Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Middle Western Isolationism

by RAY ALLEN BILLINGTON

[ "The Origins of Middle Western Isolationism," from Political Science Quarterly, LX ( March 1945), 44-64. Reprinted by permission.]

The Middle West, thanks to the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, has come to be regarded as a melting pot par excellence. Here, according to Turner, shortly before the mid- nineteenth century, native and diverse foreign-born elements engaged in a process of mutual education "in which all gave and all received and no element remained isolated." In the Midwest the world was taught a "lesson of national cross-fertilization instead of national enmities, the possibility of a newer and richer civilization, not by preserving unmodified or isolated the old component elements, but by merging the individual life in the common product -- a new product which held the promise of world brotherhood."1

Apparently, we are not to take Turner's generalization at its face value. He himself realized that all was not smooth in the meltingpot process in a series of articles he wrote on immigration in 1901.2 And, as the following selection by Professor Ray Allen Billington of Northwestern Universitysuggests, isolationist sentiment in the Midwest derives in no small measure from inherited customs and allegiances of first-, second-, and even third-generation Americans.

Samuel Lubell's provocative book, The Future of American Politics, argues more strongly than does Billington that the "hard core" of isolationism in the United Statesis "ethnic and emotional," and that the center of such sentiment is the Midwest. Lubellalso believes that since Russiaand the United Statesare today's major military powers, the ethnic basis of isolationism has been destroyed, since the argument for isolationism against Russian aggression cannot

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