The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY
THE ROOTS OF ISOLATIONISM

"The less we have to do with the amities or enmities of Europe, the better."--THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1815


1

THE CRITICISM has been common in America for many years that we have no foreign policy. This complaint was heard less frequently before 1920 than after, for in the period before World War I we were less seriously involved with overseas affairs. Our subsequent abandonment of the League of Nations spotlighted the timidity and negation of our tactics, which were once described as "wallflower diplomacy: we'll sit this one out."

In the trough of Harding do-nothingism, one newspaper editor observed that the United States Secret Service might well devote its spare time to "looking for the American foreign policy," while the New York Tribune suggested that the British, instead of sending over statesmen to find out what our position was, "ought to send men from Scotland Yard." In 1926 the Chicago Tribune, referring to Secretary of State Kellogg's announcement that there would be no immediate change of policy toward Mexico, exclaimed: "Ah ha! Then there is a policy!" In 1946 Republican Senator Wherry of Nebraska, claiming that the senators did not know any more about our foreign policies than ninety-six men picked at random, undertook to force the State Department to explain its views until they were well known "even to the man in the street." Whether the State Department has been too timid or secretive, or the masses have been too unintelligent or uninterested, the fact is that the average citizen does not have a clear conception of our foreign policies.

Much of the confusion in our thinking grows out of a failure to distinguish between a basic principle and a shorter-range policy designed to achieve a specific end. For example, a fundamental principle, like the Good Neighbor, was the broad basis for Roosevelt's policy of nonintervention in Cuba during the disturbances of the early 1930's.

The United States does not lack and never has lacked fundamental principles or policies, such as isolation and the Monroe Doctrine. They were foreshadowed, either strongly or faintly, during the long gestative years of the colonial period, and in a sense our nation came into being Minerva-like, with a set of basic policies already roughhewn and at hand. Dr. Gilbert Chinard, a Frenchman by birth, asks in his biography of Thomas Jefferson what other nation, after outlining fundamental foreign policies, has adhered to them so closely for over a century and a half.

A short-range policy, like that toward Vichy France in 1942, is apt to

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