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Manfred Jonas

The term "isolationism" has been usedmost often in derogationto designate the attitudes and policies of those Americans who have urged the continued adherence in the twentieth century to what they conceived to have been the key element of American foreign policy in the nineteenth century, that is, the avoidance of political and military commitments to or alliances with foreign powers, particularly those of Europe. It was most nearly applicable to American policy between the two world wars, especially after 1935, when the U.S. Congress attempted to insulate the country from an increasingly dangerous world situation through the enactment of so-called neutrality laws. Since World War II, efforts to limit or reduce the vastly increased American commitments abroad have sometimes been called neoisolationism.

The term itself is of relatively recent origin. Its first known application to the foreign policies of the United States was by Edward Price Bell, the London correspondent of the Chicago Daily News. In an article entitled "America and Peace" (Nineteenth Century, November 1922), Bell was critical of what he called the essentially negative attitude of the United States toward international cooperation, but noted that the country was nevertheless in the process of moving gradually "from isolation into partnership." Pointing out that the United States had, despite strong misgivings, ultimately declared war on Germany in 1917, he concluded: "Her isolationism, such as it was, discovered that the strain of a formidable advance against freedom was more than it could bear."

The word "isolationist" was listed for the first time in the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, although without any indication as to when or where it had been used in its political sense. Standard American dictionaries did not incorporate the word until 1922, and the 1933 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary cites no political use of it before 21 April 1921, when it appeared in the Glasgow Herald. Mitford M. Matthews, in A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, 1951), makes a logical but erroneous inference from the listing in the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (it remains unchanged in the current edition) and traces "isolationist" in a political sense to an article in the Philadelphia Press of 25 March 1899. This article, however, uses the word in a medical sense in connection with a smallpox epidemic in Laredo, Texas.


The scholarly literature on isolationism began in 1924 with J. Fred Rippy and Angie Debo's essay "The Historical Background of the American Policy of Isolation" (Smith College Studies in History 9). The term was not prominently used, however, until 1935, when Albert K. Weinberg offered a provocative interpretation of it in Manifest Destiny. World War II and its immediate aftermath, when the United States for the first time actively sought to assume the mantle of a major power, provided the major impetus for its serious study.

American policy during the interwar years, which frequently was described as isolationist, came then to be regarded as an anomalous one that required explanation and analysis. Isolation, it was argued, had generally been imposed on major powers only against their will, as in the case of France after the Franco-Prussian War (18701871) or of Great Britain in the 1890s. Although the speech by George Eulas Foster in the Canadian House of Commons on 16 January 1896 led to a flurry of oratory concerning Britain's "splendid isolation," it was clear that the term had been used ironically more often than not and that British policy had been designed to help the empire emerge from that apparently undesirable state. Voluntary isolation had been sought only by some smaller nations, such as Switzerland, as a way to avoid falling victim to more powerful neighbors, and by culturally threatened ones, such as China and Japan, as a defense against Western incursions.

The United States was the only major Western industrialized nation that had apparently displayed a positive interest in some form of isolation, and that phenomenon attracted the attention of scholars in the late 1940s, and with increasing frequency in the two decades that followed. Ray Allen Billington sought to give isolationism a geographic base in his "The Origins of Middle Western Isolationism" (Political Science Quarterly, March 1945); Henry Nash Smith examined its relationship to "the myth of the garden" (Virgin Land, 1950); Samuel Lubell exposed what he took to be its "ethnic and emotional roots" (The Future of American Politics, 1952); and Wayne S. Cole explained it as an expression of the "needs, desires, and value systems" of American agricultural society (Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Policy, 1962).

Extended analyses of isolationism were also published by Robert E. Osgood, who defined it as a form of "passive egoism" in his Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations (1953); by Selig Adler, who stressed economic self-sufficiency, the illusion of security, and ethnic prejudices as causative factors (The Isolationist Impulse, 1957); by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., who explained isolationism as a policy designed to assure de facto independence after the American Revolution had been won (Ideas, Ideals, and American Diplomacy, 1966); and by Manfred Jonas, whose Isolationism in America, 19351941 (1966) analyzed the assumptions underlying the isolationist position prior to World War II and suggested that these indicated a survival of unilateralism bolstered by a fear of war. John Milton Cooper, Jr., sought to define isolationism as "a political position with programmatic and ideological dimensions" somewhat akin to a political movement (The Vanity of Power, 1969), and a host of other scholarshistorians, political scientists, sociologists, and even psychologistshave investigated the subject from the perspective of their respective disciplines.


While controversy continues about the precise meaning of the term "isolationism" and about the relative importance of various factors that might explain the phenomenon, some areas of agreement emerged from the research. It became clear, for example, that isolationists of whatever stripe always regarded themselves as traditionalists with respect to American foreign policy and regularly invoked the Founders, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in support of their position.

Washington was the father of the first American neutrality act (1794), which incorporated both the principle of his Proclamation of Neutrality (1793)that the United States should pursue "a conduct friendly and impartial towards the Belligerent Powers"and the subsequently developed Rules Governing Belligerents. The neutral stance of the United States was noteworthy primarily because of its obvious incompatibility with the French alliance that had been concluded despite strong misgivings in 1778. Since France chose not to invoke the alliance in the 1790s, American neutrality remained unchallenged, and could thus develop into a tradition that was reasserted, at least initially, with respect to every major international conflict up to World War II.

In his Farewell Address in 1796, Washington supplied the rationale for this policy and urged its continuance. He pointed out that "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation," and advised his countrymen "to steer clear of permanent Alliances" and involvement "by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics and the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships and enmities." Less than five years later, Jefferson put substantially the same advice into even more enduring phraseology in his first inaugural address, where he insisted that American policy should continue to be based on the principle of "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."

Neither Washington nor Jefferson, however, regarded themselves as advocates of a policy of isolation and, indeed, that word had not yet migrated to the English language from the French at the time they expressed their views. Both men actually sought to increase American contacts with the outside world. Washington vigorously espoused the expansion of foreign trade and promoted a series of commercial agreements on the model of the one negotiated with Prussia in 1785. Jefferson, although he would, in moments of great frustration, have preferred the United States "to practise neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand, with respect to Europe, precisely on the footing of China," clearly recognized after he had become president the necessity of fostering commerce and other forms of international intercourse. Indeed, he sent the U.S. marines to the shores of Tripoli to protect American commerce and acquired the whole Louisiana Territory from France in order to keep the mouth of the Mississippi open to the new nation's trade. Both presidents welcomed continued immigration and, Jefferson in particular, the influx of European ideas and culture.

The two did not even categorically rule out alliances. Washington indicated in his Farewell Address that the new nation might "safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." Jefferson advised President James Monroe in 1823 to accept Foreign Secretary George Canning's invitation to joint action with Great Britain against the threat posed to Latin America by the Holy Alliance. While reasserting that the "first and fundamental maxim [of the United States] should be never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe" and the second maxim, "never to suffer Europe to meddle with cis-Atlantic affairs," Jefferson nevertheless concluded that "the war in which the present proposition might engage us, should that be its consequence, is not her war, but ours," and that if "we can effect a division in the body of the European powers, and draw over to our side its most powerful member, surely we should do it."

The basic aim of both Washington and Jefferson was to safeguard the independence of a new and weak nation by avoiding, whenever possible, involvement in the military and political affairs of the major powers while at the same time expanding trade and commerce as a means of fostering national development. But both men were fully aware that economic and political matters could not be separated as neatly as their phraseology suggested, and neither can be regarded in any meaningful way as an isolationist. Together with many of the other Founders, they merely followed the logic of the American Revolution and its consequences.

Thomas Paine had pointed out in Common Sense (1776) that one of the advantages of breaking the connection with Great Britain lay in the possibility of assuming a position of neutrality with respect to a Europe "too thickly planted with Kingdoms to be long at peace" and thus promoting and protecting trade with all nations even in wartime. John Adams urged the Continental Congress to enter only into treaties of commerce and "to lay it down, as a first principle and a maxim never to be forgotten, to maintain an entire neutrality in all future European wars." Were the fledgling United States to do otherwise, Adams feared, "we should be little better than puppets, danced on the wires of the cabinets of Europe." The Congress that he addressed had earlier established a committee to draft a declaration of independence and, at the very same time, one to devise a model treaty for regulating relations with foreign nations. The model treaty, Adams declared, was to be only commercial and have neither political nor military clauses. Such a treaty proved impossible to conclude, however, and foreign aid was needed if independence were to become a reality. Less than six months after adopting the Declaration of Independence, therefore, Congress dispatched John Jay to Spain, Benjamin Franklin to France, and John Adams himself to Holland to seek both money and full-fledged alliances. Isolating the United States from the rest of the world was the last thing they had in mind.

The United States was involved almost from the beginning in the first world crisis after independence was achieved: the quarter century of wars spawned by the French Revolution. That was due in part to the fact that the new nation could not be indifferent to the outcome of these wars, and that Jefferson and the Republicans generally favored the cause of France, while Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists favored Great Britain. Washington's Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 was not intended primarily to insulate the United States against foreign conflicts, but was rather an anti-French measure for evading America's obligations under the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1778 and thereby helping the British cause. Both Jefferson and James Madison denounced it on that account, particularly after the Washington administration negotiated a new treaty, this one with Great Britain, shortly thereafter. Alexander J. Dallas, the future secretary of the Treasury who would have been much happier to have the French alliance continue, in 1795 denounced the treaty that John Jay had negotiated in London as a scheme for "wantonly involving ourselves in the political intrigues and squabbles of the European nations."

After Napoleon came to power in France, Jefferson played a role in the ongoing struggles by buying Louisiana from the financially strapped emperor and by a series of manipulative trade measures including the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Nonintercourse Act of the following year. Over the protests of staunchly Federalist New England, the United States even went to war in 1812 with Great Britain and attempted to conquer Canada, thereby becoming in effect an ally of Napoleon. The Boston Gazette promptly lamented the shedding of American "blood for Bonaparte" and, after the French occupied Moscow, Czar Alexander I offered his services as mediator in the conflict between his British ally and the United States.

The nation was thus, in its early years, neither isolated nor isolationist. It consistently recognized its involvement with the world but sought to pursue its international interests unilaterally without making long-term commitments or entering formal alliances. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams correctly assured the assembled multitude on 4 July 1821 that the United States "does not go forth in search of monsters to destroy" because "by once enlisting under banners other than her own" it would become party to "all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition." But Adams had already served as minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain and had been one of America's negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. As secretary of state, he was to conclude formal treaties with Spain and Great Britain and to protect the newly independent states of Latin America with the Monroe Doctrine.


The unilateralist foreign policy that Adams pursuedthe actual legacy of the Foundersproved serviceable and was followed with reasonable consistency until the end of the nineteenth century. It was a policy peculiar to the United States not in its motivation but only in the circumstances that allowed it to work. Americans had deliberately shaken off their major tie with Europe during the Revolution and understandably had little interest in replacing it with other ties. Moreover, in 1776 Americans had acted partly out of a sense of uniqueness and of superiority to the Old World and its institutions, and they regarded it as essential to the success of the mission of the United States that its policies remain uncontaminated and free from foreign influence. The development of the traditional American foreign policy was thus coeval with the first flowering of an assertive American nationalism.

The freedom of action that the United States sought for itself during the nineteenth century is, however, the ideal of all nation-states. Alliances, however desirable or even necessary under certain circumstances, inevitably circumscribe that freedom, and the avoidance of alliances and the maintenance of neutrality in the quarrels of others are, therefore, a universally appealing policy.

For most nations, however, the policy is also self-defeating and dangerous, since it is often incompatible with the continuance and further development of commercial and cultural ties, largely rules out assistance from others when that may be necessary, and invites attack by stronger neighbors. For the United States in the early nineteenth century, as a country of little economic and no military importance, without strong neighbors, protected by wide expanses of ocean and the polar ice cap, and favored by a world balance of power that tended in most instances to safeguard its interest, the policy was not only appealing, however, but also practicable. Unallied and uncommitted, threatened neither by invasion nor loss of territory, and possessed of a vast, rich, and sparsely developed hinterland, the United States was able to act independently and at its own discretion in those cases in which events elsewhere in the world seemed to affect the nation's interests.

Over the course of the century, the United States was able to expand its trade and commercial relations to an extraordinary degree, absorbed European immigrants in unparalleled numbers, and engaged freely in the process of cultural exchange. Moreover, it quite consistently displayed strong interest in political and military matters outside its borders.

It encouraged the revolutions in Spain's American colonies and sought to protect their newly won independence with the Monroe Doctrine. It followed the Greek Revolution and the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848 with sympathetic interest, and treated at least one of their leaders, the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth, to a hero's welcome. It vied with the British for control of the Oregon Territory in the 1840s and tried to buy Cuba in the 1850s. It went to war with Mexico in order to acquire not only Texas but California as well, and was instrumental in bringing Japan, a truly isolated country, into contact with the world at large. At the close of the Civil War, it helped effect the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico and acquired Alaska, its first non-contiguous territory, from Russia.

At the same time, the United States consistently sought to avoid "entanglements" by either acting alone or, when that proved impossible, refraining from action. Not only did it take part in the Napoleonic Wars without entering into an alliance with France, it never made certain the support of the British fleet by formal treaty even though that fleet was essential to the effectiveness of the Monroe Doctrine. Despite some strong sentiments to the contrary, the United States consistently refused to commit itself to active support of the European revolutionaries, and limited its treaty making during the entire nineteenth century to the settlement of specific disputes concerning boundaries, immigration, and fishing and sealing rights. The only treaty to carry even the suggestion of joint action with another power, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 with Great Britain, which limited action by the United States with regard to the building of a trans-isthmian canal, has been called by the historian Thomas A. Bailey "the most persistently unpopular pact ever concluded by the United States."

By the middle of the nineteenth century, America's traditional policy had become so firmly established that it was above serious challenge. In rejecting, on 11 May 1863, an invitation to join with France, Great Britain, and Austria in an attempt to persuade Czar Alexander II to modify his designs on Poland, Secretary of State William H. Seward cited Washington's Farewell Address as the basis for his action, and applauded the hitherto successful resistance to "seductions from what, superficially viewed, seemed a course of isolation and indifference." It was the first known official use of the term "isolation" in connection with the traditional American policy, and it was used, of course, only to be rejected as inapplicable. "Our policy of nonintervention, straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations," concluded Seward, "has become a traditional one, which could not be abandoned without the most urgent occasion, amounting to manifest necessity."


As long as this policy was regarded as natural and obvious, it provided no basis for factional disputes and required, therefore, neither ideological nor programmatic definition nor a specific label. Isolationism emerged as a distinctive and definable political position only when the foreign policy consensus derived from the teachings of Washington and Jefferson began to break down, a development that found its basis in the conditions of the late nineteenth century but full expression only in the period of World War I.

By the end of the nineteenth century, virtually all of the circumstances that had made the traditional policy of the United States possible had either been greatly modified or disappeared altogether. With rapid industrialization and the opening of vast new lands to agriculture, the United States had become a serious factor in the world economy and was converting itself from an importer into an exporter of capital. The need for the protection of trade and investments, as well as the chauvinistic search for the sinews and symbols of power that infected all Western nations in these years, led the United States to follow the teachings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who in his lectures at the newly established Naval War Collegesubsequently published as The Influence of Sea Power on History, 16601783 (1890)argued that great countries were built by great navies. Even as the United States thus embarked on the road to military power, advances in technology and communications continued to shrink the oceans and thereby to move the country from the periphery of power to a place closer to the center. And the nineteenth-century balance of power, which, for all the abuse that had been heaped on it by American statesmen, had served the nation well, was upset by the simultaneous rise to international prominence of two ambitious newcomers, Germany and Japan.

The United States responded to these changes with a more active foreign policy and greater international involvement. In 1884 it joined the International Red Cross and participated in the Berlin Conference that was intended to solve the problems in the Congo. Three years later, it hosted the first international conference of its own, the Washington Conference on Samoa, and in 1889 the first Pan-American Conference. These expanded international contacts soon led to further involvement. The Venezuela Crisis of 1895 was followed by the War with Spain, the acquisition of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and the enunciation of the Open Door policy designed to assure equal international access to the markets of China. The United States sent delegates to the First International Peace Conference at The Hague in 1899, and the following year contributed 5,000 troops to an international expeditionary force that put down the Boxer Rebellion in China.

The pace of America's involvement with the world quickened during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who hugely enjoyed asserting America's growing power. In 1902, after Great Britain, Germany, and Italy had blockaded Venezuela and brought its dictator, Cipriano Castro, to his knees, he facilitated an arbitration of the dispute that protected America's long-standing interests in Latin America. In 1903 he encouraged rebellion in Colombia, promptly recognized the new country of Panama that emerged, and acquired territory from it on which to build a trans-isthmian canal. In 1904 his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine arrogated to the United States the exercise of an international police power in the Caribbean, and for the next twenty years U.S. marines landed periodically in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and, on occasion, even Mexico. In 1905 he mediated the peace treaty between Russia and Japan that was concluded at a conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For his efforts he became the first of three Americans who were to win the Nobel Peace Prize before 1920.

All of this activism in international affairs was deemed to be compatible with the foreign policy of the Founders, and the traditional American consensus therefore remained largely intact. Even the anti-imperialists at the turn of the century, while opposing the acquisition of colonies on the grounds that this would fundamentally change the character of the American Republic, made surprisingly little of the fact that it would inevitably lead to involvement in the great power rivalries against which President Washington had warned, and that the Open Door policy would have the same effect if attempts were made to enforce it. When the Senate ratified the Algeciras Agreement of 1906, an international compact dealing with the future of Morocco, and the Hague Convention of 1908 that established the rights of neutrals and of noncombatantsboth clearly "entangling" in natureit simply added the proviso that agreeing to them was "without purpose to depart from the traditional American foreign policy."

Less than three months before the outbreak of World War I, Woodrow Wilson, who still insisted that "we need not and we should not form alliances with any nation in the world," reasserted the traditional policy: "Those who are right, those who study their consciences in determining their policies, those who hold their honor higher than their advantages, do not need alliances." Consequently, the onset of hostilities in Europe produced the traditional American response: a declaration of neutrality and a reassertion of the policy of friendship with all and entanglements with none, which, as an editorial in the magazine World's Work put it, "was made for us by wise men a hundred years ago."


World War I nevertheless proved to be the first clear indicator that the United States, would, by virtue of its new power position, find it difficult, and perhaps also undesirable, to remain "unentangled." Since the conflict pitted many ideological friends and major trading partners of the United States against a group of European autocraciesmost particularly after the March Revolution of 1917 in Russiait proved extraordinarily difficult, even for the president himself, to heed Wilson's admonition to be "impartial in thought as well as in action." The wartime increase in trade flowed naturally into previously developed channels, and loans and credits largely followed the route of established business connections, thus not only favoring one set of belligerents and arousing the ire of the other but giving the United States a tangible stake in the outcome of the war.

Even aside from such specific considerations, the possibility that nations with political systems and economic aims different from those of the United States might dominate the world after the war could be ignored only with difficulty. For all of his original devotion to neutrality, Wilson himself was moved to his desire for a negotiated "peace without victory" at least in part because he found one of the other alternativesthe victory of the Central Powersto be wholly incompatible with American interests. "The world," he was to say in his declaration of war, "must be made safe for democracy."

The situation of the United States during World War I brought respectability for the first time to the proposition that, given its changed world position, the United States might best protect its interests by more active cooperation with other nations, even through commitments and alliances not in keeping with the traditional policy. Wilson's espousal of such ideas led him to propose a League of Nations, which required full-fledged American participation in a system of collective security. Others with similar views joined together in June 1915 to found the League to Enforce Peace, an American counterpart to the Netherlands-based Organisation Centrale pour une Paix Durable. Among the leaders of the new organization were former president William Howard Taft, President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, and Hamilton Holt, the influential editor of the Independent.

This initial articulation of an approach to foreign policy that differed from the traditional one chiefly in its espousal of collective action as a necessary element in the defense of the national interest produced, in its turn, the defensive position generally called isolationism. In the context of the time, it amounted to an assertion, implicit or explicit, that changed world conditions had not made a departure from traditional policies either necessary or desirable and that entanglement in what continued to be regarded as the affairs of other nations was more dangerous to the United States than any conceivable result of continued noninvolvement. Among the early isolationists, in this sense, were Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Senators William E. Borah of Idaho and George W. Norris of Nebraska, and the pacifist-intellectual Randolph S. Bourne. On a popular level, such sentiments found support in the Hearst press beginning in early 1917.

Although the occasion for this development of an isolationist position was the debate over American entry into World War I, the actual declaration of war did not prove to be the really divisive issue. If the United States entered the war on its own volition and in defense of its own interests, such a step did not necessarily violate traditional policy, particularly not if it fought, as it did, not in formal alliance with other nations, but simply as an "associated power." Accordingly, a number of confirmed isolationists in the Senate voted for war. Among these were not only Democrats like Charles S. Thomas of Colorado and Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma, who might be considered to have put partisanship ahead of conviction, but also Republicans Joseph I. France of Maryland, Hiram Johnson of California, and Borah.

Wilson soon realized, however, that any serious effort to make the world safe for democracy required that the United States enter into de facto alliance with the European powers, under whatever label, so that he himself would be able to exert the leadership necessary to the attainment of that objective. In his Fourteen Points address of 18 January 1918 he in effect supplied all of the Allies with a set of war aims that included the removal of economic barriers among nations, the adjustment of competing colonial claims, the freedom of the seas, and a "general association of nations" to secure "mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." Less than a year later, he went to Paris in an effort to have these objectives, especially the establishment of a League of Nations, incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war.

America's entry into the League of Nations would have been an obvious violation of the traditional policy. The league was clearly an alliance, an open-ended commitment of the very sort against which the Founders had warned. Wilson in fact promoted U.S. participation in the international organization as "an entirely new course of action" made necessary by the fact that the isolation of the United States was at an end, "not because we chose to go into the politics of the world, but because by the sheer genius of this people and the growth of our power we have become a determining factor in the history of mankind and after you have become a determining factor you cannot remain isolated, whether you want to or not."

The isolationists would have none of that. They generally agreed with the contention that isolation was no longer a realistic aim, if indeed it had ever been one, but took sharp issue with the proposed policy reversal. "We may set aside all this empty talk about isolation," Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, told his colleagues in 1919. "Nobody expects to isolate the United States or make it a hermit Nation, which is sheer absurdity." At the same time, however, he warned against the injury the United States would do itself by "meddling in all the differences which may arise among any portion or fragment of humankind" and urged continued adherence to "the policy of Washington and Hamilton, of Jefferson and Monroe, under which we have risen to our present greatness and prosperity." The Senate debate over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles sharpened and clarified the isolationist position. It turned entirely on the question of America's so-called meddling, and set the course of American foreign policy for the next two decades.


The rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the Senate and the overwhelming popular ratification of that action in the election of 1920 can be regarded as a triumph of American isolationism. It was not, as has sometimes been argued, a return to an earlier policy. The world had changed too much to allow that. But it was a reassertion of that policy in the face of the first fundamental challenge it had ever faced. The isolationism of the 1920s was real, despite the continuing commercial expansion of the United States and despite the greater influence on world affairs that the country enjoyed. The traditional policy, which the isolationists thought they were preserving, had always, after all, emphasized trade and commerce even while shrinking from political commitments, and American influence and the desire for it had traditionally been a component of the "mission" of the United States.

Nevertheless, the American position during the 1920s was in some ways an ambiguous one. The experience of World War I had greatly increased the role of the United States as an economic, political, and even military factor in world affairs, and made some degree of coordination with other nations all the more crucial. At the same time, the war had served as an object lesson on the danger of international commitments. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was only the most threatening of the postwar events that persuaded most Americans that their intervention had clearly failed to make the world safe for democracy. It thus appeared to demonstrate the wisdom of the contention that meddling in the affairs of others was useless and self-defeating. The reflexive logic that this intervention had almost led to a total abandonment of the policy of the Founders only served as a further warning.

On the basis of such perceptions, the United States set out on an isolationist course that could best be described as one of cooperation without commitment. The United States, for the first time in its history, sharply curtailed immigration. It took the lead in negotiations on naval disarmament that would make war less likely and took pains to clarify the purely hortatory character of the Open Door policy. The Four-Power Treaty of 1921 changed any commitments the United States might once have assumed with respect to the openness or territorial integrity of China into a commitment, proposed by Senator Lodge, "to communicate fully and frankly in order to arrive at an understanding as to the most efficient measures to be taken, jointly or separately, to meet the exigencies of the particular situation." Even then, the Senate ratified the treaty only after adding a further disclaimer: "The United States understands that under the statement in the preamble or under the terms of this treaty there is no commitment to armed force, no alliance, no obligation to join in any defense."

During these years the most heralded diplomatic achievement by the United States, the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), was in its origins simply a way of gracefully denying France the security guarantees it had sought to obtain. Although generally regarded at the time as a positive contribution to the maintenance of world peace and order, it formally committed the United States to no action of any kind and was strongly supported by many of the most prominent isolationists, including the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Borah.

By the beginning of the 1930s, the United States was retreating from military intervention in Latin America by adopting the so-called Good Neighbor Policy, and Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson reacted to the Japanese conquest of Manchuria with a unilateral action that threatened nothing more serious than nonrecognition. President Herbert Hoover restated the isolationist consensus in 1931. Although recognizing a greater interdependence among nations in the modern world, Hoover nonetheless distinguished between the path of the United States and that of other nations. "We should cooperate with the rest of the world;" he told his cabinet, "we should do so as long as that cooperation remains in the field of moral pressures. But that is the limit." There were few dissenters.


During the remainder of the 1930s, America's isolationism was most clearly defined and most ardently defended, and it reigned triumphant until fatally undermined by the very world events that had helped to promote it. The isolationism of the 1930s emanated clearly from a world situation in which the totalitarian statesmost notably Germany, Japan, and Italychallenged the status quo and with it the power position and security of the United States. Traditional American foreign policy had always rested on the assumption that the United States was safe from attack and that American trade and ideas would continue to find acceptance regardless of developments elsewhere. As that assurance diminished, it seemed more important than ever before to try and seal off the United States from threats from abroad, especially the threat of war. It was not until the end of the decade that most Americans faced up to the question then raised rhetorically by the formerly isolationist Progressive of Madison, Wisconsin: "If Hitler defeats England and the British fleet is destroyed, what becomes of our splendid isolation, with Hitler on the Atlantic side and Japan and Russia on the Pacific side?"

Until that time, the Great Depression provided a new and for a time persuasive rationale for the isolationist position. Confronted by urgent domestic problems, the immediate impulse of the United States was to turn inward and to regard events outside its borders as distractions tending to impede the solution of problems at home. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, as a disciple of Woodrow Wilson was anything but an isolationist, spurned international cooperation to alleviate the crisis in favor of unilateral American action and, in effect, torpedoed the London Economic Conference in 1933.

The depression also deflated confidence in the strength of the United States and in its ability to influence events elsewhere. Faced with evidence that much was wrong at home, many Americans abandoned the traditional belief that their institutions should serve as a model for the rest of the world. Others reasoned that the economic crisis had so sapped the nation's strength that it would be futile to intervene in international affairs. Both lines of thought led to essentially isolationist conclusions. Finally, the depression increased popular distrust of bankers and businessmen and thus the willingness to sacrifice even trade and commerce, if necessary, to maintain political and military noninvolvement. Because the reputation of the American businessman reached its nadir in the 1930s, the attempt was made to resolve the increasingly apparent dichotomy between "commerce and honest friendship with all nations" and "entangling alliances with none" not by increasing American political involvement but by circumscribing the then suspect commercial contacts.

The high-water mark of American isolationism was therefore reached in the years from 1934 to 1937, in the depth of the Great Depression. Beginning with the Johnson Act, which in 1934 prohibited loans to countries in default on previous debtsonly Finland could qualify for a loan under that provisionCongress took a series of actions designed to prohibit activities of the sort that were presumed to have involved the United States in World War I. The Senate established a committee headed by the isolationist Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota to investigate the American munitions industry and its ties to European arms makers. In 1935, 1936, and 1937, by means of so-called neutrality acts, the United States banned loans and the export of arms and ammunition to countries at war, prohibited Americans from traveling on belligerent vessels, forbade the arming of American merchant ships trading with countries at war, and prohibited the sale on credit of war materials other than arms and ammunitions as well as transportation of such materials on U.S. vessels. A substantial majority of the members of Congress believed that such measures could insulate the country against increasingly threatening world events.

The rationale behind these acts provides us with the clearest expression of isolationist assumptions. Their purpose was simply to make possible in the twentieth century the stance first adopted by the United States in 1794. Although the recognition that legislation was necessary to achieve this implied an acknowledgment that the world had changed since the eighteenth century, it also suggested that the United States might accommodate itself to these changes and maintain its traditional position of neutrality by simply taking certain relatively minor precautions. This assumption required a continuing belief that the vital interests of the United States were not substantially affected by events elsewhere; that Europe still had a set of interests "which to us have none or a very remote relation"; and that the country had become involved in other international quarrels, particularly in World War I, for reasons having little to do with genuine national interest.

The last of these beliefs was given powerful support not only by the conclusions of the Nye Committee that the greed of America's "merchants of death" had led the nation into war in 1917, but also by the work of so-called revisionist historians who, at least since the appearance of Harry Elmer Barnes's The Genesis of the World War (1926), had been hammering away at the theme that the entry of the United States into the world war had been brought about, contrary to the true interests of the United States, by direct and indirect Allied pressure and by the machinations of bankers, brokers, and businessmen who had unwisely tied American prosperity to the cause of Great Britain and France. In the mid-1930s, Charles A. Beard and Charles C. Tansill were the most prominent of the historians who repeated this theme and alleged the existence of a "deadly parallel" to the situation twenty years before. Walter Millis repeated these arguments in his best-selling Road to War (1935).

The neutrality legislation of the 1930s clearly reflected the isolationist contention that the United States went to war in 1917, and might do so again, not because its interests were threatened, but merely because its activities, particularly those relating to trade, produced incidents that blurred judgment and inflamed passions. By prohibiting loans and the trade in arms, by keeping Americans off belligerent vessels, and by insisting that title to all war material had passed to the purchaser and that such material be carried only in non-American ships, the United States expected to avoid such incidents and thereby involvement in war.


The isolationist's beliefs, however, no longer reflected the realities of the world situation. The United States had acquired a far greater stake in the international power balance and exerted far more influence on it than the isolationists were prepared to admit. Neutrality legislation did not reduce this influence but simply redirected it, not necessarily into desirable channels.

In general, the American policy gave aid and comfort to would-be aggressors since it offered tacit assurance that this country would not actively oppose their actions as long as they did not directly threaten the United States. More specifically, the neutrality legislation in effect aided the Fascist dictatorsItaly's Benito Mussolini when applied to the Italo-Ethiopian War and Spain's Francisco Franco when applied to the Spanish Civil War. The legislation also tended, at least in the first of these cases, to undercut possible peacekeeping actions by the League of Nations.

Since even most isolationists agreed that the victories of the Italian and Spanish fascists were less desirable from the American viewpoint than were other possible outcomes, the wisdom of a policy that contributed to such a result came increasingly to be questioned. "In the long run," the Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, a staunch isolationist and an original proponent of neutrality legislation, told President Roosevelt in December 1936, "it is not peace for the world, even for America which will be served by applying to the Spanish rebellion a general principle which should be asserted more rigorously than is yet the case in Congressional legislation concerning neutrality in international law." As a socialist who supported the elected government of Spain and abhorred Franco, Thomas was caught in a dilemma that could not be resolved in isolationist terms.

The two events that destroyed the rationale for American isolationism altogether were the fall of France in June 1940 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of the following year. The defeat of France by a seemingly invincible Germany created a profound sense of insecurity in the United States. It raised fears not only of an Axis victory but also of a direct attack on this country in the event, now deemed possible, that the British fleet would either be destroyed or captured. The founding of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, the first influential interventionist organization, was a direct result of this fear, and the success of that organization produced the establishment of the America First Committee, the last stronghold of the embattled and soon outnumbered isolationists.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, in its turn, graphically demonstrated the vulnerability of American territory to foreign aggressors. Under these circumstances cooperation and even alliance with others to forestall further danger seemed dictated by prudence and common sense. "In my own mind," one of the most outspoken and influential of the congressional isolationists, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, confided in his diary some time after the event, "my convictions regarding international cooperation and collective security for peace took firm form on the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack. That day ended isolationism for any realist."


Vandenberg was essentially right. Both the traditional American foreign policy, based on the precepts of Washington and Jefferson, and isolationism, regarded by its proponents as an adaptation of that policy to the conditions of the twentieth century, had rested on the assumption that Europe's interests were sufficiently different from those of the United States and that the United States was sufficiently safe from attack to make political or military involvement with Europe unnecessary. If unnecessary, such involvement was undesirable by definition, since it could only limit the country's freedom of action and thereby its sovereignty without bringing any compensating benefits. Although these assumptions had been challenged by world events since the end of the nineteenth century, they had never before been clearly disproved. When the assumptions were disproved, the isolationist structure was no longer a viable one, and the United States moved rapidly not only into tacit alliance with Great Britain and into war as a formal ally of the anti-Axis powers but also very consciously into a commitment to collective security.

Even before World War II had ended, the world economy and the political structure of the new league of nations, the United Nations, would be laid out under American leadership at international conferences at the Bretton Woods resort in New Hampshire and the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C. The United States not only joined the United Nations without serious opposition, but also symbolized its change of course by welcoming that organization's headquarters to New York City.

What had been destroyed, of course, had only been the practicality of the isolationist position. Its emotional appeal remained largely intact, as it had in nations for whom isolationism had never been a realistic position. Isolationist rhetoric, therefore, continued to be used by some opponents of American postwar policies. In the debate over military aid to Europe, which began late in 1950, Joseph P. Kennedy, the isolationist former ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of "unwise commitments" in Berlin and Korea and scoffed at the idea that the United States had any interest in or responsibility for the defense of Western Europe. Herbert Hoover argued that the Americas were still "surrounded by a great moat," and referred once again to "the eternal malign forces of Europe" with which this country should have as little as possible to do. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a leading prewar isolationist, minimized the danger that this country faced from the Soviet Union in terms virtually identical to those in which he had discussed the threat emanating from Nazi Germany.

Although some observers promptly labeled this outburst "the new isolationism," it bore little practical relation to true isolationism. Hoover, in fact, strongly favored an American commitment to the defense of a "Western Hemisphere Gibraltar," the outlying bastions of which were the British Isles, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and, possibly, Australia and New Zealand. Taft recognized that an effective international organization would give the best assurance of world peace and, therefore, of American peace, and stated flatly that "nobody is an isolationist today." The whole discussion centered largely on the extent of American military and economic aid to other nations, and not on the necessity for such assistance. It turned on the question of how the cooperation among allies of the United States might best be secured, not how American alliances could be terminated most rapidly.

Isolationism was simply no longer viable in a world in which neutrality for the United States was impossible, if for no other reason than that the Soviet Union regarded the United States as its primary foe; in which the United States could clearly not be indifferent to wars in Europe or Asia that affected the world power balance; and in which the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles had eliminated the margin of safety that geography had once provided. In short, isolationism was made practically impossible when the United States emerged as the dominant world power in an unstable world. Just as "splendid isolation" had emotional appeal but dangerous practical implications for Great Britain at the close of the nineteenth century, so isolation in any form posed a threat to the position of the United States in the postwar world.

For a brief period, even the traces of the isolationist strain in American foreign policy seemed to disappear. The United States embraced its world leadership role at a time when it was, by a considerable margin, the strongest power on earth. It thus could expect to control whatever alliances it entered and saw no necessary conflict between such alliances and the traditional insistence on unilateral action. The refusal of the Soviet Union to recognize a Pax Americana did not shatter that expectation, but initially strengthened the belief that America's security required cooperation with and commitments to like-minded nations. In the Cold War that resulted, the United States laid claim, without having to consult anyone, to the leadership of what it chose to define as the free world. That leadership produced the Marshall Plan, a massive program to rebuild war-devastated Western Europe, in 1948 and, in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a permanent formal, military allianceits first in 171 yearswith Canada and a group of ten Western European nations. It was manifested again the following year, when the United States was able to use the UN to muster an international force to serve under American command in Korea. A powerful United States controlling its allies fully met the test of unilateralism.


Over time, however, American control of the UN and of its allies declined even as its worldwide commitments multiplied. As a result, U.S. foreign policy became both less effective and more costly, and domestic criticism of it increased. The Vietnam War, in particular, spawned critics who argued that there were limits to America's power and that, in consequence, the United States should withdraw from some of its more exposed positions and reduce its international commitments. These critics were often referred to as "neo-isolationists" and sometimes even applied that label to themselves. A leading scholar of American foreign policy, Robert W. Tucker, applauded their position in his book A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? (New York, 1972).

Yet major spokesmen for this point of view, such as Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon, Ernest Gruening of Alaska, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, George McGovern of South Dakota, and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, or George F. Kennan, who as a foreign service officer had been the first to advocate "containment" of the Soviet Union, were not isolationists in any meaningful sense. All favored increasing the role of the United Nations, the maintenance of key alliances, and new attempts to reach agreements with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. None suggested, even remotely, that the cure for current problems might be found in a return to the foreign policies of the 1920s or 1930s.

The Vietnam War, to be sure, had a traumatic effect on both American policymakers and the American public. It caused President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for reelection, assured the defeat of his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, in the 1968 election, and produced major reassessments of American military and strategic policies. But the lessons that were drawn from the failure in Vietnam did not seriously question America's international commitments. They concentrated instead on the clearer and perhaps more limited definition of American goals, the avoidance, where possible, of no-win situations, and, above all, the avoidance of American casualties in future conflicts.

The internationalist consensus thus remained largely intact, and all subsequent presidents vigorously exercised their presumed prerogative of world leadership. Richard Nixon traveled to China in 1972 to definitively change that nation's relationship to the Soviet Union as well as to the United States. President Jimmy Carter tried policies based on the ideas of the Trilateral Commission, a private group of American, Western European, and Japanese businessmen, and in 1979 negotiated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in Maryland.

Ronald Reagan outdid even Woodrow Wilson in what Frank Ninkovich has defined as crisis internationalism (The Wilsonian Century, Chicago and London, 1999). "Our mission is to nourish and defend freedom and democracy" runs the socalled Reagan Doctrine he enunciated in his State of the Union message in 1985. "We must stand by all of our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their liveson every continent to defy Soviet-supported aggression." Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, launched the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and brought a number of European and Middle Eastern allies into it. President Clinton, throughout the 1990s, played a direct role in conflicts throughout the world, from Ireland to Israel to Yugoslavia and even beyond.

Throughout these years, isolationism has, to be sure, remained in the area of public discourse. But it has remained there largely as a bogeyman. All presidents since Nixon have defended their policies by labeling their opponents isolationists, and they continue to do so. On 8 December 2000, President Clinton traveled to Kearney, Nebraska, for a foreign policy speech in which he warned his listeners against "isolationist sentiment," and at his confirmation hearing on 17 January 2001, incoming Secretary of State Colin L. Powell found it necessary to assure the Senate that under his guidance the United States would not become "an island of isolationism."

Political commentators continued to treat such allegations with great seriousness. The American Enterprise Institute as recently as 1996 found good cause to publish Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism, and publications on both sides of the question abound. Yet isolationism is no longer a serious prescription for American policy. With the possible exceptions of the pseudo-populist industrialist Ross Perot, an independent candidate for president in 1992, and Patrick Buchanan, a disgruntled Republican who ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, no responsible leader has proposed withdrawal from NATO or the UN or urged the United States to go it alone in a world still considered dangerous, even after the end of the Cold War and the relative triumph of both democracy and free-market capitalism. Ironically, even Buchanan's A Republic Not An Empire (Washington, D.C., 1999) contains a section entitled "The Myth of American Isolationism."

The persistence of isolationism as a talking point half a century after its effective demise led some scholars, particularly in the field of security policy, to redefine the term, sometimes in quite sophisticated ways. Eric Nordlinger's Isolationism Reconfigured (Princeton, N.J., 1995), for example, sees isolationism essentially as the unilateralist component of the traditional American foreign policy that is wary of entangling alliances and, therefore, as a permanent counterweight to the traditional policy's internationalist component that has carried the day since World War II. In somewhat similar fashion, Frank Ninkovich has defined isolationism as the "normal internationalism" he attributes to the Founders. The Wilsonian counterpart to that which has dominated U.S. foreign policy for the past half century he calls "crisis internationalism."

Either redefinition does away with the need to explain isolationism or to account for its appearance, especially in the 1920s. For that reason, both lend themselves to the development of ingenious and highly persuasive analyses with substantial postmodernist appeal. They do so, however, by dealing scarcely, if at all, with the objective reality of that isolationism that was an important phase in the development of American foreign policy. That phase has now been superseded, and reentry into it seems no longer possible, even if a nostalgic longing for it survives.

Born of the universal aspiration for unrestricted national sovereignty and the peculiar relation of the United States to the rest of the world in the nineteenth century, isolationism was staunchly defended and raised to the level of dogma when world events in the twentieth century threatened America's traditional foreign policy consensus. In a shrinking world with an increasingly global economy and ever more deadly weapons that can be delivered anywhere, however, it is an untenable position for a country that has gone to great expense to develop and maintain a fully global military reach, dominates virtually every international institution or agency to which it belongs, and labors ceaselessly to remain the center of global finance and of world trade.


Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction. London and New York, 1957. The classic early work that regards economic self-sufficiency and the illusion of security, as well as some ethnic prejudices, as the causes of isolationism.

Clemens, Diane Shaver. From Isolationism to Internationalism: The Case Study of American Occupation Planning for Post-War Germany, 19451946. An exceptionally detailed examination of the definitive turning point.

Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 19401941. Madison, Wis., 1953. Still the only full-scale study of an isolationist organization.

. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 19351945. Lincoln, Neb., 1983. The isolationists' heyday and how they were outflanked by FDR.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Vanity of Power: American Isolationism and the First World War, 19141917. Westport, Conn., 1969. Defines isolationism as a political position with ideological dimensions.

Doenecke, Justus D. Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists and the Cold War. Lewisburg, Pa., 1979. Traces the varied responses of the old isolationist to the new world created by World War II.

. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 19391941. Lanham, Md., and Oxford, 2000. The most complete analysis of anti-interventionist assumptions and arguments prior to Pearl Harbor.

Fensterwald, Bernard, Jr. "The Anatomy of American 'Isolationism' and Expansionism." Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1958). An interesting though unprovable psychological explanation for the persistence of American isolationism.

Foster, H. Schuyler. Activism Replaces Isolationism: U.S. Public Attitudes, 18401975. Washington, D.C., 1983. The public opinion studies conducted by the State Department.

Graebner, Norman A. The New Isolationism: A Study in Politics and Foreign Policy Since 1950. New York, 1956. A "realist" view of America's postwar role.

Guinsburg, Thomas N. The Pursuit of Isolationism in the United States from Versailles to Pearl Harbor. New York, 1982. A full-scale study of the most clearly isolationist period in U.S. history.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 19351941. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966, and Chicago, 1990. Analyzes the arguments and actions of the isolationists up to Pearl Harbor and concludes that their common denominator was unilateralism strengthened by the fear of war.

Kull, Steven. Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism. Washington, D.C., 1999. Defends those looking to limit America's commitments against the charge of isolationism.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State. Boston, 1997. Divides U.S. diplomatic history into "Old Testament" and "New Testament" phases and argues that foreign policy debates revolve around the differences between the two.

Muravchik, Joshua. The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism. Washington, D.C., 1996. Argues that the United States must remain the fully committed leader of the free world.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago and London, 1999. A brief analytical survey that does away with isolationism by defining American policy as a tug of war between the "normal" internationalism of the Founders and the "crisis" internationalism of Woodrow Wilson.

Nordlinger, Eric A. Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century. Princeton, N.J., 1995. Argues that isolationism is simply the unilateralist component of the traditional and relatively constant American foreign policy.

Osgood, Robert E. Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. A classic.

Powaski, Ronald E. Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism and Europe, 19011950. New York, 1991. A straightforward account of how the "isolated" United States came in time to create the North Atlantic Treaty.

Rieselbach, Leroy N. The Roots of Isolationism: Congressional Voting and Presidential Leadership in Foreign Policy. Indianapolis, 1966. The most ambitious behavioral analysis of congressional isolationism.

Rossina, Daniela, ed. From Theodore Roosevelt to FDR: Internationalism and Isolationism in American Foreign Policy. Staffordshire, England, 1995. A collection of essays most of which offer a European view of the United States.

Russett, Bruce M. "Demography, Salience, and Isolationist Behavior." Public Opinion Quarterly 24 (1960). Offers the most serious challenge to ethnic and geographical explanations for isolationism.

Smith, Glenn H. Langer of North Dakota: A Study in Isolationism, 19401959. New York, 1979. One of the few biographies of a leading isolationist senator.

Tucker, Robert W. A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? New York, 1972.

Weinberg, Albert K. "The Historical Meaning of the American Doctrine of Isolationism." American Political Science Review 34 (1940).The classic brief statement of what traditional American foreign policy was and what it was not.

Williams, William A. "The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920s." Science and Society 18 (1954). Argues that the absence of genuine economic isolationism demonstrates the mythical nature of the entire concept.

See also Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes; Internationalism; Intervention and Nonintervention; Neutrality; Wilsonianism .


Resolved (two thirds of the Senate present concurring), That the Senate advise and consent to the adherence on the part of the United States to the Permanent Court of International Justice subject to the following reservations and understandings, which are hereby made a part and condition of this resolution, namely:

  • That such adherence shall not be taken to involve any legal relation on the part of the United States to the League of Nations or the assumption of any obligations by the United States under the Treaty of Versailles.
  • That the United States may at any time withdraw its adherence to the said protocol and that the statute for the Permanent Court of International Justice adjoined to the protocol shall not be amended without the consent of the United States.
  • That the court shall not without the consent of the United States, entertain any request for an advisory opinion touching any dispute or question in which the United States has or claims an interest.

Resolved further, That adherence to the said protocol and statute hereby approved shall not be so construed as to require the United States to depart from its traditional policy of not intruding upon, interfering with, or entangling itself in the political questions of policy or internal administration of any foreign state; nor shall adherence to the said protocol and statute be construed to imply a relinquishment by the United States of its traditional attitude towards purely American questions.

From Congressional Record 67 (1926): 2306


views updated May 29 2018



Essentially the term “isolationism,” when applied to the foreign policies of the United States, suggests a diplomatic tradition at variance with that of other great nations of the modern world. That American behavior in the external realm has not always followed the established patterns of Realpolitik is demonstrated repeatedly by the record itself. Yet historians have never agreed on either the nature or the degree of that divergence. Like most broad generalizations, isolationism defies any precise definition. Not even as a form of escapism did isolationism create necessarily unique national responses; for the United States, in attempting to hoard its energy by limiting its commitments abroad, pursued principles universally accepted by prudent statesmen.

Isolationism as a foundation of national policy cannot be divorced from the geographical insulation that the American people enjoyed through much of their history vis-à-vis the great powers of Europe. Yet to the Founding Fathers, isolationism was more than a response to geographic factors or the basis of thoughtless preoccupation with inner-directed and self-sufficient pursuits. The United States never sought the solitude of such hermit nations as Japan and Korea; from its republican beginnings, it created and maintained a commercial empire that blanketed much of the globe. American isolationism was always political and military, never commercial or intellectual.

In an effort to limit the political interests of the United States to the Western Hemisphere and to employ the nation’s geographical advantages in the defense of those interests, early American leaders made the avoidance of entangling alliances the keystone of their diplomacy. John Adams, during a conversation with the Englishman Richard Oswald in November 1782, explained his fear of any permanent American commitment to Europe. “It is obvious,” declared Adams (Works, vol. 3, p. 316), “that all the powers of Europe will be continually manoeuvering with us, to work us into their real or imaginary balances of power‖. But I think it ought to be our rule not to meddle; and that of all the powers of Europe, not to desire us, or perhaps, even to permit us, to interfere, if they can help it.” In his farewell address, George Washington acknowledged the diplomatic and military benefits that accrue from distance. “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?” he asked ([1753–1796] 1948, p. 641). For Washington, such convictions reflected a realistic judgment of European power and the conclusion that the young republic would only waste its energies if it engaged in struggles abroad which it could not control.

In their preoccupation with diplomatic flexibility, the Founding Fathers reinforced the doctrine of no entangling alliances with the principle of complete neutrality in relation to Europe’s wars. No nation could be completely free that had bartered away its right to be neutral. To thoughtful Americans the avoidance of involvement abroad was a less important consideration than preserving the nation’s freedom to carry out the decisions that best defended its interests. If the United States maintained its independence of action more successfully than did the powers of Europe, it did so not because of differences in intent, or even of geographical insulation, but rather because the precise political conditions of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seemed to assure American security. American diplomatists could pursue a policy of isolationism throughout the years 1815 to 1900 because they understood that the European balance of power was adequate for the nation’s needs.

Unfortunately this favorable balance, anchored to British power and diplomacy, was ultimately taken for granted and its relationship to American security all but forgotten. By the 1890s, Americans no longer recognized the nation’s vital stake in traditional European politics. The restoration of the Continent after the Napoleonic wars created such conditions of stability that the average citizen of the United States, enjoying perennial security at relatively little cost, began to put his faith in the fact of geographic isolation itself. This gradual identification of American security with the Atlantic Ocean, rather than with a British-dominated European balance of power, created the foundations of twentieth-century American isolationism, which viewed less involvement in European affairs as the essence of sound policy. Whatever happened in Europe, ran the burgeoning isolationist argument, it could not challenge the historic security of the American people.

This nation’s dramatic entrance onto the world stage at the turn of the century in no way challenged its isolationist habits of thought. The new sense of obligation to expand did not include, except on the part of a brilliant minority of American writers, any gauging of the forces being unleashed by British–German rivalry or any evaluation of the meaning of that rivalry for the American future. Some critics of national behavior, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, demanded, but in vain, a closer rapprochement with England, if not an actual alliance. Perhaps Lord Bryce (1888, I, p. 310 in 1909 edition) described the prewar attitudes of the American people with precision when he wrote: “America lives in a world of her own.... Safe from attack, safe even from menace, she hears from afar the warring cries of European races and faiths.... But for the present at least—it may not always be so—she sails upon a summer sea.”

That American expansion into the Pacific failed to challenge the nation’s isolationist tradition reflects fundamentally the ease whereby the acquisition of Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as the establishment of an open-door policy in China, was achieved. Even in the Caribbean, where the nation faced no competing power, the new commitments created the illusion of huge accomplishment at a minimum of financial and military expenditure. Thus the nation could underwrite enthusiastically the policies of expansion into Latin America and the western Pacific while rejecting all involvement in European affairs as an unnecessary and dangerous overcommitment of the resources of the United States. The powerful Asia-first orientation of American isolationism had its inception in the basic conviction, demonstrated by events, that the United States could protect its interests in the Far East at relatively little cost. As late as 1940, when Hitler’us armies were sweeping across Europe, Americans were more fearful of Japan than Germany, more determined to defend the integrity of China than that of Norway, the Low Countries, or France.

From 1917 to 1920, Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for a new world order attempted to commit the United States to the maintenance of a stable world, which would supposedly resolve the pressures for change in the postwar status quothrough representative deliberative bodies. Instead it laid the foundation for the violent isolationist reaction of the 1920s, for it was clear by 1919 that Wilson could not uproot the traditions of European power politics. The League of Nations seemed to obligate the nation to action in undefined and unforeseeable contingencies. Its rejection by the Senate, the result of many factors, reflected basically an American disinclination to commit United States military forces to the defense of the Versailles system. Disillusioned by the apparently meager benefits that accrued to the United States from the great involvement of World War I, many Americans accepted the new watchwords of national purpose, “never again.”

The powerful isolationism of the interwar years has been subjected to endless scrutiny by American scholars. It was a national phenomenon. Yet its chief strength always seemed to lie in the upper Middle West, especially in the prairie states. For many students, this was the simple dictate of geographic reality. It appeared reasonable that isolationism should center in those regions of the country most remote from world events.

For others, interwar isolationism had a clear economic base. Many western agrarians, for example, long regarding eastern bankers and industrialists as their mortal enemies, attributed the American involvement in World War I to the influence of Wall Street. They disliked England because that nation represented the system of international finance and investment that led the great nations to war. Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., in his book Your Country at War and What Happens to You After a War (1917), blamed the war on profiteering and international bankers. Agrarian isolationists attributed the destruction of progressivism to wartime profits.

This form of liberal economic isolationism reached its climax in 1934 with Senator Gerald P. Nye’s investigation of the munitions industry. The public was prepared to hear the worst of the “merchants of death”—those who had profited so handsomely from the war effort. Nye, a former North Dakota newspaper editor, regarded the farmer as the backbone of American society, al-ways beset by the bankers of Wall Street. Gradually, Nye identified the interest of the farmer with those of the citizens of the midwestern villages and even the large midwestern cities, for all such business centers had a clear interest in the welfare of the farmer. All, moreover, were enemies of Wall Street. His investigation of the munitions makers was the logical extension into the field of foreign affairs of his long crusade against the influence of finance capitalism. His conclusions were as much antibusiness as they were antiwar.

In the late 1930s, economic isolationism shifted gradually from liberalism to conservatism. By 1939 many men of wealth stood at the forefront of the American isolationist crusade; they dominated such organizations as the influential America First Committee. Conservatives feared more and more that American involvement in war would further weaken the American free enterprise system. For the isolationist leadership in the Republican party, the program of “America first” was fundamentally an anti-New Deal crusade. Eventually, even Nye discovered that the masses had outbid the farmer for control of governmental policy—that the New Deal spoke largely for the urban dweller. By the late 1930s, he had turned to the conservatives for support in his effort to keep America out of war.

For some Americans, isolationism was largely an expression of the nation’s democratic idealism. Its purpose, in short, was to protect the uniqueness of American society against the corrupting influence of European politics. Traditionally this sense of uniqueness was the essence of an affirmative faith. According to Abraham Lincoln, America was the earth’s last best hope. The achievement of that promise demanded the rejection of Europe. As John Dos Passos once observed, “Repudiation of Europe is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.” By the late 1930s, even the desire to protect the uniqueness of American society had turned conservative. For many isolationists, the concepts of progress and change had retreated before the conviction that American society had matured and that Europe, with its radical tendencies, must be avoided. No longer did isolationists view the United States as the changing society in a reactionary world, but as a stable and accomplished society in a revolutionary world. Isolationism was the means whereby the nation would preserve its economic, social, and political institutions against the dangers of experimentation abroad.

Samuel Lubell, from his studies of the elections of 1920 and 1940, concluded that American isolationism was neither geographic, economic, nor idealistic. In The Future of American Politics (1951, p. 132) he wrote, “This concept of isolationism must be discarded. It is a myth. The hard core of isolationism in the United States has been ethnic and emotional....” The great Democratic setbacks in 1920, when contrasted with the 1916 returns, he discovered, came in Swedish, German, Norwegian, and Irish districts, revealing an ethnic reaction to Wilson’s decision to lead the American people to war against Germany. In 1940 Roosevelt’s majority vote dropped roughly 7 per cent from 1936. In 20 counties the losses exceeded 35 per cent; 19 of these were fundamentally German in background. Another 35 counties showed a Democratic drop of 25–34 per cent; in all but four of these, German was either the first or second strongest nationality of origin. The same ethnic factors were present in another 83 of 101 counties where Roosevelt’s 1940 vote dropped between 20 and 24 per cent. It was, concluded Lubell, the absence of Germans in the South that limited that region’s isolationism.

As war returned to Europe in 1939, the concept of a fortress America became the ultimate intellectual refuge of the nation’s isolationist leadership. American security, ran the argument, did not hinge on Britain or the balance of power, but on the United States’ capacity to guard the sea lanes. Herbert Hoover announced in February 1939 that the hemisphere was protected by a “moat of 3000 miles of ocean on the East, and 6000 miles on the West” (1940, p. 101). By this isolationist doctrine, the course of war in Europe mattered little. Charles A. Beard wrote: “It was one thing to regard Hitler and Mussolini as madmen at Munich ... it was another thing to maintain that the United States should pour out the blood of its sons in restraining the dictators after Great Britain, France, Russia and the other powers of Europe had failed to unite against them in diplomacy and coercion” (Beard & Beard 1939, pp. 499–500).

For such men, the outbreak of war in Europe merely affirmed the notion that the United States was invulnerable. “Actually,” wrote Oswald Garrison Villard in September 1939, “from the purely military point of view, the security of the United States has been increased by the outbreak of war. And the longer war continues, the safer the United States will be, if it ever was in danger. For with each day that passes, the exhaustion of the contestants will become greater” (1939, p. 324). Whatever the logic of such convictions, they failed to preserve American neutrality. Again, as in 1917, it was the nation’s ultimate unwillingness to countenance a British defeat at the hands of Germany that brought it into the European war.

For the vast majority of Americans at mid-century the isolationist tradition was no longer relevant. The disintegration of the alliance with Russia and the acceptance by the United States of a world-wide commitment to the containment of communist power seemed to leave little room for the doctrines of the 1930s. Senator Robert A. Taft, one of the nation’s leading proponents of prewar isolationism, declared in 1950: “I don’t know what they mean by isolationism; nobody is an isolationist today.” Dwight D. Eisenhower observed two years later, “I have long insisted—and do now insist, that isolationism is dead as a political issue.”

Yet isolationism was not dead. World War II had demonstrated its obsolescence, but it had not destroyed the emotions and traditions that underlay it. What remained had changed its emphasis, but its significance for the nation was only partially diminished. Contributing to the rebirth of a powerful conservative American isolationism in the postwar era was the conviction that the Roosevelt administration, through its involvement of the country in World War II, had assured the rise of Russia to a position of power. Past Democratic policies, in short, were responsible for the un- precedented insecurity of the American people. Senator Taft charged quite characteristically (1951, p. 6) that “our leaders failed to foresee that the Soviet Union would turn against us after the defeat of Germany and Japan. They made no attempt to insure our future against that eventuality.” The vast power revolution of the 1940s appeared to demonstrate that the isolationists of the interwar years were correct in their judgment of the national interest after all.

Aggravated by the postwar dread of communism, American isolationism, more than ever before, placed its emphasis on the uniqueness of American society and the need for protecting that uniqueness from its enemies at home and abroad. For many Americans, the containment policies of the Truman administration were nothing but an assault on the nation’s values. The reactionary-nationalist foreign policy elite, as Gabriel Almond (1950) has defined it, attributed American insecurity not to Russian power and aggressiveness, but to the gradual destruction of the traditional American free enterprise system. Beginning with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, ran its argument, socialism, New Dealism, heavy military expenditures, and high taxes had undermined the strength of the nation. If the United States would return to the old Americanism as it existed before 1914, the nation’s external challenges would evaporate. Organizations of the extreme right, such as Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council, opposed the Marshall Plan as a scheme to “finance socialism in Europe.” It termed the United Nations an octopus leading to a “statist, collectivist world.” The United States should clear the decks for action “by reducing our government expense and rejecting the whole Truman program for a socialized welfare state.” The American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, led by John B. Trevor, agreed that the danger to American security lay in the “nationalist socialist planners.” When the nation again returned to its nineteenth-century orthodoxy, it would enjoy security without excessive military expenditures.

If few Americans identified American insecurity abroad so completely with the erosion of American values, a significant body of editors and politicians condemned the nation’s commitment to the defense of Europe. Senator Taft, in his book A Foreign Policy for Americans, explained his opposition to NATO: “I do not like the obligation written into the pact which binds us for twenty years to come to the defense of any country, no matter by whom it is attacked and even though the aggressor may be another member of the pact ...” (1951, pp. 88–89). Taft, like other conservative Americans, believed that the essence of American security lay in the domestic economy. He opposed the American commitment to NATO as an overestimation of both the Soviet threat and the defense burden that the American economy could bear. “Just as our nation can be destroyed by war,” he declared (1951, p. 14), “it can also be destroyed by a political or economic policy at home which destroys liberty or breaks down the fiscal and economic structure of the United States.”

American isolationism in the postwar world continued to harbor its Asia-first tendencies. If the United States had failed in its historic effort to preserve the open door in China by permitting the transfer of political power from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese communists, the answer lay not in the nation’s inability to subdue the Chinese revolution but rather in errors of judgment, if not actual treason, within the Department of State. This denial of the vast power revolution in Asia permitted those who favored the reduction of American forces in Europe to demand a show of aggressiveness in Asia without appearing to assume an expensive military burden. The mere return of Chiang to the mainland promised the re-establishment of the open door at little cost.

Perhaps the key development in the history of American isolationism was the shift from a realistic evaluation of both the role of distance from the power centers of Europe and the significance for the nation’s security of the European balance of power, to an assumption that the country’s security had become absolute and rested on the fact of geographic insulation and the supremacy of the nation’s economic and political institutions. So secure did the country appear in the nineteenth century that, according to Abraham Lincoln, it could be injured only from within. Anchored to such assumptions of omnipotence, American isolationism in the twentieth century became identified with a primary concern for the domestic economy, an overestimation of American power, and a belief in the nation’s moral superiority, all of which encouraged the tendency toward unilateralism in diplomacy. Isolationism, although a logical consequence of geography and the national experience, was in fact the creation of several generations of writers, editors, and politicians. It triumphed as a political program and achieved a predominant place in American thought simply because no other course of national action could promise so much at such negligible cost. World War Ii and the events that followed destroyed only the illusion of geographical insulation. The traditional belief that the United States could achieve security at less expense to itself than nations with fewer physical advantages was not destroyed.

Norman A. Graebner

[See alsoForeign policy; National interest; National security.]


Adams, JohnThe Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States. 10 vols. Boston: Little, 1851–1856.

Adler, Selig 1957 The Isolationist Impulse. New York: Abelard-Schuman.

Almond, Gabriel A. (1950) 1960 The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Praeger.

Beard, Charles; and Beard, Mary 1939 America in Midpassage. New York: Macmillan.

Bryce, James (1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth. 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam.

Cole, Wayne S. 1953 America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940–1941. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Cole, Wayne S. 1962 Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

De Conde, Alexander (editor) 1957 Isolation and Security: Ideas and Interests in Twentieth-century American Foreign Policy. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Graebner, Norman A. 1956 The New Isolationism: A Study in Politics and Foreign Policy Since 1950. New York: Ronald Press.

Hoover, Herbert 1940 Further Addresses Upon the American Road: 1938–1940. New York: Scribner.

Lindbergh, Charles A. SR. (1917) 1934 Your Country at War and What Happens to You After a War. Philadelphia: Dorrance.

Lubell, Samuel (1951) 1956 The Future of American Politics. 2d ed., rev. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lubell, Samuel 1956 Revolt of the Moderates. New York: Harper.

Taft, Robert A. 1951 A Foreign Policy for Americans. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Villard, Oswald G. 1939 Issues and Men: The United States and the War. Nation 149:324 only.

Washington, George (1753–1796) 1948 Basic Writings of George Washington. New York: Random House.

Weinberg, Albert K. 1940 The Historical Meaning of the American Doctrine of Isolation. American Political Science Review 34:539–547.


views updated Jun 11 2018






Isolationism can be defined as a states deliberate policy of extensive withdrawal and seclusion from some forms of interaction in the international system. Notable examples include the economic isolationism of Japan and China before the nineteenth century and the cultural isolationism of China and the Soviet Union in parts of the twentieth century. In the U.S. context, isolationism has constituted one of the principle foreign policy grand strategies from the founding of the country up to the present day.


From the United States inception, isolationists such as George Washington have argued for the benefits of avoiding wars and entangling alliances with other great powers at all costs. Military commitments and involvement in the affairs of such states bleed the country of its prosperity. Precious money is wasted on armaments that often antagonize foreign nations. Democratic principles are sometimes suspended and sacrificed in the effort to fight wars. And the United States is unnecessarily distracted from more pressing objectives. Keep the ships at home, said Thomas Jefferson (17431826), and we will have fewer reasons to fight. It was such philosophies that helped keep the United States out of war with European states for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Apart from the United States relatively minor involvement in the Napoleonic Wars against France from 1798 to 1801, the only war that was fought with a European power was the War of 1812 against the British. Isolationist policies freed America to focus on territorial expansionism in North America, interventionism in Asia and Latin America, and economic activism throughout the globe.

While it is true that U.S. isolationism was assisted by its geographic separation from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean, as Walter Lippman describes in U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943), U.S. security during most of the nineteenth century was safeguarded more through a shrewd, unwritten 1823 alliance with Great Britain and the British-led balance of power in Europe than through its geography. Because of Britains naval dominance of the approaches from Europe to the Western Hemisphere, Britain was the only force that in theory posed a significant threat to the United States. From the perspective of the British, such an alliance had the advantages of freeing much of its navy to police more critical regions than the Western Hemisphere and to preserve its dominion of Canada from U.S. messianic visions of continental annexation.

When the British-led European balance of power unraveled at the end of the nineteenth century, isolationists nevertheless persisted with the false assumption that the United States was still secure. To avoid a creeping U.S. allegiance to any side in Europe, Congress enacted the Neutrality Acts of 1934 and 1936, which forbade the sale of war matériel to belligerent states. German efforts to dominate Europe during World Wars I and II and Soviet expansionism after World War II nevertheless shattered the illusion of geographic invulnerability. U.S. leaders realized that a single power, such as Germany or the Soviet Union, or a hostile alliance of powers, in control of most of Eurasian military and industrial power, could pose a potentially superior threat. Therefore, the possibility of an unfriendly balance of power against the United States justified a policy of military preponderance rather than isolationism (Layne 1997, pp. 8897).


When the cold war became the dominant focus of U.S. policymakers, isolationism returned as one among a number of realist strategies, including containment and rollback, which were designed to secure U.S. interests when faced with a menacing Soviet Union. Proponents of cold war isolationism, such as Robert A. Tucker (1972), departed from some of the traditional isolationist arguments. Tucker conceded that isolationism had previously failed to take into account the necessity of having allies. Allies tipped the world balance of power in the United States favor by helping to preclude the emergence of a threatening Eurasian hegemon.

Tucker (1972), however, argued that with nuclear weapons powerful allies in Western Europe or elsewhere were no longer necessary. The threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction made concerns about a balance of power irrelevant. Even if the Soviet Union were to somehow conquer Western Europe, Soviet control of the European military-industrial complexes would do little to add to the existing threat posed by a Soviet nuclear first-strike from submarine-based nuclear missiles. In the new nuclear-armed world, the United States was safe from direct Soviet threat because of the deterrent effect of an assured U.S. nuclear counterstrike, not by whether U.S. allies were safe.

Furthermore, it was argued that an isolationist foreign policy is completely compatible with fulfilling an activist U.S. economic agenda abroad since market forces provide the incentives for trade rather than alliances or physical control. For example, even hostile states will be eager over the long run to sell their oil and other goods to the United Stateslet alone friendly and developed stateswhose economies frequently have more to lose through a loss of U.S. trade than the U.S. economic colossus has with respect to them. And with the complete withdrawal of U.S. military commitments from Asia and Europe, those regions will be physically secure from an economically devastating attack, because states such as Germany and Japan would acquire their own nuclear capabilities.


While the term isolationism may not be so popular today, the assumptions, goals, and remedies that the isolationist concept provides continue to be attractive to many. Modern-day versions of isolationist foreign policy are variously referred to as disengagement, benign detachment, policy of restraint, offshore balancing, and Jeffersonian policy. Postcold war isolationists build on the aforementioned cold war arguments. They continue to stress the great costs and dangers of a forwardly engaged military with bases and troops across the globe. Such militarism, they argue, incites terrorism, creates incentives for nuclear proliferation, needlessly wastes money when the United States would be secure anyway, and tends to turn allies into neutrals and neutrals into enemies (Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky 1997, p. 37). Like their predecessors, modern isolationists nevertheless agree with limited military engagement. They are in favor of a strong (although significantly reduced) military to fight piracy, defend the homeland, and to ensure the safety of commerce. They believe in maintaining a considerable nuclear deterrent. And they support firm U.S. retaliation in the event of attack. Isolationists, however, continue to be criticized. Critics are uncomfortable with trusting other states to a multipolar balance of power based on nuclear weapons. As the Cuban missile crisis showed, brinksmanship and near misses are still possible even with nuclear weapons. Still, others criticize the isolationists for being immoral and irresponsible in their strong reluctance to forcefully prevent wars, humanitarian emergencies, and genocide. They are also criticized for being careless in protecting U.S. economic interests abroad in the event of future regional conflicts.

SEE ALSO Public Policy


Art, Robert J. 2003. A Grand Strategy for America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bandow, Doug. 1994. Keeping the Troops and the Money at Home. Current History 93, no. 579: 813.

Fensterwald, Bernard. 1958. The Anatomy of American Isolationism and Expansionism. Part I. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2, no. 2: 111139.

Gholz, Eugene, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky. 1997. Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation. International Security 21, no. 4548.

Layne, Christopher. 1997. From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: Americas Future Grand Strategy. International Security 22, no. 1: 548.

Lippmann, Walter. 1943. U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. Boston: Little, Brown.

Mead, Walter Russell. 2001. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. New York: Knopf.

Nordlinger, Eric A. 1995. Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Posen, Barry R., and Andrew L. Ross. 1995. Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategies. In Strategy and Force Planning, ed. Strategy and Force Planning Faculty, 115134. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press.

Ravenal, Earl. 1991. The Case for Adjustment. Foreign Policy 81: 319.

Tucker, Robert W. 1972. A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? New York: Universe.

David A. Rezvani

Isolationism (Issue)

views updated Jun 08 2018


From the time when George Washington (17891797) gave his farewell address at the end of his presidency, warning against "entangling alliances with Europe," through the nineteenth century, the United States maintained an almost steadfast policy of isolationism. But at the beginning of the twentieth century the United States began to turn away from the isolationism that preceded the Spanish-American War (1898). As a major industrial nation with expanding foreign markets, the United States was soon considered a world power. Global expansion meant increased wealth as raw materials became cheaper to acquire; prices were driven down and consumption was up. The new century saw American businesses prospering in many sectors, including oil, steel, textiles, railroads, and food products. This unprecedented technological progress was marked by the birth of the automobile and the aviation industries. But even with increased prosperity, the isolationist reflexes of the U.S. still shaped U.S. economic and diplomatic life until the advent of World War II (19391945).

In the first four decades of the twentieth century the United States clumsily attempted to ward off Japanese aggression in China, assumed a paternalistic administration of Philippine affairs and engaged in "dollar diplomacy" vis a vis its smaller neighbors in the western hemisphere. The most ambitious and idealistic diplomatic project that the U.S. attempted was to intervene in World War I for the most altruistic and idealistic of reasons but with little diplomatic success. In short, the U.S. had little to show for its diplomatic efforts before World War II. With very different policies, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson stand out as the most internationalist presidents. Neither believed that the U.S. could go far with an isolationist foreign policy.

Teddy Roosevelt put forth a muscular, imperialist foreign policy, while Wilson tried a kind of "missionary" foreign policysacrificing 112,000 American deaths simply in order to participate in the peace treaty through which he tried to structure a post-war set of diplomatic relationships that would end all wars. Wilson stood for democracy as the most advanced, humane, and Christian form of government. For him all people were capable of being trained in the habits of democracy and it was the role of the United States to help them achieve democracy.

When the nations of Europe were drawn into World War I (19141918) the majority of U.S. citizens wanted their country to remain neutral. The national consensus was solidly isolationist. They approved of trade, but they feared being sucked into a war in which they could see no moral difference between the belligerents. The pattern of immigration led most Americans to sympathize with the British and the French, and they grudgingly accepted the British maritime blockade of trade with Germany. Wilson helped to create a pro-war national consensus based on the belief that German actionsespecially its submarine warfare, were morally bereft and would, if left unchecked, eventually threaten the United States. U.S. trade with Germany declined from $169 million in 1914 to $1.2 million in 1916, but the flow of U.S. goods into Allied hands was overwhelming, rising from $825 million to $3.2 billion in the same period. The United States became a warehouse for the Allied powers and sent munitions, food, and goods to Europe.

World War I gave the Wilson administration unique opportunities to achieve its international economic goals. He was successful in getting the Allies to accept the concept of the League of Nations. But his arrogance in dealing with the Republican Senators, plus the isolationism that sprung up again with the end of the war led the Senate to reject the Treaty of Versailles. This resulted in a powerful swing back to isolationism in the years before World War II.

During the 1920s the nation's attention was directed towards internal changes rather than international affairs. In the opening years of what would be a decade of worldwide depression, President Herbert Hoover (19291933) made a series of proposals to quiet rising international tensions. In 1930 his administration extended the naval-limitations agreements of the early 1920s. In 1931 he proposed a moratorium on international debt while refusing to cancel the lingering World War I debts owed to the United States by the European powers. Hoover also pressed for an international agreement on arms limitation, but the World Disarmament Conference held in Switzerland in 1932 failed to achieve its goals. International economic and military pressures intensified. Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, State Socialism in the Soviet Union, and militarism in Japan were ascendant, fueled by the global depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (19331945) early foreign policy achievements were mixed. His administration took an isolationist stance at the World Economic Conference in June, 1933, when U.S. representatives refused to cooperate in an effort to stabilize world currencies. In 1934 however Roosevelt took an internationalist stance in the U.S.-negotiated Reciprocal Trade Agreements on tariff reductions. His vacillating policies reflected his political priorities: at the beginning of his administration, domestic issues were much more important than foreign policy.

The predominant mood in the United States in the 1930s was deeply isolationist. Not only was the Great Depression (19291939) wreaking havoc domestically, but many citizens believed that the nation's losses during World War I far outweighed the gains. Between 1934 and 1936 discoveries made by a Senate investigating committee headed by Senator Gerald P. Nye further fueled the nation's mood of isolationism. Exposing war profiteering by banks and corporations during World War I, the Nye committee investigation led many to conclude that the interests of U.S. banks and corporations had driven the United States into a war the nation should have avoided. The notion that "merchants of death" were responsible for manipulating the United States into war was widespread.

Influential men such as Charles Lindbergh and retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler promoted the idea of "Fortress America," the notion that the United States was ensconced safely between the moats of the Atlantic and the Pacific, armed for defense against but not for intervention in the corrupt affairs of Europe. The Senate's refusal to allow the United States to join the World Court in 1935 was another indication of the country's, pervasive, isolationist mood. Fearful of being pulled into a war from which it would only suffer, Congress passed three acts that declared U.S. neutrality. In the event that a war broke out between other countries, the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936 made it clear that the United States would not supply either side with weapons or ammunition. The Neutrality Act of 1937 moved the nation further in the direction of isolation and asserted a "cash-and-carry" policy by which warring countries could purchase weapons (but not ammunition) in cash only. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the United States remained on the sidelines.

Interventionists insisted that the future of the United States lay in establishing peace and stability abroad for the sake of trade and commerce. A world divided into closed and self-contained trading blocs was a world in which the United States would not prosper. Interventionists anticipated that renewed U.S. trade abroad might end the Depression. They believed that the United States had a vital stake in ensuring that the outcome of the war in Europe and Asia favored liberal democracies and market economic systems. However, not all interventionists advocated direct military involvement toward this end. Many argued that economic assistance, as in the case of the Lend-Lease Plan, would be enough to ensure the survival of western democracies. Others, however, insisted that liberal democracy and free enterprise would perish in a world dominated by authoritarian regimes. Such interventionists saw no alternative to military engagement.

In his first term Roosevelt worked closely with isolationist progressives such as Senators Robert La Follette, Jr., Hiram Johnson, George Norris, Burton K. Wheeler, and Gerald P. Nye. During his second term Roosevelt gradually broke with the isolationists as international tensions heightened. In October, 1937, Roosevelt's famous quarantine speech which called for international cooperation in bringing unspecified economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on aggressor-nations irritated the isolationists. Beginning in 1937 they increasingly turned against the president.

As the 1930s drew to a close the United States stood by while Hitler began his push eastward. As World War II began Roosevelt declared, "This nation will remain a neutral nation," but he called for a revision of the Neutrality Acts to allow the United States to sell England and its Allies weapons and ammunition. Congress skeptically allowed purchase of arms on a cash-and-carry basis.

Ironically, European orders for war goods sparked a phenomenal economic boom that brought the United States out of the Depression for good. Many believed that as long as the United States stayed out of the war both peace and prosperity were possible. But members of the Roosevelt administration leaned toward U.S. intervention in the European conflict. Economists within the administration warned that German success in Europe and Japanese victory in Asia would irrevocably close huge markets for U.S. goods. Unless the United States intervened in these conflicts, they argued, the economic future of the United States would be worse than the Great Depression. Such arguments, in concert with war atrocities on the part of Germany and Japan, convinced Roosevelt and his administration that the United States must set isolationism aside and take an active hand in the European and Asian wars. But the people of the United States still resisted. On December 12, 1937 Japanese airplanes sank the Panay, a U.S. gunboat navigating the Yangtze River in China. But people in the United States were ready to forgive the incident after a formal Japanese apology. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria remained a major cause of disagreement between the United States and Japan. But only the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, effectively pulled the United States out of the isolationistic attraction.

See also: Franklin D. Roosevelt,Woodrow Wilson, World War I, World War II


Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932 1945. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 19351941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Keylor, William R. The Twentieth-Century World: An International History, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


views updated May 23 2018

Isolationism as a historic attitude in the United States can best be defined as opposition to intervention in war outside the western hemisphere, particularly in Europe; to involvement in permanent military alliances; and to participation in organizations of collective security. Above all, isolationists seek to preserve the United States's freedom of action. Isolationists often differ from pacifists, those who refuse to sanction any conflict and absolutely renounce any war, for isolationists often favor unilateral military action, what some call the doctrine of the “free hand.” Indeed, an isolationist can be stridently nationalistic, endorse military preparations, sanction certain forms of imperialism, and engage in outright war, particularly in Latin America or the Pacific. At no time did most isolationists seek literally to “isolate” the United States from either the world's culture or its commerce.

By the above definition, American policy has been isolationist until the twentieth century. Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) combined calls for an independent foreign policy with a plea for commercial supremacy. John Adams's Model Treaty of 1776 envisioned a purely commercial treaty with the French, not a binding military alliance. George Washington's farewell address of 1796 advised his countrymen “to steer clear of permanent Alliances,” a reference to the Franco‐American Alliance of 1778–1800. Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural of 1801 sought “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” When in 1823 President James Monroe advanced what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine, he said: “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so.”

Of course, a nation may pursue an isolationist foreign policy while involving itself extensively in political and military matters outside its borders. In 1812, the United States fought Britain; in 1846, Mexico; and in 1898, Spain. All such engagements were unilateral decisions by the United States and hence did not violate the classic isolationism espoused in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, the United States encouraged the revolts of Latin American nations against Spain, vied with the British to control the Oregon Territory, and sympathized with the European revolutions of 1830 and 1948. It entered into only one agreement involving joint action with another power, the Clayton‐Bulwer Treaty of 1850 with Britain, which limited U.S. action in building a transisthmian canal. Toward the end of the century, the United States possessed its own colonies and played a decisive role in reshaping a new military balance in the world. Yet just three months before the outbreak of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson insisted that “we need not and we should not form alliances with any nation in the world.”

Once, however, Wilson sought U.S. entry into the League of Nations—a full‐fledged system of collective security—isolationism emerged as a distinctive political position. Such opponents of the League as Republican senators Henry Cabot Lodge (Mass.), William E. Borah (Idaho), and Hiram Johnson (Calif.) successfully fought U.S. membership, thereby reasserting the traditional policy of isolationism in the face of its first real challenge.

Only in the 1930s was the general isolationist consensus threatened, for President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought discretionary power to aid victims of aggression. Opponents of such policies fought back so successfully that the years 1934–37 marked the high tide of isolationist legislation. In 1934, Congress adopted the Johnson Act, which prohibited private loans to nations in default of obligations. In 1935, it voted down U.S. membership in the World Court. From 1934 to 1936, the Senate sponsored an investigation, led by Republican Gerald P. Nye, of the munitions industry. From 1935 to 1937, a battery of neutrality legislation was passed, including a ban on loans and credits to belligerents; a mandatory embargo on direct or indirect shipments of arms or munitions; presidential discretion to require payment or transfer of title before exporting any goods to a belligerent; prohibiting American citizens from traveling on ships of belligerents; and enjoining the arming of American merchant ships. Much of this legislation was passed in the belief that lack of such safeguards had led the United States into full‐scale belligerency in World War I. By the 1930s, however, there was enough internationalism in the United States, rooted in the desire for collective action against the rising dictatorships, that isolationism became a distinctive political position and one that was increasingly contested. The word itself became increasingly pejorative, and isolationists preferred such terms as anti‐interventionist, noninterventionist, and nationalist.

In 1938, the isolationists met with their first failure, for they lacked sufficient support in the House of Representatives to pass the Ludlow amendment to the Constitution, a proposal that would have prohibited Congress from declaring war until confirmed by majority vote in a national referendum. Once war again broke out in Europe in 1939, the ranks of isolationists thinned and Roosevelt increasingly aided the Allies. His legislative triumphs included military aid to France and Britain on a cash‐and‐carry basis in November 1939; military conscription in September 1940; Lend‐Lease aid to all nations fighting the Axis in March 1941; extending the terms of army service for draftees in August 1941; and authorizing the arming of U.S. merchant vessels and permitting them to carry cargoes to belligerent ports in November 1941. Acting on his own authority, the president ordered the military occupation of Greenland (April 1941) and Iceland (July 1940); froze Japanese assets (July 1941), thereby bringing all U.S. trade with Japan to a halt; issued a set of postwar aims with Britain called the Atlantic Charter (August 1941); extended aid to the Soviet Union (October 1941); and entered into a undeclared naval war with Germany (fall 1941).

All these moves the isolationists fought bitterly. Isolationist sentiment was increasingly concentrated in the America First Committee (AFC), organized in September 1940 as the major anti‐interventionist group fighting Roosevelt's policies. The AFC was founded by Yale law student R. Douglas Stuart, chaired by Sears, Roebuck executive Gen. Robert E. Wood, and included in its ranks such figures as journalist John T. Flynn, diplomat William R. Castle, former New Dealer Gen. Hugh Johnson, advertising executive Chester Bowles, and aviator Charles Lindbergh. At its peak it had 450 chapters, a membership of 850,000, and an income of $370,000 donated by 25,000 contributors. Huge AFC rallies often featured such speakers as Nye, Lindbergh, Flynn, Democratic senator Burton K. Wheeler (Mont.), and Representative Hamilton Fish. The AFC was unable to defeat any of Roosevelt's legislative proposals, though it undoubtedly caused the president to be more circumspect on such matters as extending terms for draftees and convoying British vessels. The president's specific legislative policies were always supported in the polls, while the AFC stressed that nearly 80 percent of the American people, expressing themselves in the same polls, opposed a declaration of war on the Axis powers.

Although several leading isolationists endorsed conscription for hemispheric defense, many more saw little need for a mass army. In isolationist eyes, a new American Expeditionary Force would simply prolong the struggle overseas and cost over 1 million U.S. lives. Furthermore, it would work against needed negotiation between England and Germany and ensure Soviet domination of Europe. Isolationists claimed that Hitler's blitzkrieg tactics had shown that mass armies were obsolete, and they called for small, highly mobile volunteer forces.

Isolationists differed among themselves as to the efficacy of large naval fleets, while strongly stressing airpower. Airpower, they claimed, was the most cost effective way of defending the United States. They argued that while no foreign power was able to conduct continuous bombardment of the nation, the United States could easily pick off any attacking planes. Moreover, a strong air arm was not dependent upon untrained conscripts.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to classic isolationism. The AFC promptly disbanded. In 1945, the United States became a charter member of the United Nations, occupying a seat on its powerful Security Council. In 1949, it entered its first binding military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1950, it was fighting in Korea under UN auspices, and in 1965 U.S. ground troops were committed to overt fighting in Vietnam.

During the Cold War, many former isolationists became “Asia Firsters,” warning against involvements in Europe while supporting increased action against communism in Asia. The 1948 and 1952 presidential bids of the isolationist‐leaning Senator Robert A. Taft failed. Anti‐Roosevelt works by such isolationist historians as Charles A. Beard, Charles Callan Tansill, and Harry Elmer Barnes did not receive scholarly acceptance. In 1953 and 1954, Ohio Republican senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment limiting presidential treaty‐making power, but it was opposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and defeated in the Senate. A military alternative to NATO, victory over the Soviet Union through airpower alone, was espoused by former isolationist Gen. Bonner Fellers, but lacked widespread support.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, some commentators—such as Democratic senator J. William Fulbright and political scientist Earl C. Ravenal—were dubbed “neo‐isolationists” as they sought drastically reduced American commitments. Yet they differed significantly among themselves, and seldom in principle totally repudiated membership in international organizations, military aid overseas, economic sanctions, and even combat forces.
[See also Lend‐Lease Act and Agreements; Nationalism.]


John Milton Cooper, Jr. , The Vanity of Power: American Isolationism and World War I, 1914–1917, 1969.
Wayne S. Cole , America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940–1941, 1953.
Manfred Jonas , Isolationism in America, 1935–1941, 1966.
Manfred Jonas , Isolationism, in Alexander DeConde, ed., Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 1978.
Justus D. Doenecke , Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era, 1979.
Wayne S. Cole , Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45, 1983.
Justus D. Doenecke , Anti‐Intervention: A Bibliographical Introduction to Isolationism and Pacifism from World War I to the Early Cold War, 1987.
Justus D. Doenecke, ed., In Danger Undaunted: The Anti‐Interventionist Movement as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee, 1990.
Wayne S. Cole , United States Isolationism in the 1990s? International Journal, 48 (Winter 1992–93).

Justus D. Doenecke


views updated May 21 2018


ISOLATIONISM was the dominant ideology guiding American foreign policy from the era of the founders until the end of World War II. Its central tenet was that the United States should take advantage of its geographic distance from Europe and refrain from intervention in Old World affairs. Supporters of isolationism also thought America was better off pursuing its interests in other parts of the world without participating in alliances or foreign wars. Isolationists thought the best way to secure democracy and prosperity was to build it at home.

Although isolationist assumptions were widely accepted for over 150 years, the terms "isolationism" and "isolationist" were actually seldom used until after World War I. When the war ended in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wanted the United States to enter the League of Nations. Those who opposed American participation, fearing the United States would lose its autonomy over foreign affairs, were pejoratively labeled "isolationists." In the 1930s, the term was used even more frequently to refer to the politicians and lobbyists who actively opposed U.S. intervention in World War II.


Isolationism has its roots in the experiences of America's colonists. Those settlers crossed the Atlantic Ocean to escape constant war, religious persecution, and other adversities in Europe. They considered the vast body of water separating them from continental strife a blessing from the Divine. They believed the New World was morally superior to the Old World. The colonists' hunger for land and trade brought them into conflict with the Native Americans, the French, and the Spanish. Some of the wars waged over territory were driven by the colonists' desire for security; others arose from rivalries between the European powers. Nevertheless, the colonists came to feel unfairly burdened by these conflicts and resented having their fate in the hands of the British Crown. After the English victory over the French in Canada in 1763, colonial leaders argued that they ought to avoid further involvement in European wars. Although the colonies' alliance with France was crucial in winning the revolutionary war, they viewed the break with England as the definitive step in severing ties to Europe.

During the early years of the republic, French efforts to draw the United States into supporting its postrevolutionary wars against England, Holland, and Austria put isolationism to the test. French diplomats unsuccessfully attempted to influence the 1796 presidential election; they led Americans to believe that if Federalist John Adams became president over the pro-French Thomas Jefferson, a war with France would be imminent. President George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, issued the most significant statement of isolationist principles in American history. He called for vigilance against "the insidious wiles of foreign influence" and argued that it would be unwise to "implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of [European] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friend-ships or enmities." Washington, however, did not advocate the United States completely cut its ties to other nations. He called on Americans to engage in trade abroad with "as little political connection as possible." And, he noted that circumstances might require further engagement. "Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world … [but] we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."

Expansion Without Intervention

Isolationism was strongest in the nineteenth century, when the growing nation needed to concentrate on domestic development. Moreover, the United States did not yet have the means to support the naval forces necessary to sustain a more active foreign policy. After the War of 1812, the United States was able to continue western expansion without incursions from foreign powers. However, in the 1820s, American leaders grew concerned about the possibility of renewed European intervention in the Pacific Northwest and in Latin America. In response, President James Monroe announced his 1823 doctrine, which reiterated and expanded Washington's neutrality policy. He proclaimed that the "American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." He also warned that the United States would consider any European move "to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." Lastly, Monroe pledged that the United States would not take part in "wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves."

International circumstances in the nineteenth century reinforced Americans' confidence in isolationism. The United States did not become involved in dangerous foreign engagements largely because a balance of power was maintained on the Continent. The British navy provided a security blanket for American commerce. Thus, the United States was able to act unilaterally in expanding in Latin America and even the Far East. Americans considered the nation's growth and prosperity a consequence of its adherence to a foreign policy of nonintervention and neutrality.

By the 1880s, domestic and international developments were making isolationism less relevant. For example, the expansion of American industrial and agricultural production dictated a search for new markets abroad. Busier foreign trade led the United States to establish a large navy. The days of relative peace in Europe were also fading. Germany and Japan were building up their military forces, prompting a European arms race. Meanwhile, all the powers scrambled for empire in Asia and Africa. In 1898, the United States demonstrated its newfound status as a world power by winning its war against Spain. The spoils included the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

World War I and the League of Nations

When Europe went to war in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson vowed not to break the tradition of American isolation. However, Wilson's neutrality policies worked to favor England and France. German attacks on American ships and Germany's attempt to ally with Mexico eventually led Wilson to seek congressional approval for a declaration of war in 1917. In keeping with the American preference to see itself as morally superior to the Europeans, Wilson said the United States needed to go to war to "vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world against selfish and autocratic power" and because "the world must be made safe for democracy." Only the most ardent isolationists failed to vote for war.

Wilson believed that if, after a peace settlement was reached, the United States joined a collective security organization, the world would be spared another devastating conflict. But his mostly Republican opposition was not convinced. Some feared the United States would become the world's policeman if it joined the league. Other isolationists argued Congress would lose its power over warmaking. The Senate rejected the treaty that would have ratified American participation in the organization.

World War II and the Rise of Internationalism

In the 1930s, Japan's invasion of China and Nazi Germany's militarism in Europe failed to sway the United States from its policy of noninvolvement. The Great Depression had reinforced Americans' conventional isolationist sentiments. Americans were already concerned about the expansion of federal powers to revive the economy; they feared involvement in another war could bring a dictatorship to American soil. Although isolationism was a nationwide and bipartisan phenomenon, its strongholds were in landlocked midwestern, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states. Important ethnic groups also favored isolationism: the Germans, Irish, Italians, and Scandinavians. Isolationist leaders in Congress, such as senators William E. Borah of Idaho, Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan led investigations that concluded greedy arms makers and Wall Street bankers had unduly influenced President Wilson's decision to become involved in World War I. If it was a mistake to have fought the last war, as another war loomed, most Americans concluded that the United States should remain aloof from Old World conflicts.

When the first signs of overt aggression were evident in 1935 with Italy's Ethiopian conquest and Germany's 1936 reoccupation of the Rhineland, isolationists fashioned neutrality legislation. Congress passed laws forbidding arms sales and loans to warring nations, and restricting American travel on belligerent ships. Only in the wake of Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland did the tide of public opinion begin to turn against isolationism. President Franklin Roosevelt, an internationalist, who, needing support for his domestic policies, acceded to isolationists' demands and convinced Congress to repeal the arms embargo. This move away from isolationism sparked zealous lobbying by groups such as the America First Committee, whose most famous member was the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. Roosevelt's efforts to assist England, which was attacked in 1940, were championed by both the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and the Fight for Freedom Committee.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and U.S. entry into World War II ended isolationism. The United States emerged as a superpower after the Allied victory and internationalism became the dominant ideology guiding foreign policy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Even former isolationists rallied behind the creation of the United Nations. The onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union led the United States to become intimately involved in European affairs through the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Subsequent efforts to contain the spread of communism led the United States to expand its reach globally. During debates over various interventions, such as Korea in 1950, Vietnam in the 1960s, or Bosnia in the 1990s, isolationist arguments resurfaced in a phenomenon labeled "neo-isolationism." But by the start of the twenty-first century, America's vast global responsibilities had rendered the tradition of noninvolvement and unilateralism obsolete.


Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth-Century Reaction. New York: Abelard-Schuman, Ltd., 1957.

Cole, Wayne S. America, Roosevelt, and the Isolationists, 1932–1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Dallek, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

———. The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs. N.Y.: Knopf, 1983.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1935–1941. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Ellen G.Rafshoon

See alsoAnti-Imperialists ; Imperialism ; Intervention ; Neutrality ; andvol. 9:America First ; The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary .


views updated May 21 2018


U.S. isolationism has traditionally involved opposition to participation in war outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; avoidance of binding military alliances; and refusal to participate in organizations of collective security. Above all, the isolationist desires to maintain the United States's freedom of action. Such people differ from pacifists, who withhold support for any conflict and renounce any war. Proponents of the isolationist position usually consider the label perjorative: As most oppose isolating the United States from either the world's culture or its commerce, they have long preferred such terms as "neutralist," "nationalist," "non-interventionist," or "anti-interventionist."

By the above definition, U. S. foreign policy was isolationist until the twentieth century. Only when President Woodrow Wilson sought entry into the League of Nations in 1919 did isolationism emerge as a distinctive political position. Moreover, only in the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought discretionary power to aid victims of aggression, was the general isolationist consensus threatened. Opponents of Roosevelt's policies fought so successfully that the years 1934 to 1937 marked the high tide of isolationist legislation.

In April 1934 Roosevelt signed the Johnson Debt Default Act, introduced by Senator Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.), who had been prominent in the fight against the League of Nations. The Senate passed the measure without a recorded vote, the House without dissent. The bill prohibited private loans to nations in default of obligations contracted during World War I to the U.S. Government.

In January 1935 the Senate turned down Roosevelt's bid for U.S. entry into the World Court by seven votes. Founded in 1921, the Permanent Court of International Justice (as the court was formally called) was closely tied to the League of Nations. The League Assembly and Council had to approve all nominations; the World Court's budget was underwritten by the League; the League Covenant required the court to give "an advisory opinion upon any dispute or question referred to it by the Councilor by the Assembly." Contrary to myth, Roosevelt's defeat did not result from unscrupulous propaganda fostered by publisher William Randolph Hearst and radio priest Charles E. Coughlin. Rather it was due to Congress's hostile predisposition and Roosevelt's own lack of leadership.

In the spring of 1935, however, investigators for the Senate's Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry began to collect material concerning U.S. entry into World War I. During this time such revisionist works as journalist Walter Millis's Road to War: America, 1914–1917 (1935) portrayed the Great War as a futile crusade. Munitions committee chairman Gerald P. Nye (R-N.Dak.), together with his committee colleague Senator Bennett Champ Clark (D-Mo.), introduced bills for an impartial arms embargo against belligerents, a prohibition on loans to belligerents, and denial of passports to Americans wishing to enter war zones. When the Roosevelt administration, which was opposed to mandatory isolation, countered with a bill that would permit discriminatory embargoes, its proposal found little response.

In August 19, 1935, as Italy was poised to invade Ethiopia, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported a joint resolution. "Arms, ammunition and implements of war" could not be sent to belligerents once the president declared that a state of war existed. (Roosevelt later defined "implements of war" to include airplanes, various chemicals, and armored vehicles, but not such items as cotton, oil, scrap iron, and trucks). Submarines of belligerent nations could not use U.S. ports. The president possessed discretionary authority to proclaim that Americans traveling on ships registered in belligerent nations did so at their own risk. Though the administration deplored the fact that its hands were being tied, it permitted the bill to pass, although it did secure an amendment limiting its term to six months. The legislation passed the Senate 77 to 2 and the House without a recorded vote.

When Roosevelt signed the bill on August 31, he warned that "the inflexible provisions might drag us into war instead of keeping us out" (Cole 1983, p. 178). He did not, however, want to jeopardize pending New Deal legislation, such as the regulation of the coal industry, over foreign policy matters. In addition, he thought the bill would probably injure the aggressor Italy far more than it would injure its victim. On October 6, three days after fighting broke out in East Africa, Roosevelt invoked the new bill. No munitions could be sold to either side.

Because the neutrality law was due to expire in February 1936, that month Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1936. The House voted 353 to 27; the Senate took no roll call. The act was almost identical to the 1935 law, with the addition of one feature: it forbade the United States to lend money to belligerent nations, though exceptions were made for wars in Latin America. It did not, as Roosevelt had hoped, prohibit any trade with the belligerents beyond peacetime levels. Like the previous act, the new one was temporary, scheduled to expire on May 1, 1937.

This measure imposed more restrictions upon a president already opposed to mandatory legislation. Yet the president signed it without comment. Roosevelt feared that a fight would risk further stripping of his power, produce debate that could only comfort Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and risk votes in the impending presidential race.

In July 1936 rebel forces in Spanish Morocco led by General Francisco Franco attacked the Spanish Republic, triggering a civil war that would last almost three years. Within a month the U.S. government announced a "moral embargo" on arms shipments to either side, but not until January 1937, on Roosevelt's recommendation, did Congress pass a nondiscriminatory arms embargo, with the Senate voting 81 to 0 and the House 406 to 1.

On May 1, 1937, the Neutrality Act of 1936 would expire. In return for sections forbidding Americans to travel on belligerent ships and prohibiting the arming of U.S. merchantmen, anti-interventionists accepted discretionary authority on cash-and-carry, a scheme by which nations at war could collect goods in U.S. ports and pay for them on the spot. The cash-and-carry provision would remain in force until May 1, 1939. The president could also ban shipment on U.S. vessels of commodities that he might specify, close U.S. ports to belligerent warships, and declare U.S. territorial waters off-limits to belligerent submarines and merchantmen. The measure kept the arms embargo and loan prohibition of the old law, and it applied to civil wars as well as international ones. On April 29, 1937, the new bill was passed, and was signed by the president a day later. Roosevelt offered no objection, undoubtedly because he realized that cash-and-carry favored Britain and France, two major sea powers, rather than the inland nations of Germany and Italy. Engaged in a dispute over enlarging the Supreme Court, which had struck down much New Deal legislation, Roosevelt sought no additional conflict. By remaining aloof from debate while quietly backing the congressional moderates, he was able to maintain some flexibility.

In January 1938, in the wake of a crisis in which Japanese forces in China sunk a gunboat, the Panay, the House considered the Ludlow Amendment. Congressman Louis Ludlow (D-Ind.) sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution by which Congress's power to declare war would be restricted to cases of actual or imminent invasion of the United States or its territories or attack by a non-American nation on a state in the Western Hemisphere. In any other case, Congress must allow voters to choose, by means of a national referendum, whether they wished to go to war. On January 10, 1938, the House voted 209 to 188 to return the proposed amendment to committee. Just before the vote, House Speaker William Bankhead (D-Ala.) read a public letter from Roosevelt that claimed that the amendment would "cripple" the president's ability to conduct foreign policy and encourage other nations to "violate American rights with impunity."

Meanwhile, Roosevelt sought to revise the 1937 Neutrality Act. As the cash-and-carry provision of this law was scheduled to expire on May 1, 1939, the administration sought a new bill that would retain cash-and-carry while repealing the arms embargo. At the end of June the House, by a vote of 200 to 188, passed an amended bill that included cash-and-carry but also added an arms embargo introduced by Congressman John Vorys (R-Ohio). Because the Senate did not act, most of the 1937 law, including the arms embargo, remained in effect.

Once Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, isolationism declined. As the United States emerged from the Depression, Roosevelt defeated his foes on one issue after another. In November 1939 Congress voted for military sales to Britain and France on a cash-and-carry basis. In September 1940 it adopted military conscription, and supported extending the terms of army draftees less than a year later. In November 1941 it authorized the arming of U.S. merchant vessels and permitted them to carry cargoes to belligerent ports. Acting on his own authority, Roosevelt occupied Greenland and Iceland, froze Japanese asserts, issued a set of war aims with Britain, and entered into an undeclared naval war with Germany. Isolationism was over well before Pearl Harbor.



Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–1945. 1983.

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. 1979.

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality. 1962.

Doenecke, Justus D. Anti-Intervention: A Bibliographical Introduction to Isolationism and Pacifism from World War I to the Early Cold War. 1987.

Dunne, Michael. The United States and the World Court, 1920–1935. 1988.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1939–1941. 1966.

Justus D. Doenecke


views updated Jun 11 2018


Isolationism is the belief that the United States must limit its involvement in world affairs. Although deeply ingrained in the national character, isolationism grew into a dominant issue only after American participation in World War I. Prior to that war, isolationism took the form of an ideology that opposed imperialism and the existence of a standing army. It did not prevent significant American involvement in both Latin America and the Far East. By the late 1890s, as the nation moved toward war with Spain over the fate of Cuba, isolationism remained a relatively insignificant issue. The hesitancy of Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley to wage war was attributable not to isolationist sentiment but rather to anti-imperialism, doubt over the prospects for successful Cuban self-government, and reluctance to fight a European power.

legacy of world war i

As America inched toward war with the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, isolationism once again failed to prove itself a deciding factor. From the outset of the conflict, the United States grew deeply involved as both creditor and munitions supplier to the nations fighting Germany while clinging to the traditional policy of neutrality in European affairs. Although the powerful Socialist Party of America and progressives from both major parties opposed American entrance in the war out of fear that domestic reform would suffer, their opposition did not prove decisive. Rather, divided ethnic loyalties, vain hopes for a U.S.-brokered diplomatic settlement, and the lack of a land force capable of large-scale intervention explain President Woodrow Wilson's decision to avoid entering the war until 1917.

Similarly, isolationism had far less to do with the Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which brought the war to a close and created the League of Nations, than did other issues. Many Senate opponents feared that membership in the League would limit American sovereignty by requiring the United States to join fellow League members in waging war against future aggressors. Others balked at membership in an organization that included both Asian and African nations, and some objected to the League's oversight of domestic affairs such as immigration and labor policy. Although Midwestern and Western progressives, known as the Irreconcilables, unequivocally opposed membership, fifty-three senators, reflecting prevailing public opinion, approved membership with few, if any, reservations. The ultimate failure of the Senate to approve membership had far more to do with political differences and President Wilson's refusal to compromise with the Senate's League opponents than with isolationism.

During the interwar period isolationism grew into a potent force. Americans were mourning their losses in World War I, and suspicion was growing that France, Britain, or even American finance and munitions interests had maneuvered Wilson into declaring war. Isolationism began to warp American diplomacy and slowed the nation's reaction to German, Italian, and Japanese aggression. It prompted the Senate to approve the 1935 Neutrality Act, requiring the United States to embargo all war material to belligerent powers; the 1936 Neutrality Act, forbidding U.S. loans to nations at war; and the 1937 Pittman Resolution, prohibiting Americans to travel on the ships of belligerent powers.

However, although these acts were an important gauge of public sentiment, they do not convey the complete picture. The force of isolationist sentiment should not, in fact, be overstated, as the United States remained an active participant in interwar world affairs. The United States supported naval disarmament at the 1921–1922 Washington Conference and the 1930 London Conference, and it pioneered the abolition of war in the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact. Isolationist sentiment did not prevent the gradual expansion of the United States Navy during the 1930s nor its phenomenal growth after the fall of France in June 1940. Moreover, the army's meager growth is attributable in large part to America's traditional disdain for a large peacetime army coupled with the effects of the Great Depression rather than to isolationism.

american response to world war ii

Following France's surrender, concern for England's survival mounted, and interventionism gradually eclipsed isolationism. In September 1940 President Roosevelt announced his agreement with England in which England would receive fifty American destroyers in exchange for eight British bases. That same month Congress approved the first peacetime draft in American history. Following Roosevelt's reelection to an unprecedented third term in November 1940, the president moved swiftly to extend ever-greater aid to the Axis foes. In March 1941 Congress approved the Lend-Lease Act, with an initial appropriation of $7 billion. Over the next four months, Roosevelt extended U.S. naval patrols deep into the Atlantic, dispatched U.S. ground forces to Greenland and then Iceland, and froze Japanese assets in the United States.

In the final months before Pearl Harbor, isolationism proved troublesome but ever more negligible. Historians have pointed to polls indicating that more than 80 percent of the American public firmly opposed American entry into the war as late as October 1941. But public sentiment did not hamstring the president. In August Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for four days in Placentia Bay off the Newfoundland coast. The following month he ordered the Atlantic Fleet to shoot on sight any Axis warships in America's Atlantic neutrality zone. In November Congress dealt isolationists a body blow when it repealed the

1939 Neutrality Act, paving the way for U.S. vessels to convoy war material to Britain. Isolationism, in short, does not explain Roosevelt's decision to avoid war with the Axis in the autumn of 1941. Rather, with Lend-Lease aid flowing to the main Axis opponents and with industry and the armed forces still mobilizing for conflict, strategic interest dictated that the United States remain out of the global war.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationist sentiment all but vanished. In July 1945 Congress approved the Bretton Woods agreement, which established both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That same month the Senate approved the United Nations Charter with only two dissenting votes, committing America to an internationalist future.

Although a significant issue between the world wars, isolationism faded rapidly after 1941. With the onset of the Cold War in summer 1945 and the extraordinary demands that the global conflict forced on the United Sates, isolationism moved to the fringes of American society, where it has remained ever since.


Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Dallek, Robert. The American Style of Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Patterson Thomas, G.; Clifford, Garry J.; and Hagan, Kenneth J. American Foreign Relations, Vol. 4. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Sidney L. Pash

See also:Disarmament and Arms Control, 1898–1945; Peace Movements, 1898–1945; United Nations.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Isolationism is a policy of nonparticipation in international economic and political relations. It was practiced by the United States from the end of the presidency of George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) through the first half of the twentieth century, though not steadily.

This policy of abstaining from foreign relations is what kept the United States from entering into World War I (1914–18) until 1917. Only reluctantly did President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) seek Congress's permission to enter the war. The U.S. economy had recently changed from mostly agricultural to mostly industrial, and this shift made the nation partly dependent on international trade. This new situation made it difficult for the United States to continue with its isolationism.

Most Americans felt that World War I was Europe's war, and the majority greatly resented the loss of American lives for a cause they could not embrace. Although they supported their soldiers overseas during the war, when it was over the United States returned to an isolationist attitude.

The nation focused on internal affairs rather than international relations throughout the 1920s. The next decade brought the Great Depression (1929–41), and Americans were focused on daily survival. As the decade closed and Germany's Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) forced the beginning of World War II (1939–45), President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) insisted that the United States would remain neutral.

Despite this commitment to isolationism, it was Europe's need for American products and goods throughout the war that brought the United States out of its economic misery. Many Americans believed that staying out of the war would bring them both prosperity and peace, but Roosevelt's administration grew to favor intervention. The president's advisers warned him that isolationism would allow Germany to take control of Europe and Japan to dominate Asia, which would close major markets to American trade forever. When word of the atrocities of the Holocaust reached Roosevelt, he decided that the combination of economic and moral issues warranted a break from isolationism. Still, it was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that shocked America out of its inaction and thrust it into World War II.


views updated May 18 2018

isolationism Avoidance by a state of foreign commitments and alliances. It is connected in particular with the foreign policy of the USA. US isolationism was not applied to the Americas, considered an exclusively US area of interest under the Monroe Doctrine, nor did it prevent US involvement in China and elsewhere in pursuit of commercial gains. With respect to Europe, it was interrupted when the USA entered World War I in 1917 and permanently abandoned in 1941, although it continues to have some advocates.