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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism | The Nation

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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism

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Within the Washington political consensus, “isolationist” has long been a synonym for naïve, scared, xenophobic—or all three. No politician who wants to be taken seriously at the national level can afford to be tarred with that brush. From the left, isolationism exudes the sickly-sweet smell of sentimental pacifism; from the right, the acrid aroma of ethnocentric nationalism. Either way, it leaves a stench in the halls of the foreign policy establishment. Isolationism is a bipartisan epithet that gets deployed on Capitol Hill whenever cuts in military spending are contemplated or critiques of overseas intervention are voiced.

Promise and Peril
America at the Dawn of a Global Age.
By Christopher McKnight Nichols.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

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But perhaps times are changing. Four years of deep recession combined with a series of muddled imperial misadventures in the Middle East have encouraged a critique of interventionism, linking left and right. In June 2011, sixty-one liberal Democrats joined eighty-seven conservative Republicans to back a bill sponsored by the Ohio populist Dennis Kucinich that would have required President Obama to request Congressional authorization for the use of force in Libya. Such concern for constitutional issues is annoying to those who seek executive power. Both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, have found it necessary to distinguish themselves from the allegedly isolationist elements in their own parties, and they are not alone. More recently Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida who has enjoyed Tea Party support, addressed the Brookings Institution with a speech written to make him sound like a serious vice-presidential contender. He complained that “today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left”—acknowledging that he finds interventionist Democrats more congenial than some of the isolationists in his own party. Is there a more importunate applicant for admission to the Washington consensus? The vital center, from the consensus view, must circle the wagons against the mounting onslaught of leftists and rightists who want to drag us back to the dark days of 1938.

Images from that era have become emblems of disgrace: Neville Chamberlain fussing with his umbrella and prating about “peace in our time” after returning from a meeting with Hitler at the Munich Conference in September 1938; Charles Lindbergh bowing low as he receives a Nazi medal from Hermann Goering the following month. Since Pearl Harbor, isolationism has been judged guilty by association with appeasement, anti-Semitism and fascism. Though it’s undeniable those associations existed, the overall judgment is tendentious and misleading, for it treats moral complexity as a form of appeasement. It is unfair to the rich anti-imperial tradition in modern America, which has included many thinkers whose ideas could be labeled isolationist, from William James to J. William Fulbright. It is also unfair to the isolationists of the 1930s, among whom were such figures as the historian Charles Beard and the Republican senator from Ohio Robert Taft—men who were neither xenophobes nor appeasers, and whose critical appraisal of American empire and military intervention was rooted in constitutional tradition. But the creation of consensus demands exclusion, and isolationists have been conscripted for the pariah role.

There was, to be sure, a brief revival of respect for isolationism during the 1970s, when scholarship recorded the seismic impact of the catastrophe in Vietnam. One book in particular was representative: Ronald Radosh’s Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism, published in 1975. It included appreciative treatments of Beard and Taft, showing how radicals and conservatives could make common cause against the interventionist center. But such re-evaluations did little to alter mainstream politics. That was already clear by the time Radosh’s book appeared. The “Come Home, America” motto of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign—which invoked an anti-interventionist theme without using the word “isolationist”—was ridiculed by the custodians of conventional wisdom. Despite fitful Congressional investigations into the misdeeds of the national security state, revulsion with the ignominy of defeat in Vietnam led toward a reaffirmation of empire. It would not be long before Radosh became a neoconservative ideologue, distancing himself from his youthful dalliance with dissent and performing public penance for it in the pages of conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard. Whatever Radosh’s reasons, his rightward turn was indicative of a broader change in the ideological weather. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 fed a surge of political amnesia and reaffirmed the derision of isolationism as a refusal of America’s divinely ordained mission to remake the world in its own image. For the next thirty years, Republicans and Democrats took turns demonstrating their fealty to the belief that the United States was still, in Madeleine Albright’s phrase, “the indispensable nation”—still committed to maintaining its version of world order through global military intervention.

With the election of Barack Obama, hopes for a genuine debate about the overreach of US foreign policy flared and died quickly. Almost as soon as the crowd dispersed from the victory celebration at Grant Park, Obama made it clear that he meant to keep his administration inside the Washington consensus. The appointments of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Robert Gates as secretary of defense were only the beginning. Obama’s embrace of the national security state, down to his abysmal record on civil liberties and his endorsement of targeted killings, is at least as fervent as Bush’s. Indeed, Obama has sanitized military intervention—at least for a large portion of the American electorate—through the use of drones and other alternatives to the deployment of ground troops. More than Bush, the Obama administration has pioneered new and sinister ways of fighting foreign wars.

Yet for all that, not even Obama has been immune to charges of isolationism. In a 2011 speech announcing his plans for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Obama said: “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource—our people.” This anodyne statement marked “The President’s Isolationist Turn,” according to an article by former Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner, who claimed that those words “could have been written by an isolationist of the early 20th century.” If even Obama can be tagged with this label, then surely it deserves some critical scrutiny. One might start by asking: Just what did isolationists think—and say—in the early twentieth century?

* * *

Christopher Nichols provides some provocative answers to that question in Promise and Peril, which is far more intellectually venturesome than its textbookish title suggests. Nichols has written a rediscovery of the isolationist tradition, a thorough and timely account of thinkers as diverse as William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams. The book is not flawless: its workmanlike prose contains the occasional misplaced modifier, and at least one quotation is repeated within a page of its first appearance. Also, in his arguments Nichols sometimes makes the isolationist tradition so capacious as to lose its basic coherence, such as when he includes the imperialist Henry Cabot Lodge, whose sole isolationist credential was his opposition to any abridgment of national sovereignty by the League of Nations. Still, Nichols has accomplished a major feat, demonstrating that isolationism was a far richer and more complex intellectual tradition than its critics have ever imagined—one that still speaks to our own time, freshening the stale formulas of the Washington consensus and allowing us to reimagine the role of the United States in the world.

Isolationism, for Nichols, is “a cluster of related ideas” first conjured in the 1890s as a counterpoint to the rising chorus of empire. The anti-imperialists—who had not yet inspired the epithet “isolationist”—were resisting one of the deepest urges of their moment and milieu. Many elite Anglo-Saxon men felt overshadowed by their forefathers’ success in subduing a continent: the frontier was closed, the aboriginal population vanquished, and the settlers’ empire extended from sea to shining sea. Surely, some wondered, this could not be the end of American expansion. It was time to burst the boundaries of the merely continental. Lodge joined Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and other “large policy” advocates in demanding a place at the imperial banquet, before the European powers had carved up everything among themselves. Roosevelt and his cronies picked a fight with Spain, which they won easily, and the United States found itself with overseas possessions in the Caribbean and the Philippines—though Filipino insurgents fought a bloody guerrilla war against US rule for nearly a decade. For more than a century since, foreign wars have remained part of the fabric of American life. Most of these conflicts, even the least redeemable, have been justified as events in the unfolding narrative of America’s providential mission. The isolationist outlook, in Nichols’s account, arose from the effort to locate a different perspective—one more in keeping with the best traditions of the Republic.

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