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The Fiction of U.S. Isolationism

The old canard is an obstacle to a realistic, fact-based approach to foreign policy.
The Map to Power

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 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.



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