Americans have been subjected to such a relentless barrage of propaganda about WWII that it might be a good idea to ban all discussion of the topic for several decades until we can listen again with fresh ears.
The idea that the U.S. detested "fascism" and yearned to liberate the world from its brutality has long since reached the status of religious dogma in the U.S., but it is difficult to square this claim with the historical record.
Though Hitler made no secret of his aggressive designs in the East, Washington resolutely refused to fight Nazism for almost nine years after the Nazis came to power. Not until Germany declared war on the United States in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor did the U.S. opt for war. It took nearly another year before U.S. troops saw their first action against the Germans in North Africa.
Although this is often attributed to "pacifist" sentiment in the U.S., the U.S. public has never been pacifist, and the more obvious factor contributing to this conspicuously long period of non-confrontation is that U.S. leaders viewed the rise of fascism sympathetically. The extreme nationalism characteristic of fascist regimes welcomed Western economic penetration, while persecuting labor and the political left to the point of eradication, an agenda that U.S. state managers and wealthy American investors saw as a proper antidote to “excessive democracy,” that is, most any democracy at all.
U.S. government and business leaders preferred fascism to any variety of socialism or even social democracy, largely equating these with Bolshevik heresy. They approved Hitler as a “moderate” who represented order, anti-Communism, and a favorable investment climate, claiming that he held the ideological middle ground against extremists of left and right. More importantly, they credited him with blocking all possibility of Bolshevik radicalization of the allegedly unthinking masses. They dismissed his anti-Semitic tirades as mere rhetoric designed to appease his more extreme followers.
Given such a favorable impression, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that U.S. investment shot up in Germany as the Nazis rose to power, despite the Depression and Germany’s default on nearly all of its commercial and government loans. Commerce Department reports indicate that U.S. investment in Germany increased 48.5% between 1929 and 1940, while declining sharply everywhere else on the continent, which can only be realistically interpreted as an endorsement of the Nazi program.
Among the key players in the investment boom were DuPont, Ford, GM, GE, Standard Oil, Texaco, International Harvester, ITT, and IBM, companies only too happy to see Hitler crush leftist unions and Marxist parties. For some of these corporations trade with Germany continued through the war years — with Washington’s support — even when slave labor was involved. Allied pilots were instructed not to bomb factories in Germany owned by U.S. firms, a policy that in at least one case provided a convenient bomb shelter for German civilians. [After the war, I.T.T. collected $27 million from the U.S. government in compensation for damages inflicted on its German plants by Allied bombing raids. General Motors received $33 million and Ford and other companies collected their own sizable indemnifications.]
In the years preceding war U.S. Ambassador William Dodd’s repeated warnings that Hitler’s munitions factories were booming on the strength of U.S. raw materials shipments went unheeded. In fact, American owned factories supplied Germany with tanks, trucks, fighter planes, bombers, oil imports, synthetic fuels, synthetic rubber, and advanced communications technology, greatly enhancing the destructive capability of the Nazi military. These products were used to kill Allied troops, bomb British cities, and sink Allied ships. Be that as it may, Dodd’s loathing of the Third Reich only led to his replacement by Hugh Wilson in 1938, a man much more acceptable to Nazi leaders. Furthermore, both FDR and his close confidant Sumner Welles praised the Munich accords that supposedly represented the height of dastardly "appeasement," with Welles waxing optimistic about the prospects for a just international order that he saw the accords opening up. Finally, official U.S. belief in Hitler’s benign intentions continued even post-Munich. Writing of Sumner Welles’ diplomatic tour of Europe in February 1940, British Permanent Under-Secretary of State Alexander Cadogan said: “We had the distinct impression that Welles had in mind an outline for peace which would not require elimination of Herr Hitler’s Nazi regime.” (At the time, Washington was supporting pro-Nazi Finland with financial and military aid, including pilots, in its war against the U.S.S.R.) The following April George Kennan wrote from his diplomatic post in Berlin that the Nazis had no desire to “see other people suffer under German rule,” and were “most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care.” Keep in mind that this comment was made 19 months after the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Meanwhile, U.S. support for Italian fascism was even more enthusiastic. Even before Mussolini took power in 1922 U.S. leaders praised him effusively for imposing an iron hand on the Italian people. While his Blackshirt goons zoomed around Italy in military trucks breaking up strikes, beating up leftist leaders, and burning down socialist and communist headquarters, the U.S. State Department praised the rapidly expanding fascist movement as “a league of all those who stand for law and order . . ." Such a movement was necessary because Italians were allegedly naive simpletons incapable of democracy. “The Italians are like children,” a State Department official commented in 1921, and “must be [led] and assisted more than almost any other nation.”
On the eve of Mussolini's ascension to power, there was no Bolshevik threat and no Fascist revolution, as was later claimed. A military conspiracy between generals, the government, and the northern industrialists simply handed him state authority without a drop of blood being shed. Washington continued to look kindly on his Blackshirt movement, which the New York Times described as “political terrorism.” In a letter to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, U.S. Ambassador to Rome Richard Child explained that tastes differ about the desirability of living under bloody dictators, that Italians “hunger for strong leadership and enjoy...being dramatically governed.” In a letter to his father, Child cheerfully relayed news of Mussolini’s destruction of liberal, constitutional government: “We are having a fine young revolution here. No danger. Plenty of enthusiasm and color. We all enjoy it.”
As the Depression provoked massive civil and political unrest in Europe, Mussolini became a hero in the U.S. for straitjacketing class conflict with armed Blackshirt terrorism while erecting a highly authoritarian investor’s paradise. With loans pouring in from the House of Morgan, the Italian dictator increased public debt, slashed social welfare spending, abolished unions, strikes, and the 8-hour day, boosted unemployment and bankruptcy, weakened the lira, and kept Italian wages among the lowest in Europe. As these policies were being carried out, Thomas Lamont, senior partner for the House of Morgan, who originally characterized Mussolini as a "very upstanding chap," declared he was “something like a missionary” for Italian Fascism. FDR seemed to be under a similar spell, praising Mussolini (in a letter to a friend) as “that admirable Italian gentleman.”
U.S. Ambassador to Italy William Phillips (1936-1941) joined the fascist fan club, finding himself “greatly impressed by the efforts of Mussolini to improve the condition of the masses.” He also found “much evidence” to support the Fascist conviction that “they represent a true democracy in as much as the welfare of the people is their principal objective.” Phillips regarded Mussolini’s achievements as “astounding...a source of constant amazement,” and sang hosannas to his “great human qualities.” The State Department agreed, hailing his “magnificent” attainments in conquering Ethiopia with clouds of mustard gas, and praising Fascism for having “brought order out of chaos, discipline out of license, and solvency out of bankruptcy.” As late as 1939 FDR rated Italian fascism “of great importance to the world [although] still in the experimental stage.”
In the Pacific, it was Japan's closing the U.S. out of private markets, not its human rights crimes in Asia that ruined relations with Washington. In 1932 the Ottawa Conference cut off Japanese trade with the British Commonwealth, including India. Three years later Japan was forced to curtail shipments of cotton textiles to the Philippines while U.S. imports remained duty free. Meanwhile, U.S. tariffs on many Japanese goods surpassed 100%.
Squeezed out of concessions throughout Asia by better-established rivals, Tokyo complained of American, British, Chinese, and Dutch encirclement strangling its economy and denying it a day in the imperial sun.
Short of revolution at home, Japan’s only way to economic freedom was through direct control of its own trade routes. So in 1937 Tokyo began its conquest of China in earnest, wiping out some 140,000 Chinese civilians at Nanking while proclaiming a desire to promote economic development and prevent Communist domination of Asia. Washington objected to the exclusive trade zones, not the atrocities.
Prior to Pearl Harbor much of the American business community and many government officials frankly rejected the idea that Japan was an aggressive power in the Pacific. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew explained in a 1939 Tokyo speech that the U.S. objected not to Japan’s human rights policy but rather to its imposition of “a system of closed economy...[which] depriv[ed] Americans of their long-established rights in China.” Grew declined even to mention incidental matters like Manchuria, Nanking, and the Japanese occupation of China, which ultimately caused the death of millions of people by starvation and disease.
See also post for April 15, 2009, "False Saviors: FDR" for more information on U.S. relations with fascism.
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