Justus D. Doenecke. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. xv + 551 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-0784-5.
Reviewed by John E. Moser (Department of History, University of Georgia)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2001)
Moving Beyond the
Moving Beyond the "I"-Word
The return of Patrick J. Buchanan as a presidential candidate in 2000 momentarily revived a debate that most thought was long dead. On the campaign trail, and particularly in his book A Republic, Not an Empire, Buchanan praised those who fought against American involvement in World War II, and suggested that Nazi Germany had not really presented a threat to U.S. national security in 1940 and 1941.
Whatever one might think of Buchanan's politics, he did not deserve the deluge of invective that such comments generated. The Reform party candidate was accused of being everything from an appeaser to a Nazi sympathizer. One organization accused him of being a fan of "the most pro-Nazi group in America funded by Nazi Germany, and praised by Hitler himself, the America First Committee." In an age in which it has become fashionable to criticize virtually every military intervention conducted by the United States, the Second World War, it would appear, remains strictly off-limits.
It is for this reason that Justus D. Doenecke's new book, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941, is so timely and important. While others have written about the anti-interventionists as a political phenomenon--Wayne S. Cole stands out prominently in this regard --Storm on the Horizon is the first full-fledged intellectual history of the movement. Starting with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and ending with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Doenecke examines the world-view of the most prominent critics of Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy.
Students of pre-World War II U.S. foreign policy are well aware of Doenecke's work; his first book, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979) has become the definitive work on the subject, and his later In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-interventionist Movement of 1940-1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee (Stanford, Ca.: Hoover Institution Press, 1990) won the first Arthur S. Link Prize for Documentary Editing. There is, therefore, no one more qualified to write the history of American anti-interventionism.
Doenecke is clearly sympathetic to some of the anti-interventionists' arguments, although certainly not all of them. He notes properly that they possessed "a healthy suspicion of executive power" (p. 323), and that they were usually highly informed about world affairs. They feared rightly that the United States might become the world's policeman, dissipating its strength in conflict after conflict that had no relevance to the national interest. On the other hand, Doenecke writes, they were prone toward hasty assumptions of moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and Great Britain, and had a tendency to look for conspiracies in the making of American foreign policy.
The main theme of the book is the extreme diversity to be found among those who opposed involvement in the war. In his introduction, entitled "The Many Mansions of Anti-Interventionism" gives a brief overview of the movement, including those in Congress, journalism, the religious community, and the peace movement. This introduction is extremely helpful in discussing the major players, and it sets the tone for the subsequent chapters.
One of the most refreshing features of the book is the author's refusal to use the ideologically loaded and non-descriptive term "isolationist." This was a pejorative term used against those who objected to an interventionist foreign policy; very few used it to refer to themselves. As Doenecke points out, most anti-interventionists did not espouse isolation but were motivated by an honest belief that involvement in another foreign war would have devastating consequences.
Of course, the anti-interventionists differed wildly on what these consequences would be. Some believed that war would bring about an end to democracy, or at least to social reform. Others emphasized the unworthiness of the countries at war with Hitler; intervention, they claimed would only strengthen British imperialism and Soviet communism. Still others feared that a postwar world government would destroy American sovereignty.
But this was hardly the only area of disagreement; the author shows how different factions within the noninterventionist movement differed on nearly every major issue that surfaced in this period. Particularly divisive were the Roosevelt administration's efforts to build up the military. Many of the president's fiercest opponents--such as the members of the America First Committee, the most prominent anti-interventionist organization--supported such moves. On the other hand, liberals and pacifists saw such moves as steps toward actual involvement in the war. In the end, Doenecke suggests, it was this very diversity that allowed the administration to outmaneuver its opponents and pursue its foreign policy agenda almost unhindered.
Doenecke also gives considerable attention to the efforts made by the administration and others to discredit the anti-interventionists. They were accused at best of being pawns of Hitler; at worst active Nazi agents. The author shows how by 1941 anti-interventionist journalists such as John T. Flynn and Oswald Garrison Villard had been systematically excluded from most mainstream media outlets. Universities and local governments refused to allow groups such as the America First Committee and the Youth Committee Against War to use public auditoriums and other facilities. Some of the administration's more extreme critics were even arrested on trumped-up charges. American liberals howled in the early 1950s when similar abuse was being directed at them; however, they remained silent--or in many cases gleefully jumped onto the bandwagon--when anti-interventionists were the targets.
The book's emphasis on the diversity of anti-interventionist opinion is one of its greatest strengths; however, it is also the source of its only real weakness. It is organized more or less chronologically, reporting the noninterventionist response to world events and administration initiatives. At times this leads to a bewildering array of views from individuals ranging from the conservative Republican Senator Robert A. Taft to American communist Earl Browder. This reviewer, who has read widely on the anti-interventionists, found himself from time to time having to consult the notes or bibliography just to keep the names and organizations straight. One imagines that a non-specialist might tend to feel overwhelmed.
Perhaps this is the author's intent--to cite the vast diversity of opinion among these individuals and groups as evidence that the noninterventionist movement defies easy characterization. But it need not be so mystifying. If one concentrates on the particular factions within the movement--anti-Roosevelt conservatives, western progressives, nationalists, socialists, pacifists, Anglophobes, etc.--one finds considerably more coherence in their views. A nationalist such as Senator Robert Rice Reynolds (D-North Carolina), for example, saw no inconsistency in supporting the seizure of British and French possessions in the Western Hemisphere while eschewing colonial commitments in Europe and Asia. A thematic organization, dedicating a chapter to each faction and its underlying ideologies, might have made the book more accessible to the general reading public.
It is impossible to find fault with Doenecke's research. As he points out in his acknowledgements, this is the culmination of some twenty-five years of work, and the book certainly reflects this fact. Out of a total of 551 pages, notes occupy a full 170, while the bibliography constitutes twenty-five more. It cites material from nearly fifty manuscript collections, nearly seventy newspapers, and as many contemporary magazines. It is hard to imagine a work on anti-interventionism that is more complete.
Thanks to Doenecke's meticulous research, Storm on the Horizon is likely to become the standard work on the noninterventionist movement of 1939-1941. More importantly, it is to be hoped that it will reopen scholarly discussion about a vein of American opinion that has been too quickly dismissed. Wrongheaded as Roosevelt's foreign policy critics might have been on certain issues, theirs were voices that deserved to be heard. Official repression and the force of world events conspired to discredit them after the United States entered World War II, and by 1945 they had been forced virtually to the sidelines in debates over foreign policy. Had it been otherwise, it is at least conceivable that the country might have been spared the horrors of the nuclear arms race, the "Imperial Presidency," and the war in Vietnam.
. Ron Daniels. "The Strange Career of Dr. Lenora Fulani." Jewish Defense Organization [Cited 27 March 2001]. Available from the World Wide Web <http://www.jdo.org/buchanan.htm>
. Of Cole's many works on the subject, his Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-1945 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983) and America First: The Battle against Intervention (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953) stand out as particularly important.
. One of the most memorable smears, unfortunately not related in Doenecke's book, was the song "Lindbergh," by folk singer Arlo Guthrie. One of the lines goes: "Hitler said to Lindy, now go and do your worst/So he started up an outfit he called America First." Arlo Guthrie. "Lindbergh." Available from the World Wide Web <http://www.napster.org>
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John E. Moser. Review of Doenecke, Justus D., Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941.
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