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tv   Lectures in History Public Opinion Radio Entry into World War II  CSPAN  September 2, 2021 3:26pm-4:29pm EDT

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just before world war ii, radio was gaining popularity wofford college professor teaches about the rise of radio and its impact on whether to enter world war ii. the class uses sound clips showing the role radio played shaping views and policy. >> all right. so, last week we talked about coming of the war in europe and asia. i want to talk about the great debate over american involvement in world war ii. the american reaction to all of that. this is arguably the most important debate on foreign policy in all of american history.
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and public opinion probably more than any previous debate mattered here in part for the first time there was a way of gauging public opinion. the gallop poll organization had started polling american people. so leaders had a much more direct sense of what the people actually thought. you're going to see a lot of polling data in this, in fleshing out exactly what it was that americans thought. so i'm going to focus quite a bit on public opinion and we'll talk about policy as a reflection of that public opinion. at the start of the war in europe. my argument is -- there were two basic positions held almost unanimously by the american people. they wanted britain and france to win the war, to defeat germany, and they did not want the united states to have to fight in that war to make it happen. over the course of this debate, nothing that happened really changed fundamentally those two point of views.
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there will be changes in american opinion, but those two fundamental views remained the same, even on the eve of pearl harbor. most americans wanted to avoid direct american involvement as a belligerent in world war ii. the great debate moved the american public in the direction of risking war, but never fully convinced most americans that the united states should declare war against germany. only germany's declaration of war against the united states after pearl harbor convinced americans to declare war on germany. that's one thing. the debate is about, on the surface, how much age should the united states give to the allies to help them defeat nazi germany. but below the surface there's a fundamental debate going on. what role should the united states play in the world going forward?
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should it, as the antiinterventionists argue, remain a hemispheric power dominating north and south america has it had done for the last century? should it try to do that in a world dominated by hostile dictatorships, or as the interventionists argue, should it recognize that the united states was a global power? and be willing to join the fight against those dictators to prevent those dictators from dominating the world? that's a big question. and behind all of the details, and we'll talking about a fair amount of detailed arguments here, that's the fundamental question americans are considering, what role should the united states play in the world going forward. the great debate that takes place between the beginning of
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the war and pearl harbor moved the public in the direction of a much more active american engagement in the war -- in the world and set the stage for america's postwar emergence as a global superpower. but -- this is the significant part. without ever fully convincing most americans that it was america's responsibility to assume global leadership. to understand this debate, i think we have to go back and remind ourselves about how americans reacted to the first world war. i think by the 1930s, americans are suffering something of a hangover from world war i. it's something they really regret. after the united states rejected participation in woodrow wilson's league of nations, most of the world settled back into the notion that the united states could ignore the rest of the world. it did not need to be engaged. and events of the 1920s
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reinforced the idea that involvement in the last war had been a mistake. it was a departure from tradition and it was one that the united states should not repeat ever again. that mistake showed the wisdom of the founding generation's foreign policy, of staying out of european quarrels. the old world was corrupt. it was decadent. it was prone to warfare. and nothing good could come out of american involvement in that. what that led to in the 1930s was a growing consensus, particularly in congress, that what we needed to do in the united states was create a legal structure that would prevent that from happening. from 1935 to 1937 you had a series of laws which we call the neutrality legislation. and the basic idea here was to make sure by law that the united states couldn't make the mistakes it made last time.
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and it targeted very specifically the things that americans now blamed for american involvement in the previous war, specifically if there's another war, there should be an impartial arms embargo on all belligerents, all belligerents. aggressor, victim, it doesn't matter. impartial. we don't want to be selling arms to anyone. that only threatens to drag us into the war. a ban on loans. if we loan money to a belligerent, we maybe have an interest in making sure they have an interest on winning the war. a ban on americans traveling on belligerent ships. we don't want americans being killed in this war accidentally because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. that happened last time, it shouldn't happen again. in each of these cases, americans were responding directly to something that happened between 1914 to 1917.
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and a retrospective sense that this had been a mistake. the americans had made all of those mistakes last time, next time, we won't make those mistakes. this is coming from congress which is one of the things that makes it unusual. foreign policy is primarily the purview of the president. here is congress saying, we're going to limit what the president can do. so it's probably not surprising to you that the president was not crazy about these ideas. fdr did not like his flexibility in foreign policy being limited but he also recognized that this is popular. the people are behind this. he signed these pieces of legislation but at the same time warned that they could be problematic in the future. and events, of course, would bear him out. it does become problematic in the future. in particular, by 1938, 1939,
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with the czech crisis and the polish crisis, for most americans it became clear that a war was becoming more and more likely in europe. and not just any general hypothetical war, but a specific war potentially between nazi germany on the one hand and britain and france on the other. and it began to change their minds, at least a little bit, about this neutrality legislation. americans almost unanimously had a negative opinion of nazi germany and generally, not universally, and generally had a positive opinion of great britain and france. when the idea of war between those sides began to become more and more possible, american public opinion began to shift a little bit. six months before the war began, the gallop organization asked americans, if there was a war,
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who would they favor and would they be favoring changing the law? do you think the law should be changed so we would sell war materials to england and france in case of a war and the solid majority said yes. that's against the law at this point. but when faced with the idea that it's england and france that would be on the receiving end, yeah, we do support doing that. this is not a theoretical war, it's a real war. but there are limits. there are limits to that. americans drew the line at extending credit. should we lend money to england and france, and now 69% said no. that's different. we don't want loans out there. and what this is really reflecting is american resentment of the fact that a
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lot of the war debts from world war i were never fully paid back. we didn't get our money back last time. we're not going to make that mistake again. and it also reflects the idea that if we have as our debtors england in france, we have an interest in making sure they win so they can pay us back. we don't want that to drag us into another war. so this part of the neutrality legislation, clear majority, more than two-thirds, favors keeping. similarly, what about traveling on ships? 82% say the united states should not allow its citizens to travel on the ships of a country now at war. they'll be in danger. if those ships are sunk and americans die, that will become a reason to get involved in the next war. what they're remembering is the "lusitania," the passenger liner that was sunk by a german u-boat in 1915. that was a loss of many american lives. that gives america a stake in the war. we'll get dragged in if
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americans die. during world war i, woodrow wilson asserted this as a basic american right. we should not have to worry that our lives are in danger when we're traveling. now americans are saying, nope, it's too dangerous, it's okay for the government to forbid that. so if it happens, it's not their responsibility. the government doesn't have to protect people or avenge people who have been hurt in this way. again, should the united states allow american ships to go anywhere or should they stay out of war zones? 84%, stay out of war zones. this is the opposite of the first world war. wilson has argued that american ships should be free to go where we want. we're a neutral country. we're not at war, we should not be endangered because we're carrying on trade. in the 1930s, again, this is right at the beginning of the war itself. september 1939.
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84% said, stay out of the war zones. so there's some movement on that one point. should we be allowed to sell arms to britain and france. on the other proposals, americans stayed where they were, keep the legislation, don't change it to allow these pitfalls from becoming possible pitfalls in the next war. why did americans support changing the arms embargo. why did they support changing it for britain and france? i think the answer to that comes down a universally negative view of nazi germany. it's hitler. it's hitler's behavior that americans are responding to. august of 1939, gallop asked the public, if hitler's claims against poland that we talked about last week were justified, 86% said no.
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what he's demanding is wrong. if a war therefore comes out of this, it will be his fault. and then a couple of weeks later when the war did begin, 82% of the american people said it was germany's fault. virtually no one blamed england or france or poland. it was germany's fault. they are the ones who started this. there is a clear-cut aggressor in this war. this is not a case of both sides. germany is at fault. germany is the aggressor, britain and france are defending the victim. so we don't actually feel neutral about that. these two sides are not the same. there's significant difference here.
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once it was an actual war instead of a theoretical war, american opinion shifted a little bit. they still don't want to be involved in the war. they still want to avoid most of the mistakes that took place in the first world war. but they're not completely neutral. not really. they favor britain and france. they oppose nazi germany. but they don't want to fight. they don't want to be actively involved in the war. and in fact, opposition to becoming actively involved in the war grew after the war began. if you look at the interviewing dates for this poll, august 30, a couple of days before the war began, a lot of people saw it coming. it was before the war actually began. and carrying on for the first few days of the war in europe. when asked if the united states should send its army and navy to fight, 84% said no.
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that's overwhelmingly against fighting. look what happens weeks later. 95%. americans did not want to fight this war. they were not neutral. they took sides. but they did not want to fight. it is not our fight. i think it's worth asking why americans were so resolved to stay uninvolved if they really believed one side was right and the other side was wrong? and i think the answer to that is they were confident that britain and france would win. americans were asked who they thought were going to win, the allies, 82%. in other words, we don't have to fight this thing. the allies are going to take care of it.
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they will win it. we can be on their side, we can sell them goods. we can root for them. but they'll win on their own. they don't need us. this is important to remember. they're overconfident in an allied victory when the war begins. they're underestimating germany's ability to fight and win the war. another interesting shift takes place, though, when you raise the possibility that germany might win the war. if it looks like england and france might be defeated, then should the united states declare war? 44% suddenly say yes. still not a majority. still most americans are against involvement in the war even if nazi germany is going to win, but that's a huge jump in the number of people who would be willing to go to war. and this, i think, is what
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fleshing out this view of american public opinion. they don't want to fight but they think it might be necessary, at least some americans think it might be necessary. but only, only if it's the only way to keep your nazi germany from winning. so to sum up all of this, the fundamental tension i would argue in american opinion is that americans overwhelmingly wanted the allies to win. most were willing to help the allies to win, but only in certain circumstances. if the aid threaten to drag the united states in as an active belligerent, many americans got cold feet and a majority were against involvement under any circumstances. a couple more poll numbers i want to show you that i think are really illustrative of the way american opinion shifts back and forth depending on how they're thinking about issues at any given moment.
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october -- this is now after the fall of poland. do you think the united states should do everything possible to help england and france win the war except go to war ourselves? 62% say yes. that's a powerful majority in favor of aid to great britain. everything possible, no limitations put on that except going to war ourselves. 62%. look what happens when you put this phrase into it. at the risk of getting into the war ourselves, the numbers flip. it's the same question, except the risk of getting involved is raised. suddenly 66% don't want to have anything to do with it. we shouldn't do everything to help britain and france win if it means we might get involved. that's a difference of framing the question and it produces a huge difference and i think that's telling you something really interesting and important about american public opinion. they want the allies to win. but they sure don't want to
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fight this war themselves. this is what franklin roosevelt has to deal with as president. a public that wants a british and french victory but doesn't want to fight. and that's what he's trying to satisfy when he's forming american policy. again, he's very, very acutely aware of this. he follows public opinion polls. he has all of this information. he knows where the public is. he has to craft a policy that will coincide with what the public thinks. and he does a very, very good job of this. when the war began, fdr went on the radio. he gave one of his famous fireside chats. what he said reflected what americans wanted. he says the united states won't be a belligerent in this conflict. it will do its best to stay out
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of it and not get dragged into it. and then he says something interesting. he refused to ask the public to be neutral in thought as woodrow wilson had done in 1914 because he knew they weren't. they're not neutral. and i'm not going to ask you to be neutral. >> 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 close his conscious. >> there's a right and wrong side in this war and we all know it. we shouldn't be neutral about this. and i'm not asking you to be neutral about this.
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he knew where the public was and he expressed where the public was. so what do you do about that in terms of policy? one thing to just talk about not being neutral in thought. what do you do in terms of policy? and the policy that he crafted, again, closely resembled what we've seen in public opinion. he comes up with something called cash and carry. americans should be allowed to sell goods to great britain, but the british have to come and get it. they have to pay cash, and they have to take it away on their own ships. that fits exactly in that polling data i was just showing you. yes, we'll sell goods. yes, we will not under any circumstances give them loans, and we will not put our ships or our people at risk. so if they want to come and pay
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cash and carry it away themselves, they can do that. it's the safest possible policy. it satisfies the desires to aid england and france by selling them war goods, but it does not put americans at risk. once they take the goods from our ports, it's not our problem anymore. those ships get attacked, they're not our ships. if lives are lost, they're not american lives. it's beautifully crafted to perfectly capture what the american people were willing to do and i don't think that's a coincidence. i think that's fdr understanding exactly what the public was willing to tolerate at any given point. that i think is what we're going to see throughout the entire debate. fdr is able to do that over and over again. in the fall of 1939 then it seemed like americans were done, right? they have cash and carry, congress approved it, fdr signed it. we have our policy, we're good to go. and you know what happens next.
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the nazi offensive in the spring of 1940, the fall of france. and that changed everything. shelby? >> so -- it only applied to great britain and france, right? or was it like -- could it have applied to germany or another -- >> theoretically, i suppose. i'm not sure about the specific language of the legislation. but everybody knew what the legislation was actually accomplishing. there was no expectation that nazi germany would be buying war materials from the united states. >> is the cash and carry policy somewhat of a start of what would become the lend/lease program? >> yes and no. we will get to that later. i'm going to argue that
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lend/lease is a break from this policy. but it's a step in that direction, yes. cash and carry was okay as long as it looked like england and france were likely to win. that's what changed in the spring and summer of 1940. the fall of france completely changed america's opinion of this war because up until then, it was perfectly plausible to believe that great britain and france would win the war against nazi germany. once france surrendered, that was a lot harder to imagine. what now? what if britain falls? what if the allies lose the war? this is when i would argue the great debate really begins. the summer of 1940. now a much tougher question is on the table. cash and carry might work. it might work for some time, but what if britain is about to fall?
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then what do we do? two organizations came into being in the summer of 1940 on each side of that question. the anti-interventionist america first committee and the speaker -- interventionity group, the awkwardly named committee to defend america by aiding the allies. that's a mouthful. nobody ever said that. it was generally called the white committee. you have america first which says the united states should remain aloof, should not take any risk of getting involved in the war, and the committee to defend america by aiding the allies, that says the united states should do everything possible to make sure that england wins because aiding the allies is defending america. that's the equation that they're making. those two things are the same. if you want to defend america, defend the allies. america first is saying if you want to defend america, defend america.
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hoard america's resources for america first. don't give them to the allies. so what i would like to do now is talk about some of the major issues. i won't talk about all of them. they're far too many. this is a widespread and varying debate. but there are certain key themes that are central to the debate of these two organizations. the anti-interventionists, the america first committee, basically made the argument that staying out of european wars is america's tradition. this goes back to george washington. the united states should not get itself entangled in european affairs. it certainly shouldn't get involved in european wars. and this is a foreign policy that has served america well. it did so for over 100 years until the united states broke from that tradition in 1917 and went to war in europe.
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that was a mistake and it's a mistake that should not be repeated. we've learned the wisdom of the founders. they were right to stay out of european affairs. and we should not make that mistake again. the interventionists of the white committee make a different argument. the policy that served the united states well in the late 1700s and in the 1800s is not appropriate in the 20th century. the united states was a weak underdeveloped nation in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. of course it made sense to stay out of european wars. but that's not true anymore. the united states is the most powerful economic state in the world. it has global interests. it is not weak and underdeveloped. it's a continental nation with global interests.
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and technology has made the world smaller. the old tradition made sense when the united states had the two greatest national defenses in the world, the atlantic and the pacific oceans. that was our protection. but that protection is not what it used to be. military technology has changed. air power in particular allows countries to project their military power in a way that's never been true before. the world is smaller than it used to be. we are in greater danger from a foreign power than we ever were in the past. the world has changed. the anti-interventionists argue, in that case, we need better hemispheric defenses. that's what we need, then. that only reinforces the idea that what we need is fortress america.
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we need to build up our hemispheric defenses, become so strong that no one will dare attack us and that means every bit of military hardware we produce needs to stay here with us, stay here in this hemisphere. we're a hemispheric power. we should remain a hemispheric power. the interventionists argue, you don't understand the fight we're in. britain is fighting our battle. britain is our first line of defense. if they fall to nazism, we are in danger. we can't just hunker down in this hemisphere. we have to recognize that the british are fighting our fight and we have to do everything possible to help them win that fight. the anti-interventionists said you're exaggerating the threat. there's no real threat to america here.
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american interests in europe and asia aren't in mortal danger. we're not going to be attacked. even if worst-case scenario, even if nazi germany wins, even if imperial japan wins its war, we'll be fine. we may not like it. but it will be fine. we can survive in that world. we can trade with those countries. the interventionists respond, you don't understand the threat. an axis-dominated world will be a threat to the united states. it's a threat to the united states militarily. maybe not in terms of the united states being invaded and conquered. no, that's likely not going to happen. but it's still a military threat. we can be damaged by imperial japan and nazi germany and perhaps even more significantly,
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it's an economic threat to our well-being. if the nazis dominate europe and control the natural resources of europe, if the japanese conquer and control the resources of asia, what will we do? you can say we'll trade with them, but what if they don't trade with us? what if they isolate us economically? how do we grow and prosper. and remember, 1939, 1940, the great depression is not fully over yet. it's gotten better, but it's still on. americans are concerned about their economic well-being. this argument says we might be in a state of permanent depression. we may not have any capacity for economic growth in a world dominated by nazi germany and imperial japan. this is a threat to our interests. we are in danger. our whole way of life can be destroyed by a world dominated
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by the these dictatorships. the interventionists argue, what will destroy american democracy is this war. if we become involved in this war, democracy at home will die. we saw a taste of it in the last war, the centralization of power in the federal government. unprecedented government control, government regulation. that will be just a tiny portion of what will happen in the next war. the next war will be longer and harder and more deadly for americans. and one of the main casualties will be american democracy. the liberal component of the anti-interventionists argue this would be the end of any kind of reform. if you support roosevelt's new
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deal, it's going to die. progressivism died during world war i, the new deal will die in world war ii. domestic reform will be over. the war will force us to limit freedom and democracy will die. the anti-interventionists said we're concerned about democracy too. but the thing that's going to kill democracy is an axis victory. that's the real threat to us. our democracy will be impossible in an axis-dominated world. maybe we won't be invaded or attacked, but we'll have to be on guard for it, won't we? what will that mean? massive defense spending, high taxes, a permanent state of preparation for war. economic hardship. those are the things that destroy our democracy. they're both arguing that the other's position will somehow destroy democracy and they're both believing that. seeing a fundamental threat to
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the american way of life if the other side gets its way. questions? comments about that? it's just a summary of a pretty wide-ranging debate. how are americans hearing this? how are they being exposed to this? the answer to this is the radio. that's another thing that made this debate different. it's taking place for the first time, really, in american history when there is a national medium to carry out this debate. by the time the world broke out, there were four national radio networks, nbc red, carried most of their popular entertainment programs, nbc blue which went towards news and opinion, cbs and the mutual network.
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and i think this point is incredibly important. as early as 1940, more than half of the american people got their news from the radio primarily. newspapers have already been displaced by radio. they're getting their news and also getting opinion. speakers are going on the radio making the case to the american people directly. this had never happened before. there had been debates, of course, in american foreign policy, but they were mostly carried out in newspapers and among elites. this is available to virtually everybody in america. almost the entire country is covered by radio networks and significantly, according to the census data from 1940, lots of people have radios. 90% of people in the south. among urban whites, radio
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ownership is almost universal. 94.4%. what this means is that the overwhelming majority of american people have access to radio. they own one themselves, they know somebody, a family, a neighbor, and when important things happen, they can gather at that person's house and listen to it. nothing like this had ever happened before. we take this for granted. we know everything. we have access to hear anything at any time. this was new. this had never happened before. you could reach in one speech virtually everyone in america, at least in theory. and so that's going to shape the debate as well. it started off by talking about
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how important public opinion is going to be to shaping policy. this is going to factor into then how american public opinion is shaped. if we want to affect the public, we have to address the public. in other words, this debate can't just be among elites, foreign policy experts. it has to be made accessible to the average person. and so both sides went out of their way to try to appeal to the average person. now in general, when they started out with traditional speeches the way politicians had always done. i'm going to give you a couple of clips to illustrate the sort of things americans were hearing on their radios. this is a man who had been acting secretary of war. he's an anti-interventionist. listen in this clip for those themes i was just talking about. >> i have heard no accredited military authority who thinks that we are in imminent danger of invasion from anywhere. what is more, if we can depend upon the statement of the undersecretary of war and i think he knows what he is talking about, we soon shall
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have the necessary men trained and under arms to turn any hostile approach to our shores into a first-class disaster for whomever tries it. two, i am opposed to any attempt on our part to further demand a place in the old world's everlasting quarrels. europe and asia have been in constant battle over the balances of powers for thousands of years, and they will be at it long after all of us here are gone. our fathers came to this land to leave all of that behind them. if we put ourselves back into it now, we shall lose this republic. >> so you can see some of those themes. we can't really be attacked. it would be a disaster if someone tried. europe and asia, the old world, quarrelsome, warlike, they're always like this, they always will be like this, this is not our problem.
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our people, our fathers left that behind. we shouldn't voluntarily return to it. this next clip is going to be from an interventionist who was the republic nominee for president in 1940. wilke echoes a lot of the white committee arguments. >> we must band every effort to keep britain afloat, and let us be very clear as to this fact, we cannot keep britain afloat with mere words. [ applause ] we cannot keep britain afloat with no risk and undelivered goods. [ applause ] any such policy of that spells destruction. it is the most dangerous course that america could possibly
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pursue. we cannot defend freedom that way. >> the danger is not aiding britain. you say it's dangerous to aid britain? it's dangerous not to. our freedom is at stake. that's the dangerous thing. not helping great britain fight its fight. the airwaves in 1940, 1941 were filled with speeches like this. a major public figure could go to the radio networks and request time and probably be granted 15, 20 minutes to speak on one of the major networks. they didn't always speak in these set pieces. sometimes they actually had debates, face-to-face debates. there were a number of programs on the air, on the various networks, that were designed around this concept. it was america's town meeting of the air, american forum of the
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air, the university of chicago round table and every one of these debates that went around american foreign policy had a representative of either america first, the white committee, or very often, both. it wasn't just that they were giving speeches, they were actively debating with one another on the air, usually live, though not always, for the american people to listen to. but, again, this is still -- these are still elite opinions, right? these are still experts and foreign policy people. one of the really interesting things about this debate is that both sides recognize that that wasn't good enough. you had to do more than that. if you're trying to reach the average person, you want them to hear the average person. not enough to just have politicians, presidents, senators, representatives, the elites. what about the average person? and so you had an innovation that took place, that really foreshadows a lot of what we see in political advertising and making political arguments in the media.
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interviewing average americans. >> now to the east coast, new york city, and here is fred reeden, automobile machinist, 33 years old, married. how about it? is the british fleet one of our first lines of defense? >> nuts! defense from what? hitler may be crazy, but he's not so crazy as to take us on unless we deliberately push him into it. >> just an average guy in new york. but speaking commonsense. what the average person thinks. this is basically a man on the street kind of interview kind of thing. you don't have to be a foreign policy expert to have an opinion on the war. if this is what you think, it's a valid opinion, other people hold that. >> the america first committee has brought you the opinions of seven patriotic american citizens from different parts of the country and different walks of life.
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these seven represent the feelings and beliefs of a vast majority of our people. >> different places, different walks of life. somewhere out there, you heard somebody who is at least a little bit like you. who represents you and your opinion. this is a really different way of trying to shape public opinion. not by telling people what they should think, but telling them here's what you already think from someone just like you. another technique that i think is fascinating was introduced by america first. it was a representative from pennsylvania named james van zant. and he thought that the most important thing was to hear from the veterans of the last war. who better to tell us about the dangers of war than the people who suffered the cost of war themselves? so he set up a broadcast from a veterans hospital outside washington. he said we need to listen to these people because they're the ones who --
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>> the appalling costs of war, not in dollars and cents alone, but in shattered bodies, suffocated lungs and shadowed minds. these men understand war and its devastating effect on mankind. >> they know it firsthand. they're not the politicians, they're the people who actually fought the last war. they're the ones we should listen to. and so he interviewed them. >> in your own words, what do you think of the united states entering another european war? >> we don't want to go over there, but they come here, we're all ready to fight. >> thank you for your frank opinion. [ applause ] >> that expression, ladies and gentlemen, is from the lips of a real world war veteran. let's visit this veteran in the wheelchair. >> notice a couple of things there, first of all, there's an audience applauding like in a regular radio program that they were used to hearing.
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he brought an audience in. very straight forward, simple opinion. if we're attacked, we'll fight back. but we don't want to go over there. nothing complicated. very straightforward. we'll defend ourselves, but we're not going to interject ourselves. and then the end. remember, it's radio, so he's painting a picture. i'm going to talk to this veteran in a wheelchair and immediately that picture is in the mind of the listener. this is a really sophisticated -- at least for the time -- way of trying to get across a political opinion. as far as i know, nothing like this had ever happened before. and it shows how important this debate was, that they're innovating, thinking of new ways to convince people. they recognize the same old speeches from the same political figures might not do it, but if you hear from a veteran directly in his own words. so what does this produce? what does all of this debate, all of these various techniques, what does it do to american public opinion?
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that's ultimately the important thing. i think the best illustration to finally get back to your question earlier is the lend/lease act. that shows the extent to which public opinion did change and to the extent in which it did not change. the end of 1940, churchill informed roosevelt that cash and carry wasn't going to work anymore. the british were running off cash. it still needed aid from the united states but it couldn't afford to pay cash anymore. it was going to be unable to do that much longer. this created a dilemma for fdr. the policy had perfectly fit american public opinion but now it won't work. what do you do instead? how do you compensate for this problem? and so fdr came up with something called the lend/lease bill that would allow him as president to provide military aid to any country's defense he determined was vital to u.s.
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security. the president gets to decide this. what's vital to u.s. security? think about the neutrality legislation which was basically meant to control what the president was allowed to do, restrict what the president was allowed to do. this is going in the exact opposite direction. now the president gets to decide for himself what vital interests are and who deserves american aid as a result of that. the idea was that the united states would lend or lease arms to britain with the understanding that after the war the united states would be paid back in kind somehow. fdr came up with a clever analogy to sell this to people. remember, he's always trying to sell this to the public. we talked about appealing to the average person. how do you take this idea of lending or leasing military
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equipment and make it a matter of commonsense to the people? fdr was a master at this. he called reporters into his office. that's how they used to do press conferences. they would crowd around his desk in the oval office. and he said this to them, now what i'm trying to do is eliminate the dollar sign. get rid of the silly, foolish dollar sign. suppose my neighbor's home catches fire and i have a length of garden hose. if he can take my garden hose, i may help him to put out his fire. i don't say to him before that operation, neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15. you have to pay me $15 for it. i don't want $15, i want my garden hose back after the fire is over. that's all this is. you're lending your neighbor a hose. who wouldn't do that? who would ask for payment before lending the hose? nobody would do that. it's in your interest that your
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neighbor's house doesn't burn down. yours might catch fire, too. it's a beautiful attempt at capturing the commonsense mind set of the average person, putting it in terms that they can understand. the other side didn't much go for this analogy, republican senator and anti-interventionists robert taft of ohio responded by saying, lending war equipment is very much like lending chewing gum. you don't want it back. also a good line, fdr had the better line. but he had the better line because the public was with him on this. ultimately the public was behind him. again, to go to polling data, asked at the end of 1940 if america's future safety depended on england winning the war, americans were convinced that britain had to win the war. and significantly, americans
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were also convinced that britain would not win the war without american aid. if the united states stopped sending war materials to england, do you think england would lose the war? 85% said yes. we know how important this is. we know it's essential to britain's survival that they continue to get aid from the united states. and america's safety demands on -- depends on england winning the war. our interests are engaged here. it is essential that britain win. it is essential that we give them aid. so what happens when they can't pay for it? fdr said, they will be willing to give it to them, lend it or lease it, like they would a garden hose. the american people will go along with that. and he was right.
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americans still want to stay out of the war, but they think it's more important that england win the war. even at the risk -- remember when "even at the risk" was put in the earlier poll, it flipped public opinion. now 61% say, even at the risk of war, we should continue to help great britain. so, yeah, this is a risk. if we change our policy and it's not just cash and carry anymore, we're actually giving them war material, the risk is higher, but it's worth it. winning the war is that important. so it's probably not surprising that when fdr put this proposal before congress, the public is behind that, too. this question basically asks about the lend/lease act. should our government lend or lease war materials to the british? 68% said yes. fdr found that public opinion sweet spot.
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this is what the public believed. this is what the public was willing to go along with. it's a big change because what the united states is now doing is much different from cash and carry. the anti-interventionists made a point of emphasizing how different this is. this is a declaration of war against germany. we're not calling it that. that's basically what we're doing. we are siding unequivocally with great britain by giving them -- not selling them, which you could say, that's business, that's a commercial transaction. we're giving them weapons of war. that's for all intents and purposes joining this war. we're not sending soldiers, but we're sending our material. if we send our material today, we will send our soldiers tomorrow. that's the next logical step.
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we're going to get into this war. roosevelt and his supporters said, no, this is the best way to make sure that doesn't happen. if england falls, we will have to go to war. if england survives, we may not. our best chance of staying out of this thing is keeping britain afloat, making sure great britain doesn't fall. ultimately, congress agreed with roosevelt. strong margins but not unanimous. there is division in the united states. public opinion and in congress. those are comfortable margins. the members of the house and the members of the senate were overwhelmingly in favor of roosevelt's proposal. as was the public in general. ultimately, what has the great debate accomplished? what has it done between the beginning of the war and now the
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spring of 1941? i think you can argue the interventionists convinced the american people to do everything possible short of war to help great britain, even and now at the risk of war. americans are willing to take that chance. but they had not convinced americans to go to war. that was still a step too far for most americans. they had sort of nudged the public in the direction of a more active role for the united states in world affairs, but had not convinced americans to take the lead in world affairs. continue to help great britain, but we don't want to actually fight. we will assist, but we won't lead. in that sense i think you can argue that the anti-interventionists also have succeeded to a certain extent. most americans remain convinced it was best to stay out. they did not want to go to war.
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even after the lend lease act was approved, that's what americans wanted. asked directionally if they should declare war in april, 81% said, stay out. they are happy with lend lease. they are willing to do lend lease. they still want to stay out. overwhelmingly want to stay out of the war. but -- this is really interesting -- they don't think it's going to happen. they don't think the united states will stay out. asked if ultimately america would get involved, 82% said, yeah, it's going to happen. we will go in. we don't want to. it will be against our will. it's going to happen. it's going to happen. again, these are almost mirror images of each other. right? 81% say stay out. 82% say, yeah, we're going to go in. it's inevitable, in all likelihood.
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but we don't want to. this is not something we are going to do unless we absolutely have to. was public opinion changed? somewhat. remember, 1939, 95% say the united states should stay out. in the weeks before pearl harbor in november of 1941, 26% said the united states probably should just go ahead and declare war. that's a significant shift. that's a 20% shift of people who think a declaration of war makes sense. the previous two years had changed something. still, most people are against it. this is just weeks before pearl harbor. the anti-interventionist argument against war was still a powerful one in the minds of most americans. americans kind of want to have it both ways. they want the nazis gone, they
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are willing to send aid to make that happen. they don't want to sacrifice and fight the war themselves. only when germany took that decision out of the hands of americans by declaring war on the united states on december 11, 1941, did the united states go ahead and declare war on germany. even after pearl harbor, the united states did not immediately declare war on germany. germany hadn't attacked. germany declared war first. took the decision out of american hands. i think it's worth wondering, if germany hadn't done that, would the american people have supported going to war against germany after pearl harbor? we will never know. it's a hypothetical. but i think it's a question worth considering. this suggests, maybe not. in fact, maybe not, especially given the fact that japan had attacked the united states. maybe the focus should be on japan and not on germany.
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what the interventionists ultimately succeeded in doing is convincing the public it was worth risking war but not convincing them the united states should enter the war and take on world leadership. that idea was being advocated by a group i haven't mentioned before. it's the fight for freedom committee, the most radical faction of the white committee. ones who thought, we should go ahead and declare war. this is our fight. we should fight it ourselves. they made that case after the lend lease act in the spring and summer of 1941. they were openly making the argument, we should declare war. the public didn't buy it. the public did not want to declare war. it did not convince the public to adopt their view. the political class though is different. the political leadership is different.
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they largely were convinced by the events of world war ii that the united states should assume the leading role in world affairs, both in the war and then especially after the war. pearl harbor convinced them the united states needed to lead. after pearl harbor, it was almost impossible to have a national political career and be known as an isolationist. that was now a negative term in the same way an appeaser became a negative term. nobody wanted to be known as an out and out isolationist. if you wanted national leadership, you had to be in favor of an interventionist foreign policy, one where the united states would lead international affairs. that was the consensus in the political class. it never was in the public. that i think is an interesting and important point. the gap between the public on
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the one hand and the political class on the other. i would argue that never fully disappeared. there have always been a large number of americans uncomfortable at least with the idea that the united states should try to run the world, should try to be the world's great leader. i think that's why today, 80 years after the great debate first began, we are debating the value of -- i don't think this is a coincidence -- an america first foreign policy. questions? comments? all right. i will see you guys next time. we will talk about the war in asia. ♪♪ ♪♪
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this year marks the 20th anniversary the september 11th attacks. join us for live coverage from new york, the pentagon, and shanksville, pennsylvania starting at 7:00 a.m. eastern saturday, september 11th, on c-span. watch on line at or linen the c-span radio app. ♪♪ >> thigh door gilmore bilbao was an american politician who twice served as governor of mississippi, once in 1916 for four years, and then from 1928 to 1932. later, he was elected a u.s. senator in 1935, was reelected twice more, but died early in his third term in 1947. he was 69. he was a democrat. an outspoke white supremacist
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and a strong supporter of fdr's progressive new deal. we asked dr. chester beau morgan a retired professor of history at the university of southern mississippi to give us background on theodore bilbao and his theory of politics in the fdr era. he is the author of red neck deal. listen at or wherever you get your podcasts. now on american history tv, texas women's university professor cat relationship land deck talking about ways women contributed to the war effort during world war ii. she details what they did on the home front and work women performed in theit


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