Why did the United States stay away at the beginning but then join WWII?

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mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The United States was neutral at the start of World War II. However, we eventually joined the war on the side of the Allies. We were neutral when the war began because we didn’t want to get dragged into the war. Congress had passed very strict neutrality laws that prevented us from selling war materials to countries at war. This was done because there was some thought we entered World War I so that our industries could benefit and make money. The Nye Committee came to this conclusion in the 1930s. People were also concerned that other countries, except Finland, didn’t repay their debts from World War I to us. Thus, there was a strong sentiment to do things and pass laws that would make it harder for us to be involved in world affairs and to enter World War II.

However, things changed dramatically on December 7, 1941. On this day, Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Much of our military in the Pacific was destroyed in this attack. We had no choice but to go to war. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on us. Thus, we had to fight them also. Plus, we couldn’t let Britain fight alone in Europe. Based on various events, we went from a policy of neutrality to being an active participant in World War II.

osurpless | Student

The United States decided to stay away from the onset of World War II due to the prevailing attitudes towards foreign conflict following our involvement and late entry into World War I. Collective wisdom (and political cartoons) argued that involvement did not help our stature in the world, and only led to bankrupt countries unable to pay their war debts. This pragmatic analysis led to a general belief in isolationism, which is a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of foreign countries that advocates self-sufficiency for your own country first and foremost as a way to avoid unnecessary entanglements. 

This was done both as a way to safeguard US interests via the Monroe Doctrine and a way to avoid what was deemed at the time to be an unnecessary commitment of men and funds. This was not completely unfounded, as the secret alliances of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente had led many countries into the Great War much like a stack of dominos. Hindsight could not account for the crimes of the Holocaust as inevitable either.
As the land-grabbing policies on Hitler based on the bluff (bolstered by Chamberlain's policy of appeasement) that Britain and France were not yet able to make war carried over into late 1939 and the subsequent invasion of Poland, the United States maintained its isolationism as their own kind of appeasement. President FDR was equally as pragmatic as the isolationists, and championed the lend-lease program to assist the Allies and their growing desperation as the Nazi blitzkrieg overwhelmed France, leaving only England as a bastion against the forces of Nazi Germany and the ambitions of Adolf Hitler. FDR might not have been able to convince Americans of the encroaching Nazi threat, but even with the forthcoming election of 1940 (the factor of an unprecedented third term could not be underestimated either), his office could still do something to aid the war effort.
Despite incidents such as the USS Greer, lend lease was a resounding success and helped the United States play a crucial, if largely unheralded, role in the defense of Europe for a number of months. Until the events of Pearl Harbor that is, in which the Japanese surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands sought to cripple the US Pacific Fleet that challenged Japan’s continued expansion in the Pacific in search of resources (oil, rubber) to maintain their new empire. After December 6th, the “Day that Shall Live in Infamy”, the United States declared war on Japan, ensuring a response from Japan’s European allies and our subsequent commitment to the European theatre for the duration of World War II as well.
Pedagogical statement -  I would approach this as a lesson by focusing on the Socratic Method. This is due to the often controversial nature of World War II (The Holocaust, the Nazis) and my belief that encouraging students to formulate their own questions helped not only to better the lesson, but to streamline it. By avoiding names and dates via rote memorization, such methods are often able to show students how history can personally have meaning to them, be it through a collective understanding of events or even greater awareness in helping shape future decisions and insights.

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