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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism | The Nation

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Pariahs' Progress: On Isolationism

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Bourne’s transnationalist plea “had much in common with religious dialogue,” Nichols observes. He is thinking particularly of the jeremiad, the Puritan sermon form that lamented the moral corruption of the community and recalled it to righteousness. Bourne was no Puritan, but he was a stern moralist, especially about the impact of war on the “intellectual class.” Intellectuals who craved proximity to power were falling all over themselves in their (mostly rhetorical) enthusiasm for the cleansing powers of battle, and when the war came they were little disturbed by the jailing of its opponents. As Bourne observed, such prowar intellectuals as Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly of The New Republic were more concerned with maintaining a largely fantastical faith in their own “immediate influence” than addressing any such pedestrian matters as the protection of free speech. Here as elsewhere, Bourne identified a recurring pattern. As became clear when Bill Keller, then the executive editor of the New York Times, David Remnick of The New Yorker and Paul Berman of The New Republic supported Bush’s ruinous invasion of Iraq, the siren song of righteous war continues to seduce large sectors of the liberal intelligentsia.

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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Debate over the US entry into World War I provoked the emergence of modern isolationist thought. Certain fundamental principles acquired prominence: a commitment to neutrality in deed as well as word with respect to foreign wars; a populist insistence that declarations of war require the support (perhaps by referendum) of the people; and a suspicion of bigness in all its forms worthy of William James—big business, big government, big lies.

Even the Socialist Eugene Debs spoke an idiom that evoked the Jeffersonian republican tradition and appealed to farmers as well as workers—or at least so Debs hoped. He wanted to unite them all in a cooperative commonwealth. Debs had used this appeal effectively in the 1912 election, when he won 6 percent of the electorate, and the coming of World War I offered Socialists the further possibility of siphoning off some of the antiwar vote, which was considerable. Opposition to the draft united the South and the Midwest. Debs hammered away at militarism from a Jeffersonian position: a standing army “means a military autocracy,” he warned, “and it can mean nothing else.” Debs and other antiwar speakers could play on anti-British sentiment among the farmers, who felt deprived by the British blockade of wartime markets for wheat and cotton. And sentiment was often accompanied by action. Resistance to the draft surfaced in the Green Corn Rebellion of 1917, when 500 Oklahoma farmers began a protest march to Washington, only to have it interrupted by the American Patriotic League and state marshals. Throughout the country, including New York and other Eastern urban centers, draft resistance and evasion were epidemic; upward of 3 million men (about as many as were drafted) never bothered to register.

Amid widespread popular opposition to the war, Congress took the draconian measure of passing the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918; together, they made blind obedience the law of the land. In February 1918, in Canton, Ohio, Eugene Debs was anything but blindly obedient. Don’t worry about treason to your masters, he told a crowd of working men; worry about treason to your own core principles. This was the speech that got Debs arrested, convicted and jailed for treason. Addressing the jury, he concluded: “Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and their compeers were the rebels of their day…they were opposed by the people and denounced by the press…. But they had the moral courage to be true to their convictions, to stand erect and defy all the forces of reaction and detraction; and that is why their names shine in history, and why the great respectable majority of their day sleep in forgotten graves.” Released after nearly three years, Debs was a prematurely old and broken man. But he had shown that the isolationist tradition could embrace Jeffersonian republicans alongside democratic socialists.

In 1919, the debate over US entry into President Wilson’s League of Nations fostered the emergence of conservative, hypernationalist isolationism in opposition to the league. Its critics were US senators dubbed “the irreconcilables” by the press. Senator William Borah of Idaho was the most interesting and influential among them. Borah was specifically concerned with Article X of the league’s covenant, which spelled out the doctrine of collective security: it committed US troops to fight aggression (as defined by the league) without national debate or Congressional authorization. Borah wanted national freedom of action. Unlike his fellow irreconcilable Republicans Robert La Follette and George Norris, Borah had supported the war, albeit reluctantly. But he remained committed to civil liberties, animated by a Jeffersonian populist view that overlapped with Debs’s in important ways. Associated with the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union, Borah deplored African-American disenfranchisement and derided Wilson’s schoolmasterish boast that we would “teach” Latin American countries to “elect good men.” Yet he also supported restrictions on immigration for the conventional xenophobic reasons: he wanted to keep alien agitators from promoting revolution and refugees from diluting native stock. Still, he posed populist challenges to executive power with discomfiting directness: “Is there any guaranty of peace,” he asked, “other than the guaranty which comes of the control of the war-making power by the people?” This question suggested others: Could democracy survive the hegemony of the national security state? Or would “control of the war-making power by the people” cease to exist under the new regime envisioned by the interventionists? Despite his provincialism (or maybe because of it), Borah probed these essential issues.

He was “no absolute isolationist,” as Nichols makes clear. He supported trade and arms limitation treaties; he believed that economic interdependence among nations was inevitable and perhaps even necessary. In 1934, surveying American foreign relations since World War I, Borah distinguished between trade and politics. We had entered into profitable trading partnerships overseas, he acknowledged, but “in all matters political, in all commitments of any nature or kind, which encroach in the slightest upon the free and unembarrassed action of our people, or which circumscribe their discretion and judgment, we have been free, we have been independent, we have been isolationist.” Isolation and independence were twinned.

Borah also made common cause (at least temporarily) with the “new internationalism,” the post–World War I pacifist activity promoted by Emily Balch and Jane Addams in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The most notorious pacifist crusade of the period—notorious, at least, in the eyes of subsequent historians—was the movement to outlaw war, which culminated in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. For historians within the Washington consensus, the belief that nations could end war by making it illegal has always been the ultimate pacifist self-delusion. Nichols does his best to take the movement seriously, defending it mainly from Borah’s point of view. America should join in making a safer world, Borah believed, provided its sovereign rights were upheld. In the end, he and the other Americans included important caveats to Kellogg-Briand that preserved US autonomy. No restrictions were placed on wars of self-defense (an elastic category) or on wars invoking the Monroe Doctrine. About this matter, the Washington consensus is right: it is hard to take such a document too seriously, however benign its intent.

Still, pacifist and isolationist sentiments continued to grow in the United States during the 1930s, culminating in the Neutrality Acts and finally in the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required that all declarations of war be submitted to a popular vote, unless the United States had been attacked. The measure failed when it came to a floor vote in 1938—to the great retrospective relief of the foreign policy establishment. If members of that group regarded Kellogg-Briand with amusement, they viewed the Ludlow Amendment with alarm, for they thought it showed how far isolationist sentiment had seeped into the body politic. To be sure, there was room for debate about the practicalities of this proposal, but what outraged the establishment was that Congress had even considered the possibility of a democratic foreign policy. Quelle horreur! C’est impossible! And so, indeed, it has proven to be, in the decades since isolationists were excluded from permissible debate.

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