It was shortly before Franklin Roosevelt became president that Japan set in motion a series of challenges to the existing international order that eventually led to American involvement in World War II. These were the kind of affronts to the post–World War I treaties that the League of Nations had been created to prevent. For good or ill, American officials had shunned league consideration of such political controversies until the Manchurian crisis of 1931–1932. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, a staunch internationalist who believed powerfully in the sanctity of treaties, sent a delegate to the league council debates in October 1931 to consider Japan's violation of the Nine-Power Pact of 1922. Stimson's anger at Tokyo almost triggered a fundamental shift in Republican Party policy toward Geneva. The secretary, a proponent of what would soon be called collective security, gave serious consideration to embargoing American trade to Japan should the league invoke the sanctions authorized by the Covenant's Article 16. President Herbert Hoover demurred, however. He feared that economic sanctions would inevitably lead to military sanctions, which in his mind meant war. As a result, Stimson's initiatives, while heartening the battered internationalist movement at home, ultimately led nowhere.
Nor was the next president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, able to repair things. He had been a strong supporter of league membership when he ran for vice president in 1920. In 1932, however, he reversed his position, fearing that he might alienate isolationist progressives from the Midwest and West whose support he needed for the presidential nomination. Domestic political considerations overrode his internationalist instincts.
Nevertheless, by the time he became president in 1933, cooperation with Geneva concerning nonpolitical subjects had become so routine as to be hardly newsworthy. Internationalists had established extensive ties at Geneva. American citizens held league administrative posts and promoted both official and unofficial contact between Washington and Geneva. Arthur Sweetser, a Boston journalist who served in the league's Information Section, became the focus of such contacts. He worked closely with the Harvard law professor Manley Hudson, who established a study and research center at Geneva. Hudson even sought gifts from Americans to underwrite league programs, and those he obtained included a Rockefeller Foundation grant of $2 million to establish a library at the league's headquarters.
Until the late 1930s, however, little of this kind of activity made much difference. Even Roosevelt, privately sympathetic to international cooperation, remained publicly wary of pro-league enthusiasts who advocated outright membership or even just political cooperation with Geneva. Nevertheless, amid the indifference or even hostility of many depression-scarred Americans concerning international cooperation, a few well-known internationalists kept the faith. The historian James T. Shotwell became the leading advocate of the idea that the United States must reject doing business as usual with governments that broke treaties or defied the League Covenant. If this could not be done through league membership, then states should morally condemn violations of international law through such treaties as the Kellogg-Briand Pact (Pact of Paris) of 1928, which renounced war as an instrument of policy. Similar was internationalist support for Secretary Stimson's 1932 nonrecognition doctrine, enunciated to deprive Japan of legal sanction for its occupation of Manchuria. Internationalists also applauded Roosevelt's support for the Neutrality Act of 1935 because it permitted the United States to establish economic sanctions parallel to potential league sanctions against an aggressor by prohibiting American trade in war-related materials. But like so much other activity during the Great Depression, these measures were not unambiguously internationalist. Isolationists, too, generally supported them—indeed, it was Senator Gerald Nye, an isolationist, who initially proposed neutrality legislation—because neutrality posed so little risk to the United States. The result was a foreign policy that veered erratically between internationalism and isolationism, leading critics to claim, with some justification, that the Roosevelt administration had no foreign policy at all.