated FDR's New Deal, was chairman of I.G.E. and on the board of A.E.G. The third "bridge" was between Standard Oil of New Jersey and Vacuum Oil and its wholly owned German subsidiary, Deutsche-Amerikanisehe Gesellschaft. The chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey was Walter Teagle, of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He was a trustee of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and appointed by FDR to a key administrative post in the National Recovery Administration.

Now, as far as this student knows, none of the international financiers of Hitler were tried at Nuremburg or subsequently. According to the Chair of Standard oil:

During the entire period of our business contacts, we had no inkling of Farben's conniving part in Hitler's brutal politics, We offer any help we can give to see that complete truth is brought to light, and that rigid justice is done.

F.W. Abrams,

Chairman of Board

Regardless of investors knowledge of Hitler?s plans, despite Mien Kampf being available, although slightly toned down in the English translation, despite the situation in America during the 30s, with segregation in certain states, heated racial tensions, the deportation of an estimated 400,000 Mexicans from America , the rise of the theory of eugenics to back up racist ideologies with ?science?. Despite America?s own history of allowing inhumane treatment of human beings and exploitation of continents on a massive scale, despite the reporting of policies and atrocities in Nazi Germany in America during the 1930s, despite all this, it seems that his economic supporters did not or could imagine worst excesses of Hitler?s regime.

One cannot say that Roosevelt did not know of American involvement in Germany, far from it in fact, as this memo from William Dood, US ambassador to Germany in 1936 to President Roosevelt shows:

Much as I believe in peace as our best policy, I cannot avoid the fears which Wilson emphasized more than once in conversations with me, August 15, 1915 and later: the breakdown of democracy in all Europe will be a disaster to the people. But what can you do? At the present moment more than a hundred American corporations have subsidiaries here or cooperative understandings. The DuPonts have three allies in Germany that are aiding in the armament business. Their chief ally is the I. G. Farben Company, a part of the Government which gives 200,000 marks a year to one propaganda organization operating on American opinion. Standard Oil Company (New York sub-company) sent $2,000,000 here in December 1933 and has made $500,000 a year helping Germans make Ersatz gas for war purposes;


Even our airplanes people have secret arrangement with Krupps. General Motor Company and Ford do enormous business here through their subsidiaries? I mention these facts because they complicate things and add to war dangers.

European politics of the 1930s saw American interests deeply involved in the political situation of Germany in order to profit economically. This knowledge made available to those at the highest levels, but given that Roosevelt had worked for, was supported by the same groups that supported Hitler, well, it seems hard to think what the man could have done to change the state of affairs.

It seems interesting to note that in 1939, according former Times correspondent for Berlin, New York and Washington, editor of The Week and communist, Claud Cockburn, that in the eyes of the Comintern the declaration of war in Europe ?did not change the essentials of the situation existing during the period of ?peace?? . This view was based on the assumption that despite having declared war, Germany would still, with American and British approval, if not support, attack Russia. Events soon changed the military situation in Europe, but the evidence of the 1940s is that, in America at least, the war in Europe had not changed the business practices of those involved in Germany. That is until the authorities finally acted to severe ties between American businesses and America?s enemy, for instance with the 1942 seizure of Union Banking Corp, who had amongst its shareholders E. Harriman, as in Brown Brothers Harriman and one Prescott S. Bush, later a senator and father and grandfather to two Presidents called George Bush.

As much as I would like to continue exploring the role America played in the world during the 1930?s I must finish the essay at some point, without turning it into a thesis or a book. I have to conclude that it was not American isolationism that affected world politics, but active American participation in certain fields of business and industry that affected world politics most dramatically. The lack of involvement of America in the League of Nations gave the appearance of an aloof and uninterested country. This is most certainly not the case. I would argue that were it not for support from American companies then the emergence of the Nazi party as the most important political entity in Europe could not have occurred. I don?t believe that any state other than America, at the time, could have done more to facilitate the Nazi party and contribute to the massive destabilisation of the political and social situation in Europe in the 1930s.

As for the impact on global politics, at that time Europe still held on to the last vestiges of Empire; Africa was still predominantly under colonial rule as was India. Russia was a self-contained entity wrapped up in its own dictatorship that America could not interfere in too deeply, much the same as China, although there were economic links to that nation, and the US military did defend Shanghai from Japanese aggression in 1932. South and Latin America had decades of imperial involvement and conflicts and the 1930s appears to be a period of American slowly nurturing friendly governments through investment and some political involvement, but when Roosevelt took office the diplomatic involvement was said to be scaled back, leaving the economic apparatus that had been established previously, ticking over quite nicely. There does not appear to be any instance from the 1930s, aside from than Nazi Germany, where American business affected so dramatically the rise and sustenance of a powerful political movement which in turn fundamentally altered the political situation of the world.

Bibliography, the footers don't work properly in this, so, well, work out which is which, not that anyone cares that much, I just wanna show I did my research :P

Bear F. Braumoeller, http://www.wcfia.harvard.edu/papers/579__MythOfUSIsol.pdf, 2002

Hans Schmidt. Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. The University Press of Kentucky, 1987

Howard Zinn, A People?s History of the United States, Perennial, 2001

Fritz Thyssen, I Paid Hitler, (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, INC, p.88.

Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, Antony C. Sutton, www.reformed-theology.org/html/books/wall_street/

Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974), 174-75.

Edgar B. Nixon, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, Volume III: September 1935-January 1937, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1969), p. 456.

I Claud? Claud Cockburn, Penguin, 1967

George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, Webster G. Tarpley & Anton Chaitkin, Executive Intelligence Review, 1991


so whatchya reckon? interesting? informative? well written? likely to get me enough marks to pass the module?

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