Did Isolationism Cause World War II? McCain Plays the Hitler Card


Sadly, the three staples of presidential campaigns are lying statistics, hollow promises and personal attacks. Done skillfully and unemotionally, the smear tactic can achieve success; thoughtlessly and in a fit of anger, it generally turns on the attacker, revealing him as unfit for office. We saw such a moment in the November 28 YouTube Presidential Debate when Senator John McCain berated Congressman Ron Paul for his supposed aid and comfort to this nation's enemy.

Ironically, McCain may have achieved a knockout blow against Mitt Romney, whom he lectured for failure to acknowledge waterboarding as a form of torture. Unfortunately, this victory was more than offset by a low-blow attack on Congressman Paul that reveals a shallow and distorted knowledge of American history.

The fracas started when Senator McCain moved off target on a question about eliminating the income tax in favor of a national sales tax. McCain quickly responded that he opposed that proposal and then proceeded to what had to be on his mind the whole evening:

McCain: I just want to also say that Congressman Paul, I’ve heard him now in many debates talk about bringing our troops home, and about the war in Iraq and how it’s failed.


And I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II. We allowed…


We allowed …

(Audience booing)

Cooper: Allow him his answer. Allow him his answer, please.

McCain: We allowed — we allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.

(Audience booing)

Moderator Anderson Cooper allowed Ron Paul 30 seconds to respond:

Paul: Absolutely. The real question you have to ask is why do I get the most money from active duty officers and military personnel?


What John is saying is just totally distorted.

(Protester shouts off-mike)

Paul: He doesn’t even understand the difference between non-intervention and isolationism. I’m not an isolationism, (shakes head) em, isolationist. I want to trade with people, talk with people, travel. But I don’t want to send troops overseas using force to tell them how to live. We would object to it here and they’re going to object to us over there.


The media seems to have fixated on this part of the debate and ignored its relationship with later McCain comments. Ron Paul had described his position on our occupation of Iraq, which was to return the control of the country to the Iraqis:

Paul: The best commitment we can make to the Iraqi people is to give them their country back. That’s the most important thing that we can do.


McCain had a legitimate opportunity to respond, but the actual content of his comments reveal more than his opposition to Ron Paul's views:

McCain: Well, let me remind you, Congressman, we never lost a battle in Vietnam. It was American public opinion that forced us to lose that conflict.


McCain's two pot shots — one at "isolationists," the other at a weak-kneed public — can be analyzed separately, but they have more meaning when taken together.

Did American Isolationism Cause Hitler to Come to Power?

No serious historian has been willing to make such a simplistic and senseless case in public. One of the most comprehensive histories of the Nazi era was written by William L. Shirer, a journalist assigned to Germany during the period when the Nazis came to power. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers 1,143 pages, the first 276 of which describe the multiple forces and events that led to the rise of Hitler. American isolationism is not once mentioned in that section of the book.

The next 594 pages describe the beginning of World War II up to the point at which Hitler declared war on the United States as a result of "Adolph Hitler's reckless promise to Japan …." It was Japan's attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that brought the United States into World War II. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later.

Following America's disastrous foray into World War I, there were strong feelings in the United States about remaining outside of the European conflict. The newly formed America First Committee was the most visible and vocal example of that sentiment. Shirer dedicates a single paragraph to the role of American isolationism at the beginning of Chapter 25, "The Turn of the United States." He also mentions the role of Charles Lindbergh as the leading public isolationist in a footnote on Page 827. Otherwise, there are no references to American isolationism in this extensive work about this period.

So if William Shirer virtually dismissed the importance of American isolationism in causing World War II, what does he have to say about the real causes of the rise of Adolph Hitler and World War II? Shirer points out that a number of causes and events contributed, including:

  • Economic, political, social and cultural devastation following World War I (especially the Weimar hyperinflation from 1918–1923, the Wall Street-debt-financed boom of the late 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s)
  • A disastrous peace treaty at Versailles, including reparations to the allied powers considered unjust by the German people
  • The bitter struggle between international socialism (the Communists) and national socialism (the Nazis)
  • Failure of other European nations to appropriately defend themselves
  • The "stab in the back" myth that anti-war Germans during World War I had given virtual aid and comfort to the enemy on the home front while the valiant solders fought to defend the Fatherland (the birth and growth of this myth is addressed extensively in Chapter 2, "Birth of the Nazi Party")

In Shirer's opinion, the u2018stab in the back' fallacy was a primary cause of the rise of Hitler: "Thus emerged for Hitler, as for so many Germans, a fanatical belief in the legend of the u2018stab in the back' which, more than anything else, was to undermine the Weimar Republic and pave the way for Hitler's ultimate triumph." (Page 31)

On January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor of a coalition government in Germany. The America First Committee was formed September 4, 1940. Clearly, isolationism in the United States had nothing to do with Hitler's rise to power.

The Difference between Isolationism and Non-Interventionism

In one sense, there was a shred of truth to McCain's attack on "isolationism," which combines military non-intervention with economic self-reliance and protectionism. In June 1930, Herbert Hoover signed into law the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act over the objections of 1,028 prominent economists. From 1929 to 1933, an increasingly autarkic German economy saw imports and exports plunge 66% and 61% respectively, while GDP was cut in half. Clearly, the politics of economic isolationism in both the U.S. and Germany helped pave the way for Hitler's arrival in 1933.

According to Wikipedia, isolationism is "not to be confused with the non-interventionist philosophy and foreign policy of the libertarian world view, which espouses unrestricted free trade and freedom of travel for individuals to all countries." Ron Paul falls solidly into the non-interventionist camp, yet McCain failed to make this distinction.

The Doctrine of Preventive War

McCain is claiming that the circumstances leading to World War II and those that led to our invasion of Iraq are identical. Ron Paul is claiming that conditions are very different. In World War II, Hitler declared war on the United States and then we responded by declaring war on Germany. Is McCain suggesting that we should have preemptively struck Germany as we have struck Iraq without the formal declaration of war that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution requires?

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during WWII, was quite clear on this issue:

"Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. Frankly, I would not even listen to anyone seriously who talked about such a thing."

As a result of WWII, the Nuremburg Principles further codified what constitutes a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Principle VI: "Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances." Imagine, during the YouTube debate, McCain had the gall to castigate Mitt Romney for tossing aside the Geneva Convention when it came to torture!

Ron Paul warned about preventive war on September 4, 2002, six months before the U.S. invaded Iraq:

"Military force is only justified in self-defense; naked aggression is the province of dictators and rogue states. This is the danger of a new u2018preemptive first strike' doctrine."

Were WWII Isolationists Traitors?

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to fault the views held by the so-called isolationists and the America First Committee, but the point is that those people were voicing a responsible position that was completely consistent with the views of the founders of this nation (peace, commerce and friendship with all and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations). The America First Committee quickly dissolved after our declaration of war with Germany as this nation unified against the Axis Powers. Many so-called isolationists served in the armed services of the United States, and of these a significant number were disabled or gave their lives for their country. Of the survivors, at least three rose to national prominence — Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. In 1941 Americans could still oppose war and yet come together quickly when this nation was actually under attack. A more likely case can be made that "that kind of isolationism" actually preserved America's strength, allowing it to enter the war when it could be most effective, and when America's losses could be minimized. Indeed, the two readily recognized turning points in the struggle with Nazi Germany are the Battle of Stalingrad (August 21, 1942 to February 2, 1943) and El Alamein (October 23, 1942 to November 5, 1942). American troops were not seriously committed against Nazi forces until Operation Torch, the joint invasion of French North Africa by the British and Americans, which began November 8, 1942. Nazi Germany was already on the defensive when we hit the beaches in North Africa.

"We Never Lost a Battle in Vietnam"

Senator McCain's comment is simply silly. It is common knowledge that it is possible to win battles and lose wars, as Ron Paul alluded to in the debate. That is what guerilla warfare is all about. Mao Tse-Tung formalized the rules for guerilla warfare for the Chinese Communists in On Guerilla Warfare. But there is little that he revealed that was not already common practice in our own War of Independence from the British. Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown was, to a large degree, attributable to earlier guerilla operations by Daniel Morgan and Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion. Even the first encounter with the British at Concord was characterized by guerilla operations. The British employed conventional warfare, much as we did in Vietnam. But we won against Britain, then the greatest military force on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, we did not apply the lesson of our own history in Vietnam.

American Public Opinion Caused the U.S. to Lose in Vietnam

Senator McCain stated this in such a way that it would be less harsh for his American audience. How do you appeal to voters if at the same time you are telling them that they and their parents gave aid and comfort to the enemy and betrayed their own armed forces?

Anybody who has any knowledge of the causes of Hitler's rise to power will recognize this as the infamous "stab in the back" rationalization heavily emphasized by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

The truth is that public opinion turned against the Vietnam War just as it did against the War in Iraq — when the lies and corruption were revealed. That is a luxury that we enjoy in the United States thanks to representative government, free press, free assembly and free speech. Perhaps McCain is arguing for the suspension of those freedoms because "we are at war." Is that so? Why then didn't Senator McCain and most of his associates in the Congress vote for a real declaration of war as the Constitution requires?

What Does All of This Mean?

When the facts above are weighed, most Americans will recognize that Senator McCain's behavior toward Congressman Paul was nothing more than a cheap shot. By attempting to shut off all discussion on the merits of the War in Iraq, he pandered to the emotions of the crowd and a misguided sense of patriotism. He exploited a general ignorance of history and economics, and a debate format that rewards spin over substance. He tried to stifle those rights that are derived from the natural law of which the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence speaks.

But is all of that really important? Shouldn't we sacrifice our liberty in the hope of gaining some additional safety? Shouldn't we place our faith in the chief executive feeling that he or she will always act in our best interest? Once committed to war, shouldn't we follow through until the "enemy" is defeated?

That depends upon how we value our liberty.

In a sense, Senator McCain's behavior in St. Petersburg was understandable if not excusable. No one can truly appreciate what another human being has been through, and that is particularly true of a person who has suffered from incarceration and torture as Senator McCain has. But on that stage there were six other Republican men aspiring to the presidency, as well as CNN's moderator. None of these stepped forward to defend Congressman Paul from McCain's mean-spirited attack. None defended Ron Paul's right to free speech. Thus the issue of the character of the candidates was placed squarely before the electorate.

Do you see what I see? I see a lonely American on that stage in Saint Petersburg. I see him smeared by a fellow countryman who accuses him of virtually giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I hear the applause of the attacker's supporters. I see six other men on that stage all supporting the attack through their silence. I see a moderator representing the free press, a man whose role requires him to enforce fairness — even encouraging the attacker. I see millions of fellow Americans viewing this spectacle remotely.

Do you see what I see? I see America on trial.

December 6, 2007