Exam preparation materials

Chapter 20. World War II

World War II altered the American position in the world and ideology at home more than any other event of the twentieth century. For Americans, World War II was the “good war,” and Americans at home assisted the war effort in numerous ways. Orders for planes, jeeps, ships, and numerous other war industries had to be quickly filled; this ended the lingering economic effects of the Great Depression.

After World War I, the United States had been reluctant to take on the role of world leader. As a result of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two major world powers. During the last months of the war, the United States had the awesome responsibility of being the only country to possess the atomic bomb. Decisions made by the United States at the end of World War II helped to usher in the Cold War and the atomic age.


As Italy, Germany, and Japan all expanded their empires in the 1930s, most Americans favored a continuation of the policy of isolationism. An isolationist group, the America First Committee, attracted nearly 820,000 members by 1940. Isolationists believed that it was in America’s best interests to stay out of foreign conflicts that did not directly threaten American interests. A congressional committee led by Senator Gerald Nye investigated the origins of America’s entry into World War I and found that bankers and arms manufacturers did much to influence America’s entry into the war. On a practical level, Americans were consumed with the problems of the Great Depression and were generally unable to focus on overseas problems.

Congressional legislation passed in the period attempted to keep America out of future wars between other powers. The Neutrality Acts of 1935 stated that if countries went to war, the United States would not trade arms of weapons with them for six months; in addition, any nonmilitary goods sold to nations at war would have to be paid for up front and would have to transported in non-American ships (this was called “cash-and-carry”).

German expansionism in Europe convinced Franklin Roosevelt that the United States, at some point, would have to enter the war on the side of Great Britain (even though public opinion strongly opposed this). On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and two days later England and France declared war on Germany. Within three weeks Roosevelt asked Congress to pass the Neutrality Act of 1939. which would allow the cash-and-carry sale of arms to countries at war (this legislation was designed to facilitate the sale of American arms to Britain and France). The bill passed on a party-line vote.

News of rapid German advances in Europe began to change American attitudes, with more and more people agreeing with Roosevelt that the best course of action would be to prepare for eventual war. The rapid defeat of France at the hands of the Nazis was stunning to many Americans. In September of 1940 Roosevelt gave Great Britain 50 older American destroyers in return for the rights to build military bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland.

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