Are We Isolationists? Yes and No
is excerpted from chapter 11 of Out of Step (1962). An MP3
audio file of this article, narrated by Brad O'Connell, is
available for download.
War I broke out in 1914, the Chicago Tribune announced with
considerable pride that it was sending a parcel of reporters to
Europe to "cover" 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 "passion" 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 "letter"
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 "Transatlantic
Cable Dispatches to The New York Times"; it usually
occupied about a half page and consisted of stories that could well
have been lifted from European papers.
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,
in 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 "punitive" 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 opéra
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 had glamorized the undertaking by dubbing
it the "war to end all wars" and the "war to make
the world safe for democracy"; this last phrase had all the
earmarks of "manifest destiny," 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 20 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 that confronted Franklin D. Roosevelt when he set out
to get us into World War II, and from which he was fortuitously
delivered by Pearl Harbor.
isolationism has been turned (by our politicians, our bureaucracy,
and their 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 secondly 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.
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 "reds" 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 "in the swim."
That is to say, interventionism is a fad stimulated by the public
press and, like a fad, has no real substance behind it. If a poll
were to be taken on the subject, should we go 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 "do 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?" might
bring out some interesting conclusions; but the politicians and
the energumens of interventionism would prefer not to conduct such
a poll. Our "foreign-aid" program has never been subjected
to a plebiscite.
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 nor
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,
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 "democratically" elected, overlooking
the fact that 80 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-à-vis
Mexico which haunts us to this day. But, Wilson's urgency to introduce
"democracy" 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 Mr. Wilson's invasion.
War II got going in Europe and it became evident that Mr. 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 "Buy American" 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 good will among the peoples engaged. Free trade
is natural; protectionism is political.
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 that 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 Mr. 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
in our mores. Whether or not this eventuality was in Mr. Roosevelt's
mind is not germane; it is inherent in the character of the State.
Taxes imposed ostensibly "for the duration," 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 III, was the net result of our entry into World War II. Whichever
side won, the American people were the losers.
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 "savings" 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 "savers," 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, "Don't
Buy Government Bonds," 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.
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 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 sizeable 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; Napoleon imposed French "liberté, fraternité,
égalité" 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.
policy" is the euphemism that 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 Mr. 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 a 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 "foreign policy," the nation is committed to a
program of interference in the affairs of every country in the world.
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 "underdeveloped"
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 "foreign-aid" 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 "aid"
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 "imperialists," and
impolitely ask our agents to go home.
In short, they
ask us to return to the isolationism that, for over a hundred years,
prospered the nation and gained for us the respect and admiration
of the world.
Chodorov (18871966), 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.
Best of Frank Chodorov