October 06, 2015 10:19 UTC

The Making of a Nation

American History: Roosevelt's Foreign Policy in the 1930s

President Franklin Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Trinidad, 1936
President Franklin Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Trinidad, 1936


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STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

This week in our series, we continue to discuss the events of the nineteen thirties, and American foreign policy during that time.

For much of its history, the United States was not involved in world disputes. Only in the twentieth century did it become a powerful and influential nation.

President Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to see America as a great power. A few years later, President Woodrow Wilson wanted the United States to become more involved in the world.

Many Americans disagreed. They wanted to stay out of international conflicts. The presidents after Wilson stayed informed about world events. But they were much less willing to involve the United States than Roosevelt or Wilson had been. The great economic depression that began in nineteen twenty-nine reduced Americans' interest in the world even more.

Now, here are Doug Johnson and Shirley Griffith.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Franklin Roosevelt became president in nineteen thirty-three. Franklin Roosevelt was not like most Americans. He knew the international situation well from his own experience.

Like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he wanted to expand America's foreign policies. The terrible crisis of the depression, however, forced him to spend most of his time on national economic issues. He was able to deal with international issues only very slowly.

One of his most important first efforts was to improve relations with Latin American nations.

Eleanor Roosevelt with President Rafael Trujillo and Mrs. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, 1934
Eleanor Roosevelt with President Rafael Trujillo and Mrs. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, 1934

DOUG JOHNSON: Thirty years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt said the United States had the right to intervene in Latin America. In the years that followed, the United States sent troops to several Latin American countries.

Many political leaders in the area accused the United States of treating them like children. Leaders throughout Latin America criticized the United States bitterly at a conference in nineteen twenty-eight.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, he promised to treat Latin American nations as friends. He called this his "Good Neighbor" policy.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT (FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS): "I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the Good Neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others. The neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements, in and with a world of neighbors."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Roosevelt's new policy had an unfriendly beginning. His administration refused to recognize a government in Cuba that opposed the United States. Instead, it helped bring to power a new government that showed more support for the United States.

After that, however, President Roosevelt was able to prove that he wanted to improve relations with the countries of Latin America.

For example, his administration speeded up plans to withdraw American troops from Haiti. It rejected old treaties that gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba. It recognized a revolutionary government in El Salvador. It recognized the right of Panama to help operate and protect the Panama Canal. And it helped establish the Export-Import Bank to increase trade throughout the Americas.

DOUG JOHNSON: All of these actions did much to improve the opinion of Latin American leaders about the United States. However, the most important test of Franklin Roosevelt's new policies was in Mexico.

The Mexican government seized control of oil companies owned by investors in the United States. A number of influential Americans wanted the president to take strong action. He refused. He only agreed to urge the Mexican government to pay American investors for the value of the oil companies.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: As United States relations with Latin America improved, its relations with Britain got worse.

Britain blamed Franklin Roosevelt for the failure of an international economic conference in nineteen thirty-three. It also felt the United States Congress was unwilling to take a strong position against international aggression by other nations.

Some British leaders had so little faith in Roosevelt that they proposed seeking cooperation with Japan instead of the United States. New leaders in Japan, however, soon ended this possibility. They presented Britain with such strong military demands that the British government gave up any idea of cooperation with Japan.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: One big question in American foreign policy in the nineteen thirties concerned the Soviet union.

The United States had refused to recognize the government in Moscow after the Bolsheviks took control in nineteen seventeen. Yet Franklin Roosevelt saw the Soviet Union as a possible ally, if growing tensions in Europe and Asia burst into war.

For this reason, he held talks in Washington with a top Soviet official. In nineteen thirty-three, he officially recognized the Soviet government.

DOUG JOHNSON: President Roosevelt hoped recognition would lead to better relations. But the United States and the Soviet Union did not trust each other. They immediately began arguing about many issues.

Within two years, the American ambassador to Moscow urged President Roosevelt to cut diplomatic relations with the Soviets. Roosevelt refused. Relations between the two countries became even worse. Yet Roosevelt believed it was better to continue relations in case of an emergency.  That emergency -- World War Two -- was just a few years away.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Economic issues played an important part in American foreign policy during the early nineteen thirties. In nineteen thirty-three, a major international economic conference was held in London.

France and Italy led a movement to link the value of every nation's money to the price of gold. American delegates to the conference rejected the idea. They argued that it would slow America's recovery from the great depression. As a result, the London conference failed.

Although President Roosevelt opposed linking the value of the American dollar to the price of gold, he did not oppose international trade. During the nineteen thirties, his administration negotiated new trade agreements with more than twenty countries.

Benito Mussolini, left , and Adolf Hitler in 1938
Benito Mussolini, left , and Adolf Hitler in 1938

DOUG JOHNSON: The nineteen thirties saw major political changes in Asia and Europe. President Roosevelt watched these developments with great interest. In Japan, military leaders gained control of the government. Their goal was to make Japan Asia's leading power.

In Italy, the government was headed by fascist Benito Mussolini. Another fascist, Francisco Franco, seized power in Spain. And, most important, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party increased their strength in Germany. Franklin Roosevelt understood much sooner than most western leaders the threat that these new leaders represented.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Most Americans shared Roosevelt's dislike for the new fascist movements. However, Americans felt another emotion much more strongly. It was their desire to stay out of war.

World War One had ended just fifteen years earlier. It was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. A majority of the population opposed any policy that could involve the United States in another bloody conflict.

DOUG JOHNSON: A public opinion study was made in nineteen thirty-seven. The study showed that seventy-one percent of Americans believed it had been a mistake for the United States to fight in World War One.

So, President Roosevelt was not surprised when Congress passed a law ordering the administration to remain neutral in any foreign conflict. Congress also refused an administration proposal that the United States join the World Court.

Franklin Roosevelt shared the hope that the United States would stay out of foreign conflicts. However, Adolf Hitler and other fascists continued to grow more powerful. The situation forced Americans to begin to consider the need for military strength.


STEVE EMBER: Americans did not want to become involved in another world war. They called on President Roosevelt and their representatives in Congress to remain neutral in world affairs. But aggression by Germany and Japan would force Americans to choose between their desire for democracy and their desire for peace. That will be our story next week.

Our program was written by David Jarmul. The narrators were Shirley Griffith and Doug Johnson. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.


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