Inter-war Isolationism

Disillusion with the country’s involvement in World War I characterized the national mood in the years between the wars. “World War I left a determination in millions of Americans never to fight again; at no time in our history has the hold of pacifism been stronger than the interlude between the first and second world wars…. The country was hostile to everything foreign; isolation in foreign affairs had its counterpart in a determination to curb immigration, to avoid foreign contamination, and to preserve the old America ethnically before it was too late.” (Jones, The Songs that Fought The War: Popular Music and the Home Front,1939-1945, p. 54, quoting Leuchtenburg.)

The national disillusion was based on several predominant popular beliefs, one of which was “The Great Betrayal of 1917.” Large segments of the population cynically believed that the leadership of the country was motivated to enter the war for economic reasons: “…to protect the profit margins of American Capitalists…” who were major creditors of the Allies, rather than idealistic grounds such as making the “world safe for democracy.” This belief was based on the investigation of the Senate Nye Committee, which looked into the role that the armaments industry and the banking system played in promoting the United States intervention in the war. (Rob. Cohen, pp. 82, 92.) The people also became skeptical about the wartime propaganda that painted the Germans as monsters. Learning that the military tactics of England and France were little, if any, more civilized than those of the Central Powers, they felt that they had be been sold a false picture: “…inventing preposterous theories about the essential depravity of the German race.” (Id. at 82-84, quoting Eric Sevareid.)

To reinforce America’s noninvolvement in foreign affairs, Congress passed several Neutrality Act in the 1930s. The Neutrality Act of 1935, prohibited the selling of armaments to countries at war and required the president to declare an embargo on the sale and shipment of munitions to all belligerent nations.

Representing the isolationist attitude in the three years before Pearl Harbor, one music scholar collected 22 contemporary pacifist, noninterventionist songs, seven written in 1939 and nine written in 1940. (Jones, pp. 58-61.) Among those songs were “I’m the Son of a Legionnaire, (by Flynn/Madden, 1939), with these lyrics “My daddy was over there, that’s why this guy is gonna stay over here.” And, “Hooray for Our Side of the Ocean,(by Conley/Robinson, 1939); “Stand By America, (by Wall/Vell, 1939), which includes the lyrics “[T]he greatest of nations…With no entangling relations…we will be happy and free.” “The Yanks Are Not Coming, (by Zaret/Wayne/Gardner, 1940), which states “They fooled us back in seventeen but now we know the gag…The Yanks are not coming a hundred million strong, We’re staying in our own back yard ’cause that’s where we belong.” (Id.) That last song was sung by Billie Holiday, for which she was placed on the FBI’s security watch list. (Blecha, p. 143.)

The Almanac Singers album, “Songs for John Doe,” reflected the isolationist theme. Their strongest statement was “Ballad of October 16, (written by Millard Lampell in 1940), which was a reference to the date all men had to register for the draft, with the lyrics: “I hate war and so does Eleanor / But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead”. (Jones, p. 62.) Comparing the draft to the Agricultural Adjustment Act’s program of crop destruction, the chorus to another song, “Plow Under, followed a similar theme, simply stating “Plow the fourth one under / Plow under . . . every fourth American boy.” However, the Almanacs quickly changed their tune as soon as the Germans invaded The Soviet Union. In their next album, “Dear Mr. President” (1942), they recanted their earlier position in the title song and declared their newfound support for U.S. intervention in such songs as “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.(

Ballad of October 16, by the Almanac Singers. (

It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining
They passed the conscription bill,
And the people they did say for many miles away
‘Was the president and his boys on Capitol Hill.

Chorus: Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt.
We damn near believed what he said,
He said “I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’till everybody’s dead.”

When my poor old mother died, I was sitting by her side
A-promising to war I’d never go,
But now I’m wearing khaki jeans and eating army beans
And I’m told that JP Morgan loves me so.

I have wandered over this land, a roaming working man,
No clothes to wear and not much food to eat,
But now the government foots the bill,
gives me clothes and feeds me swill,
Gets me shot and puts me underground six feet.


Why, nothing can be wrong if it makes our country strong.
We gotta get tough to save democracy,
And though it may mean war we must defend Singapore,
This don’t hurt you half as much as it hurts me.


“Plow Under, by The Almanac Singers. (

Remember when the AAA,
Killed a million hogs a day?
Instead of hogs, it’s men today,
Plow the fourth one under.

Plow under, plow under,
Plow under, every fourth American boy.

They said our agricultural system was about to fall,
From Washington they sent a call
Plow the fourth one under.

Plow under, plow under,
Plow under, every fourth American boy.

The price of cotton wouldn’t rise;
They said, we’ve got to fertilize,
So now unless they turn their eyes,
Plow the fourth one under.

Plow under, plow under,
Plow under, every fourth American boy.

They said our system wouldn’t work
Until we killed the surplus off,
So now they look at us and say,
“Plow the fourth one under.”

Plow under, plow under,
Plow under, every fourth American boy.

Any ignorant mule does know
Better than to step on a cotton row;
But there ain’t no mules in Congress, so
Plow the fourth one under.

Plow under, plow under,
Plow under, every fourth American boy.

Now the polititions rant,
“A boy’s no better than a cotton plant.”
But we are here to say, “You can’t!”
Plow the fourth one under.

Plow under, (don’t you) plow under,
(Don’t you) plow under, every fourth American boy.

(Now don’t you) Plow under, (don’t you) plow under,
(Don’t you) plow under, every fourth American boy.

Isolationist organizations arose during the inter-war period. In 1938, Norman Thomas, the leading American socialist of the day, formed the Keep America Out of War Congress. Consistent with Thomas’ leftist leanings, the organization was pro-Soviet Union and against Fascism. It had more than one million members.

In 1940, the Committee to Defend America First (aka “The America First Committee”) was formed by students at Yale Law School, including John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Sergeant Shriver as original members. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 208.) The Committee had more than 800,000 members and was led by Robert E. Wood, Chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Some members were anti-Semitic and championed the Nazis; some simply advocated American neutrality; some were motivated by disillusionment from fighting World War I and did not want to get “trapped” in another European war. Celebrities Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford were among its members. Polls taken at the time showed that 83 percent of Americans did not want to get involved in Europe. (Epstein, pp. 70-71.)

Woody Guthrie, whose guitar sported the phrase “This machine kills fascists” and who some would say was motivated by a leftist, pro-Soviet Union attitude, wrote the song, “Mister Charlie Lindbergh” (1942) that was critical of pro-fascists such as Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh and the America First organization. (

Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin,
Got him a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again
To Washington, Washington.

Mrs. Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red,
Said: “I’d like to sleep in that pretty White House bed
In Washington, Washington.”

Lindy said to Annie: “We’ll get there by and by,
But we’ll have to split the bed up with Wheeler, Clark, and Nye
In Washington, Washington.”

Hitler wrote to Lindy, said “Do your very worst.”
Lindy started an outfit that he called America First
In Washington, Washington.

All around the country, Lindbergh he did fly,
Gasoline was paid for by Hoover, Clark, and Nye
In Washington, Washington.

Lindy said to Hoover: “We’ll do the same as France:
Make a deal with Hitler, and then we’ll get our chance.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then they had a meetin’, and all the Firsters come,
Come on a walk and they come on a run,
In Washington, Washington.

Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin’ the silver chain,
Gas on his stomach and Hitler on the brain.
In Washington, Washington.

Mr. John L. Lewis would sit and straddle a fence,
But his daughter signed with Lindbergh, and we ain’t seen her since
In Washington, Washington.

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ’em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.

On the other hand, George M. Cohan, who wrote the famous World War I song “Over There,” wrote “The earliest of all [WW II] preparedness songs…,” “We Must Be Ready, (1939). (Jones, p. 70.) (audio unavailable)

[Verse 1]
All the foreign nations are conversing now in code.
All the indications are that something might explode
Seems to be no doubt of it
Troops are on their toes
Uncle Sam is out of it
But ev’rybody knows…

We must be ready
It’s well to be ready
You never can tell, you never can tell
In a fight what they might
Prepare to do
They may compel us to yell
“We dare you to”
And so we must get busy
It’s well to get busy
With army and navy
And up in the air
Oh, there is no doubt of it
The way to keep out of it
Is just stand steady
But let’em know we’re ready
To go marching to the tune of ‘Over There, Over There’
That’s a tune they’ve not forgotten over there.

[Verse 2]
Uncle Sam is not the kind
That’s looking for a fuss.
But if they should feel inclined
To take a shot at us
Talk about your rallying
Should the bugle blow
No delay or dallying
Just Bang! And off we go.

[Repeat chorus]