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Where Are the Isolationists?


President Bush’s State of the Union address was one odd speech indeed. Besides his silly statement about our being “addicted to oil” and his messianic declarations in response to the “call of history,” he referred to isolationism four different times. Who favors isolationism?

That of course depends on what it means. The president gave one indication of what he means when he said, “In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting — yet it ends in danger and decline.” Here he equates isolationism and protectionism, but there’s no necessary connection. Isolationism has historically denoted abhorrence of meddling in other nation’s wars. By that definition, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were isolationists. So was John Quincy Adams, at least as secretary of state, when he said, “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

But notice that there is no logical connection between such isolationism and protectionism. Military isolation is not commercial isolation. It is possible to stay out of other people’s quarrels and to trade with everyone peacefully. As William Graham Sumner, a free trader and opponent of the Spanish-American War, said,

Our ancestors all came here to isolate themselves from the social burdens and inherited errors of the old world. When the others are all over ears in trouble, who would not be isolated in freedom from care? When the others are crushed under the burden of militarism, who would not be isolated in peace and industry? When the others are all struggling under debt and taxes, who would not be isolated in the enjoyment of his own earnings for the benefit of his own family? When the rest are all in a quiver of anxiety, lest at a day’s notice they may be involved in a social cataclysm, who would not be isolated out of reach of the disaster? What we are doing is that we are abandoning this blessed isolation to run after a share in the trouble.

Bush’s supporters will say that 9/11 should have disabused us of such thoughts. But only the ignorant or willfully blind think we were isolationist before 9/11.

Let’s face it, President Bush was using that word to smear his critics. Look at what he said:

“America rejects the false comfort of isolationism…. Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies, it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need…. American leaders — from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan — rejected isolation and retreat, because they knew that America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.”

Observe how Bush links isolation and retreat — as though minding one’s own business constitutes surrender.

And that’s quite a rogues’ gallery he invoked. Franklin Roosevelt promised we would not fight in a foreign war — all the time he was goading Germany and Japan into attacking. Germany avoided the trap, but years of strangling Japan economically finally were too much and, much as Roosevelt hoped, it attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Harry Truman started the tradition of entering wars without a congressional declaration as called for in the U.S. Constitution. Back then you had to call a war a “police action” to get away with that. Today it’s not necessary.

John F. Kennedy made war on Castro and Cuba. Like Truman, he saw no need to ask for a declaration of war. Neither did Ronald Reagan in Lebanon or Grenada or Libya. It should be obvious why Bush did not put Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on his list. Bush wants you to believe that his Democratic critics are isolationists. If only it were so.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.