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The Fiction of U.S. Isolationism

For reasons unknown, and if revealed unlikely to be reassuring, my hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, regularly provides space on its opinion page to the novelist Richard North Patterson. As a manufacturer of pulp fiction, Patterson has achieved spectacular success, churning out bestsellers with titles like The Devil’s Light and Loss of Innocence. If my own books sold a tenth as many copies, I’d retire to a baronial estate in Scotland and spend my remaining days fishing for trout, sipping single-malt whiskey, and reading potboilers by the likes of Richard North Patterson.

So as a spinner of fictional yarns, Patterson is a master of his craft. Unfortunately, when commenting on events of the day, that penchant for fiction persists.

Patterson’s most recent column [1] offers an example. Appearing last week under the headline “McCain stares down Putin,” it is part press release and part hatchet job. The press release pays tribute to the senior senator from Arizona. “Seldom has John McCain been more worth heeding,” Patterson writes. The hatchet falls in equal parts on Russian president Vladimir Putin and American president Donald Trump.

Not without reason, McCain is worried about the direction of world events, with Russian provocations offering but one concern among many. Patterson shares McCain’s apprehensions, compounded by what he sees as a revival of “the isolationism in Europe and America that precipitated World War II.”

Now as an explanation for the origins of the war of 1939-1945, American “isolationism” is as familiar as the sweet-and-sour pork featured at your local Chinese takeout joint. Its authenticity is equally dubious. Yet Patterson’s assertion has this virtue: It captures in less than a sentence a prime obstacle to instituting a realistic, fact-based approach to foreign policy.

In truth, isolationism is to history what fake news is to journalism. The oft-repeated claim that in the 1920s and 1930s the United States raised the drawbridges, stuck its head in the sand, and turned its back on the world is not only misleading, but also unhelpful. Citing a penchant for isolationism as a defect afflicting the American character is like suggesting that members of Congress suffer from a lack of self-esteem. The charge just doesn’t square with the facts, no matter how often repeated.

Here, by way of illustrating some of those relevant facts, is a partial list of places beyond the boundaries of North America, where the United States stationed military forces during the interval between the two world wars: China, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. That’s not counting the U.S. Marine occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic during a portion of this period. Choose whatever term you like to describe the U.S military posture during this era—incoherent comes to mind—but isolationism doesn’t fill the bill.

As for Patterson’s suggestion that the behavior of the United States “precipitated” World War II, the claim is simply laughable. World War I precipitated World War II, or more specifically the European malaise resulting from the bloodletting of 1914-1918, compounded by the Bolshevik Revolution and the spread of fascism, and further exacerbated by profoundly shortsighted policies pursued by Great Britain and France.  Throw into the mix the Great Depression, Japanese imperial ambitions, and the diabolical plotting of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, and you have the makings of a catastrophe.  Some few observers foresaw that catastrophe, but preventing it lay well beyond the ability of the United States, even if U.S. leaders had been clairvoyant.


True, large numbers of Americans were slow to appreciate the magnitude of the Nazi menace. Yet their lack of enthusiasm for another European war is not difficult to understand. After all, just two decades earlier, at the behest of Woodrow Wilson—no isolationist, he—an army of doughboys had marched off to the trenches of the Western Front, with victory there expected to yield a world permanently at peace and made safe for democracy. This brief foray on to European battlefields came at the cost of 116,000 American dead, while Wilson’s promises remained unfulfilled.  

Small wonder that in 1940 and 1941 millions responded favorably to the phrase “America First.” In our own day, Donald Trump’s appropriation of this hoary old battle cry has created quite a stir, some of Trump’s critics going so far as to suggest that the phrase itself and by extension the cause it represents is inherently anti-Semitic. In actual fact, the America First movement was anti-Semitic in the same sense that the administration of Franklin Roosevelt was a communist-front organization. The inclinations of a few, however odious, do not define the purposes of the many. Furthermore, to confer legitimacy only on entities that are pure of heart is to banish from politics just about everyone apart from Cistercian nuns and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The America First Movement did not oppose Jews; it opposed wars that its members deemed needless, costly, and counterproductive. That was its purpose, which was an honorable one.

Few things would be of greater benefit to the discussion of American statecraft, past, present, and future, than to banish once and forever the term “isolationism.” Whatever descriptive value it may once have possessed has long since vanished. At a time when the United States finds itself mired in wars that are needless, costly, and counterproductive, those who chalk up our troubles to incipient isolationism are perpetrating a hoax.

Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "The Fiction of U.S. Isolationism"

#1 Comment By Nate On April 3, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

Mr. Bacevich

You forgot one other key cause of the Second World War – America’s ideological commitment to the breakup of the Central Powers at the end of the First World War. America’s destructive meddling in European and Middle-Eastern ethnic politics hasn’t letup since.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 3, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

Very sound and thorough response. Get no arguments from me.

Anyone accusing Pres Trump of being an isolationist, wasn’t listening during the campaign and is certainly beyond deaf now.

False comparisons for sure.

#3 Comment By Pete On April 4, 2017 @ 7:16 am

The word game is meaningless. America at the behest of Lodge and others did put their heads in the sand with regard to the League in order to maintain the American Imperialist agenda (in the Philippines, Panama and elsewhere) described by TR. Subsequent forays as bully-boys for United Fruit in the Caribbean were as you point out, “incoherent”, but these were Monroe Doctrine police actions. Wilson was completely outmaneuvered in Versailles, and politically inept in Washington. The whole “isolationism” debate is a straw man. Republicans want military adventuring when it profits corporations. Democrats want military adventuring when it swings votes from Unions and immigrant populations. America has been ruled by miscreants with little or no real ideology but greed since 1776.

#4 Comment By Chris Chuba On April 4, 2017 @ 8:18 am

@Nate, good point. In fact, our benevolent treatment of Germany and Japan post WW2 was a correction of that and fostered peace afterward. I know that there has been some revisionist scholarship that our occupation was less than ideal but compared to our treatment to the vanquished of WW1, it was a bed of roses.

To those that are obsesses that isolationism and appeasement created WW2, they should remember that excessive warmongering created WW1.

#5 Comment By Tony Papert On April 4, 2017 @ 8:18 am

Good article!

#6 Comment By Chris On April 4, 2017 @ 9:02 am

I have come to feel that non-interventionists should embrace the term isolationism. We are going to be tarred by that brush regardless, so let us embrace the term.

#7 Comment By PAXNOW On April 4, 2017 @ 9:08 am

We got dragged into WW1 by Britain and France. Britain got dragged in by France. France had a national hangover after Bismark and his Prussians captured their Emperor in 1870 to complete the unification of both Germany and Italy. Without WW1 and an unjust peace treaty there would have been no Hitler, no WW2, and possibly no great depression as the newly formed private Fed (1913) failed miserably to understand the need to continue open market operations. Without the Fed most recessions and inflationary spurts would have been avoided. Without GWB and his neocons, no Iraq invasions and continual wars thereafter to support an untenable foreign policy.

#8 Comment By Jack Waters On April 4, 2017 @ 9:35 am

Best article I´ve read in a while on here. Very well done!

#9 Comment By Paul Grenier On April 4, 2017 @ 10:44 am


#10 Comment By Peter On April 4, 2017 @ 11:09 am

Emphasizing Nate’s comment: the involvement of the US in the first world war which tilted the balance from a draw to a “winning” side and a “losing” side caused in large part WW II.
Without the US decisive help in 1918, the warring sides might have realized the futility of the massacre and might have tried to sign the real peace: without winners, without losers.

#11 Comment By Chris On April 4, 2017 @ 11:12 am

I read the Globe sort of sporadically but I did catch that op ed. I remembered it amongst the hundreds of other anti trump articles because it was so thoroughly out of touch. Not one line about “John MCcain might not be as influential as he used to be” or “while seen by some as a throwback to the old order” or something. the guy really thinks John McCain is the “maverick” from the 90’s.

The establishment is doubling down on it’s ineptitude and clannishness. They aren’t changing with the times they’re trying to drag time backwards.

#12 Comment By No to neos On April 4, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

As something of a history buff, I just about choke every time a friend or relative speaks to me of American “isolationism.” This country has been expanding its reach since Europeans landed here.

And here’s another place the US military sojourned between the two world wars: Russia. President Woodrow Wilson sent thousands of soldiers and sailors to meddle in the Russian Civil War on the side of the anti-Bolshevik “Whites.” Our allies in that meddling included the Japanese.

When it comes to internationalism, you can’t tell your friends from your enemies without a scorecard.

#13 Comment By Thomas Dunn On April 4, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

Another virtuoso Bacevich performance. The Leonard Bernstein of US international relations thinkers. Good for us he’s not a Scottish dissolute.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 4, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

The trajectory of history replete with consequences from the First World War on is so accurately stated.

Thanks for irrefutably pointing out that American imperial ambition and military adventurism hardly took a sojourn between the two World Wars.

I do note that Wall Street’s made in USA worldwide Depression exacerbated all the confluences for instability overseas, including the stresses that led to political polarization and the rise of Nazis as mainstream politicians were discredited. It might be as stated that American government couldn’t affect what happened overseas, but that will only be because they had no influence on Wall Street, while it had every influence upon them, just as in 2008.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 4, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

“America has been ruled by miscreants with little or no real ideology but greed since 1776.”

And before that?

One could as easily describe the succession of human relations as a series of fallings out among quarreling thieves!

#16 Comment By Donald On April 4, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

Chris might have a point. If you are constantly called a name which doesn’t mean something explicitly evil ( like “Nazi”) you might as well embrace it.

I thought of another objection– don’t embrace it if it has a clear meaning that is wrong. I sometimes get called a pacifist at another blog. I am not a pacifist ( it is an honorable position but I disagree with it.). But some Americans are so brainwashed to believe in supporting unnecessary interventions that anyone who opposes this is seen as a pacifist or something worse.

#17 Comment By ScottA On April 4, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

I remember hearing a few years back from people alive at the time that before Pearl Harbor people watched the newsreels of the Nazi blitzkrieg through Poland, etc. and that people thought the Germans were invincible.

I think that for most people at the time “America First” was more about not wanting to die, or for any of their family members to die while fighting the German war machine rather than being against Jewish people.

#18 Comment By ChadN On April 5, 2017 @ 10:22 am

‘Isolationism’ is a pejorative term for ‘non-interventionism,’ but the latter has never gained traction as a mainstream term of description because (to a large extent) it is prefix-negative: Americans and others don’t particularly want to self-identify with a ‘non,’ so they don’t embrace the moniker, and end up getting tarred as ‘isolationist’ by media and others.

The real term should be ‘conservative,’ but the American republic is not fundamentally (i.e. by its foundations) a ‘conservative’ polity. All authentic conservatism must – necessarily – include monarchy as a component, or it is something other than true conservatism. America First’s attempt at a ‘conservative’ foreign policy was doomed to fail within the paradigm of the ‘democratic republic.’ Social fear combined with doctrinal claims to ‘universal principles’ leads America to ‘look outward (‘over there’) all the time, because there is no ‘moral glue’ holding the society together at home. The attempts of certain ideologues to fill the void left by the lack of a Crown has only made America as a nation more warlike and interventionist – and less conservative.

America First was a diverse movement, but it was not monarchist, and was therefore hopeless. Charles Lindbergh proved weak-willed after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Stalinist fifth column in the FDR administration was eager to embrace the Soviet ‘internationalist’ mindset. This article saw fit to omit all this for some reason.

#19 Comment By Rossbach On April 5, 2017 @ 11:48 am

Could we get John McCain and Lindsey Graham to read this article? No, huh?

#20 Comment By Steve in Ohio On April 5, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

I would like to see George McGovern’s slogan “Come home, America” revitalized. People like McGovern and Gene McCarthy saw that every civil war and disturbance around the world did not have to be our concern. This was once a right wing position (held by our saintly Senators Taft and Bricker here in Ohio) until the expansionism of the Soviet Union made the right hyper interventionists. Hopefully, the right will return to its isolationist roots and be joined by the left of my youth.

#21 Comment By Joe M. On April 11, 2017 @ 2:07 am

About the “list”: China, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

The Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico were U.S. possessions for the entire period in question. The U.S. also posessed the Canal Zone in Panama and a base on Guantanamo in Cuba. So the only real “foreign” intervention on the list would be China, but there was no major U.S. intervention in China between WWI and WWII so I’m not sure what he’s talking about. He did manage to forget the U.S. intervention in the Russian civil war after WWI.

But to the main point:
Yes, it was not feasible for the U.S. in the 1930’s to station large military forces in Czechoslovakia or Poland and thereby prevent WWII. But why wasn’t it? It was precisely because of the prevailing political culture of the time, whatever you choose to call it.

If after WWI the U.S. had joined the League of Nations and devoted itself to building some real military muscle to support it, that might have been a different story.

So I find the whole argument misleading.

#22 Comment By Mike O’Halloran On April 11, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

Good article, however, when you go to that baronial estate I suspect that they will be giving you whisky rather than whiskey.

#23 Comment By Mark Thomason On April 17, 2017 @ 8:48 am

The American involvement in WW2 is clearer in retrospect than it was in prospect.

We now know we won in an overwhelming fashion, and that we came out of it very well placed. That is not how the last war had ended, nor almost any other war.

We now know nuclear weapons were coming, and jet aircraft to deliver them across oceans, and then missiles and nuclear subs to do the same. None of that was a known risk before.

We now know about the Holocaust. Nobody imagined that ahead of time. It was insane. What it justifies in retrospect was not apparent in prospect.

Bacevich is right that the US was not isolationist. I’m adding that hesitation to leap into the fray of a world war was actually pretty reasonable from what was known in 1939. Such hesitation does not require some extreme theory like isolationism to explain it.

#24 Comment By Dieter Heymann On April 17, 2017 @ 9:07 am

“The lack of enthusiasm for another European war” must have been especially acute in the black communities when one considers the murderous receipt by white trash when they returned from WW1.

#25 Comment By Räuber Hotzenplotz On April 17, 2017 @ 9:47 am

@Joe M

How did the US get posession of those territories?

#26 Comment By beard681 On April 17, 2017 @ 11:57 am

With respect to that period of time, I asked my father who spent 4 years in North Africa and European campaigns, how anybody could think that the Axis and in particularly Germany could win the the Second World War, even without US participation. He told me that the general feeling before the war was that they were unbeatable. He said even after the war started the general feeling was that the US would “beat” Japan, but that there would be some sort of Armistice with Germany.

No doubt the Germans thought the same thing. It seems now that the US military thinks the same thing of itself. I hope I am not around when it proves otherwise.

#27 Comment By Dave Sullivan On April 18, 2017 @ 3:42 am

I too don’t care for the opposite use of “isolationism”. What is more isolating than sending a soldier thousands of miles away from home, to a strange land, confined to orders, confined to base, moving in an APC, wearing armor? Or, a sailor, confined to ship, a random course with no destination, with a cargo of end of the world astern.

#28 Comment By Lord Lindley On April 18, 2017 @ 4:04 am

Slightly away from the WW’s I think many people, certainly from Europe and yes I have been all across America and love it, see the US people as being very uneducated about the rest of the world, politically and geographically. We take great fun at seeing the baseball ‘world Series’ which only America takes part in, the lack of knowledge of even where other countries are on a map, etc? I do not mean this as an insult, your education system may not teach these subjects in a serious manner, as your own country is huge and varies greatly, taking in many cultures. I am jealous of your patriotism, but does this stop outward looking views and interests? Could this be an aspect of your perceived ‘isolation’ from the rest of the world? Just a thought! I do hope to return and further my exploration of your beautiful country and have covered 27 states so far in 3 week fly drives over a number of years.