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History part 2: War and peace

The USA played a crucial role during the First and Second World Wars and made a significant contribution to the Allies’ victories.

Klaus Lüber, 02.10.2018
Americans in Normandy
End of the Second World War: Americans in Normandy © dpa

When the First World War broke out in Europe in July 1914, the USA initially remained somewhat withdrawn. President Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected in 1912, opted for neutrality in line with the general mood of the population. A popular attitude among Americans in 1914 was that the Europeans should fight one another if they wanted to, but the Americans would stay out of it. Even in 1916, Wilson was re-elected with the slogan “He kept us out of war!”

The mood shifted in the spring of 1917, however, when Germany announced a further escalation of the War. The German Empire did, in any case, represent strong competition to the USA, since both were similar in their dynamism and their self-perception as young nations asserting their unity and independence. In April 1917 the USA resolved to intervene in the events of the War on a major scale. Around two million soldiers were sent to Europe and made a considerable contribution to the Allies’ victory.

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Freeing the world of injustice

The political justification for entering the War, as outlined most significantly by President Wilson in his Fourteen Points programme of January 1918, was an expression of the Americans’ new sense of self with regard to their foreign policy. Neutrality in the struggle against undemocratic powers was no longer possible, he claimed, and ridding the world of injustice and unfair domination was indeed a goal for which military force could and should be applied.

Measured against Wilson’s ambitious goals, the American people were nevertheless disappointed by the realpolitik that followed the end of the War, partly due to the high losses on the American side: 160,000 dead and 230,000 injured. From 1921 the USA therefore pursued a consistent policy of neutrality and non-interference.

Active intervention instead of neutrality

It was only with the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 that all this changed. Roosevelt declared war on isolationism, which he considered harmful in the long term for both ideological and economic reasons. The fear was that undemocratic powers could bypass the USA in their trade and establish closed markets. In his so-called Quarantine Speech in October 1937, he compared despotically expansive nations with diseases that have to be placed in quarantine in order to prevent further infection. A global epidemic of lawlessness could only be prevented through active intervention and not with neutrality, he claimed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 to 1945. © dpa

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. His Nazi regime pursued its policy of racial fanaticism with arbitrary brutality, unleashing the Second World War in 1939. Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, around 95,000 Jews had emigrated to the USA, amounting to around a quarter of all the Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and annexed Austria. During the Holocaust, fewer than 30,000 were able to seek refuge in the USA and many visa applications were rejected or not renewed.

Jewish refugees
Jewish refugees: Many of them seek refuge in the USA. © dpa

In his State of the Union Address at the start of 1941, Roosevelt cited the so-called Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear – to appeal to the values of the American people. This was followed by the Atlantic Charter agreed with Great Britain in August, which condemned violence and advocated free global trade and containment of the risk posed by Nazi Germany.

A new role as global protector

With the Atlantic Charter, the USA laid the foundation for its entry into the Second World War. Nevertheless, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in early December 1941 to convince the USA – then borne on a wave of collective patriotism – to enter into combat. On January 1, 1942 the Americans joined the anti-Hitler coalition, and 45 months later the USA defeated Italy, Nazi Germany and Japan.

Yalta Conference
Yalta Conference with the Allied Heads of State © dpa

The Second World War has impacted US history like no other: Around 400,000 American soldiers died and 670,000 were wounded. Yet there were other consequences too: The War enabled the USA to rise to the position of economic, military and ideological superpower, with a sense of itself as able to take on the role of global protector in future as an “Arsenal of Democracy” (Roosevelt).

Here you can find reports by contemporary witnesses on the First World War and the Second World War in German.

Memories of the First World War and the Second World War in English.