Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Pre-WWII Non-Interventionists More Likely to Support Civil Rights at Home Than Interventionists

One would think that people who harbor prejudice would stick together and vote as a bloc. Thus, Southern Democrats who supported Jim Crow should by natural extension at least give moral support to a foreign leader who also stood for white supremacy…Adolf Hitler. It logically should follow that those who opposed Jim Crow should also naturally fall into supporting action against Hitler. In regards to this question, I examined how representatives voted on two pieces of legislation: the Neutrality Act of 1939, an FDR-backed law which ended the arms embargo that prevented the United States from shipping arms to nations in conflict, and the anti-lynching bill in 1940 that would have prescribed federal penalties for lynching. I chose these two measures because the votes only took place a few months from each other, thus most people who voted on the neutrality proposal would also be voting on the anti-lynching proposal. Among the representatives who voted on or held official positions on these two measures, the breakdown is as follows:

Among interventionists, 56% of them voted against the anti-lynching bill. The single largest voting bloc in support of intervention was the South. This may surprise the casual observer, but Southern Democrats had been supporting Wilsonian internationalism at least since the Versailles Treaty was debated by the Senate. In the region where the KKK was most likely to thrive and had racial laws that influenced Adolf Hitler also stood as the region that most wanted to do something about him.

Among non-interventionists, 95% of them voted for the anti-lynching bill. One of its two prime sponsors was Hamilton Fish III (R-N.Y.), a prominent non-interventionist and opponent of the New Deal who was on deeply unfriendly personal terms with FDR. The people who opposed the U.S. doing something about Adolf Hitler also stood as highly likely to support measures to protect black civil rights at home. This contingent even included bigoted non-interventionists: Congressmen Jacob Thorkelson of Montana, Martin Sweeney of Ohio, and John Schafer of Wisconsin were staunch anti-Semites but voted for this bill. The largest bloc of support for non-interventionist and civil rights proposals at the time was the Republican Party, which had opposed the Versailles Treaty in the form Wilson wanted it and had grown increasingly disinterested in involving the U.S. in foreign affairs.

In our present day, we live in a society that is profoundly racially conscious and it is so to the point that people like to think in those terms about historical policy support and opposition. But there isn’t always a consistency here.


“To Agree to the Conference Report on H.J. Res. 306.” Govtrack.

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“To Pass H.R. 801, A Bill to Make Lynching a Federal Crime.” Govtrack.

Retrieved from

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