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Non-interventionism, the diplomatic policy whereby a nation seeks to avoid alliances with other nations in order to avoid being drawn into wars not related to direct territorial self-defense, has had a long history in the United Statesmarker.

Non-interventionism, or isolationism on the part of the United States over the course of its foreign policy, is more of a want to aggressively protect the United States' interests than a want to shun the rest of the world.

US isolationism usually manifested itself in fierce anti-war sentiments and the rejection of international trade.

Early background

Thomas Paine is generally credited with instilling the first non-interventionist ideas into the American body politic; his work Common Sense contains many arguments in favor of avoiding alliances. These ideas introduced by Paine took such a firm foothold that the Second Continental Congress struggled against forming an alliance with Francemarker and only agreed to do so when it was apparent that the American Revolutionary War could be won in no other manner.

George Washington's farewell address is often cited as laying the foundation for a tradition of American non-interventionism:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation.
Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.
Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

John Adams followed George Washington's ideas about non-interventionism by avoiding a very realistic possibility of war with France. Many Americans were clamoring for war and Adams refusal and persistence in seeking negotiation would lead his political rival Thomas Jefferson to take the presidency in the next election.

No entangling alliances (19th century)

President Thomas Jefferson extended Washington's ideas in his March 4, 1801 inaugural address: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Jefferson's phrase "entangling alliances" is, incidentally, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Washington.

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which some have interpreted as non-interventionist in intent: "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense."

The United States' policy of non-intervention was maintained throughout most of the 19th century. The first significant foreign intervention by the US was the Spanish-American War, which saw the US occupy and control the Philippinesmarker. Since this was the first take-over of non-contiguous territory where people speak a different language, this is generally considered the first colonial act of the US.

20th century non-intervention

Theodore Roosevelt's administration is credited with inciting the Panamanian Revolt against Colombia in order to secure construction rights for the Panama Canal (begun in 1904).

United Statesmarker President Woodrow Wilson, after winning reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war," promptly intervened in World War I. Yet non-interventionist sentiment remained; the U.S. Congress refused to endorse the Treaty of Versailles or the League of Nations.

Isolationism Between the Two World Wars

In the wake of the First World War, the isolationist tendencies of US foreign policy were in full force. First, the United States Congress rejected president Woodrow Wilson’s most cherished condition of the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations. Many Americans felt that they did not need the rest of the world, and that they were fine making decisions concerning peace on their own. Even though ‘anti-League’ was the policy of the nation, private citizens and lower diplomats either supported or observed the League. This quasi-isolationism shows that the US was interested in foreign affairs, but was afraid that by pledging full support for the League, the United States would lose the ability to act on foreign policy as it pleased.

Although the United States was unwilling to commit to the League of Nations, they were willing to engage in foreign affairs on their own terms. In August 1928, fifteen nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, brainchild of American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. This pact that was said to have outlawed war and showed the United States commitment to international peace had its semantic flaws. For example, it did not hold the United States to the conditions of any existing treaties, it still allowed European nations the right to self-defense, and it stated that if one nation broke the Pact, it would be up to the other signatories to enforce it. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was more of a sign of good intentions on the part of the US, rather than a legitimate step towards the sustenance of world peace.

Isolationism took a new turn after the Crash of 1929. With the economic hysteria, the US began to focus solely on fixing its economy within its borders and ignored the outside world. As the world’s democratic powers were busy fixing their economies within their borders, the fascist powers of Europe and Asia silently moved their armies into a position to start World War II, but this was a direct result of U.S. intervention in World War I, as military victory then took the place of what would have inevitably been a truce. With military victory came the spoils of war - a very draconian pummeling of Germany into submission, via the Treaty of Versailles. This near-total humiliation of Germany in the wake of World War I - as the treaty placed sole blame for the war on the nation - laid the groundwork for a pride-hungry German people to embrace Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

As Europe moved closer and closer to war in the late 1930s, the United States Congress was doing everything it could to prevent it. Between 1936 and 1937, much to the dismay of the pro-Britain President Roosevelt, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts. These Acts did everything they could to delay US entry in to the now inevitable European war. These Acts were not aimed at keeping America out of a modern world war, but the previous one. For example, in the final Neutrality Act, Americans could not sail on ships flying the flag of a belligerent nation or trade arms with warring nations, both causes for US entry into World War I.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Polandmarker; Britainmarker and Francemarker subsequently declared war on Germany, marking the start of World War II. In an address to the American People two days later, President Roosevelt assured the nation that he would do all he could to keep them out of war. However, his words showed his true goals. “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger,” Roosevelt said. Even though he was intent on neutrality as the official policy of the United States, he still echoed the dangers of staying out of this war. He also cautioned the American people to not let their wish to avoid war at all costs supersede the security of the nation.

The war in Europe split the American people into two distinct groups: isolationists and interventionists. The two sides argued over America’s involvement in this Second World War. The basic principle of the interventionist argument was fear of German invasion. By the summer of 1940, France had fallen to the Germans, and Britain was the only democratic stronghold between Germany and the United States. Interventionists feared that if Britain fell, their security as a nation would shrink immediately. They were also afraid of a world after this war, a world where we would have to coexist with the fascist power of Europe. In a 1940 speech, Roosevelt argued, “Some, indeed, still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we … can safely permit the United States to become a lone island … in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”

Ultimately, the ideological rift between the ideals of the United States and the goals of the fascist powers is what made the core of the interventionist argument. “How could we sit back as spectators of a war against ourselves?” writer Archibald MacLeish questioned. The reason why interventionists said we could not coexist with the fascist powers was not due to economic pressures our deficiencies in our armed forces but rather because it was the goal of fascist leaders to destroy the American ideology of democracy. In an address to the American people on December 29, 1940, President Roosevelt said, “…the Axis not merely admits but proclaims that there can be no ultimate peace between their philosophy of government and our philosophy of government.” It is not that the interventionists are war mongering and power hungry, it is that they are fearful for the preservation of the American way of life, after these years of war.

However, there were still many who held on to the age-old tenants of isolationism. Although a minority, they were well organized, and had a powerful presence in Congress. Isolationists rooted a significant portion of their arguments in historical precedent, citing events such as Washington’s farewell address and the failure of World War I. Ultimately, it came down to the moral and physical separation of the United States from the rest of the world. “If we have strong defenses and understand and believe in what we are defending, we need fear nobody in this world,” Robert Hutschins, President of the University of Chicago, wrote in a 1940 essay. Isolationists believed that our safety as a nation was more important than any foreign war. The interesting thing is that the arguments the isolationists used in 1940 echoed the themes of Washington and Jefferson. Charles Lindbergh’s words in a 1940 speech, “…those of us who believe in an independent American destiny must … organize for strength,” is not that different from Washington’s pleas for international isolation.

As 1940 became 1941, the actions of the Roosevelt administration made it more and more clear that the United States was on a course to war. This policy shift, driven by the President, came in two phases. The first came in 1939 with the passage of the Fourth Neutrality Act, which permitted the United States to trade arms with belligerent nations, as long as these nations came to America to retrieve the arms, and pay for them in cash. This policy was quickly dubbed, ‘Cash and Carry.’ The second phase was the Lend-Lease Act of early 1941. This act allowed the President, “…to lend, lease, sell, or barter arms, ammunition, food, or any ‘defense article’ or any ‘defense information’ to ‘the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.’” He used these two programs to side economically with the British and the French in their fight against the Nazis. In doing so, he made the American economy dependent upon an allied victory. In terms of policy, the United States was on a path to war but the American people still wished to avoid it at all costs, a wish that would come untrue.

After World War II

The interventionist policies did not evaporate with Allied victory in World War II. The Cold War and decline of the non-interventionist Old Right, replaced by the ardently anti-communist New Right of William F. Buckley, Jr., made interventionism the US foreign policy for the rest of the century.

Today, non-interventionists argue that the United States is far removed from its earlier history of non-intervention.

They point to both Republican and Democratic presidents who, since the 1950s, have often used intervention as a tactic of foreign policy, including:

See also



  • Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction. New York: The Free Press, 1957.
  • The Annals of America. vol. 16. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1968.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "American Isolationism, 1939-1941" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer/Fall 1982, 6(3), pp. 201–216.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Explaining the Antiwar Movement, 1939-1941: The Next Assignment" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1986, 8(1), pp. 139–162.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Literature of Isolationism, 1972-1983: A Bibliographic Guide" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1983, 7(1), pp. 157–184.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Anti-Interventionism of Herbert Hoover" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer 1987, 8(2), pp. 311–340.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Fireside Chats.” 3 Sep. 1939, 29 Dec. 1940, 9 Dec. 1941.
  • Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1935.

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