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?