Dec 7, 2007

Phil Duffy: Did isolationism cause World War II?

One of the most comprehensive histories of the Nazi era was written by William L. Shirer, a journalist assigned to Germany during the period when the Nazis came to power. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers 1,143 pages, the first 276 of which describe the multiple forces and events that led to the rise of Hitler. American isolationism is not once mentioned in that section of the book.

The next 594 pages describe the beginning of World War II up to the point at which Hitler declared war on the United States as a result of "Adolph Hitler’s reckless promise to Japan …." It was Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that brought the United States into World War II. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later.

Following America’s disastrous foray into World War I, there were strong feelings in the United States about remaining outside of the European conflict. The newly formed America First Committee was the most visible and vocal example of that sentiment. Shirer dedicates a single paragraph to the role of American isolationism at the beginning of Chapter 25, "The Turn of the United States." He also mentions the role of Charles Lindbergh as the leading public isolationist in a footnote on Page 827. Otherwise, there are no references to American isolationism in this extensive work about this period. So if William Shirer virtually dismissed the importance of American isolationism in causing World War II, what does he have to say about the real causes of the rise of Adolph Hitler and World War II? Shirer points out that a number of causes and events contributed, including:
  • Economic, political, social and cultural devastation following World War I (especially the Weimar hyperinflation from 1918–1923, the Wall Street-debt-financed boom of the late 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s)
  • A disastrous peace treaty at Versailles, including reparations to the allied powers considered unjust by the German people
  • The bitter struggle between international socialism (the Communists) and national socialism (the Nazis)
  • Failure of other European nations to appropriately defend themselves
  • The "stab in the back" myth that anti-war Germans during World War I had given virtual aid and comfort to the enemy on the home front while the valiant solders fought to defend the Fatherland (the birth and growth of this myth is addressed extensively in Chapter 2, "Birth of the Nazi Party")

In Shirer’s opinion, the ‘stab in the back’ fallacy was a primary cause of the rise of Hitler: "Thus emerged for Hitler, as for so many Germans, a fanatical belief in the legend of the ‘stab in the back’ which, more than anything else, was to undermine the Weimar Republic and pave the way for Hitler’s ultimate triumph." (Page 31)

On January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor of a coalition government in Germany. The America First Committee was formed September 4, 1940. Clearly, isolationism in the United States had nothing to do with Hitler’s rise to power.

~ Phil Duffy, "Did Isolationism Cause World War II?,", December 6, 2007

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