There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.
The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.
Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.
Lindbergh’s father, a Republican House member from Minnesota who inspired his more famous aviator son’s isolationism, wrote two tracts that still find a ready audience, Banking and Currency and the Money Trust, an assault on usurers in the banks and the dirty tricks of big businessmen, and, when General Pershing’s expeditionary force set off to break the deadlock in World War One, Why is Your Country at War?. Many of the same ideas can be heard in the mouths of libertarians and Tea Party supporters today.
Here is Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate who became a Republican House member for Texas: “What was the advice of the founders? They said, stay out of the entangling alliances of all nations.” “Our foreign policy is destined to keep us involved in many wars that we have no business being in. National bankruptcy and a greater threat to our national security will result.” “There’s nobody in this world that could possibly attack us today. We could defend this country with a few good submarines.” “The neoconservative belief that we have a moral obligation to spread American values worldwide through force justifies the conditions of war in order to rally support at home for the heavy hand of government.” By any definition, Ron Paul is an isolationist.