Manfred Jonas

The term "isolationism" has been used—most often in derogation—to designate the attitudes and policies of those Americans who have urged the continued adherence in the twentieth century to what they conceived to have been the key element of American foreign policy in the nineteenth century, that is, the avoidance of political and military commitments to or alliances with foreign powers, particularly those of Europe. It was most nearly applicable to American policy between the two world wars, especially after 1935, when the U.S. Congress attempted to insulate the country from an increasingly dangerous world situation through the enactment of so-called neutrality laws. Since World War II, efforts to limit or reduce the vastly increased American commitments abroad have sometimes been called neoisolationism.

The term itself is of relatively recent origin. Its first known application to the foreign policies of the United States was by Edward Price Bell, the London correspondent of the Chicago Daily News. In an article entitled "America and Peace" ( Nineteenth Century, November 1922), Bell was critical of what he called the essentially negative attitude of the United States toward international cooperation, but noted that the country was nevertheless in the process of moving gradually "from isolation into partnership." Pointing out that the United States had, despite strong misgivings, ultimately declared war on Germany in 1917, he concluded: "Her isolationism, such as it was, discovered that the strain of a formidable advance against freedom was more than it could bear."

The word "isolationist" was listed for the first time in the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, although without any indication as to when or where it had been used in its political sense. Standard American dictionaries did not incorporate the word until 1922, and the 1933 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary cites no political use of it before 21 April 1921, when it appeared in the Glasgow Herald. Mitford M. Matthews, in A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, 1951), makes a logical but erroneous inference from the listing in the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (it remains unchanged in the current edition) and traces "isolationist" in a political sense to an article in the Philadelphia Press of 25 March 1899. This article, however, uses the word in a medical sense in connection with a smallpox epidemic in Laredo, Texas.


Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction. London and New York, 1957. The classic early work that regards economic self-sufficiency and the illusion of security, as well as some ethnic prejudices, as the causes of isolationism.

Clemens, Diane Shaver. From Isolationism to Internationalism: The Case Study of American Occupation Planning for Post-War Germany, 1945–1946. An exceptionally detailed examination of the definitive turning point.

Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940–1941. Madison, Wis., 1953. Still the only full-scale study of an isolationist organization.

——. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1935–1945. Lincoln, Neb., 1983. The isolationists' heyday and how they were outflanked by FDR.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Vanity of Power: American Isolationism and the First World War, 1914–1917. Westport, Conn., 1969. Defines isolationism as a political position with ideological dimensions.

Doenecke, Justus D. Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists and the Cold War. Lewisburg, Pa., 1979. Traces the varied responses of the old isolationist to the new world created by World War II.

——. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939–1941. Lanham, Md., and Oxford, 2000. The most complete analysis of anti-interventionist assumptions and arguments prior to Pearl Harbor.

Fensterwald, Bernard, Jr. "The Anatomy of American 'Isolationism' and Expansionism." Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1958). An interesting though unprovable psychological explanation for the persistence of American isolationism.

Foster, H. Schuyler. Activism Replaces Isolationism: U.S. Public Attitudes, 1840–1975. Washington, D.C., 1983. The public opinion studies conducted by the State Department.

Graebner, Norman A. The New Isolationism: A Study in Politics and Foreign Policy Since 1950. New York, 1956. A "realist" view of America's postwar role.

Guinsburg, Thomas N. The Pursuit of Isolationism in the United States from Versailles to Pearl Harbor. New York, 1982. A full-scale study of the most clearly isolationist period in U.S. history.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1935–1941. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966, and Chicago, 1990. Analyzes the arguments and actions of the isolationists up to Pearl Harbor and concludes that their common denominator was unilateralism strengthened by the fear of war.

Kull, Steven. Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism. Washington, D.C., 1999. Defends those looking to limit America's commitments against the charge of isolationism.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State. Boston, 1997. Divides U.S. diplomatic history into "Old Testament" and "New Testament" phases and argues that foreign policy debates revolve around the differences between the two.

Muravchik, Joshua. The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism. Washington, D.C., 1996. Argues that the United States must remain the fully committed leader of the free world.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago and London, 1999. A brief analytical survey that does away with isolationism by defining American policy as a tug of war between the "normal" internationalism of the Founders and the "crisis" internationalism of Woodrow Wilson.

Nordlinger, Eric A. Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century. Princeton, N.J., 1995. Argues that isolationism is simply the unilateralist component of the traditional and relatively constant American foreign policy.

Osgood, Robert E. Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. A classic.

Powaski, Ronald E. Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism and Europe, 1901–1950. New York, 1991. A straightforward account of how the "isolated" United States came in time to create the North Atlantic Treaty.

Rieselbach, Leroy N. The Roots of Isolationism: Congressional Voting and Presidential Leadership in Foreign Policy. Indianapolis, 1966. The most ambitious behavioral analysis of congressional isolationism.

Rossina, Daniela, ed. From Theodore Roosevelt to FDR: Internationalism and Isolationism in American Foreign Policy. Staffordshire, England, 1995. A collection of essays most of which offer a European view of the United States.

Russett, Bruce M. "Demography, Salience, and Isolationist Behavior." Public Opinion Quarterly 24 (1960). Offers the most serious challenge to ethnic and geographical explanations for isolationism.

Smith, Glenn H. Langer of North Dakota: A Study in Isolationism, 1940–1959. New York, 1979. One of the few biographies of a leading isolationist senator.

Tucker, Robert W. A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? New York, 1972.

Weinberg, Albert K. "The Historical Meaning of the American Doctrine of Isolationism." American Political Science Review 34 (1940).The classic brief statement of what traditional American foreign policy was and what it was not.

Williams, William A. "The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920s." Science and Society 18 (1954). Argues that the absence of genuine economic isolationism demonstrates the mythical nature of the entire concept.

See also Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes ; Internationalism ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Neutrality ; Wilsonianism .

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