MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The Myth of Isolationism

No, the U.S. did not isolate itself from the world between World War I and World War II.

I'm always happy to see someone taking on the myth that America pursued an "isolationist" foreign policy between world wars one and two. So I recommend Andrew Bacevich's latest piece for The American Conservative, which makes the point concisely:

OSU Cartoon Research LibraryOSU Cartoon Research LibraryThe 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....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.

Bacevich, by the way, is responding to a Richard North Patterson column that doesn't merely mention isolationism; it invokes "the isolationism in Europe and America which precipitated World War II." Bacevich is too kind to dwell on that phrase "isolationism in Europe," but I'll be scratching my head over it for a while. Does Patterson mean the Munich agreement? That would be a bizarre use of the word isolationist, but every other possible reference I can think of is even stranger.

Photo Credit: OSU Cartoon Research Library

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    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

    Isolationist against white people. Duh doy.

    Regarding the photo: Splendid Isolation is a great Warren Zevon song.

  • Kivlor||

    Um, not to rain on your parade JW, but Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were US territories. So stationing our forces in our own territory doesn't seem very interventionist. (I know "Panama" wasn't, but the Panama Canal certainly was)

    It's like saying "We weren't Isolationist because we had a Navy in Hawaii!" Or "We weren't Isolationist because Kansas had a National Guard!" Utterly ridiculous.

    Stationing forces in your own territories is generally not viewed as interventionist. It's not necessarily Isolationist either.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Stationing forces in your own territories is generally not viewed as interventionist.

    The point is that the U.S. wasn't "isolationist"; maintaining an empire in other parts of the world cuts against that description, as do the interventions in Shanghai, Nicaragua, etc.

  • GILMORE™||

    maintaining an empire

    so.... is this whole debate just some semantic tug-of-war between people who use the term "isolationist" loosely, and those who use "empire" loosely?

    *i agree entirely with the idea that the so-called 'isolationism' has been very very oversold. on the other hand, i don't think the fact that the US had protectorate-territories outside NA is quite the same as "maintaining an empire".

    the measure of whether a country is expansionist/regionally ambitious/confrontational or, by contrast, "isolationist"... would be reflected in how they related to other states, and how they reacted to other, more-aggressive states; not simply where they happened to maintain some token-presence.

  • Jesse Walker||

    so.... is this whole debate just some semantic tug-of-war between people who use the term "isolationist" loosely, and those who use "empire" loosely?

    No, because he also gives examples of military interventions in foreign territory (China, Haiti, etc.). Bacevich doesn't get into it, but there was a fair amount of diplomatic and economic engagement in the interwar years too. All cutting against the "isolationist" description.

  • CE||

    "the isolationism in Europe and America which precipitated World War II."

    And here I always blamed Germany and Japan for invading other countries.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Me too! What fools we were, eh? Realistic initiation of force as advocated by the Republican, Democrat, Socialist and Communist parties is the safer policy, they tell us.

  • LarryA||

    So the U.S. is "isolationist" unless it's bombing things and shooting people? Like there aren't any peaceful ways to interact with other governments? Or for societies to interact with each other?

  • Agammamon||

    One only *negotiates* with equals, or near equals.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Bacevich, by the way, is responding to a Richard North Patterson column that doesn't merely mention isolationism; it invokes "the isolationism in Europe and America which precipitated World War II." Bacevich is too kind to dwell on that phrase "isolationism in Europe," but I'll be scratching my head over it for a while. Does Patterson mean the Munich agreement? That would be a bizarre use of the word isolationist, but every other possible reference I can think of is even stranger.

    I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Richard North Patterson isn't a very intelligent person. Trying to figure out the idiotic ramblings of a moron is usually not worth the effort.

  • JFree||

    This sounds perilously close to defending Somalia as an example of a libertarian society. Those who advocate non-intervention as a foreign policy option have got to start understanding the purpose of opponents yelling 'isolationist'. It is a diversion intended to demonstrate how unrealistic/dumb non-interventionists are about the world TODAY. Not an attempt to open a history discussion.

    Unfortunately, it works because non-interventionists far too often do think that 'do nothing' is also an excuse to 'know nothing', 'suspect nothing', 'believe everything', 'say nothing'. When in reality, that will only be an option when the non-interventionist is the one who presents the best possible option BECAUSE they understand the specific situational reality better.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The interwar period was even worse than Jesse describes. WWI was simply another opium war fought by cartels and their crony politicians. The Accursed Hun lost because These States feared for Daddy Warbucks loans to belligerents--loans endangered by Russia's pullout after the communist takeover there. Herbert Hoover believed that expanding US prohibitionism globally would cripple these cartels, but felt sorry for Christian Germany and propped them up with the 1931 Moratorium on Brains. Unfortunately, this allowed the National Socialists to rearm instead of paying reparations or private debts to US investors. But these decisions were motivated by altruism, and therefore good by definition. That Holocaust victims fail to appreciate these niceties only shows how selfish they are.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online