During the Great Depression of the 1930s American culture lost some of its glow. In addition to Soviet communism, fascism emerged as a powerful challenger to America's revolutionary model. Scholars have long debated whether fascism constituted an alternative revolutionary paradigm or an antimodern regressive influence. Regardless of their position on this issue, historians agree that it sought to smother the influence of American-style liberty and enterprise in countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan. In all of these nations, fascists condemned the decadence of imported cars, radio programs, and movies. Fascist leaders sought to create more nationalist—and often racial—cultural forms.
Unlike the citizens of many European and Asian countries, Americans never showed much sympathy for fascism. As early as 1933, prominent figures, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressed strong distaste for the "uncivilized" behavior of the Nazis in Germany. Mired in an economic depression, the United States offered little material support to antifascist fighters, but the leaders of the nation consistently criticized the violent infringements on individual liberty and free enterprise that accompanied the policies of dictators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Americans hoped for a string of antifascist revolutions.
When these upheavals failed to materialize and the regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan began to undermine neighboring democracies, President Roosevelt initiated a policy of antifascist intervention overseas. He used a mix of foreign assistance, trade embargoes, and military expansion to bolster American influence. This included close cooperation with Britain, and after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the USSR. Like the revolutionary realists of the eighteenth century, Roosevelt recognized that alliance with unsavory regimes—in this case a communist state—was necessary to defeat a more pressing danger to American ideals.
On 14 August 1941 the president issued a public statement announcing what became known as the Atlantic Charter to guide the great powers during World War II and the postwar settlement. Negotiated during a three-and-one-half day meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, this document pledged Washington and London (as well as Moscow, they hoped) to the Wilsonian principles of self-determination, free trade, disarmament, and a "permanent system of general security." In addition, the Atlantic Charter included promises of "improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security" inspired by Roosevelt's domestic New Deal policies. The president sought to assure "that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want." This was an extraordinary moment in the history of great power diplomacy. Roosevelt had pledged to support Britain against Nazi Germany, but in return he had extracted concessions that would revolutionize what was then the world's largest empire. Self-determination, as outlined in the Atlantic Charter, justified independence movements in Britain's Indian, Southeast Asian, and East African colonies. Free trade undermined the imperial preference system that had formerly allowed London to dominate the economies of its empire. A "permanent system of general security," soon to be named the United Nations, diminished the global predominance of the European capitals. Most significantly, New Deal guarantees of economic security and social welfare included in the Atlantic Charter helped to legitimize human rights, only a nascent concept before 1941.
Like Wilson, Roosevelt brought the United States into World War II with the purpose of making the world safe for democracy. This involved bloody battlefields on two fronts, in Europe and Asia, with frequent compromises concerning strategy and principle. The war was "total" for Americans because they saw no alternative but to eliminate their fascist enemies completely. All alliances and compromises served this purpose. Under American tutelage, political life in Europe and Asia had to start anew, infused with the principles of liberty and enterprise that foreign elites had resisted for too long.
Total annihilation of enemies and a revolutionary reconstruction of society on American terms was, according to historian Russell F. Weigley, "the American way of war." Acting to destroy threats to their way of life, U.S. leaders conquered much of Europe and Asia. They followed the same pattern pursued when men like Jefferson and Lincoln annexed the western territories during the nineteenth century and defeated the South during the Civil War. Operating under the guidance of the Atlantic Charter, U.S. soldiers forced foreign societies to accept American ideas of liberty and enterprise. They followed the vision of figures like Josiah Strong, who had proclaimed a global mission to make the Old World new. World War II was, in this sense, a conflict fought by the United States for worldwide revolution on American terms.