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Go It Alone

March 2023
3min read

This exercise in considering our society as a world JL civilization is a useful one, but it does run counter to a powerful, deeply embedded impulse in American life—the impulse to look on America as a land set apart from all others, able to go its own way without reference to what the rest of the world may be doing. The man who is ruled by this impulse we call an isolationist, and when we try to appraise what we are and where we are going he is one of the people we need to examine. Who is he, and just how did he get that way?

An excellent study is now available in a book called The Isolationist Impulse , written by Selig Adler, professor of history at the University of Buffalo. Mr. Adler begins his inquiry by pointing out that it is necessary first of all to define isolationism correctly. American isolationism, he remarks, “has never meant total social, cultural and economic self-sufficiency.” Few Americans have ever believed in that, and the whole course of American history is against it. We have always exchanged both goods and ideas with the rest of the world, and we have never even dreamed of the ironwalled retreat into a hermit’s life similar to that of the Japan of the shoguns. American isolationism is simply a determination to stay out of foreign wars, coupled with an unwavering refusal to enter into alliances; a belief that we must always go it alone. Isolationists, says Mr. Adler, “cling tenaciously to faith in the unchangeability of our changing world.”

This, to be sure, is where the shoe pinches, because the world is changing very radically, and some of the change comes from what we ourselves do. Yet the drive to go it alone is strong and it has deep roots in the American past, and Mr. Adler is concerned with getting these roots out and seeing what they amount to.

This inquiry leads him into a study of American history since, roughly, the time of the First World War. We got into a war which we had supposed we could stay out of, we oversold ourselves (once we got in) on what was going to be accomplished, and at the end it seemed that all of our fine hopes had been blighted. It was precisely then that the isolationist impulse came to full flower, and it proved an extremely hardy growth; bruised and trodden on though it has been of late, it is a long way from being dead. Where did it get its strength?

The Isolationist Impulse : Its Twentieth-Century Reaction , by Selig Adler. Abelard-Schuman, Ltd. 538 pp. $6.75.

Step by step, Mr. Adler traces it. Woodrow Wilson ran into many difficulties, some of them self-created, when he came back from Paris with the draft Treaty of Versailles and the concept of a League of Nations. The liberals, previously among his strong supporters, fell away from him. The pro-league arguments were cast in an unreal, idealistic form, instead of being based on the obvious point that it was to our material interest to set up machinery that would curb aggression and war; and in 1919 America had grown very disillusioned about idealism. The election of 1920 was tragically misinterpreted; everyone assumed that it was a referendum on the treaty and on the league, when in fact (as Mr. Adler insists) it was the result of the interaction of many very complex forces, including simple war-weariness. Not for years thereafter would any political party be willing to go to the people with an internationalist program.

Then came the Harding Administration, in which, as Mr. Adler says, we tried to retain the benefits of isolationism and still reap the benefits of a privileged position in the world’s market places. Washington washed its hands of responsibility for world economic conditions just when big business was getting into world economic affairs up to both elbows. Our statesmen and industrialists, imagining themselves perfectly in tune with each other, went in diametrically opposite directions.

The world economic depression—which, at least in part, grew out of this—greatly intensified the desire for isolation; and, as Mr. Adler says, “the isolationism of the 1930’s was much more profound than the rather superficial detachment of the preceding decade.” Dabbling in European affairs, apparently, had not only cost us our ideals but a great deal of money as well. We withdrew further into ourselves; at which moment came a new wave of aggressions, overseas, which tended to confirm our deep suspicions that international politics was no game for us. The New Deal did not stem the tide. On the contrary, the high-water mark of isolationism came in the neutrality legislation which bloomed between 1935 and 1937. Ironically, this legislation, Mr. Adler believes, made war all the more likely, for it helped persuade the megalomaniac Axis leaders that “the United States would stand by as they tore up the maps of Europe and Asia.”

Out of all this came, at last, the Second World War, which reversed the trend. It was not followed by a general retreat of the liberals, as had been the case in 1919, and it clearly destroyed the isolationist argument that if we fought against Fascism we would destroy the very values we were trying to save. Also, on a purely material plane, it restored the pulsing prosperity which had been missing for more than a decade. We no longer wanted to get back to a happier prewar age, because the prewar age, this time, did not look worth regaining. There was an aftermath, to be sure, and the postwar witch hunts can be seen as a final flare-up of the isolationist mood, but the great drive was over.

Over—for keeps? Mr. Adler is not entirely certain. We have not yet found, he sagely remarks, an adequate substitute for isolationism. The collective security ideal is still in the blueprint stage, the international situation is (to say the least) unpromising, and there could still be a revival of the insular tradition. We have always been torn between a desire to use our power to stabilize the world and an urge to remain aloof. At the moment the internationalists seem to have won; but their victory, Mr. Adler warns, was “a decision rather than a knockout.” The isolationists may yet demand a rematch; meanwhile, “the only certain thing about the future is its uncertainty.”

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