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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism | The Nation

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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism

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Isolationism, as Nichols insists, “did not entail cultural, economic, or complete political separation from the rest of the world.” On the contrary, “the inner logic of isolationist arguments turned on the inner life of the nation and on visions of national self-definition, serving to reinforce many, albeit limited, forms of international engagement.” Isolationists were not provincial bumpkins; they were cultural cosmopolitans who distrusted the impact of empire—not only on “native” populations abroad but on US society and character at home. Fearing the corrosive effects of empire on republican institutions, many invoked Jefferson’s famous formula: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Most isolationist arguments, Nichols notes, were “based on a premise of updating, but limiting, US international involvement while hearkening back to specific historical precedents as justification.” Isolationists distrusted military adventures abroad, but they often backed modest humanitarian interventions in foreign lands. Their varied conceptions of America’s role in the world were often as exalted as those of the imperialists, but more restrained with respect to the extension of military power overseas. If America had a divinely ordained mission, they believed, it was to present a moral beacon to the world, not to involve itself in other nations’ internal affairs. This was “soft power” before the fact. What became known as isolationism was by no means an effort to wall off the United States from the rest of the world; it was the basis for a foreign policy strategy that encouraged cultural and economic involvement with other nations while discouraging political and military intervention—even as it recognized that such interventions might occasionally be necessary. This was hardly the ostrich-like caricature created by its critics.

Promise and Peril
America at the Dawn of a Global Age.
By Christopher McKnight Nichols.
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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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The isolationist vision came into focus in the 1890s as a framework for the emerging critique of empire. James epitomized the best of anti-imperialism in both his cosmopolitan spirit and his commitment to the pragmatic criteria of truth. He argued for isolation in military and colonial matters, but for engagement with the world in culture and ideas; and as a Victorian male growing up in the shadow of the Civil War, he also wanted to create a “moral equivalent of war” to allow young men the opportunities for heroism that only combat (to his mind) provided. Anti-imperialism was “a Jamesian movement,” Nichols writes. James’s pragmatism involved a distrust of airy abstractions, especially talk of the divine mission of empire. One can only imagine how skeptically he would have greeted Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world “safe for democracy,” or Harry Truman’s promise to protect “free peoples” everywhere from the threat of communism.

In James’s era, as now, critics of empire were encouraged to think that they were vainly opposing the relentless onward movement of history. “‘Duty and Destiny’ have rolled over us like a Juggernaut car,” James observed of himself and his anti-imperialist allies in 1903, “and our outcries and attempts to scotch the wheels with our persons haven’t acted in the least degree as a brake.” According to Jamesian pragmatism, Nichols observes, the truth of an idea should be judged “by the conduct it dictates.” Imperialism dictated a bullying disregard for foreign peoples’ fondest hopes, such as the Filipinos’ for independence. Surveying the consequences of the US counterinsurgency war in the Philippines, James compiled an appalling catalog:

the material ruin of the Islands; the transformation of native friendliness to execration; the demoralization of our army, from the war office down—forgery decorated, torture whitewashed, massacre condoned; the creation of a chronic anarchy in the Islands…things which everyone with any breadth of understanding clearly foretold; while the incapacity of our public for taking the slightest interest in anything so far away was from the outset a foregone conclusion.

No pragmatist could overlook the actual impact of the imperial idea. This was not the same as the interventionist idea: military interventions might sometimes be justified, James admitted, for humanitarian reasons. But too often, he thought, humanitarian arguments could barely conceal the larger imperial interests.

What distinguished James’s pragmatism was its commitment to the primacy of personal freedom. Almost as if he foresaw the behemoth that the national security state would become, James recognized that republican liberty was hard to sustain in huge hierarchical organizations. “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms,” he wrote, “the bigger the unit you deal with…the more mendacious is the life displayed.” Bureaucratic necessities outweighed “the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual.” This last phrase underscored James’s attachment to individual human experience as the ground of pragmatic judgment. His individualist commitments set him apart from John Dewey, whose emphasis on social needs as a source of public policy made his strain of pragmatism more malleable to the needs of the state. This became apparent in the debate over US involvement in World War I, when Dewey urged liberals to adjust to the inevitable reality of American intervention, claiming war would promote democracy at home and abroad.

Randolph Bourne, Dewey’s student and disciple, was dismayed by his mentor’s misuse of pragmatic criteria. Like James, Bourne distrusted lofty abstractions, even if they masqueraded as “adjustment to reality.” One of the few prominent intellectuals of that era with working-class experience, Bourne was employed in a player piano factory between high school and college (he won a scholarship to Columbia University in 1909). Paid to make piano rolls by the piece, he protested that his productivity was punished by a lowering of the piece rate whenever he increased his output; after his supervisor told him he was “perfectly free” to leave the job, Bourne “turned cravenly to my bench,” he recalled. The incident shaped his understanding of capitalist power relations and sharpened his awareness of the economic interests that usually lay beneath high-minded rhetoric—including Wilson’s talk of regenerative bloodshed.

In Bourne’s view, competing parochialisms had undermined European harmony and ultimately led to war. American nationalism seemed ominously similar—even if tricked out in the internationalist rhetoric favored by advocates of American intervention. The alternative to a narrow conception of nationhood was what Bourne called “transnational America.” The transnationalist outlook repudiated nationalist military crusades abroad, favoring cultural and economic engagement with foreign countries and respect for their immigrants in America. “Transnational America” was a manifesto for cosmopolitan, pluralist isolationism—and against the chauvinist creed that styled itself as internationalism.

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