The Phony Argument Against ‘Isolationism’

The war continues – the war against “isolationism,” that is. This time the latest blows are being struck on the op ed page of the New York Times, where Rutgers historian David Greenberg takes up the cudgels against these hated troglodytes. Bemoaning the sudden Republican turnabout on foreign policy, Professor Greenberg notes his surprise that the all-too-“predictable” response of GOP presidential candidates to President Obama’s Afghanistan speech wasn’t all that predictable after all: several declared his withdrawal announcement “too little, too late.” In the Republican-controlled House, too, some have the nerve to question the President’s legal authority to take us to war without congressional authorization – and, as if all that wasn’t enough, GOP’ers afflicted with “balanced budget mania” have gone on a veritable rampage, and are actually talking about “scaling back defense spending of a sort that Republicans would once have never dared broach.”

So, what does all this add up to, in Greenberg’s view? Well, this:

“Suddenly, after the aggressive, militaristic foreign policy of the Bush years, isolationism — a stance that rejects America’s leadership role in the world — is on the rise among Republicans.”

If you think Congress, rather than the President, has the constitutionally-granted power to declare war, then what are you – a constitutionalist? An anti-monarchist? A believer in the rule of law? Well, no – you’re an “isolationist.”

If you don’t sign on to the idea that America must exercise a “leadership role in the world” – i.e. if you don’t’ think we should be invading countries left and right and footing the bill for all kinds of international welfare schemes – you’re somebody who wants to “isolate” America from the rest of the universe, no doubt by building a crocodile-filled moat on the border and posting a “Keep Out!” sign (in English only) just in case potential interlopers fail to take the hint.

By posing a false choice between a hyperactive foreign policy and an “isolationist” one, the War Party gets to argue as if they are the reasonable ones, and everyone else – in this case, most of the country – are marginal cranks. At this point, they get out their canned history lesson, and lecture us on the evils of our “isolationist” past, as does Professor Greenberg:

“But if this comes as an abrupt break, it is also a return to form: the impulse to retreat from the world stage has a long and hardy pedigree within Republican ranks. And while a dose of caution among conservatives can be refreshing, a Tea Party-led reversion to a dogmatic America First stance could damage both the party and the country.

“Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal — even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again. A pattern emerged, as liberal Democrats, along with Northeastern Republicans, wanted America to actively manage world affairs, while the Republicans’ powerful Midwestern and Western factions viewed cooperative international ventures as dangerously entangling alliances.”

Greenberg’s historical overview is pretty much the Establishment party line: always there have been those “forward-looking” “progressive” leaders, like Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned tirelessly to get the US entangled in Europe’s intrigues and her endless wars: and always, opposing these noble souls, there have been those nasty “Irreconcilables” – even the name sounds unreasonable, fanatic – who somehow doubted mortal men could “actively manage world affairs.” What could possibly motivate these Irreconcilables, other than pure malicious contrarianism?

“The isolationists had complex motives: Congressional vigilance against presidential encroachments on their constitutional powers; a small-town obsession with balanced budgets; and conspiratorial suspicions of foreigners, financiers and — in the case of anti-Semites like Charles A. Lindbergh — Jews. Naturally, isolationism thrived among Congressional Republicans when a Democrat held the White House — as it does again today — but it continued through the Coolidge and Hoover years, too.”

Those mean-minded members of Congress who think the Constitution must be obeyed – they’re just selfish reactionaries, obsessed with maintaining their own power. And as for those who think we need to live within our means and balance the federal budget – they’re just small-town “obsessives,” and probably anti-Semites to boot.

Left out of Greenberg’s pocket version of American history is World War I – and its legacy, which embittered an entire generation of American liberals who really did believe it was a “war to make the world safe for democracy.” That is, until they saw the “peace” it created, which planted the seeds for yet another – and far bloodier – world conflagration. That was the warning of the “Irreconcilables,” who saw the United States becoming an empire molded on the British model and – quite rightly – wanted no part of it.

Also left out of Greenberg’s historical overview: the opponents of the “isolationists,” who, in the post-WWI era, were an ominous-sounding group known as the “League to Enforce Peace.” The Enforcers wanted to set up a world government, with the US and Britain at its head: anyone who looked cross-eyed at these Global Governors would be promptly invaded, subdued, and occupied. That was their idea of “peace” – pretty much the same vision upheld by today’s internationalists, except they hadn’t yet thought of proposing a World Central Bank.

A whole range of figures come up for Greenberg’s opprobrium: Robert A. Taft, Phyliss Schlafly, radio host Paul Harvey, as well as Lindbergh: Taft for opposing NATO and the sacred idea of “collective security” (i.e. setting tripwires for war), Schlafly and Harvey for questioning the wisdom of the Vietnam war (Abbie Hoffman and the New York Times editorial page are exempted from the “isolationist” label, although they too opposed that foolish war.)

“Right-wing isolationism” was thought to have died out when Eisenhower stole the GOP presidential nomination from Taft, but no: the monster lives! It reemerged in the 1990s, on account of the fall of the Soviet Union, and “the perception that Mr. [George Herbert Walker] Bush’s foreign affairs focus blinded him to economic suffering at home” (how unreasonable!). This led Republicans to wonder what we were doing in the Balkans – that maelstrom of unresolvable conflicts – siding with Osama bin Laden. Those isolationist cranks! Will they never learn?

And now, when the world “needs the US” to lead it to “stability” more than ever, there they are again – the isolationists are once more on the scene, doing their mischief. Who will rid us of these troublesome troglodytes? Professor Greenberg to the rescue!

“And this time, the G.O.P.’s old Eastern wing, which used to provide internationalist ballast, is almost nonexistent. A healthy democracy needs critics, particularly when it engages in risky overseas adventures. But the doctrinaire call to drastically scale back our global leadership role has usually led us into error, making the world a more chaotic and dangerous place. Following the path of isolationism today won’t serve America well. Nor will it help the Republicans.”

Let us take a moment, before getting into the meat of the matter, to rejoice that the Eastern Establishment of the Republican party – the old Rockefeller wing – is dead and buried. From the Lodge clan to the Rockefeller faction, these Big Government-friendly patricians have manipulated both their party and the federal government into enriching the investment bankers they have always served so faithfully. This has been their modus operandi throughout our history, from the invasion and occupation of Panama to secure the Canal right up to modern times, when the Rockefeller wing schemed (successfully) to get us into World War II in the Pacific (the rubber trade of Southeast Asia and the vast China market were in their sights).

One has to ask Professor Greenberg: who is being “doctrinaire,” here – the interventionists (like himself) who adhere to a failed policy of global meddling, which has gotten us into nothing but trouble and costs us trillions, or the “isolationists” who are saying it’s time for a new course?

Greenberg’s point is that non-intervention is not a new course, but rather an old pattern that was broken by his heroes Wilson and FDR – but what he leaves out is that the “isolationists” lost. Their advice – stay out of both world wars, mind our own business, abjure the temptations of empire – wasn’t followed: instead, we chose a path to “world leadership,” and now that the American Imperium is crumbling on every frontier some are beginning to call its alleged necessity into question.

It is Greenberg and his fellow interventionists who are the doctrinaires. Not since the end of World War II have we tried any policy other than asserting our alleged right to “world leadership.” But what if the world doesn’t want to be led – especially by us?

Well, then, these latter-day adherents of the League to Enforce Peace will just go in there and start enforcing, whether the world likes it or not.

Except that well-worn policy isn’t working out very well for us, as any objective observer of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia will testify. We are coming to the end of our ability – and Americans’ willingness – to police the world. Call that “small town” if you will, but an empire is a luxury we can no longer afford. If Greenberg and the War Party’s academic detachment can’t or won’t reconcile themselves to the economic and political facts of reality, then it is they who are the true Irreconcilables.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].