A History of American Isolationism
As of January 20th, 2017, the American government has had at its helm one of the most flagrantly isolationist—yet simultaneously hawkish—presidents in the modern era. Donald Trump has demonstrated little coherence in his overall approach to foreign policy, saying everything from “NATO is obsolete and it's extremely expensive to the United States, disproportionately so” to “we have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!” While both statements were later reversed, and Trump has yet to act on either of them, this disjointedness suggests that his tough talk was everything from a negotiating strategy to ill-informed, off-the-cuff remarks. Behind the scenes, though, an understaffed State Department, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and threats to withdraw from NAFTA signal that the Trump Administration has little interest in collaborating with foreign governments.
While it would be difficult to navigate the quagmire that is Donald Trump’s governing principle of international relations, one thing is clear: his “America First” agenda has roots in a longstanding American political tradition. In July 1797, for example, an American envoy was sent to Paris in hopes of defusing tensions between the newly-formed French Republic and the United States. Upon their arrival, the diplomats were approached by three agents of the French Foreign Minister, who demanded bribes and a loan before formal negotiations could begin. The Americans were offended by such a request, despite it being relatively common practice in contemporary European politics, and left France without engaging in formal negotiations. United States Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper later rebuffed the French at a Philadelphia dinner party with a widely-admired toast: “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”
This, one could say, was the birth of the American isolationist movement. While iterations of this sentiment have shifted throughout the centuries—from Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on no foreign entanglements, to the Monroe Doctrine of avoiding inter-European conflicts in the New World—skepticism towards foreign interactions, diplomatic or otherwise, is not a phenomenon unique to Trump.
One example among many stands out for its historical resonance with our current moment. On the evening of January 6th, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual address to Congress. Across the Atlantic, Germany was conducting an air raid campaign against the United Kingdom, later dubbed the ‘Blitz’. These raids lasted from September, 1940 until May, 1941, but the singular most destructive day was December 29th, 1940, a week before Roosevelt’s address to Congress. The Lend-Lease bill, which Roosevelt advocated for in this address, gave the president “authority and funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations.” The passage of the bill, many historians have argued, was the difference between victory and defeat for the United Kingdom in World War II. And yet, despite the fact that British triumph over Nazism was obviously in America’s interest, a dedicated contingent in Congress, weary of American intervention in Europe after World War I, strongly opposed the passage of the Lend-Lease bill.
In our modern era, when many Americans are critical of involvement in long and costly wars in the Middle East, or the perceived inequality of NATO funding, there have again been calls for a withdrawal of American presence abroad, both militaristically and diplomatically. There is, however, a marked difference between our time and Roosevelt’s.
According to an article published January 1st, 1941 in The Boston Globe, the isolationists in Congress “seem to have tried, quite consciously and as a matter of strategy, to make up in noise what they lacked numbers.” This desperate approach at public persuasion drew the contempt of politicians on both sides of the aisle who understood that opposing the Axis powers was more important than politically safeguarding themselves against the possibility of vague ‘foreign entanglements’. And yet, the isolationist fear-mongering was so visible off Capitol Hill that it led “casual headline readers [to] believe the isolationists [had] great congressional power.” This strategy backfired: the non-isolationist contempt for alarmist rhetoric ensured that the isolationists would ultimately gain neither votes nor respect.
Unlike in the era of Roosevelt, however, contemporary isolationists are no longer a fringe group of cautious Congressmen, but rather constitute a broad swath of the American public. The impact of this tradition, for better or worse, can be felt full-force in American politics in this very moment.