Let us start with a simple truism: There is not now, nor has there ever been, any such thing as “isolationism” in the history of American foreign policy.
In the lexicon of Wilsonian internationalists and neoconservative interventionists, isolationism was a ghastly policy from the prehistoric era of American politics. Isolationists, they warn, wished to quarantine America from trade and diplomatic relations with the outside world. If isolationists had their way, America would look like a scene from Deliverance, a land of strange, hump-backed mountain people with dragging knuckles and odd numbers of chromosomes.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. This version of “isolationism” is a self-serving fabrication invented by interventionists to make minding our own business sound like an evil idea.
America’s Founders were very specific about the foreign policy paradigm they believed America should embrace. George Washington’s farewell address, in which he warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, is the most obvious example. John Quincy Adams’ famous speech about America not “going forth in search of monsters to destroy” is another.
But America’s Founders were not ignorant xenophobes. They were erudite men with an intimate understanding of history, economics, and politics. Several of them, including Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, lived abroad, spoke several foreign languages, and made significant contributions to science and philosophy.
Even as they strove to create a new nation, our Founders consciously tried to avoid the mistakes of the Old World. Europe was, in their view, a bubbling cauldron of dynastic intrigue, war, and repression.
Being familiar with the history of militarism stretching back to the Roman Empire, the Founders also knew that standing armies and sprawling military-industrial complexes were incompatible with the survival of a free republic.
Far from being an evil, stultifying influence on our nation’s cultural development, “isolationism” (or, more accurately, “non-interventionism”) was the most successful foreign policy paradigm in American history.
For the first century of America’s existence, we followed the Founders’ sage advice and prospered because of it. Isolationism was accompanied by miraculous economic growth, the flowering of industry, and a positive balance of trade. During that time, the federal government was small, weak, and practiced strict fiscal discipline.
In the era of interventionism, on the other hand, the federal government has metastasized beyond the worst nightmares of our Founders. Mushrooming military budgets have spawned sky-high taxes, an avalanche of debt, and the curse of monetary inflation. Even worse, militarism has gone hand-in-hand with an erosion of our civil liberties as an increasingly paranoid national security bureaucracy has created ominous programs such as "Total Information Awareness" and "Extraordinary Rendition".
But a comparison of the two foreign policy paradigms really need go no further than a review of casualty statistics.
In the early days of the American Republic, the Napoleonic Wars were raging throughout Europe. Despite the geopolitical tumult, no prominent American leader encouraged our participation in what was deemed to be yet another of Europe’s seemingly interminable conflicts.
Thus, despite the chaos and death that were engulfing the Old World, America abstained and went about her business.
The European casualty statistics were grim:
French and allied: 400,000
The United States wisely avoided the war altogether. And even if we consider the War of 1812 to be part of the Napoleonic wars, our casualties were still mild by comparison (America lost only 2,260 soldiers in that conflict).
World War I marked a crucial turning point. In keeping with tradition, the American people were reluctant to become involved in another European war, especially one that had no real bearing on our national security. But for the first time, a scheming president and an increasingly messianic American political elite conspired with rapacious special interest groups and foreign governments to maneuver America into the conflict.
Woodrow Wilson, while campaigning on a platform of keeping America out of the war, duplicitously worked behind the scenes to secure our involvement.
Fortunately, the instinctive noninterventionism of the American people foiled his plots until April of 1917. By that time, the war had already been raging since August of 1914, and America had avoided nearly 2/3 of the entire debacle.
The net effect of American “isolationism” is evident in the statistics:
Total military deaths:
America, by contrast, lost a “mere” 117,000 soldiers.
This story repeated itself in WW II. Once again, an interventionist president campaigned on a platform of peace. Once again, he duplicitously worked behind the scenes to secure American involvement. By the time Roosevelt had maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, America had sat out nearly 40% of the war (even more, if you consider the Japanese/Chinese conflict as the starting point).
Once again, the statistics tell the tale:
Total military deaths:
The United States, by comparison, lost 416,000 men in the war.
Thus, when the statistics from just these three wars are considered, it is no exaggeration to say that literally millions of American lives were saved by isolationist foreign policy.
To counter these arguments about the beneficial effects of isolationism, interventionists like speculate about how a more “timely” American intervention could have altered the course of various wars.
Admittedly, one could argue that more American casualties in various European conflicts would have been worth the beneficial effects of earlier American involvement, but such arguments are tenuous –and the historical speculation game can be played both ways.
For instance, what good could have come from American involvement in the Napoleonic Wars that would have justified hundreds of thousands of casualties? Is the world any worse off because we stayed out of that war altogether?
As for WW I, sound arguments have been made that even America’s limited involvement had tragic effects on the course of the war. Without the hope of impending American reinforcements, the Allies probably would have been forced negotiate a just peace with the Central Powers –meaning no vindictive Versailles Treaty, no German economic collapse, no Hitler (and probably no Stalin or Mao) and no WW II.
This conclusion is amplified by the bitter reality that WW I simply was none of America’s business. Most of Wilson’s arguments about “making the world safe for democracy” were pure twaddle. When Lenin published secret Allied treaties signed by the Tsarist government, it became readily apparent that all sides had ulterior motives in entering the war, motives that smacked more of territorial ambition and mercantilist trade policies than anything resembling political idealism.
With these facts in mind, it is no exaggeration to say that 117,000 unfortunate American soldiers died for nothing.
While WW II was more morally justifiable than WW I, America is often criticized by interventionists for avoiding the war until Pearl Harbor forced our hand. But such arguments invite deeper analysis. If America had entered the European theater when Britain and France declared war on Germany (in 1939), how would things have changed? We could not have reinforced France in time to stave off its collapse, nor could we have saved Poland from the blitzkrieg.
In fact, the only thing about which we can be reasonably sure is that Hitler would not have invaded Russia while the American army was crossing the Atlantic to reinforce Britain. He only launched Operation Barbarossa when he had defeated France and bloodied the English, thus securing his Western flank. In the face of American action, he would have been forced to maintain his alliance with the Russia and keep his army in Western Europe.
Since the Russians are the ones who sustained enormous casualties while ultimately destroying the Nazi war machine, this turn of events would have meant that the UK and the USA would have had to launch a cross-channel invasion into the teeth of the entire German army.
Assuming that such a feat would have even been possible (something I highly doubt), the Anglo-American casualties would have been staggering… probably in the millions.
Thus, when the interventionists lecture Americans about the evils of 1930s isolationism, what they are really suggesting is that America should have taken millions of casualties instead of the Red Army.
Again, I fail to see how that would have made the world a better place.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of WW II – when interventionist foreign policy became the order of the day – what has been the net result?
By and large, America’s Globocop routine has been a disaster. Time and again, America has been dragged into absurd wars that were only tenuously linked to America’s security. Interventionism gave us a bloody stalemate in Korea, a horrific defeat in Vietnam, and a string of embarrassing clusterbungles in such diverse locations as Somalia, Haiti, and Iraq.
All the while, our national debt has skyrocketed, our civil liberties have been trampled, and our reputation around the world has been wrecked.
In light of these failures, the time has come to dust off the sage advice of our Founders, to discard the failed policy of world empire and to embrace the quintessentially American policy of noninterventionism.
Some establishment ideologues will undoubtedly accuse us of “isolationism,” but too much is at stake for us to be deterred by mere name-calling. We must embrace the slur and rise above it.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry: If this be isolationism, then let us make the most of it.
Steven LaTulippe was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years. He currently practices medicine in Ohio.