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Isolationism

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington had advocated non-involvement in European wars and politics. For much of the nineteenth century, the expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had made it possible for the United States to enjoy a kind of “free security” and remain largely detached from Old World conflicts.

During the 1970s or 1980s, it was easy to think of the Democratic Party as the party of peace, but during the early 20th century, they were the party of war. Woodrow Wilson dragged the nation into the Great War. Franklin Roosevelt worked to help England against Adolf Hitler, when the Republican Party was isolationist, along with aviator Charles Lindbergh and religious broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin. In 1944, FDR dumped dovish vice president Henry Wallace for hawkish Missouri Harry Truman. When Wallace ran for president in 1948, favoring a softer line on the Soviets, Truman handily defeated him. Cold War liberals included union heads like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, intellectuals like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and diplomat George Kennan.

During the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson made a case for U.S. intervention in the conflict and a U.S. interest in maintaining a peaceful world order. Nevertheless, the American experience in that war served to bolster the arguments of isolationists; they argued that marginal U.S. interests in that conflict did not justify the number of U.S. casualties.

The Wilsonian vision for collective security through U.S. leadership in international organizations, like the newly established League of Nations, appealed to the public. However, the United States ultimately declined membership in the League due to Article X of its charter that committed the United States to defend any League member in the event of an attack. In voting down U.S. participation, Congress challenged the informal tradition of the executive branch determining U.S. foreign policy.

In the wake of the World War I, a report by Senator Gerald P. Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, fed this belief by claiming that American bankers and arms manufacturers had pushed for U.S. involvement for their own profit. The 1934 publication of the book Merchants of Death by H.C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, followed by the 1935 tract “War Is a Racket” by decorated Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler both served to increase popular suspicions of wartime profiteering and influence public opinion in the direction of neutrality. Many Americans became determined not to be tricked by banks and industries into making such great sacrifices again.

In the decade after the end of the First World War, the United States continued to embrace the high tariffs that had characterized its trade policy since the Civil War. These were enacted, in part, to appease domestic constituencies, but ultimately they served to hinder international economic cooperation and trade in the late 1920s and early 1930s. High tariffs were a means not only of protecting infant industries, but of generating revenue for the federal government. They were also a mainstay of the Republican Party, which dominated the Washington political scene after the Civil War. After the Democrats, who supported freer trade, captured Congress and the White House in the elections of 1910 and 1912, the stage was set for a change in tariff policy. With the 1913 Underwood-Simmons Tariff, the United States broke with its tradition of protectionism, enacting legislation that lowered tariffs (and also instituted an income tax). The reversion of Congress to Republican control during the First World War and the 1920 election of Republican Warren Harding to the presidency signaled an end to the experiment with lower tariffs.

To provide protection for American farmers, whose wartime markets in Europe were disappearing with the recovery of European agricultural production, as well as U.S. industries that had been stimulated by the war, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Tariff Act in 1921, followed a year later by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act raised tariffs above the level set in 1913; it also authorized the president to raise or lower a given tariff rate by 50% in order to even out foreign and domestic production costs. One unintended consequence of the Fordney-McCumber tariff was that it made it more difficult for European nations to export to the United States and so earn dollars to service their war debts.

Despite the Fordney-McCumber tariff, the plight of the American farmer continued. The wartime expansion of non-European agricultural production had led, with the recovery of European producers, to overproduction during the 1920s. This in turn had led to declining farm prices during the second half of the decade. During the 1928 election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover pledged to help the beleaguered farmer by, among other things, raising tariff levels on agricultural products. But once the tariff schedule revision process got started, it proved impossible to stop. Calls for increased protection flooded in from industrial sector special interest groups and soon a bill meant to provide relief for farmers became a means to raise tariffs in all sectors of the economy. When the dust had settled, Congress had produced a piece of legislation, the Tariff Act of 1930, more commonly known as the Smoot-Hawley tariff, that entrenched the protectionism of the Fordney-McCumber tariff.

Scholars disagree over the extent of protection actually afforded by the Smoot-Hawley tariff; they also differ over the issue of whether the tariff provoked a wave of foreign retaliation that plunged the world deeper into the Great Depression. What is certain, however, is that Smoot-Hawley did nothing to foster cooperation among nations in either the economic or political realm during a perilous era in international relations. It quickly became a symbol of the “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies of the 1930s. Such policies, which were adopted by many countries during this time, contributed to a drastic contraction of international trade. For example, U.S. imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade declined by some 66% between 1929 and 1934.

Smoot-Hawley marked the end of the line for high tariffs in 20th century American trade policy. Thereafter, beginning with the 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, the United States generally sought trade liberalization through bilateral or multilateral tariff reductions. To this day, the phrase “Smoot-Hawley” remains a watchword for the perils of protectionism.

The reality of a worldwide economic depression and the need for increased attention to domestic problems only served to bolster the idea that the United States should isolate itself from troubling events in Europe. During the 1930s, the combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in the Great War contributed to pushing American public opinion and policy toward isolationism. Isolationists advocated non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in international politics. Although the United States took measures to avoid political and military conflicts across the oceans, it continued to expand economically and protect its interests in Latin America. The leaders of the isolationist movement drew upon history to bolster their position.

During the interwar period, the U.S. Government repeatedly chose non-entanglement over participation or intervention as the appropriate response to international questions. Immediately following the First World War, Congress rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Some members of Congress opposed membership in the League out of concern that it would draw the United States into European conflicts, although ultimately the collective security clause sank the possibility of U.S. participation. During the 1930s, the League proved ineffectual in the face of growing militarism, partly due to the U.S. decision not to participate.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria and subsequent push to gain control over larger expanses of Northeast China in 1931 led President Herbert Hoover and his Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, to establish the Stimson Doctrine, which stated that the United States would not recognize the territory gained by aggression and in violation of international agreements. With the Stimson Doctrine, the United States expressed concern over the aggressive action without committing itself to any direct involvement or intervention. Other conflicts, including the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War, also resulted in virtually no official commitment or action from the United States Government.

Upon taking office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tended to see a necessity for the United States to participate more actively in international affairs, but his ability to apply his personal outlook to foreign policy was limited by the strength of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. Congress. In 1933, President Roosevelt proposed a Congressional measure that would have granted him the right to consult with other nations to place pressure on aggressors in international conflicts. The bill ran into strong opposition from the leading isolationists in Congress, including progressive politicians such as Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. In 1935, controversy over U.S. participation in the World Court elicited similar opposition. As tensions rose in Europe over Nazi Germany’s aggressive maneuvers, Congress pushed through a series of Neutrality Acts, which served to prevent American ships and citizens from becoming entangled in outside conflicts. Roosevelt lamented the restrictive nature of the acts, but because he still required Congressional support for his domestic New Deal policies, he reluctantly acquiesced.

The isolationists were a diverse group, including progressives and conservatives, business owners and peace activists, but because they faced no consistent, organized opposition from internationalists, their ideology triumphed time and again. Roosevelt appeared to accept the strength of the isolationist elements in Congress until 1937. In that year, as the situation in Europe continued to grow worse and the Second Sino-Japanese War began in Asia, the President gave a speech in which he likened international aggression to a disease that other nations must work to “quarantine.” At that time, however, Americans were still not prepared to risk their lives and livelihoods for peace abroad. Even the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 did not suddenly diffuse popular desire to avoid international entanglements. Instead, public opinion shifted from favoring complete neutrality to supporting limited U.S. aid to the Allies short of actual intervention in the war. The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 served to convince the majority of Americans that the United States should enter the war on the side of the Allies.




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