In tonight’s debate McCain lambasted Ron Paul for “isolationism” of the kind that “led to caused WWII.”  Since the topic in question was the war in Iraq, James notes that this was an absurd comparison.  But leave aside how far-fetched the comparison was.  Just consider the thinking behind this.  Interventionists routinely complain that their opponents “blame America first,” but there is no more obvious attempt to blame America for something for which our country was not responsible than the outrageous lie that our “failure” to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or our “failure” to join the League of Nations–the usual charges against American “isolationism”–led to caused WWII.  If this were a true charge, that would be one thing, but it isn’t even accurate. 

Let’s be very clear about this: WWII in Europe came out of revanchism stoked by resentments over the post-WWI settlements and in both Europe and Asia resulted from the territorial revisionism of second-tier powers as they tried to become great powers.  The way that WWI ended and the way the effectively losing side was treated had a significant impact on interwar political developments inside Germany that had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s.  To the extent that America was involved with German affairs during this period, we were attempting to lighten the burden of the reparations and ameliorate the radicalising effects of the Treaty on German public opinion.  Had America belonged to the League of Nations, it would not have made the League any more effective at deterring Japanese aggression in Asia, Italian aggression in Africa or German aggression in Europe.  Furthermore, it is a caricature and a distortion of interwar U.S. foreign policy to refer to it as “isolationist.”  Our government was regularly involved in diplomatic activity, international relief efforts and international renegotiations of the terms of reparations under Versailles.  The Dawes Plan was not the product of an “isolationist” government, whatever you might think of its merits.  The Kellogg-Briand Treaty that “outlawed war” was quite stupid and pointless, but it was not the product of “isolationism.”  When hawks such as McCain complain about “isolationism,” they are complaining about a refusal to send Americans to fight and die in wars that usually have nothing to do with the United States.  By that standard, then, America was “isolationist” in this period, and we should be proud of it.  But by any honest assessment of U.S. foreign policy during this era, “isolationism” is a complete misnomer for what happened under the Harding, Coolidge and even Hoover administrations. 

Update: Via Cilizza, I see that McCain also said something else to Ron Paul, which I must have missed at the time: “We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude and appeasement.”  Of course, “we” did not “allow” Hitler to come to power, since Hitler came to power by being appointed Chancellor following elections in which his party won a plurality.  The attitudes and views of foreigners were utterly immaterial to Hitler’s rise to power.  Practically everything McCain said was just plain wrong.