Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

For over 100 years prior to WW1, America had pursued a policy of neutrality and isolation. This policy prevailed until 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to allow US forces to fight alongside Britain and France in the interests of preserving democracy and world peace. America did not enter a formal alliance but fought alongside the Allies.

After WW1 ended America returned to an even stronger policy of isolation which was heavily supported by the electorate. Public opinion had concluded that involvement in the war had been pushed by bankers and arms manufacturers for their own profit and were generally appalled at the cost to the nation in terms of both money and casualties.

Quotation Woodrow Wilson The ear of the leader must ring with the voices 31 78 29

In 1935, Congress passed the first of a series of Neutrality Acts. This had a six month sunset clause and was renewed by a similar act in 1936 and again 1n 1937. The 1937 act did not have a sunset clause. These acts prohibited the export of arms, ammunition and implements of war to foreign nations which were at war, travel by US citizens to war zones and general intercourse between American citizens and companies with belligerent nations.


The opponents of isolationism pointed out the futility of these policies. They could and were easily circumvented by simply moving factories to Canada, selling items to intermediate neutral countries and a policy of “cash and carry” which was permitted under the 1937 law. “Cash and Carry” allowed sales of all except war material to belligerents if they paid with cash in advance and arranged their own shipping. However, while the act in general no longer had a sunset clause there was a two year sunset clause invoked on the “cash & carry” principle.

In 1939 President Roosevelt, who was not an isolationist but was conscious of the influence of these forces on the domestic scene, secured the passage of a new bill which lifted the arms embargo but required that all trade with belligerent nations be done via the “cash & carry” method. In addition, loans to belligerents were banned and American ships were not allowed to enter belligerent’s ports.


Roosevelt was sympathetic to the cause of England and France. He had engineered the “cash & carry” provision because he knew that England and France were able to pay in cash and that they both had large merchant fleets that could carry the goods. Germany was not able to compete on those terms.

In October, 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met secretly on the deck of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland where they signed the Atlantic Charter. This agreement was the work of President Roosevelt to allow him to provide arms and munitions to Britain under lend/lease, a device that was not a sale of goods, without contravening the Neutrality Act of 1939.


At the time there was still considerable support in the US to continue the isolationist policies and remain out of the European war. At the same time there was a growing number of US airmen, frustrated at being denied the chance to compete in the air war, who had gone to Canada and then transferred into the RAF. The famous Eagle Squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain was made up of Americans who had enlisted through Canada. Further, American companies were establishing factories in Canada.


The first Eagle Squadron, No.71, was formed on 19 September, 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain.

The frustrated airmen were a special case. There was no similar number of Americans wanting to join the British Army or the RAN and there was a growing determination of Americans generally to keep out of the war.

Following the meeting with Churchill, Congress on 17th October repealed sections of the Neutrality Act that forbad the arming of American merchant ships after U-Boat attacks on American merchantmen and warships. In November, the Senate removed the prohibition on American ships entering belligerent ports.

 Pearl Harbour changed all that on 7th December, 1941. America declared war on Japan on 8th December and Germany declared war on America the same day.


These events neutered completely the thrust of the Neutrality Act and had an immediate effect on public opinion, especially towards Japan.

With America now formally at war with Germany and Japan further laws were passed to exonerate Americans who had joined the RAF provided that they rejoined the American air forces and returned home.


Similar relief was extended to American companies that had taken the route through Canada and their production could now be directed directly from US factories.

In the face of these events it is my view that Pearl Harbour was the trigger that caused America to enter the war as a committed belligerent. I believe the statement of Admiral Yamamato, that Japan, by the raid on Pearl Harbour, had awakened a sleeping giant, is quite correct.


Had Pearl Harbour not taken place, Germany would not have declared war on America and the huge resources of American industry would have been available to them through trade but the equally huge resources of American manpower would not have been available to the Allies.

No doubt there will always be debate about the likelihood of some other event causing American intervention or the willingness of American industry to trade with the Axis powers. However, I contend that the state of the war in December, 1941 was such that without direct intervention by America, England could not have carried on alone.

She simply did not have the numbers and was also running out of money.

Further, the elements in favour of appeasement in England were still quite strong and would have prevailed in the end. Nobody was left to come to Australia’s aid. We were on our own and despite the deterrent of our huge landmass the Japanese would have had nothing to fear from a neutral America.


Nobody should under-estimate the strength of the movement for appeasement in England. Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, was rabidly in favour of appeasement and had a large following in the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy.

The Duke of Windsor was a known admirer and sympathiser of Hitler. He was kept under surveillance by MI6 for the entire period of the war including his term as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945.


Even today, I doubt if most people in or outside government realise just how close we were to Armageddon.

If Roosevelt had not been able to persuade Congress to make the changes to the Neutrality Act that he did and if Japan and Germany had chosen to keep their powder dry we were done and dusted.

Pearl Harbour changed the state and the fate of the world


Footnote from Monty: How does this feel in light of Ukraine? 

Clear filters
Responsive Grid for Articles patriotrealm
Clear filters