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

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
THE FRUITS OF ISOLATION

"We are participants, whether we would or not, in the life of the world. The interests of all nations are our own also. We are partners with the rest. What affects mankind is inevitably our affair as well as the affair of Europe and of Asia."--WOODROW WILSON, 1916


1

FROM THE DAYS of the Founding Fathers to the late nineteenth century, the nonentanglement tradition persisted with pristine vigor. The public was so hostile to foreign entanglements that the federal government was even reluctant to become identified with such an innocuous organization as the International Red Cross. The administration of President Arthur was subjected to some little criticism when it recognized the International Association of the Congo, and one cartoonist drew a map of Africa with Uncle Sam sticking his long nose up the Congo Estuary. Until 1884 our government participated formally in only two international conferences. Official intermeddling in Samoa, in Hawaii, in the Philippines, and in China at the time of the Boxer difficulties--all these were condemned as flagrant departures from the precepts of the Fathers.

Theodore Roosevelt, despite his juvenile jingoism, was the first President in modern times with a thoroughly international outlook, and he had a "bully time" brandishing the Big Stick and herding into international conferences the kings and emperors, the tsars and mikados. The Republicans under McKinley and Hay and Roosevelt were not isolationist as a group; they could trust themselves to intermeddle. The Grand Old Party did not become tainted with isolationism until the distrusted Democrats came into power in 1913, and it seemed "good politics" to oppose with every weapon available the Democratic brand of internationalism.

Woodrow Wilson was intelligent enough to perceive that the world had become too small for ivory-tower escapism, but his effort to convert his own people to the League of Nations ran afoul of ignorance, apathy, disillusionment, partisan politics, and the clammy hand of tradition. The abandonment of nonentanglement seemed eminently logical to the quick-witted Wilson, but he made the mistake of assuming similar perception on the part of his less apperceptive countrymen. Believing with Jefferson that "the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead," he tried to go too far and too fast, without first of all undertaking to educate the American people to their new responsibilities. Such a campaign might well have failed had it been launched, but without it failure seems to have been inevitable, either in the short run or the long run. Someone has said that we do not have a democracy but a necrocracy--a government by the graveyards. Dead men actually had a great deal to do with the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in America,

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