The Evolution of American Isolationism

Anti-Isolationism poster ‘sorry we're closed’ sign wrapped in barbwire on top of the American flag.
Anti-Isolationism poster ‘sorry we're closed’ sign wrapped in barbwire on top of the American flag. Getty Images

“Isolationism” is a government policy or doctrine of taking no role in the affairs of other nations. A government’s policy of isolationism, which that government may or may not officially acknowledge, is characterized by a reluctance or refusal to enter into treaties, alliances, trade commitments, or other international agreements.

Supporters of isolationism, known as “isolationists,” argue that it allows the nation to devote all of its resources and efforts to its own advancement by remaining at peace and avoiding binding responsibilities to other nations.

American Isolationism

While it has been practiced to some degree in U.S. foreign policy since before the War for Independence, isolationism in the United States has never been about a total avoidance of the rest of the world. Only a handful of American isolationists advocated the complete removal of the nation from the world stage. Instead, most American isolationists have pushed for the avoidance of the nation’s involvement in what Thomas Jefferson called “entangling alliances.” Instead, U.S. isolationists have held that America could and should use its wide-ranging influence and economic strength to encourage the ideals of freedom and democracy in other nations by means of negotiation rather than warfare.

Isolationism refers to America's longstanding reluctance to become involved in European alliances and wars. Isolationists held the view that America's perspective on the world was different from that of European societies and that America could advance the cause of freedom and democracy by means other than war.

The Isolationist Poster, 1924
The Isolationist Poster, 1924.

Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

American isolationism may have reached its zenith on 1940, when a group of Congress members and influential private citizens, headed by already-famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, formed the America First Committee (AFC) with the specific goal of preventing America from becoming involved in World War II then being waged in Europe and Asia.

When the AFC first convened on September 4, 1940, Lindbergh told the gathering that while isolationism did not mean walling off America from contact with the rest of the world, “it does mean that the future of America will not be tied to these eternal wars in Europe. It means that American boys will not be sent across the ocean to die so that England or Germany or France or Spain may dominate the other nations.”

“An independent American destiny means, on the one hand, that our soldiers will not have to fight everybody in the world who prefers some other system of life to ours. On the other hand, it means that we will fight anybody and everybody who attempts to interfere with our hemisphere,” Lindbergh explained.

Related to the overall war effort, the AFC also opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease plan to send U.S. war materials to Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union. “The doctrine that we must enter the wars of Europe in order to defend America will be fatal to our nation if we follow it,” said Lindbergh at the time.

After growing to over 800,000 members, the AFC disbanded on December 11, 1941, less than a week after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In its final press release, the Committee stated that while its efforts might have prevented it, the Pearl Harbor attack made it the duty of all Americans to support the war effort to defeat Nazism and the Axis powers.

His mind and heart changed, Lindbergh flew more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater as a civilian, and after the war, traveled throughout Europe helping with the U.S. military rebuild and revitalize the continent.

American Isolationism Born in the Colonial Period

Isolationist feelings in America dates back to the colonial period. The last thing many American colonists wanted was any continued involvement with the European governments that had denied them religious and economic freedom and kept them enmeshed in wars. Indeed, they took comfort in the fact that they were now effectively “isolated” from Europe by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite an eventual alliance with France during the War for Independence, the basis of American isolationism can is found in Thomas Paine’s famed paper Common Sense, published in 1776. Paine’s impassioned arguments against foreign alliances drove the delegates to the Continental Congress to oppose the alliance with France until it became obvious that the revolution would be lost without it. 

Twenty years and an independent nation later, President George Washington memorably spelled out the intent of American isolationism in his Farewell Address:

“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.”

Washington’s opinions of isolationism were widely accepted. As a result of his Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the U.S. dissolved its alliance with France. And in 1801, the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural address, summed up American isolationism as a doctrine of "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none…” 

The 19th Century: The Decline of US Isolationism

Through the first half of the 19th century, America managed to maintain its political isolation despite its rapid industrial and economic growth and status as a world power. Historians again suggest that the nation’s geographical isolation from Europe continued to allow the U.S. to avoid the “entangling alliances” feared by the Founding Fathers.

Without abandoning its policy of limited isolationism, the United States expanded its own borders from coast-to-coast and began creating territorial empires in the Pacific and the Caribbean during the 1800s. Without forming binding alliances with Europe or any of the nations involved, the U.S. fought three wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine boldly declared that the United States would consider the colonization of any independent nation in North or South America by a European nation to be an act of war. In delivering the historic decree, President James Monroe voiced the isolationist view, stating, “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.”

But by the mid-1800s, a combination of world events began to test the resolve of American isolationists:

  • The expansion of the German and Japanese military industrial empires that would eventually immerse the United States in two world wars had begun.
  • Though short-lived, the occupation of the Philippines by the United States during the Spanish-American war had inserted American interests into the Western Pacific islands — an area generally considered to be part of Japan’s sphere of influence.
  • Steamships, undersea communications cables, and radio enhanced America’s stature in world trade, but at the same time, brought her closer to her potential enemies.

Within the United States itself, as industrialized mega-cities grew, small-town rural America — long the source of isolationist feelings — shrank.

The 20th Century: The End of US Isolationism 

World War I (1914 to 1919)

Though actual battle never touched her shores, America’s participation in World War I marked the nation’s first departure from its historic isolationist policy.

During the conflict, the United States entered into binding alliances with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, and Serbia to oppose the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.

However, after the war, the United States returned to its isolationist roots by immediately ending all of its war-related European commitments. Against the recommendation of President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. Senate rejected the war-ending Treaty of Versailles, because it would have required the U.S. to join the League of Nations.

As America struggled through the Great Depression from 1929 to 1941, the nation’s foreign affairs took a back seat to economic survival. To protect U.S. manufacturers from foreign competition, the government imposed high tariffs on imported goods.

World War I also brought an end to America’s historically open attitude toward immigration. Between the pre-war years of 1900 and 1920, the nation had admitted over 14.5 million immigrants. After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, fewer than 150,000 new immigrants had been allowed to enter the U.S. by 1929. The law restricted the immigration of “undesirables” from other countries, including “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity…”

World War II (1939 to 1945)

While avoiding the conflict until 1941, World War II marked a turning point for American isolationism. As Germany and Italy swept through Europe and North Africa, and Japan began taking over Eastern Asia, many Americans started to fear that the Axis powers might invade the Western Hemisphere next. By the end of 1940, American public opinion had started to shift in favor of using U.S. military forces to help defeat the Axis. 

Still, nearly one million Americans supported the America First Committee, organized in 1940 to oppose the nation’s involvement in the war. Despite pressure from isolationists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proceeded with his administration’s plans to assist the nations targeted by the Axis in ways not requiring direct military intervention.

Even in the face of Axis successes, a majority of Americans continued to oppose actual U.S. military intervention. That all changed on the morning of December 7, 1941, when naval forces of Japan launched a sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On December 8, 1941, America declared war on Japan. Two days later, the America First Committee disbanded. 

After World War II, the United States helped establish and became a charter member of the United Nations in October 1945. At the same time, the emerging threat posed by Russia under Joseph Stalin and the specter of communism that would soon result in the Cold War effectively lowered the curtain on the golden age of American isolationism.

War on Terror: A Rebirth of Isolationism?

While the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, initially spawned a spirit of nationalism unseen in America since World War II, the ensuing War on Terror may have resulted in the return of American isolationism.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq claimed thousands of American lives. At home, Americans fretted through a slow and fragile recovery from a Great Recession many economists compared to the Great Depression of 1929. Suffering from war abroad and a failing economy at home, America found itself in a situation very much like that of the late 1940s when isolationist feelings prevailed.

Now as the threat of another war in Syria looms, a growing number of Americans, including some policymakers, are questioning the wisdom of further U.S. involvement.

“We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury,” stated U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) joining a bipartisan group of lawmakers arguing against U.S. military intervention in Syria. “Our own needs in America are great, and they come first.”

In his first major speech after winning the 2016 presidential election, President-Elect Donald Trump expressed the isolationist ideology that became one of his campaign slogans — “America first.”

“There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship,” Mr. Trump said on December 1, 2016. “We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag. From now on, it's going to be America first."

In their words, Rep. Grayson, a progressive Democrat, and President-Elect Trump, a conservative Republican, may have announced the rebirth of American isolationism.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered an outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people, it also spurred a surprising amount of isolationist sentiment in the United States. At the same time, more than half of Americans favored imposing harsh economic sanctions against the Russian government for waging a war on Ukraine, another significant portion of the country felt it best for President Joe Biden and other world leaders to stay out of European affairs.

For example, on February 28, 2020, JD Vance, a Republican running for US Senate in Ohio, said he wasn’t particularly interested in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

"I gotta be honest with you, I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” Vance said during an episode of Steve Bannon's War Room podcast. “I do care about the fact that in my community right now the leading cause of death among 18-45-year-olds is Mexican fentanyl that's coming across the southern border.”

“I'm sick of Joe Biden focusing on the border of a country I don't care about while he lets the border of his own country become a total war zone,” Vance said.

Polls conducted at the time suggested Vance was not alone in his decidedly isolationist sentiment, with one poll showing that 34% of Americans thinking the war in Ukraine should be Ukraine’s problem and the United States should play no role whatsoever. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll fielded in late February and early March 2022, only 40% said they approved of the way Biden had handled Russia, and only 43% said they approved of how he had handled the Ukraine invasion. The same poll showed that 63% of Americans opposed sending the U.S. military to Ukraine to help defend them against Russian forces—an action Biden ruled out.

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Longley, Robert. "The Evolution of American Isolationism." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Evolution of American Isolationism. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Evolution of American Isolationism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).