ON READING George W. Bush's discourse to the New York Economic Club last week, Cicero's insight came to mind: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
With the Iraq War entering its sixth year, the dollar sinking to peso levels, the economy careening into recession, and 12 to 20 million illegal aliens roosting here, Bush alerted us to what really worries him: "I'm troubled by isolationism and protectionism ... [and] another 'ism,' and that's nativism. And that's what happened throughout our history. And probably the most grim reminder of what can happen to America during periods of isolationism and protectionism is what happened in the late--in the '30s, when we had this America First policy and Smoot-Hawley. And look where it got us."
Let us try to sort out this dog's breakfast. First, America was never isolationist. From its birth, the Republic was a great trading nation with ties to the world. True, in 1935, 1936, and 1937, a Democratic Congress passed and FDR signed neutrality acts to keep us out of the Italo-Abyssinian and Spanish Civil wars. And FDR did say, "We are not isolationist except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war." But how did staying out of Abyssinia and Spain hurt America?
As for Smoot-Hawley, it was a tariff enacted in June 1930, nine months after the Crash of 1929, which occurred, as Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for proving, when the stock-market bubble, caused by the Fed's easy-money policy, burst. Smoot-Hawley had nothing to do with a Depression that began in 1929 and lasted through FDR's first two terms. This is a liberal myth, probably taught to Mr. Bush by New Deal Democrats at the Milton Academy.
America First was an organization of 800,000 anti-interventionists formed at Yale in 1940 by patriots like Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart, and Sargent Shriver, backed by John F. Kennedy, to check FDR's drive to war. Herbert Hoover supported it, and its greatest spokesman was the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh.
But America First did not make policy. FDR did. And it was FDR who, by cutting off Japan's oil in July 1941, rebuffing Prince Konoye's offer to meet him in the Pacific or Alaska, and issuing a virtual ultimatum on Nov. 26, 1941 to get out of China, propelled Japan to its fatal decision to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.
Isolationist is an epithet used to smear those patriots who adhere to George Washington's admonition to stay out of foreign wars, Thomas Jefferson's counsel to seek "peace, commerce and honest …