Isolationism of the United States
“In his First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson—a founding father and the third President of the United States—said, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” In the centuries since, the American empire has rarely held fast to this principle, particularly in the decades prior to the Second World War, as the world increasingly became a globally interconnected place. Isolationism was a contentious policy among politicians, leaders, and thinkers during the global age. According to the Encylcopaedia Brittanica, isolationism is defined as a “national policy of avoiding political or economic entanglements with other countries.” Prior to the Second World War, America was neither strictly isolationist nor non-isolationist. Despite the attempts of some to advocate isolationism, the somewhat common belief that the country was isolationist, and the reluctance to entangle alliances abroad, the United States gravitated more towards interventionism—politically, economically, and territorially.
Isolationism was at variance with the growing desire for American empire in the global age. However, there were many ways in which the country was reluctant to involve itself in foreign affairs. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared non-involvement in European affairs and non-interference in existing colonies in the Western hemisphere, was the foundation for an isolationist foreign policy (). Many political leaders, such as Woodrow Wilson, viewed the Monroe Doctrine “as the guarantor of self-government” that was “at the heart of the foreign policy of the United States” (Manela 24). This isolationist framework influenced some American foreign policy decisions in the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century. At the outbreak of the First World War, for example, President Woodrow Wilson immediately declared neutrality in the conflict. In January 1917, months after his reelection, Wilson continued to maintain his commitment to neutrality in his “peace without victory” speech to the Senate, in which he criticized European imperialism, militarism, and balance-of-power politics. Clearly, the isolationist sentiment still had some influence in American politics. Even after the country came to the support of the Allies, the United States maintained neutrality in other world affairs. For example, the Wilson administration refused to recognize the British protectorate in Egypt (Manela 145). Another instance of isolationism occurred on March 19, 1920, when “the U.S. Senate finally rejected the Treaty of Versailles” because it would require the United States to join the League of Nations (Manela 222). Aware of the pitfalls of involvement in foreign affairs, the United States was very reluctant to engage in alliances and wars.
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The United States was equally reluctant to recognize the sovereignty of nations clamoring for independence, despite Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination. The Wilsonian moment “lasted from the autumn of 1918, when Allied victory appeared imminent and Wilson’s principles seemed destined to shape the coming new world order, until the spring of 1919, as the terms of the peace settlement began to emerge and the promise of a Wilsonian millennium was fast collapsing” (Manela 6). Before they lost faith in him, nationalists and activists used Wilson’s rhetoric to inspire the 1919 anti-colonial revolutions in Korea, Egypt, India, China, and elsewhere around the world. Wilson’s lack of commitment to self-determination for non-European peoples outwardly manifested itself as isolationism, as his administration didn’t want any part in dismantling existing colonial empires.
During the interwar era, one could argue that United States practiced some form of isolationist foreign policy. Charles Evans Hughes, the Secretary of State under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, believed exercising military power was increasingly obsolete. Economically, the United States implemented the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to protect the market. However, was this truly isolationism?
The world was far too interconnected to definitively label the United States as purely isolationist. The boundary between foreign and domestic was inseparable. The United States, prior to the Second World War, is better described as selectively international. There was an international motive behind almost every seemingly isolationist policy. The Monroe Doctrine, for example, set the precedent for empire. It ensured the United States could exert interventionist policies over its protectorates. The Treaty of Paris in 1898—that ended the Spanish-American War—made the United States a world power. Deflecting isolationism and embracing imperialism, the treaty ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. Cuba, now independent from Spain, became a U.S. protectorate. The United States oversaw the formation of the Cuban constitution, imposed economic controls over the sugar, telecommunications, and banking industries, and ensured the right to intervene militarily and diplomatically on behalf of Cuba via the Platt Amendment. The United States continually exerted economic, diplomatic, and military power over Latin American and Caribbean nations. Even Wilson’s declaration of neutrality at the outset of the First World War was selectively international, because it allowed the United States to follow an “open-door” policy, trading with both sides. Even Wilson’s calls for self-determination, ironically, brought him to Paris to engage in international arbitration after the war.
Even the outwardly isolationist policies of interwar era cannot be fully understood without examining the full picture. Charles Evans Hughes’ military non-interventionism was juxtaposed by internationally diplomatic decisions, such as the Disarmament Conference and the Dawes Plan. Even the Fordney-McCumber tariff was really intended to promote foreign trade. Protecting U.S. interests could not be achieved in isolation.
Contrary to popular opinion, the U.S. was becoming increasingly interventionist and international prior to the Second World War. What factors led to this approach to world affairs? In A Date Which Will Live, Emily Rosenberg warns that “cause-and-effect narrative structures, which, by promoting a habit of mind that insists on locating cause, can often breed conspiracy theory” (50). Rather, she says that historical processes are a result of “complicated and intertwining circumstances” (50).
The late nineteenth century war marked by an acceleration of global contact. The world was changing dramatically, and the United States had to adapt. Geographical distances were collapsing. Modern navies were being built. A revolution in transportation and communication technology was connecting the world. Economies were becoming mechanized. European nations were engaged in empire building. The United States was not going to be passive.
The United States responded. As mentioned previously, the U.S. brought much of the Caribbean and Latin America under indirect rule through economic controls and military intervention. However, the country also used soft power to advance U.S. interests in the Eastern hemisphere. In China, the United States advanced the “Open Door” policy to expand the commercial empire, because the U.S. was overproducing at the turn of the century. During the interwar era, U.S. interests intervened in Europe to further advance economic interests. In the 1920s, the United States began exporting consumer goods. Despite initial resistance to American commodification, mass consumption, and outlook on labor, Europe began to embrace the U.S. model. Brand-name stores and companies flooded the European market. Foreign investment skyrocketed. In 1929, American companies invested $3.5 billion in Europe and Canada. Producing in foreign markets allowed these companies to circumvent tariffs. The United States joined the rest of the world in globalizing its economy.
Likewise, American culture went global. Hollywood infiltrated and influenced European cinema. Europe experienced an influx of American tourists. The State Department only issued 24,000 passports in 1910, but issued 200,000 passports by 1930. Nongovernmental organizations, often involving people with a shared, transnational identity, began forming and making an impact abroad. The Carnegie Endowment for Peace funded international cultural exchanges. The Rockefeller Foundation funded the building of hospitals in China as well as agricultural centers in Mexico. Other foundations were connecting America to the rest of the world, such as the Red Cross, the International League for Women’s Peace and Freedom, and the Ford Foundation. Clearly, the isolationist sentiment was more of an attitude than an actuality.
The debate over isolationism reached its height in the years leading up to the Second World War. Advocates of isolationism were responding to the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, the futility of engaging in foreign wars, and domestic challenges posed by the Great Depression. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. The internationalists-versus-isolationists debate would finally have to be settled. “Internationalists ridiculed Republican isolationists as ignorant and dangerous to the Republic” (Rosenberg 18). They partially attributed blame to the isolationists, with their lack of vigilance, for the attack. Isolationist Republicans, however, blamed Washington officials and even believed “that Roosevelt had manipulated the country toward war” (Rosenberg 35). Ultimately, the internationalists won the debate and the U.S. declared war.
The United States emerged from the Second World War as one of two great world powers. The hopes of early anti-imperialists, like Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, would never come to fruition. Never a strictly isolationist country, America seemed to abandon any grounds for isolationism in the new, unavoidable global age. By the end of the Second World War, the United States confirmed itself as an interventionist nation, a nation which, for decades into the future, would be both vilified and glorified for its roles in foreign affairs.”