Isolation and Security: Ideas and Interests in Twentieth-Century American Foreign Policy

By Alexander Deconde | Go to book overview

7. Kenneth W. Thompson
Isolationism and Collective Security: The Uses and Limits of Two Theories of International Relations

The Citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly, in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellowmen on that side of the Atlantic. In the wars of the European towers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced, that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.

JAMES MONROE, 1823

AMERICA'S foreign relations are no exception to the cardinal rule that objective conditions largely shape and govern a nation's external relations. For approximately one hundred and thirty-four years, from the Treaty of Paris in 1783 until the First World War, the United States was relatively immune from the European struggle for power. This singular good fortune resulted from a convergence of at least three factors: America's geographical position and remoteness from Europe, the European balance of power, and the absence of strong and hostile neighbors. Even so, it must be noted that the United States fought two wars with its only powerful neighbor, Great Britain, and went to the brink with several others. Against our historic position, these misfortunes inspired the kind of caution reflected as late as June 2, 1937, by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who told four members of the House of Representatives who visited him in connection with the application of the Neutrality Act to Germany and Italy: "This is not our war. We must be cautious. We must be quiet." His words suggest there is in each of us something of an isolationist.

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