The 20’s and 30’s — Presidents

2-15-19 (Almost President’s Day.)

We take a peek at our Presidents between WWI and WWII. Why? Beacuse the tapestry of history is woven with many threads.

1916    Democrat Woodrow Wilson was narrowly elected to a second term.  He campaigned on keeping US out of the War, but by 1917 we could no longer remain neutral and he asked Congress (4/2/17) to declare war on Germany.  After Germany signed the Armistice Treaty (11/18), he went to Paris to work on Peace Initiatives. He later presented the Treaty of Versailles (which included the founding of the League of Nations) to Congress.  The election of 1918 had shifted congressional power to the Republicans.  The Senate did not ratify the treaty of Versailles, thus they rejected US participation in the League of Nations.

1920  Republican Warren Harding was elected President in a landslide after a campaign to “return US to normalcy.” In his tenure a “trade war” resulted in high tariffs on imports, tax cuts favoring the wealthy and corporations were rolled out, and immigration was substantially curtailed.  Harding died of an apparent heart attack while in a hotel in San Francisco on 8/1/23.  Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in.

1924  Republican Calvin Coolidge was elected and continued to lead the country through the Roaring 20’s.  His belief in Small Government and Private Enterprise led to further reducing taxes, rolled-back government spending, and appointing of corporate-minded Department Secretaries.  In August 1927, Coolidge announced he would not run for reelection.

1928   Republican Herbert Hoover was elected in another landslide. He took office in the Great Depression (which started on October 24, 1929).  Hoover, a firm believer in limited government and strong capitalism, vetoed several bills that would have provided direct relief to struggling citizens.  In his 1930 State of the Union address he proclaimed, “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the public Treasury.”  He carried only six states in the 1932 election.

1932  Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected in a landslide after running on a “New Deal” of reform and economic relief programs. He was re-elected by landslides in: 1936, (and to a third term) in 1940 and (a fourth term) in 1944.

Policy flip-flops between “progressive” and “conservative” Presidencies and Congresses had a powerful impact not only on American lives and domestic policies; they directly affected international developments as the world crept toward the Second World War.  Treaties, promises, “secret pacts and gentlemen’s agreements” and international trade policies between reigning American and Japanese leaders were enacted; only to be flopped by the next administration.  Japan signed the Treaty of Versailles; we did not.  Japan joined the League of Nations (predecessor to the U.N.); we did not.  Our import tariffs directly affected the Japanese economy.

These and many more examples exacerbated the rising tension between America and Japan during the lead-up to World War II.  It is important to note that America leaned into increasing Isolationism in the years after WWI. Japan, meanwhile, was growing as an industrial power with a strong leaning toward Expansionism and Militarism. 

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Japan enters WWI


Japan had allied itself with Great Britain in 1902 (to counteract the Russian push into Manchuria). In the early days of WWI, Japan resisted pleas from England for naval help in the Pacific and South China Seas. They offered to help if England agreed that Japan could take possession of German territories in the Pacific.

As the war progressed, Japan did help Great Britain on numerous occasions, including sending a task force of ships to the Mediterranean for convoy escort assistance. (British ships in and around Malta were getting clobbered by German U-boats.) During this time, the rest of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked and quickly overwhelmed the German occupied Micronesian island nations: the Carolines, the Marshalls, and the Marianas (except for Guam, which the United States won in the Spanish American War of 1894.) (Don’t forget that we also bought the Philippines from Spain – a sore spot for Japan.)

Japan had gained international recognition as a world power for her roles in the War. She joined the League of Nations, which was created by the Allies’ Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty was mostly about punishing Germany and her allies, redrawing political borders, forcing Germany to reduce her military capabilities, and demanding reparations. Japan was awarded by “Mandate” the Pacific Island groups she captured from Germany. All those islands were to become the bloody battlegrounds of the Pacific War just a few decades later.

I’d like to quickly touch upon a complicated (and hot button) issue: Race and Religion played a very touchy role in Japanese and Western (European) relations. Neither the U.S. or Japan is blameless in this on-going, long, slow burn. I could spend a couple of blogs walking us through this, but I think that would be counter-productive. Suffice it to say that the issues of race and religion and immigration helped fan the flames that led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Next up: we’ll take a peek at the Turbulent 20’s and 30’s and deterioriating relations between America and Japan.


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Mad Dash for Conquest


I am tremendously over-simplifying all this:

Commodore Perry arm-twisted Japan into signing it’s first-ever treaty (trade agreement) with any country in 1854.  The rest of the 19th century was a mad-dash of western expansion into the East.  Everyone wanted a piece of China, Japan, Korea and anyplace else they could buy, grab or conquer.  Japan, in the period known as the Meiji Restoration of that half-century, began a steady rise of industrial, commercial and military power.  The Japanese were also driven by empire-building and by the end of the century staked claims on Korea and Manchuria. In 1894 Japan declared war on China (First Sino-Japanese War). In 1904, Japan declared war on Russia (over who would claim Manchuria).  (Japan was willing to cede Manchuria to Russia in exchange for Russia ceding Korea to Japan.  Russia was not.)

Japan declared war on Russia on Feb. 8, 1904.  But, three hours before Russia knew they were at war, The Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the Russian fleet anchored at the Manchurian fort Port Arthur. (Sound familiar?) Over the next year, both the Russian Navy and Army were vanquished.  It was a complete victory for Japan.  Thoroughly-shocked Russia sued for peace.

President Theodore Roosevelt offered to host a peace conference mediation between the two countries, which resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth (N.H.) in 1904. Roosevelt    (who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work), sided with Russia on a major sticking point. (He was threading a needle over which “frenemy” would end up with more power in Asia.) Japan won every land and sea battle and sued for reparations from Russia.  Roosevelt took that off the table, and the Treaty was signed with no reparations.  The people of Japan were outraged by this unforseen turn of events.  The day after the treaty was signed,  the people of Japan erupted in anti-American riots in Tokyo, resulting in widespread damage over the next three days.  Martial law was imposed.

More threads in the tapestry.


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Japan Meets the U.S. Navy – Round 1


On July 8, 1853, a group of four American warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry (brother of the War of 1812 hero Oliver H. Perry), steamed into Edo (Tokyo) Harbor.  Perry had a letter signed by President Millard Fillmore demanding that Japan open up channels of trade (including access to “coaling stations” for our steamships).  Perry spent days at anchor firing cannons and parading hundreds of Marines doing drills on shore. He was finally allowed to the make a presentation to the ruling Shogunate.  He presented the letter and promised he would return shortly for a reply.  Perry returned on February 13, 1854 in a task force of 10 warships and 1600 men.  After weeks of negotiations, Perry and the Japanese Shogunate signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, in which all American demands were agreed-to.  Before leaving Japanese waters, Perry went to the Ryukyu Islands (not yet part of Japan) and got his “compact between the United States and the Ryukyu Kingdom” signed on July 11, 1854.

Eighty eight years before Pearl Harbor.

We’ll continue to look at some of the highlights of U.S. / Japan interactions leading up to the Day that will live on in Infamy.  Fascinating stuff – as the events of just-before WWI, just-after WWI and the years leading up the WWII are all part of the fabric of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Japan attacks Pearl Harbor – Why?


As I have said before, history is a l-o-n-g,  s-l-o-w  b-u-r-n.  I’m quite certain that when news broke out on that Sunday morning in December, most Americans were shocked and stunned.  The news was presented as “a sneak attack,” an “unprovoked act” and the like.  Well, that is certainly one way to look at it.  Like the attacks of 9-11, it was a singularly horrible and shocking event.  But whether we like it or not, as with all “acts of history,” there is context to be reckoned with  –  the great fabric of history is woven from many, many threads.  Some of the threads are short and colorful, most are long strands, covering the back of the whole tapestry.  Bland strings, holding the whole thing together.

The lead-ups to WWII are most of the threads of the WWI tapestry (the Great War to End all Wars), with a few colorful bits thrown in.  In order to “understand” the Second World War, we must look at the 1920’s and 1930’s in America.  Why America?  Because that’s where we live.  America played a part in both Wars, and there is a rich historical tapestry to look at.  The 20’s and 30’s were fascinating!  The Roarin’ 20’s. Prohibition. Isolationism. A decade long drought. The global stock market crash.  Changes in Presidents and policies.  These are just a few of the threads that connect the World Wars.  Over the next several posts, we’ll take a peek at a few of these things.

Having said that, I’m going to immediately ignore it all and start the conversation with an event that happened in 1898 in Cuba.  During the night of February 15, 1898, the brand-new battleship, USS Maine, anchored in the Havana Harbor, suddenly blew up and sank, taking 3/4’s of her crew down to the bottom with her.

Wreckage of USS Maine, 1898 (wikipedia) Does this remind you of Pearl Harbor?

Introducing a concept:  “yellow journalism”

Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States.

The “yellow press,” lead by saber-rattlers William Hearst (San Francisco) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York) (yes, THAT Pulitzer  –  ironic, no?) pushed that Spain was responsible for detonating a mine under the ship.  They lead campaigns (Remember the Maine, and such) to egg us on into a war with Spain. There never was direct evidence of a bomb; studies over time have concluded it was most likely gas from the coal burners that ignited and touched off the armaments stored in the ship.  The upshot is, under the guise of supporting Cuban Independence and the “Spanish sinking of the Maine,” we declared War on Spain less than a month later (April 25, 1898). Four months later, Spain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Paris, which granted Independence to Cuba, and awarded Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S.  Spain agreed to sell us the Philippines for $20 million . . Some threads in the tapestry.

(Ahem . . .) history is FULL of ironies.  Fifty years later, how did we feel about Castro and Guevara and their quest for Cuban Independence???

More peeks at the WHY of Pearl Harbor to come.



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