To the conduct of American foreign policy Franklin Roosevelt brought credentials that were rare in the history of the presidency. His cosmopolitan upbringing as a late-nineteenth-century American aristocrat, including his intellectual formation on two continents, gave him a sophisticated appreciation of the world that was approximated among modern presidents only by his cousin Theodore. Yet the precise imprint of that international background on his policies was sometimes difficult to define. He had served in the government of the archinternationalist Woodrow Wilson and, as his party's vice presidential candidate in 1920, had faithfully echoed Wilson's call for American membership in the League of Nations. Yet during his own presidential campaign in 1932 he repudiated the idea of American entry into the League.
Roosevelt sounded an especially isolationist note in his first inaugural address when he declared that "our international trade relations, though vastly important, are, in point of time and necessity, secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy." He acted consistently with these sentiments when he helped to scuttle the London Economic Conference in June 1933 and embarked thereafter on a highly nationalist monetary policy of drastically devaluing the dollar.
Yet Roosevelt also displayed distinctly internationalist colors in the early years of the New Deal. He chose Senator Cordell Hull of Tennessee, an indefatigable paladin of liberalized international trade, as his secretary of state. He restrained AAA administrator George Peek from dictating narrowly nationalist agricultural policies. He blessed Hull's campaign to secure passage of the Trade Agreements Act of 1934, as well as the secretary's subsequent efforts to negotiate reciprocity treaties incorporating the unconditional most-favored-nation principle. Defying the fierce invective of some conservatives—and the scolding of his own mother—he extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union on 16 November 1933. He made partial amends for his destructive role at the 1933 London Economic Conference when he concluded an exchange stabilization agreement with Britain and France in 1936.
Roosevelt also sought to implement the "Good Neighbor policy" with Latin America. He allowed Secretary Hull to vote in favor of a resolution at the Pan-American Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1933, proclaiming that "no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another." That statement effectively repudiated the belligerent "corollary" Theodore Roosevelt had attached in 1904 to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the claim of the United States to exercise international police power in the western hemisphere. Hull prevailed upon his chief to follow up on that dramatic announcement by renouncing the Platt Amendment (1901), whereby the United States had asserted its right to intervene in Cuban affairs, and by ending in 1934 the twenty-year-old American military occupation of Haiti. Mexico put Roosevelt's good-neighborliness to a demanding test in 1938 when it nationalized its oil industry, expropriating the interests of many American firms. Roosevelt resisted pressure to intervene, and successfully negotiated adequate compensation for the confiscated American properties.
Roosevelt's Latin American policies suggested that he had at most a limited internationalist agenda in the early years of his presidency, confined to making the United States an influential regional power, but no more. That impression was strengthened in March 1934, when Congress mandated the granting of independence to the Philippines within ten years—an apparent signal that the United States intended to diminish its role in Asia.
Roosevelt's halting steps toward a more active international role for the United States took place against a backdrop of gathering isolationist feeling in the country and in Congress. Isolationism had roots sunk deeply into the soil of American history and culture. "Rejection of Europe," the novelist John Dos Passos once wrote, "is what America is all about." The earliest Pilgrims had sought separation from the corruptions of the Old World. George Washington in his farewell address had formulated those sentiments into high political doctrine. "Why . . . entangle our peace and prosperity," he had asked, "in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?"
Americans of Roosevelt's generation had temporarily forsaken that ancient wisdom when they entered the European war in 1917. A decade and a half later, many of them deeply regretted that lapse. Fifty thousand of their countrymen had died, Woodrow Wilson had failed miserably to shape a liberal peace, and Europe, so far from being redeemed by the American intervention, had apparently lost its soul in the postwar era to Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Regret was powerfully reinforced in 1934 when Senator Gerald P. Nye's Munitions Investigating Committee began to publicize sensational accusations that the United States had been cynically maneuvered into the war in 1917 by American bankers and arms manufacturers.
The full force of this isolationist tide was revealed in January 1935, when Roosevelt proposed that the United States join the World Court. Inspired by a savage anti-court radio sermon from Father Coughlin, opponents of the president's plan poured a Niagara of telegrams onto the Senate, drowning the court agreement. Ever sensitive to the public temper, a chastened Roosevelt quickly grasped the implications of this episode for foreign policy: "We shall go through a period of non-co-operation in everything . . . for the next year or two."
For the next year or two and longer, Roosevelt witnessed the simultaneous deepening of the isolationist mood in America and the sorry deterioration of the fragile structure of international peace. Adolf Hitler announced in March 1935 his intention to train a half-million-man army, and a long-simmering dispute between Italy and Ethiopia exploded into a shooting war in October of that year. Alarmed at these events, Congress, in August 1935, passed the Neutrality Act, which imposed a mandatory embargo on arms shipments to all belligerents. Roosevelt disliked the limits on his discretionary power dictated by the act's mandatory features; but, giving top priority to his domestic reform package in that remarkable summer, he did little to shape the neutrality law. The act was strengthened in February 1936 to include a ban on loans or credits to any nation at war. In early 1937, Congress tightened the law still further by confining the sale even of nonmilitary goods to belligerents who could pay cash and carry their cargoes away from American ports in their own ships.
Brazenly flouting the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland in March 1936. Four months later, civil war erupted in Spain, which quickly became a proving ground for the newly developed military machines of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. "The whole European panorama is fundamentally blacker than at any time in your life . . . or mine," Roosevelt wrote in early 1936 to his ambassador in Paris; these, he said, "may be the last days of . . . peace before a long chaos." Hitler rolled on, virtually unchecked. He marched into Austria in March 1938. At the infamous Munich conference in September 1938, he secured the acquiescence of Britain and France to his annexation of the Sudetenland. Unappeased, he swallowed up the rest of Czechoslovakia six months later. After signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.