Pariahs’ Progress: On Isolationism

Pariahs’ Progress: On Isolationism

For Christopher McKnight Nichols, isolationists were cultural cosmopolitans who distrusted the impact of empire.


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.

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?

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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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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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