Isolationism or Internationalism in the 20th Century
An American constant
The American experience has always contained a tension between separation from the rest of the world and integration into the rest of the world.
- Economically, we have yearned for the goods of the world and searched for markets throughout the world; but have often been jealous of the development and protection of American workers, farmers, and industries. Some of the fiercest battles of the 19th century were over tariffs (the taxes placed on imported goods now out of favor).
- Culturally, we have admired the cultural sophistication of European art, music, and literature while searching and taking pride in unique American forms such as jazz or landscapes of the American West.
- Militarily we have always sought to maintain control of allied armies while wanting others to join us in whatever adventures we have overseas.
- Socially, we have maintained a view of ourselves as a refuge for those from all over the world, but have often treated such immigrants with disdain, fear, and even cruelty.
- Politically, we have vacillated between seeking to retain control of our destiny while urging others to follow our example and join in our ventures.
American Nationalism and Exceptionalism
- An orientation to the nation state for one's identity.
- Asserting the superiority of one's own nation over all others.
- A diplomatic doctrine that nations should independently pursue their own national interests.
American Nationalism is rooted in American Exceptionalism
- Begins in the Puritans belief that they were given this land (New England) by God to make a society that exemplified the pure society that God commanded. John Winthrop's "Shining City on the Hill."
- The Revolution was justified as the great experiment to see if people could govern themselves.
- The early United States saw itself as an experiment in republican government, proving that it could be a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."
20th and 21st Centuries have seen important rhetorical manifestations of American Exceptionalism along three themes:
- Democracy. Woodrow Wilson fought World War I and sought a peace to make the world safe for democracy. He was cheered in Europe as the champion of American ideas of democratic government.
- Prosperity. Ronald Reagan said the United States was special because here the power of individual initiative was released to build the most prosperous nation on earth.
- Freedom. Where the 20th century had built a rhetoric primarily around the ideograph <democracy>, George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives who have supported him prefer the ideograph <freedom>, with <democracy> and <liberty> as secondary ideographs. <Freedom> is posited as perfected here and as the nation's gift to the world.
Definition: American Isolationism
- A belief that the United States is safest and most prosperous when it leaves others alone and insists that others leave it alone.
American Isolationism has a Long Rhetorical History
- Rooted in Puritan ideas that their trip to New England was an effort to escape (to purify) the corruption of the English Church. In New England they could isolate themselves from that corruption.
- The revolution was fought as a war to separate the colonies from their colonial master Great Britain.
- George Washington warned in his Farewell Address against involvement in European affairs. Some of the most bitter struggles of the first two decades of national life revolved around whether to become involved in wars between Britain and France.
- The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Western hemisphere and pledged the United States to defend that prohibition.
- Many of the most strenuous political battles of the early 19th century were over tariffs that sought to establish barriers to trade to develop agriculture and industries in the United States.
In the Entire 19th Century only one Cross-oceanic War was Fought
- Only the War of 1812 was fought with a European power and it was fought here rather than there. (Spanish American War in 1898 marks the transition to the internationalist era
Isolationism continued as a Strong Force through the Twentieth Century
- Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President in 1916 largely on a slogan that he had kept us out of World War I.
- Franklin Roosevelt had to very carefully work American public opinion toward the allies in World War II because of the strong feelings of American isolationism.
- Opposition to leftist politics in the United States has been bolstered by the argument that it represented foreign influences.
- In the late century, such proposals as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been opposed because they harmed American interests.
- A diplomatic doctrine that cooperation with other nations will better achieve a peaceful and prosperous world, and/or better achieve national goals.
American Internationalism has Two Rhetorical Roots
- In American exceptionalism. The Puritan mission was to be the beacon that all the world would see as a Godly society. This became the mission to bring American exceptionalism to the whole world. When the "Godly society" transformed into republican government as the root of American exceptionalism, the mission to bring it to the world continued.
- In transcending nationalism . As transportation and communication have made it more difficult to isolate the North American continent from the dangers generated elsewhere, the argument has been that "the world is shrinking" and what happens elsewhere affects us in the United States.
The Late 19th Century Struggle
The late 19th century saw the most intense struggle between isolation and internationalism up to that time.
- Through the 19th century the American mission was to fill out the American continent. The motivation for the society was to bring civilization to the advancing frontier as citizens moved west across the continent.
- In 1890 the census bureau declared the geographic frontier closed. There was no great gap between East and West to be closed.
The question became what the next frontier was to be. Their were two answers that fought for supremacy:
- One answer was that the new frontier was the world. European nations were nearing the end of colonizing the "less civilized" nations of the world and unless the United States got in on the game we would have no Empire. Theodore Roosevelt was a particular advocate of this position. This rhetoric was built on American nationalism and exceptionalism.
- The other answer was that the new frontier was economic. This belief sought to change the frontier from geographic to commercial. The belief was that the American mission was to build wealth, a great industrial society. Early in his term, Wilson was an advocate of this position as were the conservative Republicans who opposed Theodore Roosevelt. This view led to isolationism believing that industry could prosper most if protected from the international economy.
The League of Nations Debate
- The United States had entered World War I in 1917 "to make the world safe for democracy"
- President Woodrow Wilson proposed Fourteen Points as the basis for the peace following the war
- Wilson became the first sitting United States President to visit Europe, urging support of his Fourteen Points. He was cheered by European publics as the savior of the continent.
- The Versailles Peace Conference was a difficult struggle between those who wanted to punish and extract wealth from the defeated Central Powers and those who wanted to reorder the diplomatic system of the world. Wilson was in the latter camp and many of his Fourteen Points fell by the wayside as the conference proceeded. The treaty retained his proposal for a League of Nations as a compromise that extracted high reparations from Germany and broke up the Austrian empire.
- When Wilson returned the the United States he faced resistance to the treaty from the isolationists in Congress.
- Wilson set out on a speaking tour in support of the League, suffered a severe stroke in Pueblo, CO, and was an invalid through the final year of his Presidency.
Some Questions and Exercises
- By 1919, are the sides in the struggle between internationalism and isolationism changed from the late 19th century?
- Trace the sides in the struggle between isolationism and internationalism through the following twentieth century events:
- The League of Nations
- The buildup to World War II
- The Cold War
- The Vietnam War
- The economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s.
- At the turn of the 21st century:
- Who is on which side of this dispute?
- What is the rhetoric with which they fight the battle?
- Pick out some statements that represent the two strains in a newspaper from today.