Neutrality and Isolationism

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Student Question

What was the U.S. foreign policy before Pearl Harbor was bombed?

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The foreign policy of the United States was evolving when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. For most of the 1930s, the United States followed a policy of neutrality. Our neutrality laws prohibited us from selling war materials to countries that were at war. This included countries fighting in a civil war. The Neutrality Act of 1937 said we could sell nonmilitary materials to a country at war only on a cash and carry basis. They would have to pay cash for the materials and transport the products on their ships. Americans were weary of war. The Nye Committee suggested one reason why we entered World War I was for businesses to make money. This report didn’t make people too happy. Americans also were in the middle of dealing with the Great Depression and had little interest in what was happening in the world.

As we approached the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, our policies were beginning to change. We realized the dangers that existed as a result of the aggressive actions of Germany, Japan, and Italy. The Neutrality Act of 1939 allowed us to sell war materials to a country at war on a cash and carry basis. We developed the Destroyers for Bases program to help Great Britain get destroyers. The Lend-Lease Act was passed to help Great Britain get needed supplies. We created a hemispheric defense zone to allow us to patrol the Atlantic and to help the British locate German submarines. The Export Control Act allowed us to stop selling strategic materials to a country like Japan that was using these materials for military purposes. We also froze Japan’s financial assets in our banks.

By the time we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we were neutral in name only. We were actively helping the British against Germany and Italy, and we were trying to slow the Japanese advances in Asia and in the Pacific Ocean.

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