On Twentieth-Century Isolationism
We should, as the Second World War recedes into the distance, try-- more conscientiously than we have done--to understand the motives and assumptions of those who described themselves as isolationists as well as the motives and assumptions of those who took a contrary view.
DEXTER PERKINS, 1956
SINCE THE FOUNDING of the Federal Republic in 1789 and through the nineteenth century the idea of political isolation from Europe has probably formed our most fundamental theory of foreign policy. Through that century of relative peace and into the strife-torn twentieth century Americans equated isolation, the desire to live their lives in peace and quiet and to work out their national destiny unhampered by foreign commitments, with patriotism. Isolation appeared to them to be a naturally ordained and permanent condition, and something distinctively American. It became an American tradition, a sacred legacy on the same lofty level as religion.
Americans were deeply conscious of isolation's historical roots; they associated isolation with the Founding Fathers and the heroes of the Revolution, particularly with George Washington. No administration in the nineteenth century dared depart from an isolationist policy, nor did any need to. Only in the twentieth century did statesmen seriously challenge isolation. Although a product of geographical circumstances and international politics which made possible aloofness from Europe, nineteenth-century isolation also stemmed from the idea that events in Europe could not injure the things Americans cherish.
Isolation through most of the nineteenth century was a doctrine of self-preservation, a broad idea of self-interest. There was little danger in that century that we would intervene in the affairs of Europe or that we would need European