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American Isolationism

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American Isolationism

Isolationism was the foundation of America's foreign policy for much of the nineteenth century. It was characterised by American reluctance to get involved in the messy sphere of European politics and wars. But throughout the twentieth century, the America's policy of isolationism was constantly tested. By the end of the Second World War, the United States had all but abandoned American isolationism.

American Isolationism Definition

Isolationism is a policy where a country decides to not engage in the affairs of other nations. In practice, this involves a reluctance to enter into international agreements, including alliances, treaties, and trade deals. The origins of isolationism date back to the colonial period. Having been denied self-determination by European nations, it is easy to understand why America wanted to avoid involvement with these same nations when they were independent.

Although they formed an alliance with France during the American War of Independence (1775–83), this was quickly dissolved in 1793 by George Washington, who argued that:

The duty and interest of the United States require that they [the United States] should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent Powers."

- President George Washington, Neutrality Proclamation, 17931

This impartiality was further consolidated in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson, who said America should seek:

[P]eace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none…"

- President Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Address, 18012

American Isolationism Pros and Cons

Isolationism's main pro is that it enables a nation to devote all its efforts to its internal affairs. The cons of isolationism emerged as the US industrialised and found itself drawn into international events.

Examples of American Isolationism

The Monroe Doctrine was an example of American isolationism enunciated by President James Monroe in 1823. It stated the Old World and New World should be separate spheres of influence as they were fundamentally different.

The Old World was used to refer to Europe. The New World referred to the Americas and its 'discovery' in the late fifteenth century.

This meant that the US would not interfere in the internal affairs of European nations or involve themselves in European conflicts. Whilst it recognised existing colonies and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere, it announced that the Americas were closed to future European colonisation.

This did not, however, prevent the US from interfering in the affairs of nations in the Western Hemisphere. What started as protecting the Americas from European interference evolved into intervening in central and South American countries for the United States’ own interests.

American Isolationism Threats Nineteenth Century

Isolationism had broad support throughout the early nineteenth century but certain threats to isolationism soon emerged. For one, the US was undergoing industrialisation, which meant it needed foreign markets and raw materials, necessitating increased foreign involvement. The US began producing steamships, undersea communication cables, and radio, which decreased the impact of geographical isolation by linking America with other countries.

World events also challenged the policy of isolationism. After the 1898 Spanish–American War, the US bought the Philippines from Spain. War broke out in the Philippines and America occupied the country for almost 50 years. Expansionists supported these events but for isolationists it was a severe blow to their ideology.

American Isolationism Spanish American War Image StudySmarterArchitecture of naval gun crew during the Spanish American War. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The occupation of the Philippines was especially significant considering it was generally regarded to be in Japan’s sphere of influence. Japan's military-industrial empire was growing at this point, as was that of Germany, which would come to further threaten American isolationism as these nations became increasingly aggressive.

American Isolationism First World War

American Isolationism Cartoon about US neutrality in WWI StudySmarterCartoon about US neutrality during World War One by WA Rogers. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Upon the outbreak of the First World War, the US immediately declared neutrality. However, this was hard to achieve in practice. The public generally supported the Allies as they supported democracy and were major trade partners to the US. Additionally, US investors provided billions of dollars in loans to fund the Allied war efforts.

President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the basis that he had kept America out of the War. However, in April 1917 the US entered the War after Germany resumed submarine warfare on US ships. Wilson made the case that entering the War served the country's interests by maintaining a peaceful world order and that the US should make the world ‘safe for democracy.’ He argued that this was supporting and applying the Monroe Doctrine to the world, saying ‘no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people.’

After being involved in a war that originated in Europe, the US policy of isolationism was abandoned. During the war, the US entered into binding alliances with Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, and Serbia. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech in 1918 expressed principles for world peace, which were key in peace negotiations at the end of the War. However, despite the heavy involvement of the US, they returned to a policy of isolationism immediately after the First World War.

American isolationism after the First World War

American isolationism after the First World War started by with ending all US commitments in Europe as soon as the war ended. The casualties which the US experienced during the War further supported returning to isolationism.

Significantly, the US Senate rejected the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which was drawn up to end the War and dismantle the German empire. The Treaty established the League of Nations, which was proposed in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Precisely on this basis, that the US would have to join the League of Nations, the Senate rejected the Treaty and entered into separate peace treaties. The group of senators who opposed the treaty are known as the Irreconcilables.

Although they did not join the League of Nations, the US took some steps in foreign policy with the same goals as the League, including disarmament, preventing war, and protecting peace. Notable events included:

  • The Dawes Plan of 1924, which provided a loan to Germany to pay their reparations to Britain and France, who would then pay off their US loans with the money.

  • The Young Plan in 1929 reduced the overall amount of reparations Germany had to pay.

  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 outlawed war as foreign policy and was signed by the US, France and 12 other nations.

  • The Japanese invasion of Manchuria led to the Stimson Doctrine, which stated that the US would not recognise any territory gained by aggression and against international agreements.

In terms of domestic policy, the end of the First World War led to high tariffs on foreign goods in order to protect American businesses from foreign competition. Immigration was curbed with the introduction of Immigration Acts.

While the US did not completely return to isolationism, it focused on internal affairs. It only engaged in foreign affairs to limit the chance of another war, with the notable exception of the Dawes and the Young Plans.

American Isolationism Second World War

The Great Depression 1929–39 saw a renewed commitment to isolationism. President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) put this into practice by introducing the Good Neighbour Policy in Latin America, which promoted hemispheric cooperation and led to a decline in US interference with other nations in the Americas.

American isolationism Franklin D Roosevelt StudySmarterPhotograph of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this, President Roosevelt generally favoured a more active role for the US in international affairs. Attempts to act on this were however prevented by Congress which was heavily isolationist. In 1933, for example, Roosevelt proposed granting him the rights to coordinate with other countries to put pressure on aggressive nations, but this was blocked.

American Isolationism Second World War The Neutrality Acts

With the rise of Nazi Germany, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts to prohibit US involvement in the war. Roosevelt opposed these restrictive Acts, but he conceded in order to maintain support for his domestic policies.

ActExplanation
1935 First Neutrality Act Prohibited the US from exporting military equipment to warring foreign nations. This was renewed in 1936, and also prohibited the US from offering loans to warring nations.
1937 Neutrality ActFurthered these restrictions by forbidding US merchant ships to transport arms produced outside the US to warring foreign nations. The Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, led to the explicit forbidding of weapons involvement. This Act did however introduce the ‘cash-and-carry’ provision, which allowed the US to sell non-military items to warring nations, provided that the goods were paid for immediately and transported on non-American ship.
1939 Third Neutrality ActLifted the arms embargo, including military equipment in the ‘cash-and-carry’ provision. Providing loans and transporting goods on American ships were still banned.

American Isolationism Second World War America First Committee

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, aviator Charles A. Lindbergh formed the America First Committee (AFC) in 1940. This specifically aimed to keep the US out of the war. It was a popular organisation, with a membership that grew to over 800,000.

Lindbergh articulated the premise of the organisation as:

An independent American destiny means, on the one hand, that our soldiers will not have to fight everybody in the world who prefers some other system of life to ours. On the other hand, it means that we will fight anybody and everybody who attempts to interfere with our hemisphere."

- Charles A. Lindbergh, Rally Speech in New York, 19413

This isolationist group also opposed the Lend-lease plan introduced in 1941 by Roosevelt, which provided military aid to countries whose defence was integral to US security. Most of Congress supported this idea, but isolationists such as those in the American First Committee remained staunchly opposed.

The organisation was however short-lived as public opinion began to favour intervention in the War. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 brought the US into the war and solidified public support. The America First Committee was disbanded. Lindbergh himself became supportive of their efforts during the War.

End of American Isolationism

The US entry into the Second World War signalled the end of their policy of isolationism. Throughout the War, the US was part of the Grand Alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union, which coordinated the War effort and began to plan post-War action.

After the War ended, the US helped to establish the United Nations in 1945 and became a charter member of the organisation, abandoning their previous aversion to such international cooperation. Policies such as the Truman Doctrine (1947) which promised US intervention to protect countries from communist takeover, and the Marshall Plan (1948) which gave aid to rebuild Europe after the War, saw an important role for the US in international relations post-Second World War.

The emergence of the Cold War came to be the most important factor for the US foreign policy in the years that followed. Foreign policy was now based on preventing the spread of communism –a policy known as US Containment – as opposed to isolationism.

American Isolationism - Key Takeaways

  • Isolationism was the attitude that the US took in their foreign policy throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. It was particularly popular after the losses the US experienced during the First World War.
  • Threats to isolationism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when the US began to industrialise, increasingly communicating with other nations.
  • Even when the US did enter into agreements after the First World War, these were generally motivated to reduce the chance of another war through policies such as disarmament.
  • Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt favoured a larger role for the US in international relations, but Congress was overwhelmingly isolationist and opposed proposals such as entering the League of Nations.
  • Entry into the Second World War signalled the end of US isolationism. The US took a large role in post-war Europe and became involved in the Cold War.

References

  1. George Washington, Neutrality Proclamation, 1793. You can read it online at: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0371
  2. Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Address, 1801. You can read it online at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp
  3. Charles A. Lindbergh, 'Election Promises Should Be Kept We Lack Leadership That Places America First', Madison Square Garden, New York Rally, 1941.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Isolationism

American isolationism refers to the US policy of not getting involved in the affairs of other nations, particularly through avoiding entering into international agreements.

American isolationism originated from the US colonisation. Having been denied self-determination by European nations, it is easy to understand why America wanted to avoid involvement with these same nations when they were independent.

The policy of American isolationism ended after the US entered the Second World War, during and after which it entered international alliances and helped to rebuild Europe.

No. American isolationism did not cause the War. But US entry into it did greatly assist in ending the War as they provided significant support.

It didn't. However, American isolationism contributed to the War in that the US did not use its vast power to prevent authoritarianism from spreading across the world.

Final American Isolationism Quiz

Question

What is isolationism?

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Answer

A policy of playing no role in the affairs of other nations.

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Question

When did American isolationism originate?

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Answer

During the colonial period.

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Question

What word did Thomas Jefferson use to refer to alliances in 1801?



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Answer

Entangling

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Question

What is the Monroe Doctrine?


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Answer

A doctrine that stated that the Old World and the New World were fundamentally different, so should be completely separate spheres of influence.

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Question

Give three threats to American isolationism in the nineteenth century.


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Answer

American industrialisation, American occupation of the Philippines, the expansion of the Japanese and German military empires.

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Question

How did the US initially react to the outbreak of the First World War?


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Answer

Immediately declaring neutrality.

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Question

On what basis did the US enter the War?



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Answer

To make the world safe for democracy.

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Question

What important speech did President Wilson give in 1918?


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Answer

The Fourteen Points speech

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Question

What was the name of the group of senators that rejected the Treaty of Versailles?



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Answer

 The Irreconcilables

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Question

What organisation would the US have had to enter if they signed the Treaty of Versailles?



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Answer

The League of Nations

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Question

Give three pieces of US foreign policy in the interwar period.



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Answer

Any three of: The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty, The Nine-Power Treaty, The Dawes Plan, The Young Plan, The Kellogg-Briand Pact, and the Stimson Doctrine

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Question

What did the Kellogg-Briand Pact do?



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Answer

Outlawed war as foreign policy.

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Question

What led to increased commitment to isolationism in the 1930s?



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Answer

The Great Depression

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Question

What was the Good Neighbour Policy? 


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Answer

The promotion of hemispheric cooperation and decline in US involvement in Latin American countries.

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Question

What did Congress pass in the lead-up to the Second World War?



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Answer

Neutrality Acts

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Question

What was the ‘cash-and-carry’ provision?



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Answer

A provision that allowed the US to sell items to warring nations, provided that the goods were paid for immediately and transported on non-American ships.

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What organisation emerged in opposition to US involvement in the Second World War?


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Answer

The America First Committee (AFC).

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Question

Give three policies that demonstrated the end of US isolationism post-Second World War.


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Any three of: entry into the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, containment.

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Question

When did President James Monroe introduce what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine?

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Answer

In December 1823.

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Question

Give four key points of the Monroe Doctrine.

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Answer

  1. Separate spheres of influence between the Old World and the New World.
  2. The non-intervention of the US in European internal affairs or wars.
  3. The non-interference of the US in existing colonies and dependencies in the Americas
  4. European non-intervention in the Americas.

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Question

What were the motivations for the Monroe Doctrine?

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Answer

Concerns about European powers trying to re-establish colonies in newly independent Latin American nations; concerns Russian imperialism.

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Why did John Quincy Adams oppose a joint declaration with Britain?

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Because of concerns about British imperialism and to protect future US expansion.

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What were the initial limitations of the Monroe Doctrine?


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The US did not have the military power to enforce the Monroe Doctrine until the late 19th century.

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What action did the US take in Mexico in 1867?

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The US gave military and diplomatic support to assist in overthrowing Emperor Maximilian and France’s puppet regime in Mexico.

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Why did the US intervene in Cuba in 1898, leading to the Spanish-American War?

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Answer

 It was in America’s sphere of interest.

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What was the Roosevelt Corollary?

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It was an addition to the Monroe Doctrine, justifying the US intervention in internal affairs of Latin American countries in cases of 'chronic wrongdoing'.

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Question

What did the US do in Cuba in the early 20th century?

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The US introduced the Platt Amendment in 1901, which gave the US control over Cuba’s foreign, financial, and commercial affairs. A further treaty in 1903 imposed a new political system and made the economy dependent on the US.

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Question

Give three other foreign policy actions of the US in the first half of the 20th century.

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Answer

 Any of the following:


  • The US threatened with military intervention against Britain, Italy, and Germany when they established a blockade on the coast of Venezuela in an attempt to make the country pay off its debts.
  • The US supported Panama's revolt against Colombian rule in 1903; after the revolt, the US bought ownership of the Panama Canal.
  • Roosevelt took control of the Dominican Republic's customs revenue to pay off their debt to the US in 1904.
  • President William Taft sent marines into Nicaragua to install a pro-American president; the US set up a protectorate from 1912-33.
  • The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 to restore order and stability.
  • The US played a substantial role in the Mexican Revolution and were on the brink of war until they withdrew in 1917.

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Question

What was the Good Neighbour Policy?

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Answer

 It was a policy aimed to improve relations with countries in the Western Hemisphere.

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Question

How did the US initially respond to both World Wars?

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Answer

By announcing neutrality.

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Question

How did Woodrow Wilson justify the involvement of the US in WWI?

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Answer

He applied the Monroe Doctrine to the world.

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Question

What did the US do in Guatemala in 1954?

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Answer

The US supported the overthrow of the democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán to protect US economic interests.

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Question

How did President Kennedy respond to the Cuban missile crisis with the Monroe Doctrine?

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Answer

He ordered a naval and air quarantine of Cuba.

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