I cannot recommend too highly an op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post, entitled, “Quit Calling Donald Trump an Isolationist. He’s Worse than That” by Stephen Wertheim, a Fellow in History at King’s College at the University of Cambridge. It is an absolutely excellent analysis of Trump, foreign policy, militarism, and isolationism.
Those who support U.S. interventionism around the world have accused Trump of wanting to return to the era of “isolationism.” Referring to the period after World War I, the term is used to describe the belief among most Americans to stay out of another European war.
Why did Americans favor staying out of what became World War II? Because they were totally disgusted with the results of U.S. intervention in World War I. Remember: The goal of interventionists in that war was to bring an end, once and for all, to Europe’s endless wars and to “make the world safe for demoracy.”
The exact opposite happened. Within 20 years, Europe’s endless wars were about to erupt again, especially with the rise of Nazi Germany.
Americans could see that U.S. interventionism into World War II had brought nothing but senseless death, destruction, and loss of liberty to the American people. That’s why they were adamantly opposed to entering World War II.
It was an enormous movement, consisting of the overwhelming majority of the American people. Interventionists today love to smear the movement by saying that it consisted of anti-Semites. Perhaps they are referring to President John F. Kennedy and President Gerald Ford, both of whom were part of the anti-interventionist movement. The reality is that while the movement included a few people who sympathized with Nazism or fascism, the overwhelming number of anti-interventionists were people with regular beliefs who just opposed U.S. entry into another European war.
There is another factor to consider here: The anti-interventionists were not isolationists. They favored interaction among the American people and the rest of the world, primarily through trade. In other words, they wanted to constrain the U.S. government by prohibiting its entry into another world war while, at the same time, unleash the American private sector to trade with everyone in the world.
Ironically, that’s what interventionists have long called “isolationism.” They hold that as long as a nation’s government is constrained from participating in overseas conflicts and wars, that nation is “isolationist” even if the private sector is freely interacting with the rest of the world.
The anti-interventionists prior to World War II were actually reflecting the anti-interventionist mindset that guided the founding of the United States. The famous speech to Congress by John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821, entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy,” set forth the founding principles of America when it came to foreign policy.
Adams pointed out that there were lots of monsters around the world that caused untold suffering for people. Tyrants, dictatorships, famines, wars, conflicts, and disease. The United States, Adams said, would not send its military forces abroad to save people from these monsters. Instead, the American people would focus on creating a free, prosperous, and harmonious society here at home for the world to emulate.
In the process, the nation’s founding principles would also include free trade and open immigration, thereby unleashing the ability of the American people to interact with the people of the world. That’s why there were no immigration controls for the first 100 years of American history. Americans were sending a message to people everywhere, which said, “We won’t send our military forces to save you from those monsters but if you are able to escape, know that there will always be at least one nation that won’t force you to return to those monsters if you are able to get here.
Notice that Trump’s mindset is completely different from that of American anti-interventionists. He wants to build walls around American consisting of higher tariffs and immigration controls. In other words, he wants to isolate the American private sector from the rest of the world. His isolationism contradicts the free-trade, open-immigration philosophy that guided the founding of our country.
But it’s worse than that because Trump is also an ardent militarist. He wants to unleash the U.S. military and the CIA to continue their post-World War II policy of perpetual interventionism all over the world. At the same time, Trump wants Americans to glorify the military establishment. He’s even planning on holding grandiose military parades in cities all across America, where Americans can ogle and praise all the military armaments their tax monies are purchasing.
Once again, Trump’s mindset runs contrary to the fervent anti-militarist spirit that guided the founding of the United States. The American people who were living at the time the Constitution called the federal government into existence hated military establishments, which they believed constituted a grave threat to their economic well-being and their liberty. Just take a look at what some of the Founding Fathers said about standing armies: https://www.fff.org/2013/03/04/gun-control-and-the-dangers-of-a-standing-army.
Throughout U.S. history there has been an enormous battle taking place between interventionists and non-interventionists. For the first hundred years, the anti-interventionists held sway. The turn toward interventionism and, for that matter, empire, started in 1898 with the Spanish American War. For an excellent account of that major turning point, I recommend the excellent new book by Stephen Kinzer, whose articles we often link to in our FFF Daily—The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.
The Spanish American War was followed by the disastrous intervention into World War I, where tens of thousands of American men died for nothing.
Once President Franklin Roosevelt succeeding in getting Japan to attack the United States, the anti-interventionist movement was finished. Then, after World War II the interventionists embroiled the United States in a “cold war” against their World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union. In the process, they converted the federal government from a constitutionally limited-government republic to a national security state, without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment.
Then came endless interventionism all over the world, through invasions, occupations, coups, assassinations, support of dictatorships, bribery, kidnapping, and much more. Wars in Korea and Vietnam. Regime change operations in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere.
When the Cold War suddenly and unexpectedly ended in 1989, it all morphed into an endless “war on terrorism” (and on Islam, Muslims, and Sharia law), including wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, which are proving to be endless in nature. As a consequence, the economic well-being of the American people remains under growing threat from an ever-increasing federal debt, and the liberty of the American people remains under growing threat from an ever-more-powerful national security establishment.
But the battle between the interventionists and non-interventionists continues. See this article about how Americans today are rediscovering and embracing our nation’s anti-interventionist heritage.