Whatever the actual “State of the Union,” as proclaimed by Franklin Roosevelt in his January 3, 1936 address to Congress, the president’s state of mind was a perplexing mix of admission, obfuscation, and denial. If President Obama’s speechwriters are casting about for models of statecraft in the age of terror, they should look elsewhere.

With the Depression in full swing—despite three years of unprecedented government intervention in the economy—FDR hoped to focus his speech on domestic concerns. But the real world, the world of terror and totalitarianism, had intervened.

Casting an eye on all of East Asia, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and then withdrew from the League of Nations two years later. The same year, in 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party swept into power promising to tear up the Treaty of Versailles. In 1934 Japan renounced the London Naval Treaty, which had limited the size of its fleet. In March 1935, Hitler announced the establishment of a new German air force, the Luftwaffe, and reinstituted conscription into the Armed Forces, an open violation of the Versailles Treaty. In September 1935, Germany imposed the first raft of Nuremberg Laws, revoking the civil rights of all Jews and prohibiting them from marrying non-Jews. In October of the same year, Italy’s Benito Mussolini sent 100,000 troops into Ethiopia, converting the African nation into an Italian colony.

Thus FDR was forced to admit that the world, especially Europe and Asia, had changed since his arrival in office in 1933:

Not only have peace and good-will among men grown more remote in those areas of the earth during this period, but a point has been reached where the people of the Americas must take cognizance of growing ill-will, of marked trends toward aggression, of increasing armaments, of shortening tempers—a situation which has in it many of the elements that lead to the tragedy of general war.

Slippery phrases like “trends toward aggression” and “shortening tempers” were typical of Mr. Roosevelt during this period. So it’s significant that he went on to warn about the possibility of war, and to criticize the “fantastic conception” that the aggressor nations hoped to make the rest of the world subject to their rule:

I realize that I have emphasized to you the gravity of the situation which confronts the people of the world. This emphasis is justified because of its importance to civilization and therefore to the United States. Peace is jeopardized by the few and not by the many. Peace is threatened by those who seek selfish power.

Mr. Roosevelt said nothing about the fascist doctrines of these aggressor states, their totalitarian vision, or their racist ideology. There was no mention of the fierce anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party. The American people were told only that the dictators “seek selfish power.” Nevertheless, the president warned that global peace was threatened by their actions, and that this represented a threat to civilization itself.

What, then, would be America’s response to these renegade powers confronting the democratic West?

The United States, the president said, would continue to exert “our moral influence against repression, against intolerance, against autocracy,” while promoting freedom of expression, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. Moral influence—meaning diplomacy and perhaps economic pressure—was the proper instrument of persuasion.

But what, exactly, would be America’s political and military posture toward international lawlessness and aggression?

We hope that we are not again at the threshold of such an era. But if face it we must, then the United States and the rest of the Americas can play but one role: through a well-ordered neutrality to do naught to encourage the contest, through adequate defense to save ourselves from embroilment and attack, and through example and all legitimate encouragement and assistance to persuade other Nations to return to the ways of peace and good-will.

By “well-ordered neutrality” Mr. Roosevelt had in mind the 1935 U.S. Neutrality Act, legislation that he enthusiastically signed (and would expand upon in 1936). The law authorized the president to deny American businesses the right to sell arms or munitions to “belligerent nations.” For the first time in American foreign policy, all sides in a conflict—no matter what the cause—were to be treated as “belligerents,” that is, potential adversaries of the United States.

How did this amoral reversal of U.S. policy come about? Mr. Roosevelt, slavishly in step with American public opinion, was in an isolationist mood. In 1935 he was also busy rallying support for his “Second New Deal,” and he needed the votes of isolationists in Congress to get it. Historian Paul Johnson calls the Neutrality Acts “a complete departure from previous American policy, which had always permitted the U.S. government to make moral distinctions between participants in foreign wars.”

Hence the staggering conceptual muddle of Mr. Roosevelt’s foreign policy: whatever occurs outside of America’s hemisphere does not concern Americans—even if civilization itself is hanging in the balance. Nevertheless, FDR boasted of “a clear policy,” in which Washington adopted a “twofold neutrality” toward “any and all Nations which engage in wars” that are not of “immediate concern” to the United States.

The policy was quite clear—especially to America’s enemies.

Britain’s ambassador to Berlin, Sir Eric Phipps, reported back to London the Nazi response to Mr. Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech.  The president’s criticism of the dictators “carried no weight with Hitler.” What caught the Fuhrer’s attention, he said, was “Roosevelt’s renewed declaration that America would in future remain aloof and observe neutrality in European affairs.” As Adolf Hitler reportedly remarked: “There has been no development during recent years more welcome than this.”

The United States promises to remain on the sidelines as a totalitarian juggernaut advances against the West—yes, no development could have been more welcome in Berlin than this.

What, then, is the State of the Union eighty years hence? Whatever President Obama and his swooning entourage may claim, now would be a good time to reckon with the consequences of America’s self-imposed neutrality as the forces of barbarism renew their ancient quest.


Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and the author A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.

PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia Commons,