The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

Justus D. Doenecke - 11/25/10

Traditionally, as noted by historian Manfred Jonas, isolationists have opposed political and military commitments to, or alliances with, foreign powers, particularly those in Europe. Although they have recognized the necessity for foreign trade and are not (usually) pacifists, they have sought to guard American sovereignty and freedom of action.

Only with the formation of the League of Nations did isolationism as a distinct position come to the fore, for membership in the League entailed binding political and military commitments. Among the foes of League membership were such conservatives as senators Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), Miles Poindexter (R-Conn.), Frank P. Brandegee (R-Conn.), and James A. Reed (D-Mo.); publishers Frank A. Munsey and George Harvey; and industrialist Henry Clay Frick. However, these figures were part of a much wider coalition; conservatism and isolationism are by no means synonymous.

Yet from the 1930s to the early 1950s, conservatives were strong in isolationist ranks. A conservative was more likely to be an isolationist if he was also a Republican, a midwesterner, and an inhabitant of a small town or rural area, and also if he stemmed from German-American or Irish-American stock. Conservative isolationists usually opposed American entry into the World Court, favored the neutrality acts of the 1930s, and predominated in the America First Committee. By the late 1930s, the more militant isolationists among conservatives included such senators as Bennett Champ Clark (D-Mo.) and Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-Mich.); such representatives as Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.); publisher Robert R. McCormick; and aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. More moderate isolationists, who in 1939 favored “cash and carry” and in 1940–41 sought to aid Britain without risking war, included in their ranks Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), former president Herbert Hoover, editor Felix Morley, retired diplomat William R. Castle, merchandising executive Robert E. Wood, and ex-governor Alfred M. Landon (R-Kan.).

Conservative opponents of American intervention adhered to one basic premise: participation in war would weaken the United States’ traditional political structure and economy, perhaps beyond repair. Indeed America’s very survival as a free republic might be in jeopardy. Such conservatives saw war as imperiling the capitalist system, as full-scale mobilization was bound to bring in its wake inflation, price and wage controls, compulsory unionization, and—in practicality—a wartime socialism that would remain after the conflict ended.

To many isolationists, Europe was always at war and would always be so. World War II was, to use the language of Lindbergh, simply one “more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.” The fact was, isolationists claimed, that the Allies had no positive war aims. They only sought the defeat and partition of Germany, a Carthaginian peace bound to create more dictators and more wars of revenge.

Aside from blaming Nazism first on Versailles, then on Allied appeasement, the great bulk of conservative isolationists, like their liberal counterparts, held no brief for Germany and frequently coupled isolationist sentiments with condemnations of Germany’s actions. Yet, with Soviet Russia lurking in the background, many on the Old Right saw an anti-Hitler crusade as futile. Stalin’s dictatorship, so such figures as Lindbergh and journalist Freda Utley argued, was even harsher than Hitler’s, and the apparently ecumenical appeal of communism in the long run made it a far greater threat. One should not choose between evils; one should simply stay out of the fracas.

Turning to the Pacific, conservative isolationists did not yet espouse “Asialation-ism.” They often attacked the shipping of American war supplies to Japan, claiming that Franklin D. Roosevelt had hypocritically refused to invoke the neutrality acts when profits were at stake. At the same time, they feared a direct confrontation. For the United States to commit itself to the Dutch East Indies and Singapore would be a back door to war, and involvements in Europe would come automatically into play with any Japanese attack on such possessions. Several arguments were presented: Japan’s actions in China involved purely “Asiatic” matters and hence did not affect the Western hemisphere; the United States had no vital interest in Asia worth fighting for; belligerent attitudes risked offending the United States’ best customer; China, no democracy, was permeated with communist influence, dictatorial Koumintang rule, and general “backwardness”; Japan held no military threat but was difficult to invade.

In their efforts to offer alternatives to administration policy, conservative anti-interventionists stressed economics and self-sufficiency. Challenging those interventionists who stressed access to natural resources, they claimed that synthetic Brazilian rubber could replace that made in Malaya, and they saw Bolivian tin as a good substitute for that of the East Indies. Besides, they argued, even if Japan conquered East Asia, it would still need the American market.

As far as defense was concerned, conservative isolationists usually opposed a mass army, finding it of necessity too bulky and ill-trained to be of help in any conflict. Indeed, unless one envisioned a new Allied Expeditionary Force to fight in France, such a unit could only be superfluous. Conservative isolationists debated the wisdom of a large navy, with some finding more destroyers unnecessary. Far more consensus was developed over air strategy, and several called for a separate air department. In arguments maintained through the Cold War, conservative isolationists claimed that air power was less costly than ground and naval forces, would eliminate any need for conscription, and could be used with a minimum of coordination with troublesome allies.

Once the Cold War began, some conservative isolationists, such as senators Vandenberg, Charles Tobey (R-N.Y.), and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (R-Mass.) and journalist William Henry Chamberlin, started supporting Truman’s foreign policy. Furthermore, not all of those conservatives who remained isolationists shared the same degree of militancy. Historian Ted Galen Carpenter has divided Cold War isolationists into three distinct categories. First were the “doctrinaire isolationists,” who insisted that the basic principle of nonentanglement was as relevant as ever. Indeed, so they asserted, isolationism could have preserved the United States from involvement in both world wars. In this category would be included elitist theorist Lawrence Dennis; congressmen Frederick C. Smith (R-Ohio), Clare Hoffman (R-Mich.), and Howard Buffett (R-Neb.); senators Hugh Butler (R-Neb.), William E. Jenner (R-Ind.), and George (“Molly”) Malone (R-Neb.); journalist John T. Flynn; investor Sterling Morton; and publisher McCormick.

Second were the “pragmatic isolationists,” people who found modern circumstances limiting the relevance and applicability of nonintervention. This group sought to modify, rather than to reject totally, plans for the United Nations and such programs as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In its ranks were senators Taft, Arthur Watkins (R-Utah), and Kenneth A. Wherry (R-Neb.); congressmen Lawrence Smith (R-Wis.) and Daniel Reed (R-N.Y.); and steel manufacturer Ernest Weir.

Third, Carpenter notes the “marginal isolationists,” individuals who accepted the need for economic and even occasional political commitments, but who balked when it came to arms aid and military alliances. Hoover was foremost in this category, though others included senators John W. Bricker (R-Ohio) and Forrest Donnell (R-N.Y.), Congressman John Taber (R-N.Y.), and attorneys Clarence Manion and Frank Holman.

Military and economic commitments, claimed the more militant foes of interventionism, risked bankruptcy at home, supported socialist and statist regimes overseas, neglected the “communist menace” at home, and risked dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union. In 1947, such figures fought aid to Greece and Turkey; in 1948, they opposed the initial Marshall Plan appropriations; and in 1949, they criticized the creation of the NATO alliance. In December 1950, just after the communist Chinese had entered the Korean War, financier Joseph P. Kennedy, Senator Taft, and ex-president Hoover began a “Great Debate” by calling either for withdrawal from the Korean peninsula or for limiting American commitments there to air and sea power. Yet many conservative isolationists, Taft included, compromised their traditional anti-interventionism by endorsing General Douglas MacArthur’s wide-ranging schemes for victory in Asia and demanding United States support for Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on Taiwan. Far more often than not, they backed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s accusations of subversion in the highest levels in Washington. In 1952, the more isolationist candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Taft, lost to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in 1954 the isolationist Bricker Amendment was defeated by Congress.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the conservative isolationist view of foreign policy suffered many setbacks, including the deaths of Taft in 1954 and McCormick in 1955; the birth in 1955 of the far more strident National Review as the major voice of the Right; and the co-optation of many conservative legislators by the Eisenhower administration and the inevitable departure of many others from Congress. Historian Wayne S. Cole points to “the challenges to peace and security from the Axis states and then from communist Russia, the development of nuclear weapons and effective delivery systems, the growth of cities and their accompanying industrial and financial capacities, the further erosion of rural and small-town America, talented leadership by the foreign policy establishment, and the power of the presidency under Truman” as reasons for isolationism’s decline. By 1964, many conservatives backed the interventionist Barry Goldwater for president, and by the time Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 globalism was supported more by conservatives than by their opponents. However, by the year 2000, certain powerful Republican congressional leaders—Congressman John Kasich (Ohio), Congressman Tom DeLay (Tex.), and Senator Trent Lott (Miss.) among them—criticized American participation in international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, claiming that the nation’s security was not threatened. Such figures have often opposed funding for the United Nations and participation in the International Monetary Fund, arguing that the United States could only weaken itself by such involvement.

Pat Buchanan and many of the writers associated with his magazine, the American Conservative, also emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century as new voices for nonintervention on the Right. They continued to maintain that interventionism could only mean the further erosion of the America that the traditional Right treasured. Fiscal responsibility, limited government, rural mores, a village culture, individual economic opportunity, an autonomous foreign policy—all seemed still to be linked, and all appeared beyond recall.

Further Reading
  • Buchanan, Patrick J. A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999.
  • Carpenter, Ted Galen. “The Dissenters: American Isolationists and Foreign Policy, 1945-1954.” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, 1980.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Anti-Interventionism: A Bibliographical Introduction to Isolationism and Pacifism from World War I to the Early Cold War Era. New York: Garland, 1987.
  • ———. Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.
  • Guinsberg, Thomas N. The Pursuit of Isolationism in the United States Senate from Versailles to Pearl Harbor. New York: Garland, 1982.
  • Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1935–1941. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.
  • Kauffman, Bill. America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995.
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