American Isolationism

Isolationism is a persistent approach to foreign policy in US politics, dating back to the time of the Founding Fathers. Over the centuries is has advocated the avoidance of all alliances or participation in world affairs outside the American hemisphere, especially on any permanent or binding basis. The United States maintained an almost steadfast policy of isolationism throughout the 19th century. However, at the beginning of the 20th century it began to turn away from this. As it became a major industrial nation and its foreign markets expanded, the United States was soon considered a global power. However, despite the increased prosperity, its isolationist reflexes continued to shape the economic and diplomatic life of the United States until World War II (1939-1945).

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson stand out as the most ‘international' presidents of the United States. While they had very different political styles, they both believed the country could not go far with an isolationist foreign policy. Roosevelt was considered muscular and imperialist, while Wilson tried a kind of "missionary" foreign policy, believing the United States should help other people achieve democracy. At the beginning of World War I (1914-1918) the national consensus in the United States was solidly in favor of isolation, with the majority of citizens wanting the country to remain neutral. Wilson convinced the public that German actions could threaten the United States if they were left unchecked, helping create pro-war sympathies. Wilson saw that because of the war, his administration had unique opportunities to achieve its international economic goals. He also succeeded in getting the Allied powers to accept the concept of the League of Nations. However, because of his arrogant attitude towards the Republican senators and the sense of isolationism that resurfaced again at the end of the war, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles. The U.S. did not want its decisions made by another body.

In the 1920s, the attention of the U.S. was directed towards internal rather than international affairs. At the beginning of the 1930s, President Herbert Hoover made a series of proposals to quiet growing international tensions. The early foreign policy achievements of President Franklin D. Roosevelt were mixed. At the World Economic Conference in June 1933 his administration took an isolationist stance, but in 1934 the signing of the U.S.-negotiated Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act on tariff reductions showed Roosevelt was looking away from isolationism. By then, the issue had again come to the fore of U.S. politics. The nation's mood was fuelled by the findings of a senate investigative committee headed by Senator Gerald P. Nye which exposed war profiteering by banks and corporations during World War I. The Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936 made it clear that the United States would not supply warring countries with weapons or ammunition, while the Neutrality Act of 1937 asserted that warring countries could buy weapons in cash only.

At the beginning of World War II, Roosevelt said the country would remain neutral but called for a revision of the Neutrality Acts so that the country could sell weapons and ammunition to England and its Allies. Members of the Roosevelt administration leaned toward U.S. intervention in the war, with economists warning that if Germany won in Europe and Japan in Asia, huge markets for American goods would be closed irrevocably. They said the country needed to intervene in these conflicts or it would face a future worse than the Great Depression. While these arguments, coupled with war atrocities on the part of Japan and Germany, convinced Roosevelt and his administration to set isolationism aside, the people of the United States still resisted. They forgave Japan after a formal apology for sinking the US gunboat Panay in China on December 12 1937. It was not until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 that the United States was forced to take action, abandon its isolationist stance and become actively involved in World War II.

Isolationism was revived in the 1990s in opposition to efforts to integrate the United States into the world economy, including NAFTA and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation agreements. The policy once again received a great boost after September 11 2001, when under President George W. Bush the United States moved to react on the world stage but without being bound by international commitments or organizations.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Isolation and Security: Ideas and Interests in Twentieth-Century American Foreign Policy
Alexander Deconde.
Duke University Press, 1957
Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism
Steven Kull; I. M. Destler.
Brookings Institution, 1999
Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century
Eric A. Nordlinger.
Princeton University Press, 1995
Toward An Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism, and Europe, 1901-1950
Ronald E. Powaski.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Twentieth-Century American Foreign Policy
John Braeman; Robert H. Bremner; David Brody.
Ohio State University Press, 1971
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of American isolationism in multiple chapters
The New Isolationism: A Study in Politics and Foreign Policy since 1950
Norman A. Graebner.
Ronald Press, 1956
America First: The Battle against Intervention, 1940-41
Wayne S. Cole.
University of Wisconsin Press, 1953
Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations
Wayne S. Cole.
University of Minnesota Press, 1962
Librarian’s tip: "Fight for Neutrality" begins on p. 77
Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign against American "Neutrality" in World War II
Nicholas John Cull.
Oxford University Press, 1995
The Neutrality Policy of the United States
Julia E. Johnsen.
H.W. Wilson, 1936
Elements of American Foreign Policy
L. Larry Leonard.
McGraw-Hill, 1953
Librarian’s tip: "The Gospel of Isolationism" begins on p. 222
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