The ‘Isolationists’ Are Coming!

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Lindsey Graham is an incorrigible warmonger, and he is also pig-ignorant about U.S. history:

The standard interventionist lie about US foreign policy between WWI and WWII is that it was “isolationist,” when in fact our foreign policy was much more active and internationalist at that time than it had been in earlier decades. Not only was the US engaged in commerce and diplomacy all over the globe, but our government was very much engaged in addressing the problems of post-war Europe. During our “isolationist” interwar period, our government sponsored the Dawes Plan, the Coolidge administration negotiated the Kellogg-Briand Treaty, and the US intervened militarily several times in neighboring countries. Whatever one wants to say about the results, no one can honestly deny that these things happened. “Isolationism” in the interwar period is a myth, as I and many others have pointed out over the years. Andrew Bacevich put it best:

In truth, isolationism is to history what fake news is to journalism. The oft-repeated claim that in the 1920s and 1930s the United States raised the drawbridges, stuck its head in the sand, and turned its back on the world is not only misleading, but also unhelpful. Citing a penchant for isolationism as a defect afflicting the American character is like suggesting that members of Congress suffer from a lack of self-esteem. The charge just doesn’t square with the facts, no matter how often repeated.

Here, by way of illustrating some of those relevant facts, is a partial list of places beyond the boundaries of North America, where the United States stationed military forces during the interval between the two world wars: China, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. That’s not counting the US Marine occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic during a portion of this period. Choose whatever term you like to describe the US military posture during this era – incoherent comes to mind – but isolationism doesn’t fill the bill.

Prior to WWII, the US had risen to become one of the most powerful states in the world, and even before WWI it had established itself as a colonial imperial power with the annexations of Hawaii and the Philippines and other territories in the Pacific. While the US was reluctant to enter major foreign wars during this period, it was anything but isolated from the rest of the world. The myth of “isolationism” is frequently used to blame America for the outbreak of WWII, but this both ignores the deleterious effects of WWI in both Europe and Asia and bizarrely assumes that the US somehow could have prevented the war if it only been more aggressively meddlesome.

If America in the 1920s and 1930s was “isolationist,” the word doesn’t mean anything. Of course, the point of the label is never to describe anything accurately. It is always used as a slur and a bludgeon, but it is used so often and so carelessly nowadays that it has lost its effectiveness as an insult. Graham’s application of the label to America’s so-called “unipolar moment” during the 1990s and early 2000s is deranged even for him. Nothing better demonstrates how meaningless the slur has become. Prior to 9/11, the US had become the world’s only superpower and had its forces deployed all over the globe. Graham can’t acknowledge that it was the policies of the 1990s during this time of frequent meddling and interference abroad that led to the attacks. It is not a coincidence that the US started to have a problem with jihadist terrorists in the years following the decision to base US troops in the Persian Gulf in the 1990s, and it is not an accident that jihadist terrorism has bloomed as the US has waged ceaseless war in the Middle East and other parts of the world. The lesson to be drawn from this period is almost exactly the opposite of the one Graham reaches. Economic warfare and interventionism have not “worked” to keep the US secure and at peace, and they never will. If we would have a peaceful and secure future, that starts by getting out of foreign conflicts we don’t need to be fighting. That includes Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya at the very least. Graham’s shrieking about non-existent “isolationism” is proof that he has no other arguments to make, and it reminds us that we should always ignore what he has to say about foreign policy.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.