Isolationism — Prelude to World Wars

The Policy of Isolationism

Isolationism is a policy whereby a country separates itself from treaties, agreements and other international political and economic relations. It does so to utilize its resources and concentrate its efforts to advance its own interests. Isolationists believe that this practice keeps them out of foreign wars. Sadly, history has proven the folly of this belief.

Isolationism and World War I

When World War I exploded in 1914, the United States declared itself neutral among the combatants, reflecting its isolationist attitudes. Nonetheless, in 2015 Germany declared war against all ships that entered the war zone around Great Britain. Shortly thereafter Germany sunk a U.S. merchant ship. After U.S. outrage, Germany apologized and called the act an unfortunate mistake. Later that year a submarine sank the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing 1,198, including 128 Americans. As a result of strong U.S. protests, Germany agreed to end unrestricted submarine warfare.

In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted warfare at sea and sunk four more U.S. merchant ships. Soon thereafter, the U.S. declared war on Germany. By war’s end in 1918 about 50,000 Americans lost their lives among the 2 million Americans who had served.

Post World War I Isolationism

Following the end of World War I, the memory of its human and economic cost was fresh in the minds of America. It was no surprise that American public opinion again returned to isolationism. Many Americans believed that countries of Europe were likely to engage in disputes that could result in armed conflict. They did not want The U.S. to be drawn into a war in which its interests were not at risk.

President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the creation of a world organization to serve as a medium to resolve international disputes. But American public opinion did not support it. The U.S. refused to join the League of Nations, virtually assuring its future demise.

Immigration laws became more restrictive. In its early years the U.S. excluded Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians. Now the U.S. began to exclude Europeans, especially those of eastern and southern European countries.

To protect American manufacturers and farmers, the government raised tariffs to keep out foreign imports. At the same time, it provided loans to Europe to allow the purchase of more American goods.

Isolationism in the 1930’s 

In the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. The Hoover administration fueled this trade policy with passage of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930. In its desire to protect American farms and industry, the Act placed a multitude of tariffs on imported products. But as expected, other countries retaliated, resulting in economic decline for all.

Many believed that bankers and industrialists with interests in Europe encouraged America’s intervention in World War I. In support of that belief, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1939. Essentially, they restricted American companies from exporting instruments of war to warring countries along with other constraints. They prohibited loans to belligerents, Americans traveling on belligerent ships, and American ships from transporting war material to belligerents. Later Congress gave the President authority to sell any item except arms on a “cash and carry” basis. Eventually the prohibition on arms sales and other restrictions were removed.

Charles Lindbergh  

The strongest personality supporting isolationism in the 1930’s was Charles Lindbergh. After his solo flight to Europe in 1927, he became an international hero. In 1935 following the trial of the kidnapper and murderer of their infant son, the Lindberghs left the United States and moved to England in what was described as a forced exile. During his stay in Europe he visited Germany where he was treated as visiting royalty. Herman Goering, the number two Nazi, personally took Lindbergh to aircraft factories, research facilities and proudly displayed the “new Germany.” Advances made in air power, science and the Germans sense of national unity and purpose extremely impressed him.  He spoke out publicly in support of Nazi Germany.

In 1939 he returned to the United States. With war in Europe on the horizon, Lindbergh became a strong supporter of America’s military preparedness. Nonetheless, he still strongly pressed his  views on isolationism. But now they reflected a negative perspective on democracy itself and its ability to deal with the changing world. He ignored Nazism’s assault on free people while admiring its efficiency.

The America First Committee

In 1940 the America First Committee (AFC) was formed to oppose U.S. involvement in World War II. Its founders and supporters included a future U.S. President (Gerald Ford), Supreme Court Justice (Potter Stewart) and other prominent individuals. But it also included two prominent anti-Semites (Henry Ford and Avery Brundage). Though the latter two were dropped from the AFC’s Executive Committee, charges of anti-Semitism continued.

Charles Lindbergh was AFC’s principal spokesman and his speeches reflected this anti-Semitic viewpoint. Though he expressed sympathy for the plight of Jews in Europe, he accused Jews of advocating an un-American policy. Specifically, in a 1941 speech he cited “their large ownership and influence in” the movie industry, press, radio and government. He urged Jews to oppose the war “for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” Three months later the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor and the U.S. became a participant in World War II. The AFC then disbanded.

Trump’s America First

Fast forward to 2019. Trump’s worldwide outlook and policy direction look frighteningly similar to those that preceded two World Wars.

International Organizations

In his address to the United Nations in September 2018 Trump announced, “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” But Trump does not understand the word “patriotism.” After all, patriotism is the spirit which prompts obedience to the laws of one’s country, and the support and defense of its principles and institutions, all of which Trump rejects. When he says patriotism, he actually means nationalism.


The United Nations is not the only organization he rejects. James Mattis expressed his views on the subject of NATO and alliances in general. In his retirement letter as Secretary of Defense he wrote, “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” He also wrote,  “. . . we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” specifically naming China and Russia. Trump’s threats to leave NATO, disrespect of allies, acquiescence to Russian aggression and impetuous decision-making contrast sharply with Mattis’ beliefs. Mattis made clear he could not remain in his cabinet position and execute Trump’s policies, with which he sharply disagreed.


From the initial announcement of his candidacy for President, Trump took a hard line on immigration. He promised to keep out undesirables and initiate mass deportations of immigrants here illegally. His promise to build a wall that Mexico would pay for became a singular campaign slogan. But his executive actions on immigration—many of which the courts overturned—revealed an inherent bigotry against Latinos, Muslims, Africans and those from southeastern European countries. His evident bias and racism enabled white supremacist organizations to act more freely, fueling a rise in anti-Semitism as well.

Trade and Tariffs

By Trump’s measure, virtually every trade arrangement existing at the start of his presidency was detrimental to the United States. He set out to change them, negotiating a new—actually modified—NAFTA agreement and assessing tariffs on other countries’ imports. He publicly stated, trade wars are good, and easy to win,”  an assertion contrary to historical experience. His tariffs are already taking a toll on U.S. farmers and industries as well as those in other countries. Trade wars do not end well.

National Security

Donald Trump continues to embrace the same isolationist policies prevailing in the periods preceding World Wars I and II. He rebukes the global order of alliances that, regardless of their inherent weaknesses, have kept the peace for more than 70 years; initiates hard line immigration policies that not only deprive the work force of needed man (and woman) power, but foster bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism;  initiates trade wars with allies as well as opponents that benefit no one.

Isolationism emboldens enemies to take actions they otherwise would not take against a strong and powerful engaged country. The world is a dangerous place and disengaging from it only makes it that much more dangerous.

As Trump continues his isolationist policies and acquiescence to Russian aggression, he represents not “a,” but “the most” significant security risk for the United States.



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