United States non-interventionism

United States non-interventionism
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Non-interventionism, the diplomatic policy whereby a nation seeks to avoid alliances with other nations in order to avoid being drawn into wars not related to direct territorial self-defense, has had a long history in the United States. It is a form of "realism".

Non-interventionism on the part of the United States over the course of its foreign policy, is more of a want to aggressively protect the United States' interests than a want to shun the rest of the world.

Non-intervention, sometimes referred to as military non-interventionism, seems to some to be the antithesis of isolationism.[1] Participating in global economic affairs would likely boost trade and expand US diplomacy, in the view of Edward A. Olsen.[1]


Early background

Thomas Paine is generally credited with instilling the first non-interventionist ideas into the American body politic; his work Common Sense contains many arguments in favor of avoiding alliances. These ideas introduced by Paine took such a firm foothold that the Second Continental Congress struggled against forming an alliance with France and only agreed to do so when it was apparent that the American Revolutionary War could be won in no other manner.

George Washington's farewell address is often cited as laying the foundation for a tradition of American non-interventionism:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

No entangling alliances (19th century)

President Thomas Jefferson extended Washington's ideas in his March 4, 1801 inaugural address: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Jefferson's phrase "entangling alliances" is, incidentally, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Washington.[2]

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which some have interpreted as non-interventionist in intent: "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense."

After Tsar Alexander II put down the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, French Emperor Napoleon III asked the United States to "join in a protest to the Tsar."[3] Secretary of State William H. Seward declined, "defending 'our policy of non-intervention — straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,'" and insisted that "[t]he American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference."[3]

The United States' policy of non-intervention was maintained throughout most of the 19th century. The first significant foreign intervention by the US was the Spanish-American War, which saw the US occupy and control the Philippines.

Wake Up, America! Civilization Calls, poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917

20th century non-intervention

Theodore Roosevelt's administration is credited with inciting the Panamanian Revolt against Colombia in order to secure construction rights for the Panama Canal (begun in 1904).

United States President Woodrow Wilson, after winning reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war," promptly, but reluctantly, intervened in World War I. Yet non-interventionist sentiment remained; the U.S. Congress refused to endorse the Treaty of Versailles or the League of Nations.

Protest march to prevent American involvement in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Non-Interventionism between the World Wars

In the wake of the First World War, the non-interventionist tendencies of US foreign policy were in full force. First, the United States Congress rejected president Woodrow Wilson’s most cherished condition of the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations. Many Americans felt that they did not need the rest of the world, and that they were fine making decisions concerning peace on their own.[4] Even though ‘anti-League’ was the policy of the nation, private citizens and lower diplomats either supported or observed the League.[5] This quasi-isolationism shows that the US was interested in foreign affairs, but was afraid that by pledging full support for the League, the United States would lose the ability to act on foreign policy as it pleased.

Although the United States was unwilling to commit to the League of Nations, they were willing to engage in foreign affairs on their own terms. In August 1928, fifteen nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, brainchild of American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand.[6] This pact that was said to have outlawed war and showed the United States commitment to international peace had its semantic flaws.[7] For example, it did not hold the United States to the conditions of any existing treaties, it still allowed European nations the right to self-defense, and it stated that if one nation broke the Pact, it would be up to the other signatories to enforce it.[8] The Kellogg-Briand Pact was more of a sign of good intentions on the part of the US, rather than a legitimate step towards the sustenance of world peace.

Non-interventionism took a new turn after the Crash of 1929. With the economic hysteria, the US began to focus solely on fixing its economy within its borders and ignored the outside world. As the world’s democratic powers were busy fixing their economies within their borders, the fascist powers of Europe and Asia silently moved their armies into a position to start World War II. With military victory came the spoils of war - a very draconian pummeling of Germany into submission, via the Treaty of Versailles. This near-total humiliation of Germany in the wake of World War I - as the treaty placed sole blame for the war on the nation - laid the groundwork for a pride-hungry German people to embrace Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Non-interventionism shortly before WWII

As Europe moved closer and closer to war in the late 1930s, the United States Congress was doing everything it could to prevent it. Between 1936 and 1937, much to the dismay of the pro-Britain President Roosevelt, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts. These Acts did everything they could to delay U.S. entry into a European war. These Acts were not aimed at keeping America out of a modern world war, but the previous one.[9] For example, in the final Neutrality Act, Americans could not sail on ships flying the flag of a belligerent nation or trade arms with warring nations, potential causes for U.S. entry into war.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland; Britain and France subsequently declared war on Germany, marking the start of World War II. In an address to the American People two days later, President Roosevelt assured the nation that he would do all he could to keep them out of war.[10] However, his words showed his true goals. “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger,” Roosevelt said.[11] Even though he was intent on neutrality as the official policy of the United States, he still echoed the dangers of staying out of this war. He also cautioned the American people to not let their wish to avoid war at all costs supersede the security of the nation.[12]

The war in Europe split the American people into two distinct groups: non-interventionists and interventionists. The two sides argued over America’s involvement in this Second World War. The basic principle of the interventionist argument was fear of German invasion. By the summer of 1940, France had fallen to the Germans, and Britain was the only democratic stronghold between Germany and the United States.[13] Interventionists feared that if Britain fell, their security as a nation would shrink immediately.[14] They were also afraid of a world after this war, a world where they would have to coexist with the fascist power of Europe. In a 1940 speech, Roosevelt argued, “Some, indeed, still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we … can safely permit the United States to become a lone island … in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”[15] A national survey found that in the summer of 1940 67% of Americans believed that a German-Italian victory would endanger the United States, that if such an event occurred 88% supported "arm[ing] to the teeth at any expense to be prepared for any trouble", and that 71% favored "the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men".[16]

Ultimately, the ideological rift between the ideals of the United States and the goals of the fascist powers is what made the core of the interventionist argument. “How could we sit back as spectators of a war against ourselves?”[17] writer Archibald MacLeish questioned. The reason why interventionists said we could not coexist with the fascist powers was not due to economic pressures or deficiencies in our armed forces but rather because it was the goal of fascist leaders to destroy the American ideology of democracy. In an address to the American people on December 29, 1940, President Roosevelt said, “…the Axis not merely admits but proclaims that there can be no ultimate peace between their philosophy of government and our philosophy of government.”[18] It is not that the interventionists are war mongering and power hungry, it is that they are fearful for the preservation of the American way of life, after these years of war.

However, there were still many who held on to the age-old tenets of non-interventionism. Although a minority, they were well organized, and had a powerful presence in Congress.[19] Non-interventionists rooted a significant portion of their arguments in historical precedent, citing events such as Washington’s farewell address and the failure of World War I.[20] Ultimately, it came down to the moral and physical separation of the United States from the rest of the world. “If we have strong defenses and understand and believe in what we are defending, we need fear nobody in this world,” Robert Hutschins, President of the University of Chicago, wrote in a 1940 essay.[21] Isolationists believed that our safety as a nation was more important than any foreign war.[22] The interesting thing is that the arguments the non-interventionists used in 1940 echoed the themes of Washington and Jefferson. Charles Lindbergh’s words in a 1940 speech, “…those of us who believe in an independent American destiny must … organize for strength,”[23] are not that different from Washington’s pleas for international isolation.

As 1940 became 1941, the actions of the Roosevelt administration made it more and more clear that the United States was on a course to war. This policy shift, driven by the President, came in two phases. The first came in 1939 with the passage of the Fourth Neutrality Act, which permitted the United States to trade arms with belligerent nations, as long as these nations came to America to retrieve the arms, and pay for them in cash.[19] This policy was quickly dubbed, ‘Cash and Carry.’[24] The second phase was the Lend-Lease Act of early 1941. This act allowed the President, “…to lend, lease, sell, or barter arms, ammunition, food, or any ‘defense article’ or any ‘defense information’ to ‘the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.’”[25] He used these two programs to side economically with the British and the French in their fight against the Nazis. In doing so, he made the American economy dependent upon an allied victory. In terms of policy, the United States was on a path to war but the American people still wished to avoid it at all costs, a wish that would come untrue.

Overt military intervention since 1945

Both Republican and Democratic presidents who, since the 1950s, have often considered used military intervention as a tactic of foreign policy, including in major cases: (in some cases the policies were continued by subsequent presidents.)[26]

Covert intervention

See Covert United States foreign regime change actions

The US has intervened in the affairs of other countries through a number of secret operations. The U.S. government has conducted a number of covert operations in an effort to topple foreign governments, including both democratically-elected governments[27][28][29] and authoritarian regimes.[30][31]

Conservative policies

Rathbun (2008) compares three separate themes in conservative policies since the 1980s: conservatism, neoconservatism, and isolationism. These approaches are similar in that they all invoked the mantle of 'realism' and pursued foreign policy goals designed to promote national interests. Conservatives, however, were the only group that was "realist" in the academic sense in that they defined the national interest narrowly, strove for balances of power internationally, viewed international relations as amoral, and especially valued sovereignty. By contrast, neoconservatives based their foreign policy on nationalism, and isolationists sought to minimize any involvement in foreign affairs and raise new barriers to immigration.[32]

See also


  1. ^ a b >US national defense for the twenty-first century: the grand exit strategy By Edward A. Olsen p 181 line 10, 179 paragraph 2
  2. ^ http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres16.html
  3. ^ a b Raico, Ralph. America's Will to War: The Turning Point, Mises Institute
  4. ^ Selig Adler, The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction (New York: The Free Press, 1957), 201
  5. ^ Ibid, 204 & 209
  6. ^ Ibid, 213
  7. ^ Ibid, 21.
  8. ^ Ibid, 214 & 215
  9. ^ Adler, Isolationist Impulse, 240.
  10. ^ Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Fireside Chats," Chat from 3 Sept. 1939, accessed via 'The American Presidency Project' online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/index.php .
  11. ^ Ibid
  12. ^ Ibid
  13. ^ Adler, Isolationist Impulse, 259.
  14. ^ The Annals of America, vol. 16, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1968),6, N.B. The Annals of America is a multivolume collection of primary sources grouped by year.
  15. ^ Ibid, 8.
  16. ^ "What the U. S. A. Thinks". Life: pp. 20. 1940-07-29. http://books.google.com/books?id=xz8EAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA20&pg=PA20#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  17. ^ Ibid, 4
  18. ^ Roosevelt, Chat from 29 Dec. 1940.
  19. ^ a b Adler, Isolationist Impulse, 257.
  20. ^ Ibid, 284.
  21. ^ Annals of America, 71.
  22. ^ Ibid, 75
  23. ^ Ibid
  24. ^ Ibid, 257.
  25. ^ Ibid, 282.
  26. ^ Details and the debates see Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security - From World War II to the War on Terrorism (2009); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (2008)
  27. ^ "Special Report: Secret History of the CIA in Iran". New York Times. 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/mideast/041600iran-cia-index.html. 
  28. ^ Vanity Fair April 2008, "The Gaza Bombshell"
  29. ^ Mark Perry; Alastair Crooke (2007-01-09). "No-goodniks and the Palestinian shootout". Asia Times Online. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/IA09Ak03.html. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  30. ^ Aburish, Said K. "Saddam Hussein, The Politics of Revenge". PBS Frontline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saddam/interviews/aburish.html. 
  31. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saddam/interviews/critchfield.html
  32. ^ Brian C. Rathbun, "Does One Right Make a Realist? Conservatism, Neoconservatism, and Isolationism in the Foreign Policy Ideology of American Elites," Political Science Quarterly 2008 123(2): 271-299


  • Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction. New York: The Free Press, 1957.
  • The Annals of America. vol. 16. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1968.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "American Isolationism, 1939-1941" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer/Fall 1982, 6(3), pp. 201–216.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Explaining the Antiwar Movement, 1939-1941: The Next Assignment" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1986, 8(1), pp. 139–162.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Literature of Isolationism, 1972-1983: A Bibliographic Guide" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1983, 7(1), pp. 157–184.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Anti-Interventionism of Herbert Hoover" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer 1987, 8(2), pp. 311–340.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Nichols, Christopher McKnight. "Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age". Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Fireside Chats.” 3 Sep. 1939, 29 Dec. 1940, 9 Dec. 1941.
  • Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1935.

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