‘America is not dangerous to us’
In about three weeks, the planet will mark the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. It was a war brought on by the punitive settlement that ended World War I, aided by America’s determination to remain insulated from international disputes.
As a perceptive historian has observed, World War II was the second chapter of the 20th century’s Thirty-Year War, which began in 1914 and ended in 1945 (31 years, to be exact).
The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles following Germany’s defeat in 1918 — exacting exorbitant reparations from the devastated nation, slicing off chunks of German territory and giving them to Germany’s neighbors, and disarming Germany in perpetuity — bred resentment among the German people that created and sustained Hitler’s dozen years of Nazi power and brutality.
Another factor in the rise of the Third Reich, not often noted, was the Allies’ fear of Soviet Russia.
Czarist control of Russia collapsed when the Bolsheviks took advantage of popular revulsion in that nation at the human cost of World War I, and communism took over. Britain and France would not tolerate the spread of communism westward into Europe, and they thought that a strong Germany could act as a buffer against that spread. As a result, they were reluctant to take active measures against Hitler’s conquests of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Had the victorious Allies stood up to Hitler in 1936, when his newly formed German army marched into the Rhineland, which under the Treaty of Versailles was to be a demilitarized zone between France and Germany, Hitler would have had to back off. As William L. Shirer quoted him in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”:
“The 48 hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”
But public opinion in both Britain and France would not stomach military action with memories of World War I horrors still fresh, and Hitler realized to his great satisfaction that he could defeat and/or annex regions and countries one by one without fear of retaliation.
For the next three years, the German Reich expanded at the expense of its neighbors, with Hitler promising each time that he would go no further, only to violate his pledge over and over.
And isolationism was rampant in the United States.
Hitler in November 1937 laid out his master plan of conquest to his top military advisers, and accurately predicted the responses to it from Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Holland and Spain.
Significantly, he ignored the United States, and at the time, sadly, he had reason to do so. American sentiment following World War I, in which over 50,000 U.S. troops died in combat, was heavily anti-war, a feeling reinforced by the apparent fact that Europe had learned nothing from that conflagration.
President Roosevelt, although personally opposed to German expansionism and sympathetic to Britain and France, was not willing to risk his political capital by challenging the isolationist Congress. His primary goal was to pull the American economy out of the Depression; everything else took a back seat. So through most of the 1930s, he held back as Britain and France practiced appeasement of Hitler and hoped for the best.
Hitler saw the United States as a deplorable nation, contaminated by inferior races and unable to right its economic ship, in contrast to Germany’s obvious path toward prosperity under his leadership.
America had essentially disarmed itself after World War I, and was certainly no military threat to the Reich in the 1930s. As he summed up in 1939, “America is not dangerous to us.”
In August 1939, the West was stunned by Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s announcement that they had signed a non-aggression pact, which meant that the Allied hope for a German buffer against Soviet expansion was dead. The pact’s secret protocols provided for the partition of Poland and for U.S.S.R. to gobble up the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Britain and France finally decided they had let Nazi expansion go unchecked for too long — appeasement had not worked.
Germany’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, triggered declarations of war from Britain and France, and World War II was underway.
The United States still refrained from military involvement for more than two years, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor finally ended more than two decades of American isolationism.
The Allied appeasement of Germany in the 1930s has been a touchstone for debates about the correct response to aggression ever since. Those arguments continue today, in situations like Russia’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine five years ago.
What we’ve learned from the rise of Nazi expansion, and the years of failure to oppose it, still remains to be seen, 80 years later.