Isolationism refers to America's longstanding reluctance to become involved in European alliances and wars. Isolationists held the view that America's perspective on the world was different from that of European societies and that America could advance the cause of freedom and democracy by means other than war.
American isolationism did not mean disengagement from the world stage. Isolationists were not averse to the idea that the United States should be a world player and even further its territorial, ideological and economic interests, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.The colonial period
The isolationist perspective dates to colonial days. The colonies were populated by many people who had fled from Europe, where there was religious persecution, economic privation and war. Their new homeland was looked upon as a place to make things better than the old ways. The sheer distance and rigors of the voyage from Europe tended to accentuate the remoteness of the New World from the Old. The roots of isolationism were well established years before independence, notwithstanding the alliance with France during the War for Independence.Thomas Paine crystallized isolationist notions in his work Common Sense, which presents numerous arguments for shunning alliances. Paine's tract exerted so much political influence that the Continental Congress strove against striking an alliance with France and acquiesced only when it appeared probable that the war for independence could not be won without one.
George Washington in his Farewell Address placed the accent on isolationism in a manner that would be long remembered:
"The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."Washington was promulgating a perspective that was already venerable and accepted by many. The United States terminated its alliance with France, after which America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, admonished in his inaugural address, "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
The 19th century
The United States remained politically isolated all through the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, an unusual feat in western history. Historians have attributed the fact to a geographical position at once separate and far removed from Europe.
During the 1800s, the United States spanned North America and commenced to piece together an empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific without departing from the traditional perspective. It fought the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War without joining alliances or fighting in Europe.
The isolationist point of view was still viable in 1823 when President James Monroe gave voice to what would later be termed the Monroe Doctrine, "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do."
Nevertheless, pressures were mounting abroad that would undercut and demolish that policy near the mid-20th century. The advent of German and Japanese expansionism would threaten and later nearly snuff out the contented aloofness enjoyed by the United States. The United States' occupation of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War thrust U.S. interests into the far western Pacific Ocean Imperial Japan's sphere of interest. Such improved transportation and communication as steamships, undersea cable, and radio linked the two continents. The growth of shipping and foreign trade slowly enhanced America's world role.
There also were basic changes at home. The historic ascendancy of urban-based business, industry, and finance, and the sidelining of rural and small-town America the bastion of isolationism contributed to its eventual demise.
World War I
Germany's unfettered submarine warfare against American ships during World War I provoked the U.S. into abandoning the neutrality it had upheld for so many years. The country's resultant participation in World War I against the Central Powers marked its first major departure from isolationist policy. When the war ended, however, the United States was quick to leave behind its European commitment. Regardless of President Woodrow Wilson's efforts, the Senate repudiated the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war, and the United States failed to become a member of the League of Nations.
Indeed, isolationism would persist for a few more decades. During the 1920s, American foreign affairs took a back seat. In addition, America tended to insulate itself in terms of trade. Tariffs were imposed on foreign goods to shield U.S. manufacturers.
America turned its back on Europe by restricting the number of immigrants permitted into the country. Until World War I, millions of people, mostly from Europe, had come to America to seek their fortune and perhaps flee poverty and persecution. Britons and Irishmen, Germans and Jews constituted the biggest groups. In 1921 the relatively liberal policy ended and quotas were introduced. By 1929 only 150,000 immigrants per year were allowed in.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the preponderance of Americans remained opposed to enmeshment in Europe's alliances and wars. Isolationism was solid in hinterland and small-town America in the Midwest and Great Plains states, and among Republicans. It claimed numerous sympathizers among Irish- and German-Americans. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, and George W. Norris of Nebraska were among western agrarian progressives who argued fervently against involvement. Assuming an us-versus-them stance, they castigated various eastern, urban elites for their engagement in European affairs.
World War II
The year 1940 signaled a final turning point for isolationism. German military successes in Europe and the Battle of Britain prompted nationwide American rethinking about its posture toward the war. If Germany and Italy established hegemony in Europe and Africa, and Japan swept East Asia, many believed that the Western Hemisphere might be next. Even if America managed to repel invasions, its way of life might wither if it were forced to become a garrison state. By the autumn of 1940, many Americans believed it was necessary to help defeat the Axis even if it meant open hostilities.
Many others still backed the noninterventionist America First Committee in 1940 and 1941, but isolationists failed to derail the Roosevelt administration's plans to aid targets of Axis aggression with means short of war. Most Americans opposed any actual declaration of war on the Axis countries, but everything abruptly changed when Japan naval forces sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later. America galvanized itself for full-blown war against the Axis powers.
The demise of isolationism
The isolationist point of view did not completely disappear from American discourse, but never again did it figure prominently in American policies and affairs. Countervailing tendencies that would outlast the war were at work. During the war, the Roosevelt administration and other leaders inspired Americans to favor the establishment of the United Nations (1945), and following the war, the threat embodied by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin dampened any comeback of isolationism.
The postwar world environment, in which the United States played a leading role, would change with the triumph of urban industry and finance, expanded education and information systems, advanced military technology, and leadership by internationalists. A few leaders would rise to speak of a return to America's traditional policies of nonintervention, but in reality, traditional American isolationism was obsolete.
- - - Books You May Like Include: ----
FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal by James F. Simon.
The author of acclaimed books on the bitter clashes between presidents and chief justicesJefferson and Marshall, Lincoln and Taneyover the characte...
Prompt: To what extent did the goals of American foreign policy change in the years 1930-1941? For what reasons did these goals change?
The 1930s were a difficult time for most Americans. Faced with colossal economic hardships—unprecedented in American history—many Americans turned inward to focus on the worsening situation at home. The United States became increasingly insensitive to the obliteration of fellow democracies at the hands of brutal fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. The U.S. was determined to stay out of war at all costs—even if its allies were in trouble; Americans believed that they were immune from Europe’s problems as long as they refused to get involved. However, as the “free” countries fell, one by one, to the Nazi war machine, Americans began to realize the folly of their foolish optimism and clamored for increasing involvement in foreign affairs. American foreign policy changed in the years 1930-1941 as Americans realized that fascism would likely conquer all of Europe unless Americans acted quickly. Ultimately, it was fear of the fascist threat to American democracy that triggered the end of American isolationism and inaugurated the era of American interventionism.
World War I had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans; many believed that the U.S. had been tricked into joining the war for the wrong reasons, and they were determined to avoid making the same mistake twice. After the Great War, Americans were disappointed to realize that the war was fought for null; World War I was not the “War to End Wars” as advertised by the government propaganda. The disappointment of being “suckered” into the Great War helped motivate Americans to adopt a largely isolationist policy during the 1930s. The situation was worsened when Britain and France defaulted on their loans from the U.S. after they were unable to collect reparation payments from Germany satisfactorily. In a political cartoon of 1932, Uncle Sam is seen wisely remarking that the only thing European nations are able to agree upon is that they cannot pay back their U.S. loans (Document B). Isolationism was also encouraged when Hoover approved the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, raising the tariff to an unbelievable sixty percent. The hiking-up of the tariff shut out foreign trade nearly completely—a fact which did not seem to bother too many Americans who were concerned with their own fortunes at the time. Many foreign nations responded with high tariffs of their own, largely destroying any prospect of international trade. Unfortunately, American isolationism had more dire consequences than the loss of trade or loan defaults.
As the 1930s dragged on, it became clear that fascism was destroying many democracies around the globe, but America still opted for neutrality rather than war. Hopelessly optimistic and naïve American politicians like Frank B. Kellogg created the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by fifteen nations, which would supposedly protect America from the threat of war. Although the nations that signed agreed not to use war as an instrument of national policy, the Pact was utterly useless because it could not be enforced. Similarly, the Nine Power Treaty attempted to keep the Open Door in China open by affirming the territorial integrity of the country; however, the agreement was easily broken by the Empire of Japan in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. Although Americans lambasted Japan for disregarding international treaty agreements, there was nothing the U.S. could do—short of war—that would stop Japanese aggression (Document A). In order to avoid any unintentional disasters that might plunge the U.S. into war, Congress passed three consecutive Neutrality Acts from 1935-1937 aimed at keeping Americans impartial and out of harm’s way. If Americans were not able to secretly aid belligerents on either side, as they had in World War I, then, presumably, the U.S. would not be drawn into the conflict (Document C). Although Americans were upset with Japanese aggression, they opted to maintain peaceful relations as long as possible, as evidenced by the Public Opinion Poll results in 1939-1941 which show that a majority of Americans opposed war during this period (Document E). However, the fall of France demonstrated to the American people, more than anything else, the true threat fascism could pose to American democracy.
President Roosevelt realized that Britain needed aid or else the U.S. would become a lone “free” nation in a fascist-dominated world. The American military needed to be mobilized in order to assist the Allies or democracy would be in grave danger. Roosevelt plead his case to the American people in his famous “Quarantine Speech” in which he called for an end to dangerous isolationism; however, his speech was not well-received and he was criticized for his desire to “entangle” the U.S in European foreign affairs (Document D). With Britain the only remaining power fighting against Germany, Roosevelt felt compelled to offer aid in some way. In 1940, Roosevelt boldly transferred fifty World War I destroyers to Britain in exchange for eight valuable defense bases stretching from Newfoundland to South America. As bombs dropped over Britain, Americans began to realize that their interests were intricately tied to Britain’s and that they must offer aid or else the battle would come to American soil soon. The goals of American foreign policy were reversed when Congress repealed the now defunct Neutrality Acts and officially ended their Neutrality. The U.S. began openly selling weapons to Britain on a “cash-and-carry” basis so as to avoid attacks on American ships. When this was not enough, Roosevelt devised the “lend-lease” system that allowed Britain to borrow billions of dollars of American military equipment to be returned at the end of the war. Americans finally realized that the Atlantic Ocean would not protect them from Germany in the age of modern warfare, and that they must actively protect their country. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the Atlantic Conference to discuss the idealistic motivations behind the war and create the Atlantic Charter, a document similar to Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” explaining the values that Britain and the U.S would seek to uphold at the war’s end. The biggest departure from traditional 1930s American isolationist thinking was in the provision that affirmed the right for people to determine their ruler, and declared a new League of Nations to uphold this “peace of security” (Document D). By the end of 1941, the U.S. was preparing for war at full speed, egged on by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
During the last few years of the Roaring ‘20s the Hoover administration had set up policies that isolated America from the rest of the world. The U.S. was prospering and the quality of life in America had never been higher—why meddle in European affairs? However, as the 1940s approached, Americans realized that amid the growing Fascist threat presented by Hitler and Mussolini, the U.S. could no longer hide behind the false illusion of safety offered by isolationism. Americans slowly but surely realized that their nation’s ultimate fate was tied to Britain’s. As American support for international intervention grew, the U.S.’s foreign policy goals changed to accommodate aid to Britain in an effort to avoid risking American lives in all-out war. Unfortunately, the attack on Pearl Harbor angered Americans so much that they called for immediate revenge against Japan—permanently erasing isolationist ideas from American minds forever.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "American Foreign Policy: Isolationism to Interventionism (DBQ)" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/american-foreign-policy-isolationism-to/>.