Isolationism refers to the old US foreign policy of avoiding international problems. On June 19, 2011, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) criticized some of his fellow Congressmen as being "isolationist" for wanting to curtail American involvement in the NATO-led intervention in Libya's civil war. Of course current American foreign policy is anything but isolationist. This article is a brief history of the antiquated idea.
Isolationism or Neutrality?
While the United States shunned most foreign interaction in its first century, its foreign policy was more one of neutrality than isolationism. Isolationism connotes a willing denial of and hiding from world events; neutrality, rather, suggests an acknowledgment of world events and a considered choice not to join them. George Washington began the policy of neutrality during his presidency in the 1790s. His decision made good sense. The United States was too young, too weak, and too short of money to engage in another country's war.
With the notable exceptions of the War of 1812 (1812-1815), and the Mexican War (1846-1848), the United States tended to its own internal problems until 1890. By then the Civil War was long over, slavery abolished, Reconstruction ended, and the Indian Wars finished. The United States was prepared to look beyond its borders and construct a new foreign policy.
Flirtation with Empire
By 1890, with its domestic issues largely settled and a booming industrial sector, the United States began looking for other trade markets. The British imperial model seemed like the way to acquire them.
Empires involve a central nation reaching out and, usually through warfare, pulling captive markets into its control.
In the Spanish-American War (April-July 1898), the United States ousted Spain from the Philippines and Cuba. The war was ostensibly to free Cuban nationals from Spain, but it really was to gain permanent control over Cuban markets and sugar cane plantations.
American governance of the Philippines and Cuba did not go well. Filipinos, who thought the war meant their independence, began a guerrilla war against American occupiers. American troops killed some 100,000 Filipinos before negotiations established peace.
World War I
The United States avoided the start of World War I in August 1914, but its untenable insistence on trading with all belligerents dragged it into the war in April 1917. By the war's end in 1918, the US had suffered 117,000 battle deaths.
Inter-war Years and True Isolationism
After World War I, the American public refused to allow another situation where American troops were involved in overseas carnage. Foreign policy reflected that attitude.
First, the United States refused to join the League of Nations, an idea of President Woodrow Wilson that was supposed to prevent warfare through negotiations. Americans feared the league because it seemed like a military alliance.
Next, the United States co-authored with France the naive Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928. The pact outlawed war as an element of foreign policy. Within 16 years, all the nations that signed it would be at war with each other.
Hiding in a World Aflame
In the 1930s, all the elements that caused World War II were coming together: imperial Japan was seeking domination of the Pacific Rim; fascist Italy was trying to kick-start a new empire; and Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were taking power in Germany.
When Japan invaded an annexed Manchuria in 1931, the US virtually ignored it. American Secretary of State Henry Stimson issued the Stimson Doctrine, which refused to acknowledge the annexation, but little else.
When it came to business, though, isolationism was selective. Both Japan and Italy used American oil to fuel their armies, and when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a "moral embargo" of American oil exports. Essentially, he wanted oil companies to voluntarily stop sales to Italy. Of course, that did not happen.
Even selective isolationism died as Germany occupied areas of central Europe. Congress approved a series of Neutrality Acts that prevented trading with belligerents.
In 1937, the high-point of American isolationism, Congress defeated the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a public referendum before the country joined any war (unless it had first been attacked). Had it passed, Congress would have been offering up to a vote of the people one of its basic Constitutional rights -- the ability to declare war.
The End of Isolationism
In 1939, when World War II officially began, Americans began to moderate their isolationism. Congress changed the Neutrality Acts to something called "cash-and-carry." The Neutrality Acts prevented the United States from trading with both Germany and England, but, at Roosevelt's urging, Congress amended to provisions to allow trade with England. However, England had to pay cash up front for goods, and carry the goods home in their own ships. Simply, the US did not want to risk a sea war with Germany by transporting goods to England, and it did not want to extend credit to England in case Germany conquered it.
In 1940 Congress approved a peacetime draft as Americans acknowledged they should be preparing for war. In 1941, cash-and-carry died as Congress adopted Roosevelt's "Lend-Lease Act." Through Lend-Lease, the United States used its industrial might to supply warring allies with arms and equipment, even though the US was not officially in the war. Roosevelt also began committing American forces, mostly naval, to undeclared, covert warfare.
Of course, the United States entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. When the war ended in September 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers and almost immediately began the Cold War. Whether it liked it, the United States had become a world leader and isolationism was dead.