The Evolution of Isolationism in America (2022)

“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 Evolution of Isolationism in America (1)

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.

(Video) The Evolution of American Isolationism

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 theCaribbean 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.

(Video) The untold story of American Isolationism | Christopher Nichols | TEDxPortland

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 returnof 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 late1940s 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.”

(Video) American Isolationism, Past and Present

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. Trumpsaid 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.

(Video) Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World
(Video) Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World


How did isolationism affect the United States? ›

Isolationists advocated non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in international politics. Although the United States took measures to avoid political and military conflicts across the oceans, it continued to expand economically and protect its interests in Latin America.

What is the best explanation for isolationism? ›

isolationism, National policy of avoiding political or economic entanglements with other countries.

Why did America stop being isolationist? ›

During the war, the Roosevelt administration and other leaders inspired Americans to favor the establishment of the United Nations (1945), and following the war, the threat embodied by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin dampened any comeback of isolationism.

Why did America shift isolationism? ›

Pearl Harbor

The outrage of U.S. citizens following the attack meant the end isolationism in the country. Americans realized that this was a war that they would need to join and that it was time for the United States to enter World War II.

Why did America become isolationist during the 1920s? ›

The destruction and cost of WW1 had left their mark on America and the majority of Americans wanted to be kept out of any future involvement in European politics and simply wanted to be left alone to concentrate on building prosperity in the United States.

What were the effects of isolationism in the US during the 1920s? ›

It also took away an essential market (the US) from many European and Latin American countries. People in these countries lost their jobs as factories were unable to sell their products to the US, and farmers began to accumulate huge surpluses.

What does isolationism mean in history? ›

Definition of isolationism

: a policy of national isolation by abstention from alliances and other international political and economic relations.

Why is isolation good for a country? ›

If we secluded ourselves from foreign country activities that would mean less resources will be waste on foreign country and used on ourselves, improving our economy. Another factor in which it improves our economy is no money will be spent on wars.

What are 3 examples of isolationism? ›

Many nations have had isolationist periods, including the U.S. Forms of isolationism include practicing non-interventionism: a refusal to enter into military alliances with other nations, and protectionism, using tariffs to shelter domestic industry from foreign imports.

Who brought the United States out of isolationism? ›

Even more importantly, possession of the Philippines moved the sphere of interest of the United States far out into the Pacific. Theodore Roosevelt's policy to build a two-ocean navy confirmed that the old-style isolationism of the founders had not survived the modern, increasingly globalized world.

What event sparked the end of America's isolationist policy? ›

**What event finally ended U.S. Isolationist foreign policy? World War II. This event marked the end of American isolationism and neutralism and the beginning of foreign and defense policy of intense internationalism.

How did the US move from isolationism to expansionism? ›

From Isolation to Expansion

In 1893, U.S. sugar interests overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, and the American government annexed the islands in 1898. That same year, the U.S. went to war with Spain and took possession of Spanish colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other Pacific islands.

How did the US move from isolationism to internationalism? ›

Terms in this set (17) Summarize how United States foreign policy moved from isolationism to internationalism. The nation from its founding was isolationist; World War 11 convinced Americans that the world was interconnected, and brought about a shift in foreign policy to internationalism.

Why had the United States returned to isolationism by the 1930s? ›

Why had the United States returned to isolationism by the 1930s? Congress wanted to concentrate on economic problems at home. People believed that the United States should model self-sufficiency for Europe and Asia. People felt World War I had been fought for nothing and wanted to avoid a second conflict.

Why did America want isolationism after WW1? ›

Americas goal in becoming isolationist was to protect America from becoming involved in another European war, ( it didn't work). Also America wanted to protect itself from socialism and communism coming from Europe.

What was isolationism in the 1920s? ›

Thus, U.S. foreign policy during the 1920s was characterized by the enactment of isolationist policies; for instance, the U.S. opted not to join the burgeoning League of Nations, even though it had been the nation to first propose such international cooperation.

Why was isolationism so popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s quizlet? ›

What was isolationism, and why was it so appealing to Americans in the late 1920s and 1930s? Disillusionment with the outcome of WWI led to a policy of isolationism, by which Americans hoped to avoid responsibility for the peace of Europe and Asia, and to spare themselves the agony of war if peace failed.

How did American isolationism lead to ww2? ›

Isolationists believed that World War II was ultimately a dispute between foreign nations and that the United States had no good reason to get involved. The best policy, they claimed, was for the United States to build up its own defenses and avoid antagonizing either side.

What are the consequences of isolationism? ›

1669, 2015 ). Hawkley points to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.

What countries practice isolationism? ›

Isolationism is a political philosophy advocating a national foreign policy that opposes involvement in the political affairs, and especially the wars, of other countries.
  • 2.1 Albania.
  • 2.2 Bhutan.
  • 2.3 Cambodia.
  • 2.4 China.
  • 2.5 Japan.
  • 2.6 Korea.
  • 2.7 Paraguay.
  • 2.8 United States.

How did the United States switch from a country of isolationism to imperialism during the late 1800's early 1900's? ›

In the late nineteenth century, the United States abandoned its century-long commitment to isolationism and became an imperial power. After the Spanish-American War, the United States exercised significant control over Cuba, annexed Hawaii, and claimed Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as territories.

What was isolationism quizlet? ›

Isolationism. Definition: A national policy of avoiding involvement in the national affairs of other countries.


1. America First: Is Trump's Isolationism anything new? | Leslie Vinjamuri + Charles Kupchan
(Imperial War Museums)
2. Isolationism: the future of US foreign policy? | LSE Festival Online Event
3. Charles A. Kupchan — Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World
(Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College)
4. American Isolationism Pre WWII
5. US Regents Review of Isolationism
(Hip Hughes)
6. American Isolationism in 1930s
(sohail ahmed)

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