The History and Future of American Isolationism

Protest march to prevent American involvement in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
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The History and Future of American Isolationism

What the founders, the 1930s and Donald Trump say about the future of America at war.

Interrupting a group of foreign-policy wonks and asking them to define isolationism would give you the same result as asking a group of Marxists to define socialism: After about four hours of fierce debate, each member of the group would throw up his arms in despair and declare that “the others are inflexible and intolerably wrong!”

On the other hand, if you asked the American public what it thought of isolationists, besides a look of befuddlement, you might receive some polar responses along the lines of: “Bad!” or “Get rid of our military-industrial complex. Those dastardly globalists!”

Generally, though, in times of peace, the public spends little of its time worrying about the finer points of foreign policy and international relations. To recall a story, apocryphal of course, a young woman sat down next to Henry Kissinger in the mid-1970s. “What do you do?” she asked. “I’m secretary of state,” he answered. “Oh, I’m a secretary too!” she replied. When imminent danger is a relic of the past, people can afford to be uninformed.

Isolationism, as a doctrine, is loosely a nation’s choice to abstain from alliances—militarily, politically or economically. To be even cruder, isolationism is to withdraw from the world stage. Unfortunately, after a brief stint on the bench during the George W. Bush years, isolationism is back in the American vocabulary. To ease it back in, the Obama doctrine meant not becoming “tragically overextended in the Middle East.” And to give it a real run, President Donald Trump campaigned with “America first!” (Although it’s hard to be sure, given the occasional mention of “bombing the hell out of ISIS” thrown in for good measure.) Attempted immigration bans, conversations about tariffs, “Buy American, hire American,” and the lie that President Trump never supported the Iraq War brought back isolationism like Sen. Bernie Sanders brought back socialism. “[W]e have inherited a series of tragic foreign-policy disasters,” Mr. Trump told Congress. “America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East—all the while, our infrastructure at home is crumbling.”

So the historians have begun recounting the 1930s, and the partisans have been preparing accusations. But what is America’s history with isolationism? What did the Founding Fathers think? What were the results of 1930s isolationism? Is President Trump really an isolationist?

The answers are of utmost importance. The two most destructive wars the world has ever seen dragged on because of American reluctance to intervene. If America, the greatest military the world has ever produced, doesn’t use its power, the world is a completely different place. American isolationism matters.

The Founders

In 1776, not even a year after the American Revolution began, the seeds of isolationism, which advocates of the cause would fervently water, were sown in a very public manner. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, America’s most widely circulated book (in proportion to the population), challenged its readers to provide him with “a single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected with Great Britain.” Alliance with Great Britain, according to Paine, was fraught with danger:

[T]he injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: Because, any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint.

“Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace,” he argued, and that meant America would either be dragged into needless war or have its trade ruined.

Despite the elegance of Paine’s prose, his rhetoric was too idealistic for reality. The idea and ideal of remaining aloof from the entanglements of Europe was common in conversation, but scanty in practice. Even George Washington’s farewell address put forth the idea as if it could be accomplished. “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations,” he told the nation, “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.”

America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, admonished the nation in similar verbiage to maintain “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” But it was an unattainable goal. Even as the Constitution was being developed, first Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay wrote in the Federalist Papers that America had “already formed treaties with no less than six foreign nations, and all of them, except Prussia, are maritime, and therefore able to annoy and injure us.”

Congress had sent John Jay to Spain, Benjamin Franklin to France and John Adams to the Netherlands less than six months after the Declaration of Independence in order to seek full-fledged alliances. As idealistic as young America was, it was also prudent. The new United States was not, by any strict definition, practicing isolationism; it sought not to influence, but to avoid being influenced. John Quincy Adams, as secretary of state, assured his audience on Independence Day 1821, that the United States “does not go forth in search of monsters to destroy.”

Thus the founders provided the intellectual foundation for isolationism. In the future, isolationists claimed they were backed by the sure wisdom of their earliest presidents.

… And Here Come the Monsters

The next 100 years saw debates between imperialists and anti-imperialists. Along came the Monroe Doctrine, where America said it would interfere on behalf of the Western Hemisphere. Then, in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president. By the time Roosevelt left office, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia were all being influenced by the United States. Roosevelt’s philosophy was summed up by the press with Roosevelt’s proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” America was intervening.

Then World War i happened. “Chunks of human flesh were quivering on the branches of the trees,” said Sen. William E. Borah, recalling the atrocities. The public was informed: War wasn’t glorious; it was brutal. In 1920, the American Congress blocked the U.S.’s entry into the League of Nations—the proposed solution to world peace. British author Paul Johnson considers this an accident of history, caused mainly by President Woodrow Wilson’s dogmatic requirements for entry and has shown that there were easily enough senators willing to enter the League. Nevertheless, the mood swung violently toward isolationism. Depression hit the United States in the 1930s and gave its citizens even less reason to care about sailing back across the Atlantic to sort out Europe’s problems.

Drawing on the philosophy of the founders (and much less on their actions), isolationists in the lead up to World War ii thought that “Europe was always at war and would always be so.” What they wanted, though, was not so straightforward. As historian Justus Doenecke points out, isolationists in the 1930s differed from pacifists. The two fundamental doctrines were “avoidance of war in Europe and unimpaired freedom of action.” Just because the nation was pulling out of unwanted international conflicts didn’t mean it would shut off. One could “call for strong national defense, seek overseas territories, and … still be an isolationist.”

Isolationists began frequently quoting Col. Thomas R. Phillips:

Imagine a convoy of 50 troopships crossing 3,000 miles of the Atlantic. The departure of such a force could not be kept secret. Our defending bombers would start attacking at a thousand miles from the coast. … The picture is incredible. What leader would risk thousands of men, packed in transports like sardines, under such bombing condition?

Isolationists condemned Adolf Hitler, sympathized with Poland, expressed horror over Nazism, but still did everything to keep America out of the war. “No one,” said Sen. Hiram Johnson, an isolationist, “could wish more ardently than I do for the defeat of Hitler.” But the health of the United States was more important.

Is this not the rhetoric we hear repeated in every age? We detest evil. But we must first fight our domestic battles.

Next came a theory for the war. In France, the prominent intellectual Romain Rolland coined the term “profiteers of massacre,” but in America the preferred term was the “merchants of death.” Was American drawn into the unnecessary First World War because the arms manufacturers wanted to make profits? It was a compelling narrative—it was someone else’s greed. The Senate commissioned the isolationist Gerald P. Nye in 1934 to direct a committee to “investigate the American munitions industry and its ties to European arms makers.” In the following three years, in as many “neutrality acts,” the United States banned loans and exports of arms and ammunition to countries at war.

The isolationists were not short on celebrity intellectuals. Frank Lloyd Wright (the architect), Walt Disney (the film producer) and Charles Lindberg (the pilot) were all prominent isolationists. Lindberg achieved instantaneous world fame when he became the first man to fly the 3,600 miles nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Lindberg railed against supposed British propaganda, claiming it was overestimating German airpower, submarines and aggression. As World War ii began, the America First Committee or the afc (an ominous name now, no doubt) was created, and Lindberg was its champion. He was the brilliant and charismatic defender of what they called “Fortress America.” The four original principles of the group demonstrate how isolationists were in no way against military buildups—only of their foreign use:

  1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
  2. No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
  3. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
  4. “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

These principles, written in the 1940s, feel familiar in the 2010s. President Trump could give a speech based on these four principles and you wouldn’t suspect any change in his policy. And the most important thing to notice is that isolationists had no qualms about developing a powerful military. They just didn’t want it used abroad.

afc ranks peaked at over 800,000. Lynne Olson, the author of Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindberg and America’s Fight Over World War ii, records Lindberg speaking to over 30,000 people at once in Los Angeles in 1941. At times, the afc would descend on Capitol Hill. “Dressed in black, many with veils covering their faces, the women made life miserable for members of Congress who were not avowedly isolationist,” Olson says. “They stalked their targets, screamed and spat at them.”

The Japanese ended the afc on Dec. 7, 1941, with their attack on Pearl Harbor. After years of hesitation, the United States finally entered the war. Isolationist became a term of derision.

The Interventionist Isolationists

America exited World War ii as a clear world superpower and inherited a new ideology to defeat: communism. President Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy” was to be finally attempted. The opposition’s call was to make the world safe from capitalism. Then came the rebuilding in Germany, the constitution writing in Japan, the defending in Korea, the gassing in Vietnam. Interventionism became so axiomatic—the “Washington playbook” according to Barack Obama—that historians are now writing books like America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved With Almost Every Country on Earth.

And at the same time, a strange contradiction: Presidents, politicians, writers, and pundits were being accused of isolationism. Andrew Bacevich, a historian at Boston University, put together an almost comical compilation of the New York Times’s obsession with “The New Isolationism” since the 1940s. Editorials, sometimes only months apart, appeared, condemning the isolationists creeping into the establishment. Every year the isolationists’ approach had changed; there was a new conflict to avoid, a new party spouting the heresy.

Bacevich takes his research and naively assumes the American tendency to isolationism is a myth. A look at the campus protests over the Korean and Vietnamese wars should dismiss this approach and point us to another. Perhaps those writers were not so dumb. Perhaps they realized American’s tendency to slip so easily into isolationism, to stumble back on past mistakes, and were trying to steer the public away from those ideas. As mass university protests over the Korean and Vietnamese wars show, there is a tendency for America’s elite to see just wars as evil imperialism.

Herbert W. Armstrong, theologian, educator, and a man described as the “unofficial ambassador for world peace,” directed readers of his magazine the Plain Truth to the reason when he boldly forecast in 1953 that “the United States of America has won its last war.” “I said that when we failed to win in Korea!” he wrote. “I say it again now that the United States government endorsed this Cuban fiasco—its president gave the ‘go-ahead’—and God, the God America has deserted, gave it its most humiliating defeat!”

Parts of America’s population have a tendency to isolationism. It is not a myth, as Bacevich so subtly tries to convince his readers. It manifests itself in the same predictable scenario. An outrage, an invasion, an ideological backlash, a hesitation, a collapse and a withdrawal. A lack of will to finish the job. Whether or not you believe in the merits of interventionism, one can certainly agree that America’s history of interventionism since the Korean War has been a set of dismal failures.

The Plain Truth predicted in November 1961 that the U.S. would “almost certainly” have to fight a major battle in Vietnam. Four years later, before war was officially declared in Vietnam, a Plain Truth headline read “Why United States Cannot Win Vietnam War”:

The United States is committed not to win in Vietnam! … The late Gen. Douglas MacArthur once stated that unless a nation entered into a battle with victory as its goal, it was defeated before it started. He was right! …

Make no mistake about it—the U.S. and the other nations involved in support of South Vietnam would like to win. But they are afraid to take the action necessary to win.

Weakened from the body of isolationists back home (although they certainly avoided that label), America’s leaders didn’t have the support to finish the job. Mr. Armstrong had lived through both world wars and had seen the years of hesitancy before both. But he didn’t make his predictions based on that history—it was based on far more ancient reasons.

He looked to a source not usually regarded for its international relations content: the Bible. Mr. Armstrong tracked in his seminal work The United States and Britain in Prophecy the migrations of the lost tribes of Israel to the modern nations of America and Britain. Based on this, he noted that America was prophesied to have the “pride of [its] power” broken. Its military might, its national pride, would be the victim—it would no longer have the “will” to use its power. Domestic isolationists, as they have been in the past, are part of this weakening of the will.

Since Mr. Armstrong’s forecast, America has been repelled by Vietnam, bogged down in Afghanistan’s “graveyard of empires,” sucked dry of its will in Iraq, embarrassed in Libya, and outplayed in Syria. The Philadelphia Trumpet, which carries on the legacy of the Plain Truth, has continued to defend Mr. Armstrong’s forecast that America, in effect, has won no war since Korea.

It’s worth looking at Paul Johnson’s analysis of the future of American isolationism, because the historian is so often right. In 1995, Johnson predicted:

The likelihood of [Bill] Clinton’s America, or any other America, shrinking into an isolationist posture is nil … No American administration or Congress will permit another Somalia-type fiasco … News media like cnn will ensure that Americans know in detail where trouble is afoot, even before the blood is dry and the screams die down. For in the end, America remains an idealistic and moralizing society, which cannot stand idly by when gross wickedness is taking place anywhere in the world.

But in this case, Johnson has spoken prematurely. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has been blazing on cnn, and the American public has not pushed its country to real action. The U.S.’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said, “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and, now, Aleppo.”

President Donald Trump’s recent missile attacks in Afghanistan and Syria aroused the neoconservatives, shocked some of his most devoted supporters, and enraged some of his most ardent critics. Perhaps America was in for another typical bait-and-switch presidency, another isolationist campaigner and interventionist president. As Melanie Phillips wrote, “Two swallows don’t make a summer, and two military attacks in the space of a few days don’t mean a flip-flop in strategy.”

The Trumpet can’t give you a detailed future of America’s isolationism—but we can tell you one thing: As Herbert W. Armstrong showed over 60 years previous, America’s will to act—the pride of its power—will be destroyed. The attempts at interventionism will be futile; the lingering culture of isolationism, which draws its strength from the old wisdom of the founders, will stop its leaders from winning wars. “America First,” that odious slogan from the 1930s, has reappeared. But in the next world war, America’s hesitation won’t end in victory—it will end in disaster.

Except the future doesn’t end there. If one is to become familiar with the Bible’s prophecies for America, he will have to become familiar with a God who influences the world in other ways. He won’t meet with what Albert Einstein popularized, the impersonal God—he won’t be able to accept a deism of non-interventionism. The God he will see is not an isolationist. He will see a God that blesses as well as curses, a God that brings both wars and forces peace. The good news is that the next superpower—the government of Providence—won’t have any lingering isolationist tendencies.