The ludicrous, destructive, curiously enduring myth of U.S. isolationism.

By Chase Madar

Of all the received ideas that clog America’s foreign-policy discourse, none is more at variance with reality than the threat of so-called isolationism. We have never been more engaged with every corner of the world, yet we have never been lectured more often about the consequences of “retreating within our borders.” The more countries we attack—Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen—the more dire warnings we get about national introversion. The specter of isolationism has never looked healthier.

A case in point was George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, a venue he used to tell a spine-chilling tale. With his foreign policy exploding all around him, Bush warned against an even more disastrous alternative: there were those who would “tie our hands” and have us “retreat within our borders.” From the tenor of his talk, he seemed to think that Americans were about to burn down both the Pentagon and Department of State, beat defense intellectuals into postal workers, and force every house in the land to set up a little steel foundry in the back yard—just like in the Great Leap Forward—while learning to live on grubs and wild mountain honey.

Of course, this is absurd: as many pointed out in response to this scaremongering, there are no isolationists in America—not in either political party, not in the media, and not in the academy. (The i-word is often used as a synonym for unilateralism. Here I am assigning only its most common meaning: a tendency to ignore security threats beyond territorial borders and disengage diplomatically, politically, and economically from the rest of the world.) Nevertheless, the menace of a return to geopolitical autarky is carted out whenever our sclerotically narrow foreign-policy consensus gets an unwelcome jolt. This habit of mind did not end with the exit of George W. Bush.

It was predictable, for instance, that the publication earlier this year of Andrew Bacevich’s latest study of the military-industrial complex, Washington Rules, would draw fresh choruses of “we can’t just retreat within our borders.” Andrew Exum, impresario of counterinsurgency warfare at the Center for a New American Security, poutily suggested that Bacevich just come out and own up to being an isolationist. For its part, the Washington Times qualified its grudging praise of Washington Rules with the backhanded aside that “unlike many of his ideological compatriots, Mr. Bacevich understands and respects the military and doesn’t advocate withdrawing from the world.”

Bacevich is far from the only public figure to be smeared so. Earlier this year, one of the homemade counterterrorism experts at the Intelwire blog dropped the i-bomb on Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald for proposing withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Did we Americans live in geopolitical solitude before our drones hammered Waziristan?) And during the last presidential election, editorialists of all stripes wasted no time in tarring Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul as ostrich-headed isolationists; they were wholly unsuitable for making foreign policy and had flunked the most elementary lessons of U.S. diplomatic history.

But what does the historical record teach us? According to a very common narrative, the 1920s and ’30s were, in the words of one skeptical historian, “a period when the United States disregarded its world responsibilities by getting inebriated on the homemade gin of isolationism.” In the aftermath of the Great War, a parochial and selfish Senate failed to ratify America’s accession to the League of Nations, and soon the U.S. was jitterbugging on the sidelines as the world went to hell. If only we had not withdrawn within our borders, the story goes, we could have prevented the rise of fascism, rolled back the Japanese empire, smashed the fledgling Soviet Union, and staved off World War II. Instead, in our smug naïveté, we were caught unprepared by the attack on Pearl Harbor, which many a talking head to this day points to as the watery grave of American isolationism.

Some version of this parable is holy writ not just to neoconservative Republicans but to our entire foreign-policy establishment, including Democratic Party courtiers like the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—who muttered darkly of an interwar “return to the womb”—as well as a new generation of liberal hawks like Peter Beinart.

We should first note that this story-with-a-moral assumes American omnipotence: if any evil is committed anywhere in the world—be it the Ukrainian famine, the Rape of Nanking, or the rise of Benito Mussolini—it is only because we Americans selfishly failed to prevent it. But leaving this dubious and arrogant premise aside, we might ask if the standard account of interwar isolation bears any resemblance to the record.

History is indeed clear, though not in the way our iso-baiters would have us think. The interwar years were in fact marked by intense American extraversion: cultural, economic, and political. A quarter-million American tourists spent over $300 million traveling Europe in 1929, while Ernest Hemingway, Joseph ine Baker, and T.S. Eliot took their acts abroad. Overseas missionary activity exploded. By 1930, the United States had more foreign direct investment than France, Holland, and Germany combined. Even with the Smoot-Hawley tariff, trade between the U.S. and Latin America tripled in the decade before 1941. The United States, emerging from the Great War as the world’s largest creditor nation, negotiated British, French, and German war debts with the Dawes Plan in 1924 and the Locarno Convention of 1925. This is isolationism?

One of the ironies of this legend is that those interwar senators retrospectively tagged as isolationists—known in their time as “Peace Progressives”—were among the most outward-looking politicians of their era. The Peace Progressives were mostly Western and Midwestern Republicans, most prominent among them Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, William Borah (“The Lion of Idaho”), and Hiram Johnson of California. They successfully rolled back longstanding U.S. military occupations in the Caribbean and Central America, and their efforts arguably averted war with Mexico in the 1920s. Borah took the lead in forging multilateral arms-reduction treaties with Great Britain and Japan.

These politicians worked closely with a burgeoning domestic peace movement, most notably the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the most successful antiwar groups in our history. The Peace Progressives were also farsighted enough to support diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union for both economic and security reasons. Borah warned in 1923 that diplomatic isolation of the USSR would force it closer to Germany, an admonition that proved prophetic. These statesmen were not pacifists, but they preferred to use diplomacy, financial muscle, and “soft power” over military force, and they took the long view.

The worst part of their supposed isolationism, we are told, is that it left America’s armed services unprepared for World War II, far outstripped by Japan and Germany’s military build-ups. This too is a fact-free legend. Even during the Great Depression, Army appropriations remained at more than twice the pre-World War I level; the officer corps stayed at double its prewar size. The 1930s also brought the development of heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers, which would provide the decisive advantage in the war with Japan.

As for the Neutrality Acts of the mid-1930s, they bore the same relation to neutrality that today’s Patriot Act bears to patriotism. Those acts, pushed in large part by congressional hawks eager to provide Roosevelt with legislative cover for war preparation, did nothing to impede America’s secret collaboration with the French Air Force; the transport of U.S. military aircraft and 50 warships to Great Britain, along with aid shipments that ran the German blockade; the development with British military scientists of radar technology; and, by the autumn of 1941, undeclared war against Axis ships in the west Atlantic. True, America’s military could have been more prepared for a total war of unprecedented scope. But the armed forces were by no means blindsided by the conflict.

Not for nothing then do many diplomatic historians dismiss the folklore of interwar isolationism and its bogus lessons. University of Kentucky historian George C. Herring, author of Oxford University Press’s encyclopedic history of American foreign relations, From Colony to Superpower, calls isolationism one of the great myths of U.S. history.

Yet even some of the canniest public intellectuals are stuck on this legend, finding in isolationism a useful foil. Take for instance the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind, who in The American Way of Strategy triangulates a path for his own “liberal realism” between the twin follies of the neoconservative hegemonists of today and the “anachronistic” isolationism of yore. Lind equates the Peace Progressives’ rejection of the League of Nations with today’s neoconservative rejection of United Nations restraints on the use of force. This equation is facile enough, but likening the trigger-happy reign of Bush, Cheney, and now Obama with the agile and effective diplomacy of internationalists like Borah simply will not do.

(Perhaps we should not be surprised when Lind and countless lesser writers categorize the likes of Borah as “isolationists” then quickly move on. After all, the Peace Progressives scramble the contemporary political compass in a way that is bound to disorient pundits in a hurry. An Idaho Republican who opposed with equal vigor to the League of Nations and U.S. imperialism in Latin America, all the while working with proto-feminist peace groups to urge détente with the Soviet Union? The past really is a different country.)

Apparently each generation must refute anew the lurid buncombe of “isolationism.” In the 1920s, Borah himself noted that the charge “does not rise even to the level of sophistry,” but the globalizing ambitions of the Cold War breathed new life into the bugbear.  New Left historian William Appleman Williams’s landmark 1959 study, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, took apart the “legend” of interwar isolationism in great detail and laid the foundation for revisionist Cold War historiography as now practiced by libertarians, anti-interventionist conservatives, and radicals alike. (Williams, as a man of the Left, is surely one of those anti-American ideologues that the Washington Times warned us about—that Williams was also an Annapolis graduate twice wounded in the Pacific theater should not get in the way of a good smear.)

In a splendid article published earlier this year in Foreign Policy Analysis, political scientist Bear F. Braumoeller refutes “The Myth of American Isolation” all over again for a new century, with special attention to the 1930s. Braumoeller helpfully adduces a few example of what real geopolitical isolation looks like: Tokugawa Japan, Cold War Albania, and contemporary North Korea.

Today, with American bases spread out over a hundred nations, the possibility of our metamorphosing into a hermit kingdom is not even farfetched. Yet the deeply ingrained dichotomy between open-ended global warfare and autarkic solitude endures, with even the mildest proposals for retrenchment or partial demilitarization evoking new scaremongering. Suggest, for instance, that Iran’s joining India, Pakistan, and Israel as a nuclear power is not a national-security threat, and even well-educated Americans, the kind who have traveled to other countries, are liable to respond that “we can’t just retreat within our borders.”

All myths survive for a reason, and the longevity of this one is easy enough to figure. As Bacevich explains, “Isolationism survives in contemporary American political discourse because it retains utility as a cheap device employed to impose discipline. Think of it as akin to red-baiting—conjuring up bogus fears to enforce conformity in the realm of foreign policy.”

Will our elites ever unlearn this cherished campfire frightener? As William Appleman Williams wrote in 1959, this myth “not only deforms the history of the decade from 1919 to 1930, but it also twists the story of American entry into World War II and warps the record of the cold war.” Fifty years on, our foreign-policy discourse is choked with the same spurious folklore, and we should not be surprised if Obama starts making noises about imaginary isolationists to justify his expansive vision of the U.S. military’s mission. With American grand strategy badly in need of recalibration, it is long past time to get rid of the ridiculous myth of isolationism.

Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York City.

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