7.11 Interwar Foreign Policy

5 min readdecember 29, 2022

Caleb Lagerwey

Caleb Lagerwey



AP US History 🇺🇸

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After WWI, Before WWII

In the famous words of Warren G. Harding, president from 1921 to 1923, the United States after WWI wanted a return to normalcy. This meant stepping back from so much engagement with Europe. 
This did not mean that the US did not engage with the world altogether: the US still had colonies overseas, wanted increased trade with the rest of the world, and sought to limit the possibility of future wars through mediation and treaties.
For example, the Washington Conference of 1921 tried to stop naval arms races by establishing a ratio of battleships with the US and UK at the top, followed by Japan and then France and Italy (The US’ secret agenda was also to stop growing Japanese naval power in the Pacific). The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) was a promise by countries never to resort to war, but since it had no enforcement provisions, it was largely useless. A good way to remember that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was useless is to think about how you would enforce a no war treaty. In order to enforce no war...that usually requires doing to war.
Finally, in a bit of foreshadowing, the US was a crucial part of setting up the Dawes Plan where US banks made loans to Germany, who then paid their reparations (penalty payments for WWI) to the UK and France, who then repaid American banks for WWI loans, and then the whole cycle repeated itself. This would work well until the 1930s and the Great Depression, of course. Once the US economy crashed, this had rippling effects across the entire world, since now there were few US banks, even fewer of which were able to keep loaning money to Germany.
🎥 Watch: AP US History - The Great Depression and the New Deal

American Isolation 

As the Great Depression worsened and took hold in other countries, some of those countries turned to radical leaders who embraced nationalism, militarism, and expansion as a cure for their countries’ economic woes.
Germany elected the fascist leader Hitler, Italy had Mussolini, the Soviet Union (USSR) had Stalin, and Japan had Tojo. All four leaders were examples of totalitarianism where the state/government took over all aspects of life, and all began to expand their territories in the 1930s. 
While the United States was nervous about the rise of these dictators and their militaries, most continued to support isolationism. This was true even through the late 1930s when Japan invaded China and Germany invaded Poland to start World War Two (WWII)

Good Neighbor Policy

Roosevelt promised a “policy of the good neighbor” toward other nations of the Western Hemisphere. The US delegation at the 7th Pan-American Conference in Uruguay in 1933, pledged never again to intervene in the internal affairs of a Latin American country.
FDR pledged to submit future disputes to arbitration and also warned that if a European power, such as Germany, attempted “to commit acts of aggression against us” it would find “a hemisphere wholly prepared to consult together for our personal safety and our mutual good.”

Neutrality Acts

FDR suspected that war would come to the US too, so he began to pressure the US to prepare, even amidst public opposition to US involvement. He thus moved slowly and in a piece-by-piece fashion. The Neutrality Acts passed in the 1930s made it difficult for the US to trade with nations involved in the war to avoid similar economic entanglements to WWI. 
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Interwar Period

US Assistance to the Allies

The interwar period, between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, was marked by a series of policies implemented by the United States government in an attempt to navigate the complex political landscape of the time. One of the most significant of these policies was the Cash and Carry program, which allowed the British to purchase war materials from the United States as long as they paid in cash and transported the materials themselves. This policy was implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to support the British without fully committing the United States to military involvement in the war.
However, as the conflict continued to escalate, the United States eventually had to take more direct action. The Lend-Lease Act, also implemented by FDR, allowed the British (and later, the Chinese and the Soviet Union) to borrow money and material from the United States in order to continue fighting against the Axis powers. In addition, the Selective Service Act of 1940 established the first peacetime draft in United States history, as the country began to mobilize for war.
These policies were not without their opponents. Many Americans, including Charles Lindbergh and the America First organization, were opposed to any involvement in the war and advocated for traditional American isolationism. Despite these objections, however, the United States eventually entered World War II, with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 serving as the catalyst for full-scale American involvement in the conflict.

Nazism and the United States

During the interwar period, the United States saw the growth of Nazism and fascist ideologies within its own borders. One group that was active during this time was the American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization that sought to promote fascist ideology in the United States. Led by Fritz Julius Kuhn, the group held large public rallies and sought to recruit members from the German-American community.
While the American Bund was eventually disbanded or suppressed, its activities during the interwar period highlight the presence of extreme and hateful ideologies within the United States. The growth of such ideologies was a concern for many Americans, as the country struggled to navigate the political landscape of the time and the threat of foreign aggression. Despite this, however, the United States ultimately entered World War II in 1941 and played a key role in the defeat of the Axis powers.

A pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden

The US is Pushed Into War

Through the first few years of World War II, financial assistance for the Allies was the main involvement of the United States. It wasn't until the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that the United States declared war. The attack was called a "day of infamy" by FDR and soon after, the United States went to war with Japan, Italy, and Germany.
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