In his address on the Fourth of July, 1821, President John Adams reiterated the foundation-stone of American foreign policy with: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication . . . [and in doing so] She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Isolationism and America
“[President George Washington said]: Put not your trust in allies, especially those who are stronger than you. At worst they will betray or disappoint you; at best they will make you the pawn in their games. Trust instead in the Lord and yourselves in your dealings with aliens, and cast not away the protection conferred by a generous Providence.
The second great tradition of US foreign policy is habitually dubbed “isolationism.” This, despite dogged efforts by some diplomatic historians to instruct us that no such principle ever informed American government, and that the word came into general use only in the 1930s.
In the post-Civil War decades the word “isolation” up more often, but as an echo of Victorian Britain’s slogan of Splendid Isolation. What brought “isolation” to the consciousness of the American public was the propaganda of navalists like Captain A.T. Mahan, who sought to pin on their anti-imperialist critics a tag that implied they were old-fashioned curmudgeons.
Thus the Washington Post proclaimed at the time of the Spanish-American War that “the policy of isolation is dead,” and the Oxford English Dictionary first made reference to the concept in 1901: “Hence, Isolationist, one who favors or advocates isolation. In US politics, one who thinks the Republic ought to pursue a policy of political isolation.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica never made “isolation” a rubric, and only after World War II did its articles on diplomacy refer to the phenomenon. Most telling of all, not even the “isolationists” of the 1930s had any use for the term, preferring to call themselves neutralists or nationalists. So, our vaunted tradition of “isolationism” is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.
Let us dispense with the term altogether and substitute for it a word that really describes the second great tradition in American foreign relations: Unilateralism. It was a natural, even inevitable corollary of the first American tradition, for if the essence of Exceptionalism was liberty at home, the essence of Unilateralism was to be at liberty to make foreign policy independent of the “toils of European ambition.”
Unilateralism never meant that the United States should, or for that matter could, sequester itself or pursue an ostrich-like policy toward all foreign countries. It simply meant, as Hamilton and Jefferson both underscored, that the self-evident course for the United States was to avoid permanent, entangling alliances and to remain neutral in Europe’s wars except when our Liberty – the first hallowed tradition – was at risk.
[And] if the United States became enmeshed in war and imperialism on the European model, it would have to raise large armies and navies, tax and conscript its people, and generally compromise domestic freedom, the [American] Republic’s raison d’etre.
[And if] it became enmeshed in foreign conflicts, the European powers would compete for Americans’ affections, corrupt their politics with propaganda and bribes, and split them into factions. And finally, if the United States joined in Europe’s rivalries, the arenas of battle would surely include America’s own lands and waters, as they had for over a century.”
(Promised Land, Crusader State, Walter A. McDougall, Houghton-Mifflin, 1997, excerpts, pp. 39-40; 42)