An Anatomy of Isolationism
The term “isolationism” came into common usage in the United States in the 1930s—and it already had distinctly negative connotations. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who in the late nineteenth century was one of the nation’s most passionate advocates of a “blue-water” navy, in 1890 warned against “our self-imposed isolation” and predicted that “when the opportunities for gain abroad are understood, the course of American enterprise will cleave a channel by which to reach them.” At the close of World War I, supporters of the League of Nations explicitly deployed the isolationist label against those who opposed U.S. participation in the global body. Following the Senate’s rejection of U.S. participation in the League in 1919 and 1920, organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace dedicated themselves to studying and promoting internationalism and exposing the dangers of isolationism.
Such efforts to tarnish isolationism fell short. During the interwar era, the United States embraced strategic passivity outside the Western Hemisphere—even after Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had made amply clear their aggressive ambitions. Interwar critics did lay the groundwork for the more vigorous and successful discrediting of isolationism that occurred during the 1940s, but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to push isolationism to the fringes of American politics. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan), formerly a resolute supporter of isolationism, wrote in his diary, “in my own mind, my convictions regarding international cooperation and collective security for peace took firm form on the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack. That day ended isolationism for any realist.”
That it took from the nation’s birth until 1941 for Americans to abandon their isolationist roots speaks to its long dominance of American politics and statecraft. President George Washington’s 1796 dictum that the United States should have with foreign nations “as little political connection as possible” set the tone for the decades that followed; until the imperial turn of 1898 the country shunned strategic commitments beyond North America. Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, nonentanglement was the only game in town. Even so, Americans did not consider themselves isolated, one of the reasons that they did not conceive of their nation’s statecraft as “isolationist.” Europe’s imperial powers had sizable holdings in the Western Hemisphere and kept on station the fleets and soldiers needed to protect their territories. Potential enemies were nearby, not on the other side of the Atlantic. Moreover, Americans were hardly passive when it came to territorial and commercial expansion. From early on, they aimed to become, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, “an ascendant in the system of American affairs” by eventually driving Europe’s imperial powers from the Western Hemisphere. They were ruthlessly acquisitive in North America, by 1848 expanding their maturing union all the way to the Pacific coast. They were determined to trade in all quarters of the globe—and to use military force to defend American merchants as needed.
Such ardor for territorial expansion across North America and commercial activism beyond the nation’s shores has prompted some scholars of U.S. foreign policy to dismiss the notion that the United States ever was isolationist. Historian Robert Kagan argues that the United States was a “dangerous nation” from the start and that Americans have always pursued “aggressive expansionism” and “acquisitive materialism.” Political scientist Bear Braumoeller calls U.S. isolationism a “myth,” maintaining that even during the 1920s, after the United States had refused to enter the League of Nations and pulled away from strategic engagement in Europe and East Asia, the nation was deeply engaged abroad, adroitly using its commercial and financial strength—“banks rather than tanks”—to pursue its objectives. Historians Warren Cohen and Melvyn Leffler offer a similar perspective, contending that the United States wielded considerable influence over global affairs after World War I by relying on its financial, rather than its military, strength.
These considered objections to the isolationist moniker are, simply put, off the mark. From 1789 until 1941, with notable departures in 1898 and during World War I, the United States was strikingly isolationist. Yes, Americans were avid and restless merchants, constantly looking for new markets abroad. Yes, Americans were bent on expanding westward across North America, in the process repeatedly attempting (but failing) to wrest control of Canadian territory, grabbing a sizable chunk of Mexico, and purchasing Alaska. Yes, African Americans and Native Americans suffered grievously as the union matured and enlarged. Yes, the United States was from early on intent on driving Europe’s imperial powers from the Western Hemisphere, clearing the way for the union to enjoy uncontested sway in its neighborhood. And yes, beginning in 1898 the United States became far more interventionist in the Caribbean and Latin America after it drove Spain from the region and took a major step toward finally fulfilling Hamilton’s aspiration that the nation become “an ascendant in the system of American affairs.”
But when it came to pursuing geopolitical ambition farther afield, Americans were decidedly opposed. Indeed, their primary geopolitical focus until World War II was on countering adjacent challengers. As Alexander Hamilton articulated in Federalist No. 24, Americans faced two proximate threats—from the European powers whose imperial possessions surrounded the United States and from Native Americans:
Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. This situation and the vicinity of the West India Islands, belonging to these two powers, create between them, in respect to their American possessions and in relation to us, a common interest. The savage tribes on our Western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them.
Westward expansion, determined efforts to ease European powers out of America’s neighborhood, and neutralization of the threat from “savage tribes” were generally deemed to be strategic imperatives, not matters of choice. Moreover, Americans pursued such expansion in the service of isolation; the dismantling of Europe’s imperial holdings in the Western Hemisphere and the clearing out of Native Americans would permit the United States to enjoy the natural security afforded by its geographic location. Westward expansion would not only eliminate threats to the nation’s security, but also provide the arable land needed for America’s growing population to thrive. The nation’s other prerequisite for prosperity was foreign trade. The United States was from the outset a trading nation; the seaborne trade of cotton, tobacco, cod, and other commodities helped fuel the American economy. The expansion of overseas trade—and, if necessary, the defense of such trade by force—followed logically.
But what the United States did not do—and what qualifies it as an isolationist nation par excellence—was take on enduring strategic commitments beyond its immediate neighborhood. Until 1898, Americans repeatedly turned their backs on opportunities to expand beyond North America. They regularly debated, but consistently rejected, proposals to wrest control of noncontiguous territories, including Cuba, the Danish West Indies, Haiti, Hawaii, and Santo Domingo. Between 1898 and 1941, they began to enforce their claim to hemispheric hegemony, made a run at imperial expansion in the Pacific, and intervened in Europe amid World War I. But these forays produced a sharp political backlash and a strategic retreat. Throughout, with the exception of the nation’s entry into World War I, the United States sought to avoid entanglement in great-power rivalry and resisted the temptation, which was so enthusiastically embraced by other states of similar rank, to extend its reach into and to exert its influence over distant strategic theaters. The test of America’s isolationist credentials was not its mounting ambition in the Western Hemisphere or its insatiable commercial appetite. These were foreordained. What was optional was following in the footsteps of Europe’s imperial powers and seeking to shape the balance of power in theaters far afield. On this front, the United States passed the isolationist test with flying colors.
From its founding until 1898, the United States refused to take on strategic commitments outside North America. Between 1898 and 1941, it defended hemispheric hegemony, but strayed beyond the Western Hemisphere only on a limited and exceptional basis. It is this abstinence that marks the nation as isolationist and makes its rise historically distinctive. While Europe’s great powers were building and defending far-flung empires, the United States for the most part held back. While its peers were seeking to maximize their influence and strength by projecting their power abroad, the United States was building its power only at and close to home. Even after the United States became a country of the top rank by the turn of the twentieth century, it generally shunned rather than strived for geopolitical sway commensurate with its material strength.
Such restraint amid ascent made America’s rise truly exceptional. Moreover, in a country distinguished by its intractable partisan divisions and deep ideological divides, isolationism’s bipartisan support was a rarity. As historian Selig Adler has noted, “few policies in American history were so fixed and so stable as non-intervention.” The remainder of this chapter examines the roots and staying power of American isolationism, exploring its political and intellectual origins and evolution.
Americans cannot claim full authorship of isolationism; the idea of geopolitical detachment from great-power rivalry had already gained traction in the motherland—Great Britain. Although England had earlier pursued continental ambitions, it eventually came to practice a grand strategy of isolation when it came to Europe’s great powers. Banking on the strategic immunity afforded by the English Channel, the British kept their distance from continental rivalries in order to focus on seaborne commerce with their imperial periphery. In the early 1500s, Henry VIII’s advisers were quite clear about the broad outlines of English strategy: “Let us in God’s name leave off our attempts against the terra firma. The natural situation of islands seems not to consort with conquests of that kind. . . . When we would enlarge ourselves, let it be that way we can, and to which it seems the eternal Providence hath destined us, which is by the sea.” To be sure, there were significant differences of opinion about how best to distance Britain from great-power rivalry. Tories generally argued for complete isolation from the Continent, while Whigs maintained that Britain should intervene in Europe as needed to sustain a stable balance of power. But both approaches entailed shunning foreign alliances that would only diminish Britain’s room for maneuver. As a foreign policy pamphlet published in London in 1744 put it, “A prince or state ought to avoid all treaties, except such as tend towards promoting commerce or manufactures, or reducing an exorbitant power that is becoming terrible to all its neighbors. All other alliances may be looked upon as so many encumbrances.”
America’s Founders read widely and were well-schooled in British strategy. The idea and practice of strategic isolation were thus not entirely homegrown. Nonetheless, America’s version of isolationism was quite different from Britain’s. Whereas Britain was about twenty miles from the Continent at the English Channel’s narrowest point, America was 3,000 miles away from Europe. For the United States, the direct threat from Europe was more remote and the prospect of intervening in European affairs less tempting. Moreover, whereas Britain isolated itself from the Continent in order to focus on constructing and defending an overseas empire, the United States until the end of the nineteenth century had no interest whatsoever in taking on far-flung strategic commitments, nor did it have the capability to do so. To be sure, the United States became a trading nation with an economy buoyed by foreign commerce and tariffs on imports. But in America’s case, the flag did not follow trade. Whereas Britain built a globe-spanning network of colonies, defended by the world’s premier fleet, the United States sought only commerce, not enduring commitments. It did not build heavy warships capable of projecting power across long distances until the late 1800s, instead investing in the vessels needed for coastal defense and the protection of merchant ships against Barbary corsairs and other commerce raiders. Britain steered clear of the Continent in order to pursue overseas empire. In contrast, the United States steered clear of Europe’s great powers to trade with all, but extend strategic commitments to none.
America’s marriage of commercial ambition with strategic detachment also distinguishes its brand of isolationism from other versions. Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867) embraced an isolationist grand strategy (sakoku), but it practiced a much more stringent variety. Edicts adopted during the 1630s barred Japanese from leaving the country and severely restricted the entry of foreigners to Japan. Foreign commerce was tightly controlled. In effect, Japan sought to seal itself off from the outside world. In contrast, throughout its decades of isolationism, the United States remained an immigrant nation and its citizens zealously pursued foreign commerce. The nation’s Founders were worldly and well-traveled; many of its early leaders were experienced diplomats and had served abroad. The United States may have been stubbornly isolationist when it came to strategic entanglement abroad, but was very much engaged in global affairs when it came to commerce and diplomacy.
American isolationism was unique in one final—and crucial—respect: it was an end as well as a means, a fundamental maxim of U.S. statecraft and not just an instrumental practice. Britain pursued strategic isolation from the Continent in the service of overseas expansion. The Tokugawa shogunate secluded Japan in order to eliminate the cultural and religious influence of Europeans and other outsiders as well as to undercut the growing power of local warlords who were benefiting from foreign trade. American isolationism, as outlined below, was similarly a means for achieving specific ends, both at home and abroad.
Yet American isolationism was also an end in itself. The United States was destined to break the mold of great-power rivalry and play by a more enlightened and humane rule book. Its responsibility to chart this new course became part of the narrative of American exceptionalism—a defining element in the new nation’s evolving identity. When the nation’s first president in 1796 outlined his vision of U.S. statecraft, steering clear of foreign entanglement was far more than a policy recommendation; it was, in Washington’s own words, “the great rule of conduct for us.” Admittedly, Americans of different regions and political persuasions embraced differing versions of the exceptionalist narrative. But isolationism was common to all of them, precisely why it enjoyed such widespread political support and became central to the American creed. Isolationism lasted as long as it did because it was rooted in who Americans were and what they stood for. What follows is an anatomy of American isolationism that investigates its ideological sources and explores how its multiple variants were both defined by and came to define American exceptionalism.
The Logics of Isolationism
American isolationism rested on six distinct, but interlocking, logics: 1) capitalizing on natural security; 2) serving as redeemer nation; 3) advancing liberty and prosperity at home; 4) preserving freedom of action abroad; 5) protecting social homogeneity; and 6) promoting pacifism. These six logics of isolationism were present from early on, and they all figured as elements in the evolving narrative of American exceptionalism. Nonetheless, their salience changed over time depending on domestic as well as international developments. So, too, were there regional differences in the ideological strength of these variants; for example, libertarian strains of isolationism ran stronger in the South, while pacifist strains held more sway in the North. The regional and ideological diversity of isolationist doctrine was a considerable source of its political durability, enabling it to long dominate American statecraft—despite the nation’s growing power, technological change, generational turnover, shifting control of the executive and legislative branches, and variation in the political and economic interests of America’s different sections.