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The US was very vocal against Japanese aggression in China in the 1930's and early 1940's but said nothing against German aggression in Europe. The US finally placed an embargo on sending oil and iron ore to Japan as a protest but did nothing against Germany. Yet it would seem that China at that time was not a vital interest of the US but Europe, with friendly nations like England and France, was. The embargo finally caused Japan to look for other sources of these vital materials which eventually led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. We declared war on Japan as a result but not on Germany. My question is why did we put up with Germany's actions but not Japan's? I know that we aided England with Lend Lease and such, but we maintained diplomatic relations with Germany and did not protest their actions the way we did with Japan.

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While others will probably be able to give a complete answer, my guess is that it was partly because Japan had already started a major and brutal war against China (early 1930s) whereas German aggression before the attack against Poland had not been military. –  Opt Jun 17 '12 at 0:55
"The China lobby." –  Samuel Russell Jun 17 '12 at 5:11
@Sid Annexation of the Czechoslovakia was also backed up by a military threat. –  quant_dev Jun 18 '12 at 15:15
@Sid Germans would have been brutal, had the Czechoslovakian government resisted. –  quant_dev Jun 18 '12 at 18:59
Seriously? The US began selling vast quantities of arms to the Allies in September 1939 ('Cash and Carry'), bartered 50 warships to the British a year later ('Destroyers for Bases'), and finally just started giving them vast quantities of munitions in March 1941 ('Lend-Lease'). In Summer 1941 American troops relieved the British in Iceland, and US naval forces began an undeclared but very real war against U-Boats in the North Atlantic. Strange way to do "nothing!" –  Evan Harper Jul 5 '12 at 13:45

2 Answers 2

There was considerable political opposition to the US becoming involved in European affairs again. Perhaps the most influential of these was Charles Lindbergh and the America First organization he was affiliated with. When you read through his speeches and other non-interventionist, you'll see that their main focus was on Europe. These groups fell silent for the most part after the German declaration of war against the US following Pearl Harbor.

There was less concern about Japan in the general public. For the most part, up until Pearl Harbor, people didn't think an Asian power would pose a threat. They considered the aggressive, yet diplomatic, moves to be sufficient to curb Japanese aggression in Asia. It wasn't seen as a prelude to war as much as things like Lend-Lease and proposed arms sales to Britain were.

As I noted above, Lindbergh's and America First's opinions were the predominate ones when it came to non-interventionism in Europe.

From America First on the Charles Lindbergh site:

America First Committee Original Four Principles:

  • The United States must build an impregnable defense for America
  • No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America
  • American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
  • "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

The above principles expressed the general thoughts of the movement. The attack on Pearl Harbor shattered the first 2 points, weakened the 3rd and made the last one moot.

Before that attack followed by the German declaration of war, with the memory of WWI and its aftermath still fresh in the minds of middle age and older Americans, many did not want to become entangled in what they saw as another European war. Most were concerned about the rise of Germany as a power in Europe again although there was much division about the way to deal with it. Lindbergh's idea of "impregnable defense" competed with FDR's limited interventionism.

Polling data from the era isn't as accurate as today's polls but they indicated that about 2/3's of the public supported FDR's policies but that America First was gaining support quickly in some regions of the country, enough that the 1942 mid-terms could have caused a switch in opinions in Congress.

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It's still not clear to me why Germany's actions were not as vigorously opposed by the US as compared to how Japan's were. The US knew that its strong rhetoric and actions such as the embargo were going to lead to war with Japan (Pearl Harbor was a surprise because the Philippines was expected to be the initial target). Once Germany declared war on the US, the "Greatest Generation" suddenly was very eager to stick it to them. What's not clear is where were these emotions before. Was it just due to isolationism or the desire to have the Germans fight the Russians, or something else? –  Barry Jun 18 '12 at 3:00
@Barry - I'll add some additional info that addresses it. –  jfrankcarr Jun 18 '12 at 10:52
@Barry Another reason is that Hitler had many supporters in America (e.g. Henry Ford). –  quant_dev Jun 18 '12 at 15:16
@quant_dev - I'm not sure about the "many" part. The German American Bund was relatively small as compared to the more mainstream America First. They also often offended a lot of the general public with their rhetoric. As you noted, some industrialists and companies favored Nazi Germany to some degree, either for ideological reasons (Ford) or simple business opportunities (IBM). –  jfrankcarr Jun 18 '12 at 16:18
@quant_dev - There has always been a significant portion of the US population that had a moral indignation about racism and related problems. This was on the increase in the 1930's. The extreme and brutal racial dogma of the Axis regimes increased this trend. –  jfrankcarr Jun 19 '12 at 11:31

Germany was not a DIRECT threat to the United States. There were two reasons. First, Germany had no navy to speak of (unless it captured the British fleet). Second, the U.S. was counting on Britain and France to contain Germany (until May/June 1940).

Japan was a much clearer threat to the United States. First, because there was no counterweight in Asia to Japan. Second, Japan had a real navy, one that actually more powerful than that of the United States BEFORE Pearl Harbor. That disaster was a consequence, not a cause, of U.S. naval inferiority. (Japan overbuilt, and the U.S. underbuilt the 3-5 ratio prescribed by the Washington Naval Treaty.)

If the United States had been able to defend Britain against Germany, it needed only to defeat Japan in order to be "safe." The combined U.S. and British fleets would have deterred an invasion across the Atlantic. On the other hand, an Axis victory scenario would probably have involved a Japanese fleet convoying a victorious German army from Siberia across the Pacific to Alaska and British Columbia.

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"On the other hand, an Axis victory scenario would probably have involved a Japanese fleet convoying a victorious German army from Siberia across the Pacific to Alaska and British Columbia." -- This army would be doomed. I can't imagine successfully supplying such an invasion army across an OCEAN. –  quant_dev Jul 19 '12 at 10:44
@quant_dev: It's something like 55 miles from Siberia across the Bering Strait to Alaska. If the Japanese fleet had maintained parity with ours (with the help of the Germans) this could have been a threat. (But the Japanese fleet DIDN'T maintain parity.) –  Tom Au Jul 19 '12 at 16:44
I don't think the distance from Siberia is really an issue, unless Siberia had some kind of large agricultural or manufacturing capabilities I'm unaware of. I do agree with your first two paragraphs, but the bit in question seems rather unlikely to me. More likely the'd have happily settled for hegemony over the Old world. I'm not a fan of the Axis, but I don't think they were truly bent on world conquest like they were playing Risk or something. –  T.E.D. Jul 19 '12 at 21:19
"It's something like 55 miles from Siberia across the Bering Strait to Alaska." - Were there ports which didn't freeze in winter in both Eastern Siberia and Alaska? –  quant_dev Jul 20 '12 at 10:44

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