When Isolationism Ruled the Land

By Will, George F | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

When Isolationism Ruled the Land


Will, George F, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


WASHINGTON

In January 1938, Rep. Louis Ludlow, an Indiana Democrat, proposed a constitutional amendment strongly supported by the public: "Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a nationwide referendum."

Although narrowly defeated, 209-188, it might have passed without President Franklin Roosevelt's last-minute opposition.

During Barack Obama's sinuous progress toward a Syria policy, he has suggested, without using the word, that isolationism is among his afflictions. But the term "isolationism" is being bandied as an epithet, not to serve as an argument for U.S. military interventions but as a substitute for an argument. To understand the debate that roiled America before World War II is to understand why today's reservations about interventionism are not a recrudescence of isolationism.

In "Those Angry Days," her new history of the intense nationwide controversy about whether America should enter World War II, Lynne Olson concludes that "by December 1941, the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country's entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it."

Events, especially the fall of France, were most educational. Before this, however, isolationism was broadly embraced as a rational response for an America situated between two broad oceans.

"Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe," wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1935, "we have no need to drink." America's military -- what little there was: the Army's size was 17th in the world, behind Portugal's -- largely agreed.

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