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Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco

Meanwhile in Europe, bad guys were moving into the neighborhood. Benito Mussolini, the founder and strutting proponent of Fascism, had taken over Italy in 1922. Looking for something strong and glorious to do, Mussolini invaded the independent African empire of Ethiopia in 1935, sending Italian soldiers in tanks and planes to fight people armed with spears. The League of Nations, without American support, did little but bluster to stop Mussolini.

Adolf Hitler, a tyrant with murderous intentions, took over Germany in 1933 through a parliamentary process. After quickly getting rid of his country's struggling democracy, Hitler revived the German economy with dictatorial control, massive military re-armament, and projects like the world's first national freeway system (the autobahn) and the first specially created "people's car" (the Volkswagen). Ominously, he also began an ever-tightening persecution of Jewish people and other minorities. Some Western democracies tried to overlook Hitler's crimes because they thought he would fight Communism.

In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini aligned themselves as the Axis powers. Soon they had a joint project. The democratic government of Spain was fighting a civil war with would-be dictator General Franco. Germany and Italy jumped in on Franco's side, sending troops, planes, and tanks. The Spanish Republican government got some help from the Soviet Union and individual volunteers from many countries, including the United States. The governments of France, Britain, and the United States refused to help save the Spanish government, but Germany and Italy had no such hesitation about destroying it. After three years of brutal fighting — including the bombing of civilians by Germany and Italy — Franco won (1939).

The Neutrality Acts

As the dictators increased their power, the United States increased its effort to figure out a better way to stay out of trouble. Congress passed separate Neutrality Acts for three years in a row starting in 1935, in an attempt to avoid the kind of economic entanglement that had led to the U.S. being drawn in to World War I.

These neutrality acts said that when the president proclaimed the existence of a foreign war, no American could loan money, sell weapons, or even sail on a ship belonging to one of the fighting sides. These rules were a step back from the freedom of the seas for which the U.S. had fought major wars in the past. The Neutrality Acts made no distinction between good guys and bad guys; the United States wasn't going to help anybody.

By not working for democracy, the Neutrality Acts gave the advantage to dictatorships. The United States's attempts to avoid conflict also included a refusal to prepare for any possible war. Throughout most of the 1930s, the American army contained fewer than 200,000 men, smaller than the armies of Poland or Turkey.

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