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The Great Debate

byrnes180
2009-07-17

When World War II began in the late 1930s, America had the luxury of staying out of the fray initially. But as the war intensified, so too did the calls for her to get involved.

As part of Wofford’s Community of Scholars program this summer, associate history professor Mark Byrnes is looking at that historical crossroads, and the debate it created in America for two years.

“My project is to gather, edit and interpret documents regarding the public debate over American policy toward World War II from the invasion of Poland up to Pearl Harbor, what was known at the time and since as The Great Debate,” says Byrnes. “This debate operated on two different levels. In one, specific questions arise regarding the details of American policy: for example, under what specific conditions should Britain be able to obtain war material from the United States? But there is also a second, more profound debate going on: what is the proper role for the United States to play in the world?”

Byrnes has collected more than 200 speeches and articles on American policy from that time period. He has everyone from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to academics to journalists to concerned citizens represented in his sample. And in editing them over the last several weeks, he says he already has found a few nuggets of wisdom to share.

“It has become clear to me that Americans knew the big picture stakes of the specific decisions they were making,” Byrnes says. “While it has become a cliché to say that World War II made the US into a superpower, today we too little appreciate the extent to which this was a conscious decision, not mere happenstance.

“Because it was not initially a belligerent, the U.S. was in a unique position to openly and publicly debate the issues during this two-year period, and a reading of the arguments makes clear that they knew that these decisions had long-term consequences.

“It is a debate rich in its invocations of American history on both sides, from the Founding Fathers to the experience of World War I. They were not simply debating whether or to what extent the US should become involved in this particular war, they were deciding what kind of nation the United States would be in the future and how it would act in the world. That is what made it one of the most extraordinary debates in the history of any democracy.”

So what made Byrnes want to address it for the Community of Scholars?

“This project grew out of the diplomatic history class that I teach,” he says. “In that class I like to have students act out historical debates, such as the debate before the declaration of war in 1812. They have to pick a side, read primary sources from the time period and debate as if they were living at that time and had only the knowledge that the real-life historical actors had. I was looking for something around World War II, and of course there’s no debate after Pearl Harbor. Once it was attacked, we were at war.

“So I started looking back, and focused on the Lend-Lease Debate in the spring of 1941, which was basically the Roosevelt Administration saying, ‘Look, the British can’t afford to buy goods from us anymore. We have to either lend it to them or lease it to them. Basically, we need to find a way to get them the things they need to continue fighting the war.’”

To enter the fray meant to leave isolationism behind. America was like a teenager in the world’s political scene, trying to find its identity and its niche. The debate didn’t tilt on the typical conservative/liberal axis, but had multiple points of view stretching in many directions.

“There were all sorts of interesting things going on, and the more I look at it, the more it really seems to me that that two year period was when Americans were really hashing out in an extended way what American foreign policy should be,” says Byrnes. “Not just at that moment, but arguably to this day.

“What role should the United States play in this world? Some of the things that come up in our debates today, such as whether we should be the world’s policeman, were the exact things they were discussing in 1939-1941. Should we get involved? Is it any of our business? Is our security involved in what happens in Asia and Europe?

“Ultimately it moved in the direction of ‘Yes, it is.’ Our security really does depend on what happens elsewhere. It was a real shift in foreign policy, and it became the way every administration since then has operated.”