The Long History of American IsolationismRoundup
tags: foreign policy, isolationism
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
For the last several weeks, U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance has argued that Americans should focus on their own borders, rather than global events in Europe. He is not alone. Recent polls suggest that at least 34 percent of Americans think the war in Ukraine should be their problem and the United States should have no role. This new generation of isolationists is only the latest in a long American history of isolationist sentiment.
In September 1796, George Washington published his Farewell Address, encouraging future generations to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” To be clear, Washington was not advocating for isolationism. He encouraged active trade agreements and recognized that the day would come when the U.S. would wage war on behalf of its interests. Until then, the U.S. should not meddle in the centuries-old conflict between European empires because the war had nothing to do with American concerns.
Washington’s successors picked up his mantle and drew further boundaries between the Western and Eastern hemispheres. In James Monroe’s 1823 annual address, he declared that the Western Hemisphere was closed to further European colonization and intervention — a principle that became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Just over 80 years later, Theodore Roosevelt issued his own corollary, asserting that the U.S. would enforce the Monroe Doctrine and maintain order as a last result, through military means if necessary.
These foreign policy dogmas are based on the geographic position of the United States. Flanked by relatively friendly neighbors in Mexico and Canada, and the vast Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it was easy for many Americans to say what happens in Europe stays in Europe.
Until it didn’t.