In Lynne Olson's recent interview in the New York Times dealing with her book Those Angry Days she notes that isolationism was "finished" by late 1941 and that a "sea change" occurred in American public opinion in the two years leading up to Pearl Harbour.

She talks about the dominance of the isolationist lobby in 1939, about both liberals and conservatives at the time having powerful reasons for wanting to keep the United States out of the war, and about the importance and strength of women's groups in the isolationist lobby.

She says little about why all this faded through 1940 and 1941 except to mention a disastrous anti-semitic speech by leading isolationist Charles Lindbergh in September 1941 which badly backfired.

She does claim that key interventionist groups were lobbying the president and congress to come to Britain's aid but doesn't say what motivated them or how ordinary public opinion in the United States was swayed in favour of interventionism.

It's a given that Pearl Harbour itself transformed the landscape. I'm interested in the period prior to that.

  • 1
    Very good question. My impression is that American isolationism was far still very much alive and kicking in the evening of December 6, 1941 but I'll try to read up on that. Aug 1, 2013 at 10:21
  • My understanding is that the isolationists were thrilled (in one sense) with Pearl Harbor, because it gave the U.S. it's own war, and would prevent FDR from dragging it into the war on Germany. Of course that only lasted until Hitler declared war on the U.S. Aug 1, 2013 at 20:59
  • @PieterGeerkens would a U.S. waging war against Japan (but not Germany) still have been considered isolationist?
    – Drux
    Aug 2, 2013 at 5:52
  • @PieterGeerkens: Interesting point of view, but questionable IMO:Logically speaking, isolationists would never be thrilled at the prospect of entering the war. Consider Wilson's reluctant entry into WWI. And in terms of modern scholarship (not going into conspiracy theories) I believe the prevailing view is that Roosevelt went out of his way to goad the Japanese into attacking, because he knew that the USA had to become engaged, and an attack on the USA was certain to dissolve all isolationist resistance-i.e they had to be bludgeoned into going to war-not looking for a justification to do so.
    – user2590
    Aug 2, 2013 at 5:53
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    @PieterGeerkens - But perhaps we do have to distinguish between pacifism and isolationism: For a pacifist, war is never an option. For an isolationist, being attacked is a valid reason to become engaged.
    – user2590
    Aug 2, 2013 at 5:55

2 Answers 2


Americans turned away from isolationism as events brought the war "home" to Americans. The bombing of Pearl Harbor (followed by Hitler's declaration of war) were the last steps in removing the isolationism.

Until the fall of France, the war was seen as another "European" war, not a world war. Washington (and others) had warned against American entanglements in such wars. Germany seemed to be on the wrong end of the three-cornered fight with England and France that seemed sure (based on the World War I experience), to last a long time. This taught America that it could get in late in the war (if necessary).

When France fell, America started to wake up, because there was some chance that Germany could walk away with all the marbles. For instance, if the British fleet surrendered intact, it would be as powerful as the American fleet because of the 5-5-3 ratio of the Washington naval conference. And the combined fleets of Germany (35% of Britain's or 1.70), plus Japan (who had overbuilt her "3" would be a second fleet the equal of America's. Americans were somewhat relieved when Germany lost the Battle of Britain, and a chance for a monopoly of airpower in Europe.

During 1941, naval actions in the Atlantic reminded Americans of much the Monroe Doctrine had implicitly relied on the British Fleet. This included the sinking of the Bismarck, Germany's super-battleship in May. In the fall, a torpedo attack by a submarine on the American destroyer Greer, brought about President Roosevelt's "shoot on sight" order http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Greer_(DD-145) This was followed by the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James by German submarines, which escalated tensions further (The German navy undertook these actions against the express orders of Hitler.)

By the end of 1941, the American people had gotten "used" to the idea of their involvement in a war that had basically been forced upon them.


By 1940 and 1941 a couple of important fireside chats (e.g. explanation of land-lease) by FDR and speeches by Winston Churchill (e.g. give us the tools) probably had made some impact. In any case, by December of 1941 Pearl Harbor was the key event which perhaps would have turned the tide under any circumstances (see also wars following 9/11).

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