The Road to World War II

To What Extent was Neutrality a Realistic Policy?

As the depression swept through the United States it also laid waste to the continent of Europe. America wrapped itself in the cocoon of isolationism and took a rather dim view of the affairs of Europe. We were concerned about preserving our way of life but little did we know that the greatest threat to the American way of life lie in the continent we so casually regarded. As America embraced democracy and a modified capitalism many European turned to fascism and aggression. The rise of dictators in Europe had a profound impact on the world order. Fascist leaders promised their citizens prosperity through aggression. Militarism relieved psychological depression by promising world domination and power as well was economic relief by employing millions in the production of military hardware. The question was, how would the world respond? Would the fear of war outweigh the hard choices required to pursue peace? Would the actions of these dictators be challenged? These were the questions that had to be asked as America and the world entered a new era. It would only be a matter of time before America would be forced to respond.

  1. The Road to War
  2. In what nations did dictators rise to power?
  3. Germany – Adolf Hitler
  4. Italy – Benito Mussolini
  5. Japan – General Togo (It bears noting that Japan was already ruled by an Emperor named Hirohito. Hirohito. however was a young man and was controlled by General Togo.)
  6. We have to add Josef Stalin here. Stalin was dictator of the Soviet Union and came to power after Lenin’s death. Even though Stalin was on our side he was a brutal dictator who would later become America’s chief world opponent.
  7. What aggressive acts were taken by the dictators of the 1930’s?
  8. Hitler rearms the nation in direct violation of the treaty of Versailles and then proceeds to remilitarize the strategic Rhineland region. All of this was in direct violation of the Treaty but yet no nation attempted to stop Hitler. France was in a particular position to act and could have easily ended Hitler’s militaristic expansion but did not do so fearing war.
  9. Hitler annexed Austria, a nation traditionally and culturally bound to Germany. The combination of Germany and Austria (known as Anschluss) was also specifically prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles.
  10. Hitler asks for permission to annex the half of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudatenland. In the Munich Pact the powers of Europe agree to this in exchange for a promise from Hitler that this would be the end of his expansion. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of England and author of the Munich Pact and this policy of appeasement, declare “Peace in our time!” Weeks later Hitler takes the rest of Czechoslovakia by force violating the Munich Pact.
  11. Mussolini attacked and invaded Ethiopia
  12. Japan led by General Togo attacked and annexed the Chinese province of Manchuria, a great source of natural resources.
  13. Hitler and Stalin sign a non aggression pact. Each hates each other but wish to secure that border first. Hitler knows he will someday attack the Soviet Union but does nit wish to at this time. Stalin knows he will be attacked and is just buying time as he attempts to prepare and rebuild his nation.
  14. On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland. At this point Hitler cannot be ignored and England and France declare war on Germany.
  15. How did the world respond to these aggressive acts?
  16. League of Nations chose not to respond to Italy’s attack.
  17. Most nations refused to recognize Japan’s annexation but did nothing to stop it.
  18. After Hitler annexed Austria and requested Czechoslovakia the European powers met and signed the Munich Pact which gave ½ the Sudatenland. to Hitler. This policy and pact brokered by British PM
    Neville Chamberlain was called appeasement and clearly failed as
    discussed above.
  19. In short what did the League of Nations do… NOTHING!!!!
  20. What was the US policy during this time?
  21. Recognized Soviet Union
  22. Reciprocal trade agreements made to improve international trade.
  23. Good Neighbor Policy formulated towards Latin America. In this policy America attempts to improve relation with Latin American nations.
  24. Nye Committee urges isolation.
  25. Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936 attempt to create a foreign policy that will keep America out of war.
  26. In 1936 FDR issues his famous quarantine speech in which he argues for the quarantine of “lawless nations.”

Innocent peoples are being cruelly sacrificed to a greed for power and supremacy…Let no one imagine that America will escape…There is no escape through mere isolation or neutrality…War is a contagion, whether it be declared or not. It seems unfortunately true that the epidemic of lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease. I call today for a similar quarantine. A quarantine of the lawless, a quarantine of those that threaten world peace.

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt,

  1. Stimson Doctrine articulated Secretary of Sate Henry Stimson call for non recognition of annexed lands
  2. The Neutrality Act of 1939 declares that the United States would only sell weapons to belligerent nations on a Cash and Carry basis. This clearly aided England who had a merchant marine and Navy large enough to ship away these military supplies.
  3. America makes a deal with England to trade out of date destroyers to the British in exchange for naval bases in the Pacific. This was designed to support British defense against German U Boat activity.
  4. America agrees to a policy of Lend/Lease where we basically become the arsenal of democracy and supply our allies with weapons. We also helped to defend British Convoys loaded with weapons against German U Boats even though no formal declaration of war existed between the Us and Germany.
  5. America issues a trade embargo against Japan preventing them from buying vital natural resources from America. This severely hurt the Japanese effort to arm themselves and eventually led them to attack Pearl Harbor.

Clearly our attempts at neutrality were a failure. We slowly moved closer and closer towards involvement in WWII. The United States eventually is forced to enter the war on December 7th 1941 when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.

An Essay: To What Extent Was Neutrality a Realistic Policy?

Throughout the annals of history, nations have grappled with the concept of neutrality, particularly in times of international conflict and diplomatic tensions. The policy of neutrality, in essence, refers to a state’s commitment to remain impartial and uninvolved in the disputes and wars between other nations. This policy can be viewed as a diplomatic strategy, a reflection of a nation’s principles, or even a mechanism for self-preservation. But to what extent has neutrality been a realistic policy, especially when global affairs often tend towards complexity and interconnectedness? Evaluating the realistic nature of neutrality demands a multifaceted analysis of its successes, challenges, and underlying motivations.

Historical Contexts of Neutrality

To begin, we must consider the instances where neutrality has been notably implemented. Switzerland is a prime example, having maintained its neutrality for over two centuries, even during the tumultuous periods of the World Wars. Its neutral stance is enshrined in its constitution and reinforced by international treaties. Similarly, during World War I, the United States initially adopted a policy of neutrality under President Woodrow Wilson until various factors compelled the nation to enter the war in 1917.

Advantages of Neutrality

Neutrality as a policy can offer several advantages. First and foremost, it provides a protective buffer against the ravages of war. Nations that remain neutral are often spared from the physical destruction, economic strain, and societal upheaval that comes with involvement in military conflict. For countries like Switzerland, neutrality also brought economic advantages as it became a haven for financial transactions, especially during times of international strife.

Moreover, neutral nations can play pivotal roles in diplomacy. Acting as mediators or hosts for peace negotiations, these nations can offer a neutral ground where warring parties might feel more at ease to engage in dialogue. The 1945 Yalta Conference, though not in a strictly neutral nation, illustrated how neutral grounds could foster diplomatic talks, with the leaders of the Allied forces meeting to discuss post-war reconstruction and the future of Europe.

Challenges to Neutrality

However, maintaining neutrality is not without its challenges. The policy rests on the hope that other nations will respect this stance, but history has shown that aggressive powers often do not. Belgium, despite its neutral position during the early 20th century, was invaded by Germany during both World Wars. Its neutrality did not shield it from strategic imperatives. Similarly, despite President Wilson’s initial push for neutrality, the U.S. was eventually dragged into World War I due to unrestricted submarine warfare and other provocations.

Another challenge is the moral dimension. Is it always ethically defensible for a country to stand by while atrocities are committed by warring parties? Neutrality might, in some situations, be seen as tacit approval or complicity in the face of gross human rights violations. This was a criticism levelled against various nations during events like the Rwandan Genocide or the Holocaust.

The Realism of Neutrality

In assessing the realism of neutrality, one must evaluate the policy not only by its successes and failures but by its alignment with the principles of Realpolitik. Realpolitik dictates that nations act based on pragmatic considerations rather than on moral or ideological principles.

From this perspective, if neutrality serves a nation’s interests—whether they be economic, strategic, or even survivalist—it can be deemed a realistic policy. For Switzerland, with its unique geopolitical position and the strength of its banking sector, neutrality was not just a principled stance but a pragmatic one. However, for nations like Belgium, situated at the crossroads of major European powers, neutrality proved less tenable.


In conclusion, the realism of neutrality as a policy is not universally applicable but contingent on a nation’s specific context, geopolitical position, and the nature of international challenges. While neutrality has undeniable advantages—such as safeguarding a nation’s populace and economy or allowing it to play unique diplomatic roles—it also comes with inherent risks and moral quandaries. The policy’s success depends largely on the mutual respect of nations and the global order’s stability. In an ever-evolving international landscape, the tenability of neutrality will continually be tested, but its merits and challenges will forever be a pertinent subject of debate in international relations.