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Essay: The U.S. - From Isolation to Intervention

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by Nicholas Klar

The movement of the United States from an isolationist foreign policy to one of intervention was a major ideological change for a country mostly used to looking inward. This change was most distinct during and immediately after WWII, and had worldwide implications. It will be argued that the policy was a clear progression, and was due to several linked factors.

These were the primacy of U.S. interests, the strong leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was clearly not isolationist), the changing public mood, the increasing influence of the military, and the perceived threat of Communism, particularly from the Soviets.

The changes in the 1930's and 40's will be discussed to see how they came about before concluding with their result - the liberal consensus. It will be argued that the consensus was not in reality the 'golden age' it was purported to be. All of these factors can be tied to the one issue of protection of U.S. interests.

The U.S. had developed isolationism to protect their interests, but as the world grew smaller these in turn were threatened by the forces of fascism and communism. Despite isolationism supposedly representing the 'historic American way', [Guinsburg p.278] the U.S. had in fact been intervening since the 1890's in places diverse as the Philippines, Siberia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico.

During the 19th century it had also 'grabbed' land in Texas, California, and Hawaii. The Monroe Doctrine, '-an object of exaggerated isolationist veneration' [Adler p.12], warned the European nations not to interfere in Latin America which was now considered within the influential sphere of America. [Quigley p.25] It is claimed that '- intervention is not a new phenomenon for the U.S., and hardly a product of the cold war.' [Ibid p.32]

A new policy needed to be instituted but during the great depression of the 1930's the public was not in any mood to allow its resources to be directed outward. In 1933 unemployment reached 25%, corn was worth -3 in North Dakota, and in some places the poverty was equal to that of Africa. Foreign entanglements were viewed as 'impairing reform or stability at home'.

At this time radical leaders like Huey Long and Father Coughlin rallied millions to their cause. Huey Long viewed entering the World Court as far less important than putting clothes on peoples backs. [Guinsburg pp.279,283] The drought, the new industrialization, and the depression began to rearrange much of rural America.

This is part of what Long and Coughlin defended, the autonomy of the individual and community against encroachments of the industrial state. Their message was a manifestation of its time. [Brinkley p.xi] Strangely, in the movie 'Grapes of Wrath' the depression does not seem to get any blame.

The characters display a lack of understanding about what was going on, and subsequent agitation for rights. Henry Fonda complains about unjust land distribution and the need to '-get together and fight so hungry people can eat'. Other scenes reflect the beginning of communist paranoia. Those who choose to protest low labor rates are branded 'labor finks'. When accused of being 'red agitators', they ask 'What's a red?'

After election Franklin Roosevelt found himself being 'pushed from the left'. Two million people had participated in protests, and farmers were being radicalized. Roosevelt's New Deal instituted much of what was taken for granted in later years, and would form a strong part of the liberal consensus supported by both major parties. The 'New Deal' coalition remained in force until the Nixon period.

Long and Coughlin were almost a last bastion of American localism. Their demise showed how feeble that tradition was becoming. They were dismissed as promoting paths that led to 'chaos and destruction'.[Ibid p.6] They could not admit that by the late stage of the 1930's it was no longer possible to restructure American society. [Ibid p.167]

Both found it impossible to wean support away from the very popular Roosevelt. Ironically the populist support they had gained was utilized by Roosevelt to expand federal power. It was this centralization of power and wealth during the 1930's, and the events of World War II, which finally rang the death knell of isolationism. [Ibid p.xii]

It is argued that the New Deal actually aided big business and the wealthy by propping up capitalism, tying workers down, bringing about monopolies, concentrating land ownership and perpetuating inequalities. These would later be strengthened under the guise of wartime restrictions, whilst at the same time radicals would only be allowed to offer token opposition.

When WWII struck, the physically and geographically isolated U.S. became, '- with the suddenness of a blitzkrieg, engaged with distant troubles.' [Terkel p.6] The impact of public opinion became vital after Gallup opinion polls had been introduced during the 1930's. This was clearly illustrated in the propaganda film 'Why we Fight:War Comes to America'. It was viewed that no policy could succeed without public support. [Foster p.1]

This would be particularly so after WWII, where for nearly two decades there was a remarkable homogeneity of opinion.[Ibid p.10] Even by December1941 70% of Americans favored an active role for the U.S. in world affairs. Yet in 1936 60% had favored neutrality for America in any European War.[Ibid p.19] What had occured to bring about this change? Its name is etched in infamy - Pearl Harbor.

Americans were now convinced that their countries future was inextricably interwoven with the rest of the world. Their nation was clearly under threat from the aggression of the Axis alliance. Even in the early stages of the war public support was high for 'some kind of international organization for peace'. By 1945 support for an embryo U.N. reached 90% [Ibid pp.20,28] WWII clearly, '- changed the physce, as well as the face, of the United States.' [Terkel p.3]

Yet who was influencing this opinion? Many times opinion varied greatly between the less educated and college graduates. In 'The Good War' you get a constant idea of young men who were unsure why they were fighting. Was it more traditional local values when expressed as, ' We were in a tribal situation', and 'There was a sense of not wanting to fail your buddies'. [Terkel p.5]

Meanwhile back on the west coast, kids hid in sand dunes waiting Japanese invaders and San Francisco saw bedlam as the local papers reported bombing. The question must be asked, were certain interests able to manipulate the situation which would lead to the abandonment of isolationism and later the liberal consensus?

Roosevelt fought long and hard with those who wanted to cling to isolationism. Senators with isolationist tendencies held a grip on the foreign relations committee. [Guinsburg p.215] There were those who wanted to avoid the painful experience of the post-WWI boom and bust. A compromise was worked out in through their support for the Lend-Lease Program and Neutrality Act. This was regarded hypocritically as 'staying out of danger but willing to take the cash.' [Ibid p.218]

Within ten days of Germany's invasion of Poland there was the worry that Roosevelt wanted the armed forces to 'follow the guns into the trenches'. Senator Vandenberg declared that the U.S. had to be '- either all the way in or all the way out.' Isolationist Senators like Wallace White had a 'fervent hope that Britain and France would prevail in their righteous cause'. [Ibid pp.221,230]

In an attempt to woo the middle ground Roosevelt sought to repeal the arms embargo but not the actual Neutrality Act. Despite the continued bitter infighting some began to believe that the governmental policies of isolation and non-intervention were dead issues. Nonetheless, on December 7th 1941 the great debate was silenced, it was now too late to consider the alternatives. [Ibid pp. 238,274]

The propaganda machine quickly swung into action. The U.S. was the inventor of liberty, it had the highest standard of living, the best way of life. Everything was good in America, its lifestyle, food, travel, clubs, and freedom of worship and the press. Hitler was laughing at America. A victory for the Axis powers would plunge subjugate 7/8 of the world into slavery. America did not want this war but was ready to respond. [Why We Fight : War Comes to America]

The thought that rules American foreign policy to this day was introduced - Only America could save the world for democracy. The published opinions built a consensus that the war was just and right. The 'Just War' clause has been pulled out continually to justify U.S. intervention. The danger to the U.S. was outside, not inside. The depression and internal conflicts of the 1930's were supposedly to be forgotten.

The War Production Board set to its job in haste. It intervened in the allocation of resources and underwrote industry incentives, whilst the army and navy offered 'cost plus' contracts. Competitive bidding and anti-trust regulations were discarded. Around 2/3 of military contracts went to 100 firms, around 1/2 to just 36. This established the huge military industrial complex which was to become a powerful and independent political force in coming years.

A retired Navy Admiral later reflected,

'World War Two changed everything. Our military runs our foreign policy. The State Department has become a lackey of the Pentagon. Before WWII this never happened. - The ultimate control was civilian. WWII changed all this.' [Terkel p.10]

Conditions were harsh with many pressed into completely new positions. Union membership rose by over 4 million. The labor mobilization had a huge effect. Despite rising wages, grievances brought major strikes. Women, Latinos and Blacks were drafted into the workforce. A huge rural migration of over 15 million people moved into the industrial centers.

Blacks moved in huge numbers to the north and became a potent political force to be dealt with. Racial conflicts became exacerbated, typified by the 'zoot suit' riots in L.A. Bad news was repressed, aliens interned, civil liberties restricted, and the still dissenting voices, like that of Father Coughlin, silenced.

Still, more redistribution of wealth occurred during the war than during the New Deal. The working class was becoming more affluent and the depression was being forgotten. Soon atomic bombs would fall on Japan, G.I.'s would come home to receive a college education, and the long golden boom years of liberal consensus would begin.

On July 28th 1945 the Senate formally approved U.S. membership of the new United Nations. Just 3 years and 7 months after Pearl Harbor the U.S. took its first official step to put '- aside its isolationist past and take an active part in world affairs.' After Roosevelt's death, his successor Harry Truman declared in 1947 that it must be U.S. policy to support free peoples resisting subjugation. [Foster pp.32,41]

Why this new attitude? In 'The Good War' Steve McConnell said,

'The meaning of WWII for me was being victorious. That was what the war movies taught us, what John Wayne taught us. We won and we were right. America had proved it's strength. We had conquered the world. We were riding it, taking it for everything it was worth. We were the giants. We could do what we want to.' [Terkel p.584]

Mainland United States had been left undamaged by the war and was now the industrial and military powerhouse of the world. It's exports and politics were now truly worldwide. [Ibid p.12] The country '- had inherited the earth [as a] miraculous economic machine [where it could be believed] they had been anointed by God-.' [Terkel p.12] The U.S. was prepared to maintain this preeminence as the global stakes grew higher. [Quigley p.32]

The development of NATO marked the complete abandonment of isolationism. Now those who supported isolationism also supported communism. Between 1946 and 1949 the U.S. became fixated with the supposed expansionism of the 'Soviet Red Threat'. In 1948 74% expected war within the next 10 years, up from 28% just 2 years earlier. [Foster p.60]

The overwhelming majority no longer questioned the need for an interventionist policy. Instead it asked how much was needed to be spent in foreign lands, and in what countries American money would best promote their security. [Adler p.456]

The focus also turned to the threat within. Soon after V-J day accusations that some government employees may not be completely loyal began to surface in the press. The later 'witch hunts' of the McCarthy era were only merely picking up on an old issue and exploiting the mood. [Ibid pp.73-74, also Adler p.456]

A great change had swept across America, particularly it's capital. When Telford Taylor returned in 1949 after 7 years away he found it a very different place,

'I had left Washington at a time when it was still Roosevelt, liberalism, social action, and all these things. When I came back, the Dies committee, the cold war, I didn't know what hit me' [Terkel p.13]

Ralph McGehee, recruited into the fledgling C.I.A., was proud of it's purpose,

'An anti-communist paranoia existed in the country and I shared those feelings. I believed I was out to save the world for religion and democracy.' [City on the Hill p.20]

In liberal consensus grew the elements of how America viewed itself. The preservation of capitalism was vital, avoiding the excesses of right and left. Capitalism was not to be the downtrodden type, therefore social welfare and regulation were legitimate government roles. The basis was the nuclear family with strict gender roles.

Between 1948 and the 60's all Presidents, Democrat or Republican, believed strongly in this 'shared vision'. Yet there was still a denial of fundamental internal problems. This was brushed away with the assumption that America's problems only came from outside, most commonly the 'red threat'. Opposition to this threat meant only Soviet inspiration or madness!

It was argued that America had moved beyond ideology, had abolished class, and had achieved a consensus of government, business and intellectuals. Union membership began declining in the 1950's and opposition on the left became practically nil. There was no counterbalance to the all powerful consensus, at least none that was allowable. The vast majority wanted to prove themselves 'good Americans'. [Hodgson pp.69,74,75,81,98]

The WWII period was a time of solidarity and unity for the U.S. Its primary concern was not to return to division and depression of the 1930's. Therefore as the economy grew it became increasingly reliant on overseas factors. Prior to the war the economy had been largely self contained, there was no need to move from its isolationist policy. This changed with the perceived Soviet threat.

Americans readily supported their governments new idology and its efforts to contain communism. The new wealth of the U.S. was to be jealously guarded. The growing standard of living meant each person had a stake in the protection of capitalism, democracy and religion. Radical social and political movements were repressed and abandoned. A form of tribalism replaced localism.

A majority of Americans found themselves swayed by the arguments put forth by government, press, business and labor. World War Two did prove to be an ideological watershed for the U.S. However, the new policy of interventionism was not an aberration, it was only continuing the tradition of protecting American interests. 


Selig Adler 'The Isolationist Impulse' NY:1957

Alan Brinkley 'Voices of Protest : Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression' NY:1983

'City on the Hill Press' 1/28/92

H.Schuyler Foster 'Activism Replaces Isolationism : U.S. Public Attitudes 1940 - 1975' Washington D.C. 1983

'Grapes of Wrath' (Movie) 20th Century Fox:1940

Thomas Guinsburg 'The Pursuit of Isolationism' NY:1982

Godfrey Hodgson 'America in our Time' NY:1986

John Quigley 'The Ruses for War : American Intervention Since WWII' NY:1992

Studs Terkel 'The Good War' NY:1984

'Why We Fight : War Comes to America' (Movie) 1942

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "The U.S. - From Isolation to Intervention" - + date accessed

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