Isolationism

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This
first appeared as chapter 11
of Out
of Step
.

When World
War I broke out in 1914, the Chicago Tribune announced
with considerable pride that it was sending a parcel of reporters
to Europe to u201Ccoveru201D the battles and the capitals of the warring
nations. This was something new in American journalism. What had
constituted foreign news previously were reports of what royal
families were doing, affairs in which peeresses were involved,
or a u201Cpassionu201D murder. Most of these stories were taken bodily
from the European press. In fact, my wife, before she was married,
was engaged in getting up a European u201Cletteru201D for a news agency
with the aid of a pair of scissors and a paste pot. The New
York Times, with some pretensions to internationalism even
in those days, ran on an inside page a column entitled u201CTransatlantic
Cable Dispatches to the New York Timesu201D; it usually occupied
about a half-page and consisted of stories that could well have
been lifted from European papers.

The American
press did not go to the expense of sending correspondents to Europe
because there was little public interest in European affairs,
and as for Africa, Asia, and even Latin America, these were places
one learned about in school geography. The country was isolationist.
The people, judging from the front pages of the city newspapers,
were interested in what went on with the neighbors, in local politics,
crop conditions, and the weather. When Congress was in session,
which was for a few months in the year, some of the debates were
accorded prominence, but not too much; type for a three-column
headline had not yet been invented.

The war,
when we were finally drawn into it, was something of an adventure
for most Americans. Three generations of Americans had come and
gone since the country had experienced a full-fledged war; the
Indian wars and a couple of u201Cpunitiveu201D expeditions into Mexico
and Central America were of interest only to the professional
army, and the contest with Spain was in the nature of an opera
bouffe. The war in Europe was the real thing, brought into every
home by means of the draft and involving a new instrument of war,
the bond. Woodrow Wilson glamorized the undertaking by dubbing
it the u201Cwar to end all warsu201D and the u201Cwar to make the world safe
for democracyu201D; the latter phrase had all the earmarks of u201Cmanifest
destiny,u201D of the duty of imposing our brand of democracy on the
benighted peoples of Europe, and thus appealed to our missionary
zeal. Yet, the general feeling was that once we had licked the
kaiser, we could return to our wonted ways, which, in sum, meant
isolationism.

After the
war, as usual, disillusionment set in. It was soon realized that
the conquest of Germany did not mean the end of wars, but was
probably the prelude to yet another one, and that our brand of
democracy did not sit well with other peoples. The opposition
in the Senate to Wilson’s League of Nations reflected the attitude
of the people who had had enough of involvement in the tangled
mess of European diplomacy and wanted out. For twenty years thereafter
pacifism was the ruling passion of the country; in novels, on
the stage, in magazine articles, and in college lecture halls
the theme that war was inexcusable was repeated. The spirit of
pacifism was reinforced by a resurgence of American isolationism,
the feeling that nothing good could come to us from interfering
in European internal matters, and that we would be better off
minding our own business. It was this inbred isolationism which
confronted Franklin Roosevelt when he set out to get us into World
War II, and from which he was fortuitously delivered by Pearl
Harbor.

Since then,
isolationism has been turned (by our politicians, our bureaucracy
and its henchmen, the professorial idealists) into a bad word.

And yet,
isolationism is inherent in the human makeup. It is in the nature
of the human being to be interested first in himself, and second
in his neighbors. His primary concern is with his bread-and butter
problems, to begin with, and then in the other things that living
implies: his health, his pleasures, the education of his children,
wiping out the mortgage on the old homestead, and getting along
with his neighbors. If he has the time and inclination for it,
he takes a hand in local charities and local politics. If something
happens in his state capital that arouses his ire or his imagination,
he may talk to his neighbors about the necessity of reform; that
is, if the reform happens to engage his interests. Taxation always
interests him. But events and movements that occur far away from
his immediate circumstances or that affect him only tangentially
(like inflation or debates in the UN) either pass him by completely
or, if he reads about them in the newspapers, concern him only
academically. A Minnesotan may take notice of a headline event
in Florida, as a conversation piece, but he is vitally interested
in what has happened in his community: a fire, a divorce case,
or the new road that will pass through. How many people know the
name of their congressman or take the slightest interest in how
he votes on given issues?

It has become
standard procedure for sociologists and politicians to take opinion
polls and to deduce behavior patterns from such data. Yet, it
is a fact that the subject matters of these polls do not touch
on matters in which the questionees are vitally interested, but
are topics in which the pollsters have a concern. Putting aside
the possibility of so framing the questions as to elicit replies
the pollsters want, the fact is that the pride of the questionees
can well influence their answers. Thus, a housewife who has been
asked for her opinion on South African apartheid, for instance,
will feel flattered that she has been singled out for the honor
and will feel impelled to give some answer, usually a predigested
opinion taken from a newspaper editorial; she will not say honestly
that she knows nothing about apartheid and cares less. On the
other hand, if she were asked about the baking of an apple pie,
she would come up with an intelligent answer; but the sociologists
are not interested in knowing how to bake an apple pie.

The scientist
immersed in the laboratory will weigh carefully any question put
to him regarding the subject matter of his science and will probably
not come up with a yes-or-no answer, but, he is positive that
the nation ought to recognize the Chinese communist regime, because
he heard another scientist say so. The baseball fan who knows
the batting average of every member of his team, on the other
hand, will denounce the recognition of the regime because he has
heard that the u201CRedsu201D are no good. The student whose grades are
just about passing will speak out boldly on the UN, reflecting
the opinion of his professor on that organization. Everybody has
opinions on international subjects, because the newspapers have
opinions on them, and the readers like to be u201Cin the swim.u201D That
is to say, interventionism is a fad stimulated by the public press,
and like a fad, had no real substance behind it. If a poll were
to be taken on the subject of our going to war, the probability
is that very few would vote for the proposition; yet, war is the
ultimate of interventionism, and the opposition to it is proof
enough that we are isolationist in our sympathies. A poll on the
subject of isolationism – something like u201CDo you believe we ought
to keep out of the politics of other nations and ought to let
them work out their problems without our interference?u201D – might
bring out some interesting conclusions; but the politicians and
the energumens of interventionism would prefer not to conduct
such a poll. Our u201Cforeign-aidu201D program has never been subjected
to a plebiscite.

Isolationism
is not a political policy, it is a natural attitude of a people.
It is adjustment to the prevailing culture within a country, and
a feeling of security within that adjustment. The traditions,
the political and social institutions, and the moral values that
obtain seem good, the people do not wish them to be disturbed
by peoples with other backgrounds and, what is more, they do not
feel any call to impose their own customs and values on strangers.
This does not mean that they will not voluntarily borrow from
other cultures or that they will surround themselves with parochial
walls. Long before interventionism became a fixed policy of the
government, American students went to Europe to complete their
education and immigrants introduced their exotic foods to the
American table. But these were voluntary adoptions, even as we
welcomed German and Italian operas and applauded the British lecturers
who came here to decry our lack of manners, We certainly enjoyed
the bananas and coffee imported from Latin American countries,
and, while we might deplore their habit of setting up dictatorships,
we felt no obligation to inject ourselves into their political
affairs; that was their business, not ours.

This was
the general attitude of the American people before the experiment
in interventionism known as World War I. Before that event, Woodrow
Wilson had taken leave of his senses in backing one revolutionary
leader against another in Mexico, and had even sent the marines
to support his choice; his excuse for opposing Huerta was that
that leader had not been u201Cdemocraticallyu201D elected, overlooking
the fact that eighty percent of the Mexicans were simply incapable
of making a choice, or of caring about it. From that interventionary
exploit we garnered a mistrust of American intentions vis–vis
Mexico which haunts us to this day. But, Wilson’s urgency to introduce
u201Cdemocracyu201D in Mexico was purely a personal idiosyncrasy, shared
by his political entourage but not by the American people. We
cared little about which brigand, Huerta or Carranza, got to the
top, and were stirred up only by the fact that a number of American
boys were killed in Wilson’s invasion.

When World
War II got going in Europe and it became evident that Roosevelt
was intent on getting us into it, a group of Americans organized
the America First Committee for the purpose of arousing the native
spirit of isolationism to the point of frustrating his intent.
They were for keeping the nation neutral. For various reasons
(particularly Pearl Harbor) their plan failed, even though at
the beginning they gained the adherence of many Americans. One
flaw in their program was a tendency toward protectionism; the
anti-involvement became identified with u201CBuy Americanu201D slogans
and with high tariffs; that is, with economic, rather than political,
isolationism. Economic isolationism – tariffs, quotas, embargoes,
and general governmental interference with international trade – is
an irritant that can well lead to war, or political interventionism.
To build a trade wall around a country is to invite reprisals,
which in turn make for misunderstanding and mistrust. Besides,
free trade carries with it an appreciation of the cultures of
the trading countries, and a feeling of goodwill among the peoples
engaged. Free trade is natural, protectionism is political.

The America
First Committee’s opposition to our entry into the war was based
on political and economic considerations. It is a well-known fact
that during a war the state acquires powers which it does not
relinquish when hostilities are over. When the enemy is at the
city gates, or the illusion that he is coming can be put into
people’s minds, the tendency is to turn over to the captain all
the powers he deems necessary to keep the enemy away. Liberty
is downgraded in favor of protection. But, when the enemy is driven
away, the state finds reason enough to hold onto its acquired
powers. Thus, conscription, which Roosevelt reintroduced at the
beginning of the war, has become the permanent policy of the government,
and militarism, which is the opposite of freedom, has been incorporated
into our mores. Whether or not this eventuality was in Roosevelt’s
mind is not germane; it is inherent in the character of the state.
Taxes imposed ostensibly u201Cfor the durationu201D have become permanent,
the bureaucracy built up during the war has not been dismantled,
and interventions in the economy necessary for the prosecution
of war are now held to be necessary for the welfare of the people.
This, plus the fact that we are now engaged in preparing for World
War II, was the net result of our entry into World War II. Whichever
side won, the American people were the losers.

Aside from
this necessary political consequence of our involvement, there
was the further fact that our economy would suffer. More important
than the direct effect of increased taxation was the indirect
effect of inflation resulting from the sale of government bonds.
Political duplicity and dishonesty reached the heights when these
bonds were advertised as anti-inflationary. The prospective buyers
were assured that their purchases would (a) help win the war,
(b) make them a profit, and (c) avoid inflation; a strange appeal
to their patriotism, their cupidity, and their ignorance. It is
true that the u201Csavingsu201D bonds, which could not be sold or borrowed
upon, would delay their inflationary effect. But, when the government
redeemed them, at the will of the holders or at maturity, and
was unable to resell these bonds to u201Csavers,u201D it would have to
resort to borrowing from financial institutions, which would of
course demand negotiable securities; these become inflationary.
This result could have been anticipated by anyone with a grain
of sense; but during the war this grain was missing and the bonds
sold. They sold in spite of an article called u201CDon’t Buy Bonds,u201D
which I published at the time. And the fiscal irresponsibility
which the Roosevelt administration practiced before we got into
the war was accelerated; it hasn’t abated yet.

As isolationism
is a natural attitude of the people, so interventionism is a conceit
of the political leader. There does not seem to be area enough
in the world to satiate his desire to exercise his power or, at
least, his influence. Just as the mayor of a town hopes to become
governor of his state, a congressman, or even president, so does
the president or the king of a country deem it his duty to look
beyond the immediate job of running his country. Necessity limits
the interventionary inclination of the head of a small country,
unless, indeed, he finds a neighboring small country incapable
of resisting his advances. But, given a nation opulent enough
to maintain a sizable military establishment and an adequate bureaucracy,
his sights are lifted beyond the borders. To be sure, his interest
is always the enlightenment or the betterment of the people over
whom he seeks to extend his dominion or influence, never to exploit
them. Thus, Alexander the Great offered the benefits of Hellenic
civilization to the peoples of Asia, the Roman legions carried
Pax Romana at the tip of their spears, and Napoleon imposed
French u201Clibert, galit, fraternitu201D on the peoples of Europe,
whether they wanted it or not. Hitler tried to extend the influence
of Aryanism and the late British Empire was built on the premise
that a taste of English civilization would do the natives good.

u201CForeign
policyu201D is the euphemism which covers up this inclination toward
interventionism. About the only foreign policy consistent with
the natural isolationism of a people would be one designed to
prevent interference of a foreign power in the internal affairs
of the country; that is, protection from invasion. But that is
too limited in scope to satisfy the cravings of the government
of a powerful country. Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was
avowedly designed to spread among other peoples the benefits of
American civilization – even at the end of a Big Stick. Without
an income tax, he could do very little beyond the display of naval
might to execute this purpose, and the job was undertaken by Woodrow
Wilson. It is interesting to note that Wilson was by persuasion
an antimilitarist and an isolationist; yet the exigencies of office
induced him to lead the country into war and into the missionary
purpose of spreading American democracy far and wide. He failed,
partly because the peoples of the world were not willing to adopt
the American tradition and partly because he could not break down
American resistance to interventionism. It remained for Franklin
D. Roosevelt, aided and abetted by the Great Depression and a
great war, to do that. And now that a monstrous bureaucracy with
a vested interest in interventionism is in control of our u201Cforeign
policy,u201D the nation is committed to a program of interference
in the affairs of every country in the world.

Something
new has been added to the technique of exporting our culture;
instead of sending it abroad at the point of a bayonet, we (or
rather our bureaucrats) are attempting to bribe the u201Cunderdevelopedu201D
peoples into accepting it. But these peoples, accustomed as they
are to their own traditions, their own customs, and their own
institutions, seem to be unappreciative of our efforts, and the
net result of our u201Cforeign-aidu201D program (aside from supporting
a free spending bureaucracy) is to support the politicians of
the recipient countries in a manner of living to which they are
not accustomed. The current rationalization of this international
dispensation of alms is that it is necessary to prevent the spread
of communism. But, communism is a way of life imposed on a people
by their politicians, and if these, for their own purposes, choose
communism, our u201Caidu201D simply enables them to make that choice.
Meanwhile, the peoples of the world remain impervious to our brand
of civilization; their loyalty to their own traditions is unimpaired
by our largess; they remain isolationist. Adding insult to injury,
they resent our intrusion into their manner of living, call us
u201Cimperialists,u201D and impolitely ask our agents to go home.

In short,
they ask us to return to that isolationism which for over a hundred
years prospered the nation and gained for us the respect and admiration
of the world.

Frank
Chodorov (1887–1966), one of the great libertarians of the
Old Right, was the founder of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists
and author of such books as The
Income Tax: Root of All Evil
. Here he is on “Taxation
Is Robbery
.” And here
is Rothbard’s obituary of Chodorov
.

Frank
Chodorov Archive

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