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.
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.