Michael H. Hunt: Isolationism: Behind the myth, a usable past

The term “isolationism” has recently sprung to public prominence thanks to a rift in the ranks of the Republican Party. Some of its leading presidential candidates are calling for a more restrained U.S. global role. They are driven in part by Tea Party doubts about big military budgets and helter-skelter intervention, in part by unchecked presidential power, and for the rest by mounting fiscal problems.

These developments have alarmed keepers of the faith such as John McCain, who have instinctively responded with charges of isolationism. From a historian’s perspective, this clash is an opportunity to be doubly perverse—not only to reflect on a dubious term but also to direct attention to some signal virtues evident in a period in which isolationism supposedly governed U.S. policy.

Let’s start with the dubious term. Isolationism began its career not as a carefully considered historical concept but as a term of opprobrium constructed to discredit critics of Truman administration policy during the early Cold War. The chief targets were initially Republicans doubtful about formal treaty commitments in Europe and about big military budgets resulting from global containment. Many of these skeptics hailed from the Midwest where opposition had been strongest to Franklin Roosevelt’s pro-British tilt at the outset of the European war and where fear of militarization and big government was also pronounced. Truman and his supporters overcame the skeptics by linking them to a persistent, pervasive American reluctance to engage seriously and responsibly as world leader.

Given what seemed a deep, dangerous strain in the national psyche, critics of isolationism from the late 1940s onward were always on the lookout for revival of the old head-in-the-sand mentality. They were quick to remind the country of how isolationism had first prevented the country from realizing its global destiny after World War I and then blinded Americans to dangers that Hitler had posed. To be called an isolationist in the context of the Cold War was nearly as bad as being called a communist. Whenever someone worried publicly about general U.S. overcommitment or opposed particular interventions such as the one in Vietnam, the first response was to slap the heavily fraught isolationist label on them.

However effective a weapon in the policy wars, isolationism is poor history. Today few serious historians employ the term. In fact, much of the scholarship over the last three or four decades has shown all the different ways Americans have steadily broadened their engagement in the world. (For a synthesis of this scholarship, see my The American Ascendancy, especially chapters 2-3.)

The era most often featured in the isolationist indictment is one leading up to World War II. But rather than a negative example, it arguably offers a usable past that would repay study for anyone, not least Republicans, trying to chart a new policy direction today. From the late 1890s to the early 1930s their party controlled the White House with only an eight year hiatus. During that time they followed a course quite different from the ideologically militant policy that we now associate with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

The earlier Republicans governed during what was the inaugural era of globalization with its dramatic expansion of trade, finance, and immigration. In response to the strong international forces that had become the defining feature of their age, policymakers from McKinley and Roosevelt at the turn of the century to Hughes, Kellogg, Stimson, and Hoover in the interwar years pursued policies that were outward looking, imaginative, and measured.

The range and ambition of their initiatives are impressive. They sponsored agreements to regulate and facilitate international commerce and communications, to resolve conflicts among states, to curb arms races among the leading powers, and to curb the destructiveness of war. They participated in major international conferences to address pressing international issues of war and peace. They thought seriously about the role international organization might play even while opposing elements of Woodrow Wilson’s particular plan for the League of Nations. They worked with their European counterparts to coordinate fiscal and monetary policy in the interwar years with an eye to tamping down growing tensions.

Neither Republican leaders nor the public had any taste for making any commitment that might draw them into another European war (thus providing the kernel of truth for the exaggerated myth of isolationism). In contrast with their caution in relation to a dangerously combustible Europe, Republicans were quick to exploit opportunities for expansion in areas holding less risk and more reward. McKinley began the process of directing U.S. energies abroad. Victory over Spain in 1898 cleared the way for initiatives in the Caribbean that his successors would turn into an American lake and for the acquisition of territory all the way across the Pacific to the Philippines. An imperial power on the make hardly seems to warrant the isolationist label.

The notion of isolationism belongs to a time of U.S. dominance now passed. By the end of World War II, U.S. power relative to virtually all possible rivals and peers was at an exceptional level. For a time at least Washington could throw caution to the wind and denigrate domestic nervous nellies. But by the 1970s dominance was slipping, and now some four decades later the erosion of the U.S. position has gone so far that invoking the Cold War glory days or using U.S. exceptionalism to deny decline no longer carries much force.

The revival of old powers and the rise of new ones in regions all around the world has returned the international system to something closer to the order of things during the first decades of the twentieth century. Now as then the United States is constrained by the preferences of other powers and by the forces of globalization. Now as then American leaders need to understand the world they operate in, accept the limits objective conditions impose, and collaborate in earnest with others in creating a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable global order.

It’s time to retire isolationism as a bit of pseudo-history that gained wide currency half a century ago under extraordinary circumstances—and to pay some attention to an unfairly maligned, neglected, but highly instructive phase of Republican Party policy.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.