Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The End of Non-Intervention in America

The policy of non-interventionism has had a long-standing history in the United States. The idea of avoiding alliances with other nations is something that previous generations were not a stranger to. Despite the fact that others think we as a country have intervened in world affairs ever since the War of Independence, our history actually reveals that we have been most often a non-interventionist county until we are provoked into action.

Thomas Paine first instilled the ideas of non-interventionism into American politics by presenting many arguments for avoiding alliances in his book Common Sense. An alliance was struck between the Continental Congress and the government of France only after the point that our founding fathers thought it was necessary to win our independence from the British Empire. In his farewell address, our nation’s first President, George Washington laid the foundation for our tradition of non-intervention by urging Americans that we should have as little political connection to foreign nations as possible because he felt that foreign interests we not our own. His ideas were extended by President Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address when he advocated for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Throughout all of the 19th century and up through the beginning of the 20th century, the United States remained politically a non-interventionist nation. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine stated that “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves we have never taken part, nor does it comfort [to be in harmony with] our policy to do so.”

The policy of non-intervention continued even up to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson who, in his campaign for re-election, used the talking point that “he kept us out of war” [with European powers]. However, as World War One escalated, Germany’s submarine warfare against American ships, most likely in response to our secret military assistance with Great Britain, provoked our country into abandoning our neutrality once and for all. This was the first major departure from our policy of non-intervention. Even so, once the war was over, the United States reiterated its support for its policy of non-intervention by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and rejecting membership into the League of Nations.

In the 1930s, a series of laws now known as the Neutrality Acts were passed in response to the growing turmoil in Europe and Asia and stimulated by the growing interest in non-interventionism following our costly involvement in World War One. For instance, in 1935, the selling of arms by American citizens to participants in foreign wars was prohibited. Also, in 1936, a law was passed to prohibit the trading of war materials such as steel and oil, as well as providing loans or credits to war participants. Restrictions were tightened even more in 1937 on American businesses and private individuals by prohibiting the assistance of belligerents and even prohibited travel by U.S. citizens on vessels of foreign origination.

Groups such as the America First Committee attracted hundreds of thousands to its organization, displaying a desire of the American people to stay out of the second European War. American First was established in September 1940 by a Yale law student and included members such as future President Gerald Ford, Charles Lindbergh, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, among many others. Its intention was to urge the enforcement of the Neutrality Act of 1939 and to force President Roosevelt to keep his promise to keep the United States out of war.

President Roosevelt, however, in his efforts to aid the Allies economically undermined our policy of non-intervention and in 1941 the Lend-Lease Act was passed. This law removed the earlier restrictions upheld by the Neutrality Acts, allowing the supply of war materials to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and other Allied nations and permitted the President to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government any defense article.”

In December 1941, Pearl Harbor was invaded by Japanese naval forces, signaling a major turning point for our country’s policy of non-interventionism. The peace movement in the United States completely lost its support and Congress voted for a declaration of war against Japan, which resulted in a declaration of war on the United States by Germany and Italy.

Even so, the ideas of non-interventionism were not completely abandoned although it the idea did not play a significant role in the politics of the United States ever again. After the war, Roosevelt’s administration inspired many Americans in favor of the United Nations, which was just an updated version of the previously rejected League of Nations. The threat of communism and the rise of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin diminished any hope of a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy. In fact, the policy of intervention in foreign affairs became the status quo of U.S. foreign policy with the beginning of the Cold War.

Examples of intervention into foreign affairs is rampant in the later part of the 20th century and in the early 21st century. Military support for Afghanistan during that country’s invasion by the Soviet Union. The invasion of Grenada. The invasion of Panama in 1989. Desert Storm in 1991 and the embargo of Iraq following it. Somalia in 1992. Kosovo in 1999. The deployment of troops in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. The 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Although some justified and many receiving widespread popular support, these actions showed any lack of desire to return to the old ways of avoiding foreign alliances and entanglements. In fact, in some case, one could say that many of these conflicts were the direct result of the intervention of American into foreign affairs.

The fact is that the dominant policy of the United States today has become multi-lateral intervention. Politicians such as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul still promote a return to a foreign policy of non-interventionism, although unfortunately, none of them are taken seriously.

Within the nation, intense debate has been provoked over our government’s foreign policy.

We should, as a nation, reflect on our history and the lessons that our founding fathers taught us. This country used to be respected and admired by the nations of the world, due not to our power, but to our restraint. Now, unfortunately, we are seen as the world’s policemen and as a national trying to impose our will on the rest of the world.

Only time will tell if we will we ever return to our policy of non-intervention. When the final page is turned in our world’s history, how will America be remembered? Will be it respected once again and admired in the eyes of the global community or will be remembered for its continued policy of global involvement?


  1. I don't know how much of that was your own thoughts or copied from those articles, but it seems to be thorough and well written. I would agree that after WWII we tended to be more involved with foreign affairs. In the present situation, I believe we were provoked into action. The attack on 9/11/01 was that provocation. We can debate whether we are going after the right targets, but there is no question that we were provoked. Our response is due to that provocation. Personally, it seems like we should have done more in the previous Desert Storm conflict to mitigate our current situation. I don't know if it would have helped, but leaving the region in a mess certainly didn't. Once we neuter the terrorist regimes that threaten us, I would be all for returning to our isolationist roots. I don't know if that will be possible again, because it seems like we are now too big a target for terrorists from all over. How do you think we can extricate ourselves from this and return to those days and policies of old? Or do you think they no longer function in our world today?

  2. I would say it is close to half and half, I can't take much credit for it.
    I think the first step we can take toward return to our old ways is, after finishing the job in Iraq, pull our membership in the United Nations. There is an organization whose time has come (never should have come in the first place actually).
    After that, we can just pool our ideas together I assume and figure out how to return back to our isolationist principles.
    Baby steps.

  3. Baby steps seems like a reasonable approach. Of course, we have to take the first step in the right direction for that to do any good. What do you think it will take to get the American people behind this?

  4. Well Daniel, I really think a good first step would for our country to just quietly pull our membership card out of the United Nations. This group has proved to be ineffectual over the years.
    I think pulling out of the U.N. would be a good first baby step to make the American people sit up and realize that we don't need to be all up in other people's business when we have our own problems here at home.

  5. one problem with isolationism.
    It isn't suited to the era we live in. Countries can communicate and unite against us in ways unimaginable 500 years ago.

    If you think for one second that a big fat rich "cow" like an America with it's head stuck in a hole ignoring Cuba, Venezuala, N Korea, Iran PLUS an Islamic plot to destroy America and rule the world would be SAFE and SECURE based on how much we are "liked" by the rest of the world because we minded our own business and only took care of things here at home...you are sadly mistaken and you know that.

    "Switzerland" (nuetral) can only exist because the free world paid the price for it to be so, ...Israel would last about a month (maybe) without the threat of US intervention.
    Isolationism doesn't work (unfortunately) because there are enough totalitarian dictators around who DO get together (Castro meets with Chaves meets with Ahmadinejad meets with Kim Jung Ill) and plot to TAKE what others have.

    Left alone, Saddam would have ultimately become a part of the Ilamic movement (jihad) in spite of all the claims to the contrary... Iran would still be seeking nukes, Saddam would have resumed his nuke programs, the Taliban would still own Afganistan and we would be in a world of trouble right now... instead of being on the verge of... "kick-starting" a middle-east that behaves more like Europe, Australia and North America than it looks like the end of the world.

    America IS the biggest threat to horrible evil dictators on the planet. We have grown through history to this place and rightly so.

    We live in that "Shining City on the hill" and owe it to all those before us who have given so much to make it so... we owe them our commitment to protecting it and protecting that freedom for others.

    In today's post 9/11 world we cannot afford to wait until after a threat has been turned into an attack. In today's world we MUST act before an attack becomes imminent. In today's world we must foster a world around us that seeks peace and not the destruction of freedom and liberty. We must reach out and touch the terrorists in way's they understand.

    America cannot afford to "mind it's own business" with regard to the middle east... considering they are making it "their business" to wage Jihad against America.

  6. Yeah I know Red, it is probably all just a pipe dream but you have to wonder: would the world be in the state of affairs it is in now and would our country be at risk from terrorists and what not if we would have kept our nose out of other peoples business from the beginning.
    For instance, what if we remained absolutely neutral during World War I? Would World War 2 have even happened? If not, there certainly was a chain of events that led to our current situation because of WWII.