In the lead-up to WW2, most Americans were in favor of neutrality and isolation. President Roosevelt, however, was privately in favor of intervention.

One paragraph from Wikipedia summarizes it pretty well:

Roosevelt used his personal charisma to build support for intervention. America should be the "Arsenal of Democracy", he told his fireside audience.[211] On September 2, 1940, Roosevelt openly defied the Neutrality Acts by passing the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, which, in exchange for military base rights in the British Caribbean Islands, gave 50 WWI American destroyers to Britain. ... Hitler and Mussolini responded to the deal by joining with Japan in the Tripartite Pact.[213]

He also pushed for the Lend-Lease Act that passed in March 1941.

So why was Franklin D. Roosevelt pro-intervention? Was it ideological or something else? Was it some realist belief that the balance of power needed to be preserved? Was it a belief that it would bring America out of the depression?

Another way of asking this is, Why was Franklin D. Roosevelt not isolationist?

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    Please provide evidence that FDR was pro-war.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 17:04
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    @MarkC.Wallace Don't know what the phrase question stands alone means, but done.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 17:21
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    @MarkC.Wallace Right that's what I thought you were getting at. The question should not "stand alone", but "stand together" with whatever is needed. Standing alone implies that it is lacking something. At least that is how I read the phrase. Anyway, it is done.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 17:37
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    @bright-star That's just what it's called, what do you think it's an euphemism for? Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 22:52
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    @congusbongus Your citation points to an article about a category that includes transnational economic pressure as one of its subtypes. All of the examples brought up by the OP are about military measures. Moreover, given that only three US presidents in the country's history have not ordered the military into a war (naturally a group that does not include FDR,) why use a less precise term where it isn't needed? Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 2:44

8 Answers 8


Because FDR belonged to a school of thought that felt that the primary goal of US foreign policy should be to promote and defend US ideals abroad.

I know the common narrative is to divide US foreign policy thought into two camps: Isolationist and Interventionist, but I've always found that an inadequate tool.

Much better is Walter Russell Mead's four-way division of American foreign policy schools:

  • Hamiltonian - Primarily interested in promoting American enterprise at home and abroad.
  • Wilsonian - Primarily interested in promoting American values throughout the world.
  • Jeffersonian - Primarily interested in protecting American Democracy at home from possible foreign enemies. Big proponents of Realpolik.
  • Jacksonian - Distrustful of any foreign agreements, treaties, or responsibilities. Motto: Never start a fight, but always finish it.

Mead views every US foreign policy decision as a struggle for some kind of consensus between these four communities.

If there's no credible threat to (both) American commerce and American values abroad, and seemingly no imminent threat of attack, then the Jeffersonians and the Jacksonians tend to prevail. This looks like "isolationism". This is the condition that prevailed until the run-up to WWII.

However, once England was under threat, that's a whole different ballgame. They were at the time the US's biggest ally and trading partner, which gets the Hamiltonians wanting intervention. The Nazi/Fascist takeover of the democracies of the continent had the Wilsonians wanting intervention. However, getting a consensus for actual military action would take either a threat to the homeland to get the Jeffersonians on board, or some kind of attack on the US to get the Jacksonians on board.

FDR himself came from the Wilsonian branch of the Democratic party. Wilson himself had been the last Democrat to ascend to the presidency, and FDR was an early and avid supporter (which was how he got a gig as Assistant Secretary of the Navy). In that position he spent years enmeshed in a Hamiltonian environment (the Navy has always been a hotbed of that philosophy, as the Army tends to be strongly Jacksonian), and had many political ties there.

However, without an attack or credible home threat, there could be no consensus for actual war. So his administration was forced to do what it could short of that (including subtly poking the totalitarian tigers, in hopes they'd lash out).

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    I feel I must apologize for going into a long tangent on Mead's 4 schools, but I (shockingly) couldn't find any good reference to them online, so I felt I had to explain them here. Anyone with any interest in studying the history of American foreign policy simply must read his book (linked).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 3:21
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    ...and if I can add a personal opinion, the Princess Bride list of "Classic Blunders", in addition to getting involved in a land war in Asia and going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line, also includes ticking off the Jacksonians in the US. Just don't.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 3:32
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    Roosevelt's 'even a neutral' speech really shows this values stance. "This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience." presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=15801
    – Twelfth
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 18:30
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    Worth also noting, perhaps, that FDR was fluent in German and had read Mein Kampf untranslated. He was well aware of the gross inadequacies of contemporary English translations of that work. (See page 5 of the link above.) Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 11:38
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    @WS2 - Since this has been getting traffic today, I'll venture to say that so far Trump has turned out to be a pretty clear Jacksonian. A distrust in the value of international agreements, alliances, and institutions is the primary differentiator between the Jacksonians and the Jeffersonians, and its now pretty clear where Trump lies on that spectrum.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 21:10

FDR position was informed by his conviction that intervention was inevitable.

  1. In that critical month of May 1940, he [FDR] finally realized that it was probably a question of when, not if, the United States would be drawn into war. Talk about neutrality or noninvolvement was no longer seasonable as the unimaginable dangers he had barely glimpsed in 1936 erupted into what he termed a "hurricane of events." Atlantic

  2. Roosevelt argued that the isolationist fantasy of the nation as a safe oasis in a world dominated by fascist terror evoked for the overwhelming majority of Americans not a dream but a "nightmare of a people without freedom." (ibid)

  3. Roosevelt was an ardent internationalist and believed that many of the issues within the United States could be solved through a strong international agenda. Study.com

Implicit in the question is an assumption that FDR needed to somehow justify an interventionist stance when OP asserts that the majority of Americans were isolationists. This affects the nature of the question and answer and deserves comment.

  • IF there was an isolationist majority, there is still no obligation to defend or justify a minority opinion. The American political system is set up to include minority opinions. (Arguably one of the most important innovations of the American system).

  • Isolationism has a long tradition in America, but so does engagement. Washington counselled against entangling foreign alliances, but Jefferson actively supported the cause of Revolution in France and advocated spreading the revolution far and wide.

Other answers have delved deeply into the range of foreign policy opinions. They provide valuable context for the question.

  • 5
    You middle paragraph reads extremely... flowery, and doesn't really seem to be supposed by the quotes (except that last sentence which doesn't say anything about his view on the war in particular). The quotes suggest Roosevelt simply believed that war was inevitable, so he felt the country should come to grips with that and deal with it before America became greatly disadvantaged. That isn't to say you're wrong, of course, but this answer doesn't make a particular strong case for it.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 1:35
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    Revised at your request.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 13:13

Mark C. Wallace mentioned ideological reasons but there were also economic ones. Free trade was always important for the US including trade with China and other countries in the east Asia. Japanese attempts to conquest China triggered US sanctions, and gradually these sanctions became more and more severe, until Japan attacked. Free trade with Europe was also important, and German conquest of Europe was certainly inconsistent with this.

There is nothing special about Roosevelt here, of course. But the interests of business were always very important for any US government.

I also strongly doubt that most Americans were pro-isolationist.

A reference: Niall Ferguson, War of the world, twentieth century conflict and descent of the West, Penguin Press, 2006.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the ultimate pragmatist. As early as a fireside chat of May 26, 1940, he pointed out that America would not be safe from the calamity that had overrun the Low Countries and France. During this chat, he gave details of a "stealth" re-armament program during his seven years of office that had given America hundreds of new mortars, tanks and planes (starting from virtually nothing) and 215 new ships, including eight battleships. He concluded by saying, "we build and we defend a way of life, not for America alone, but for all of mankind."

In a speech in London, in June 1941, Roosevelt referred to a statue of Abraham Lincoln that had somehow survived the Blitz, and said, "We would rather die on our feet than live on our knees."

Other relevant quotes include:

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try again. But above all, try something."

And, "if you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, do not wait to crush him until he has struck."

  • I really need to find a good bio of FDR. (Wikipedia doesn't seem to explain his perspective). I could have sworn he ran for a 3rd term on the promise of peace, unless directly attacked (paraphrasing). And since that was so popular that's how he won his 3rd term. It might be good to open a question as to why he ran for a 3rd term (and won) in the first place.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 15:21
  • @DrZ214: FDR ran on a promise of peace while "stealthily" running a re armament program. That made him the "ultimate pragmatist," a point very few historians make.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 15:26

I'm going to chime in because I have a point to make I've not seen presented, and it's a great question. (1) Roosevelt was better educated and read than most Americans. (2) This allowed him to recognize the Nazi's for who they were earlier than most of the people he lead.

I would say that Roosevelt was an interventionist firstly because he was better informed. Roosevelt was fluent in German and French. He could both read and write the languages. Most of what Americans knew about Hitler and the Nazi's came from the American Newspapers or the sanitized version of Mein Kampf which was translated and sold in the US in the late 1930's. Roosevelt read both the original German version, and the new English translation of Hitler's first book.

FDR's Library Document 3 (FDR) wrote in longhand on the book’s (Mein Kampf) flyleaf: “This translation is so expurgated as to give a wholly false view of what Hitler really is or says—The German original would make a different story.”

Roosevelt was also in a position to read German and French newspapers in their native languages. Roosevelt read multiple papers, and then read collections of editorials as well as carried on extensive correspondences daily.

Roosevelt believed war was inevitable. He recognized Hitler as a totalitarian bent on world dominance. The choice was simple to support the Democracies of Europe or stand alone when Hitler came for the United States.

There was a side in the debate over lend lease which thought the United States had waited too long and that Britain was already too far gone. They believed Britain would either surrender or compromise with Hitler and that any war materials sent to her would be materials lost. Churchill’s famous we will fight them on the beaches...we will never surrender wasn’t just for domestic consumption.

FDR's biggest job on the onset of the war were considerable.

(1) to Prepare the US Army which when WWII began in 1939 was about the size of Belgium or Portugals military.
(2) To work with the large and irrational isolationist political leadership who made up of roughly half of the U.S. legislature.
(3) To keep Britain and then the USSR in the war, even if it mean breaking US laws.
(4) To silence the very popular American First movement.

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    About that last sizable paragraph, the Ambassador to the UK (and president Kennedy's father) was prominent among those who thought that way. Which is why he was replaced. In Churchill's memoir he makes a big deal of his PR effort both in reassuring the Americans that the UK could and intended to fight on regardless, and in pointing out that if they didn't, the results for Canada and the US would be a war they had to fight far before they were ready to do so, possibly with the UK navy arrayed against them.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 19:15
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    The confusing whiplash between the two set the stage nicely for my absolute favorite story of the war, where FDR sent his personal secretary over to meet with the British leadership in 1941, a time when the USA was still really under no direct threat. Reportedly at a dinner he stood up and said, "I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return. Well I am going to quote to you one verse from the Book of Ruth ... 'Whither thou goest, I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.' Even unto the end."
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 19:53
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    Unfortunately, the incident has the smell of something that may not actually have happened. But in this case I (and the history community in general I belive) am claiming right of the Liberty Valence Effect.. Even if it didn't happen, it happened. The story's just too good. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 20:16
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    Thank you. I never knew that FDR knew German and French. Shoulda known wikipedia would maintain a list of such things. But I have a qualm with your first citation. You say "military" when the linked article says "army". This is the kind of fudged wording that ends up being a misquote. Military includes all branches, e.g., navy. I'm pretty sure the US Navy was bigger than Portugal's or Belgium's.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 20:37
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    You are right. The US Navy by treaty was the only Navy allowed to equal that of Great Britain in capital ships. The US Navy in reality did not achieve that status but it was arguable #2 largest navy at 1940. See Washington Treaty, the London Naval Treaty of 1930 and the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 21:08

FDR was not an interventionist in the mold of his Uncle Teddy Roosevelt nor did he strive to be. He was very much a "Keynesian" as they are called today in that a big defense buildup as occurred as World War swept the World for a second time in a Generation...his Generation no less...so absolutely there was an economic interest in supplying weapons to those who pay for them leading up to World War 2 as there had been in World War 1. The USA was fully prepared to go to War for its own interests certainly by the Summer of 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. This was not an unfamiliar enemy for the US military having fought on the Continent of Europe in the previous World War just 20 years prior. The interests laid out by FDR once war had come to the United States because of the attack on Pearl Harbor were laid out at the Ottawa Conference which I would Google and research if you are interested. When World War 2 ended indeed the USA experienced a massive economic boom...easily the biggest in its History...but that would be a result of WINNING the War and not of the War itself.

  • The Ottawa Conference laid out the principles of creating a United Nations as the prime war aim for the United States. The United States had no intention of being poor should this "World War 2" end on favorable terms for it as had happened in World War 1. Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 18:29

Roosevelt and Hitler both were both starting as leaders of a country in 1933. Notice all the mentions of Roosevelt being antiHitler came from much later. One of the first things Roosevelt did was cut the military. Roosevelt was against intervention and with ample evidence that was not going to be a good idea he changed his mind. He simply wasn't ruled by ideology. Most likely what changed his mind was a number of influential Europeans who had viewed the rise of the Nazis as no great risk once they found themselves under German occupation were tortured and killed.

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    Sources would improve this answer. Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 1:10

Yes, effectively, like all US presidents so far.

Excuse the tone, but - Isolationism? The US endeavored, since its inception, to become an empire and intervene regionally and globally. I'm no expert on history, but I do remember reading that even between the lines of some of the Federalist papers... yes, no. 11. It has a steady record of military interventions abroad going back to its very early days:


to be a bit tongue in cheek: From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

So, rhetoric aside, no US government for centuries has been isolationist de facto - regardless of popular sentiment.

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    Yes indeed, no expert in history. Your last paragraph starts well, and then descends into opinion. You can improve this answer by cleaning out the opinion, and then carrying forward your points on how isolationism isn't supported by the historical record (nor is that trailing edge opinion supported). You've made a good start on that basic line of response. (As to American History, W. R. Meade's Special Providence is an interesting survey of how four key domestic blocs influence American Foreign policy for about 200 years. Published before 9-11, it is free of current biases). Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 22:12
  • If you can flesh out the answer it would be great. (Again, I think you made a good start) Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 22:20
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    I believe its common knowledge that after World War I the US became notoriously isolationist, which counters your view of a US that is always intervening. Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 5:24
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    The USA was surprisingly interventionist in the 1920's but after the Great Depression the American People became very embittered by how Wall Street won and everyone else lost...sound familiar? Anywho FDR ran into a real buzz saw of "non interventionists" as World War 2 really started to get into high gear...which I think helped the "chattering classes" focus on Victory as the goal after Pearl Harbor...NOT Empire. And I think this is backed up overwhelmingly by the evidence of the post World War 2 systems and processes. Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 23:21
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    I don't believe this answers the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 0:20

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