The scholarly literature on isolationism began in 1924 with J. Fred Rippy and Angie Debo's essay "The Historical Background of the American Policy of Isolation" ( Smith College Studies in History 9). The term was not prominently used, however, until 1935, when Albert K. Weinberg offered a provocative interpretation of it in Manifest Destiny. World War II and its immediate aftermath, when the United States for the first time actively sought to assume the mantle of a major power, provided the major impetus for its serious study.
American policy during the interwar years, which frequently was described as isolationist, came then to be regarded as an anomalous one that required explanation and analysis. Isolation, it was argued, had generally been imposed on major powers only against their will, as in the case of France after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) or of Great Britain in the 1890s. Although the speech by George Eulas Foster in the Canadian House of Commons on 16 January 1896 led to a flurry of oratory concerning Britain's "splendid isolation," it was clear that the term had been used ironically more often than not and that British policy had been designed to help the empire emerge from that apparently undesirable state. Voluntary isolation had been sought only by some smaller nations, such as Switzerland, as a way to avoid falling victim to more powerful neighbors, and by culturally threatened ones, such as China and Japan, as a defense against Western incursions.
The United States was the only major Western industrialized nation that had apparently displayed a positive interest in some form of isolation, and that phenomenon attracted the attention of scholars in the late 1940s, and with increasing frequency in the two decades that followed. Ray Allen Billington sought to give isolationism a geographic base in his "The Origins of Middle Western Isolationism" ( Political Science Quarterly, March 1945); Henry Nash Smith examined its relationship to "the myth of the garden" ( Virgin Land, 1950); Samuel Lubell exposed what he took to be its "ethnic and emotional roots" ( The Future of American Politics, 1952); and Wayne S. Cole explained it as an expression of the "needs, desires, and value systems" of American agricultural society ( Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Policy, 1962).
Extended analyses of isolationism were also published by Robert E. Osgood, who defined it as a form of "passive egoism" in his Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations (1953); by Selig Adler, who stressed economic self-sufficiency, the illusion of security, and ethnic prejudices as causative factors ( The Isolationist Impulse, 1957); by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., who explained isolationism as a policy designed to assure de facto independence after the American Revolution had been won ( Ideas, Ideals, and American Diplomacy, 1966); and by Manfred Jonas, whose Isolationism in America, 1935–1941 (1966) analyzed the assumptions underlying the isolationist position prior to World War II and suggested that these indicated a survival of unilateralism bolstered by a fear of war. John Milton Cooper, Jr., sought to define isolationism as "a political position with programmatic and ideological dimensions" somewhat akin to a political movement ( The Vanity of Power, 1969), and a host of other scholars—historians, political scientists, sociologists, and even psychologists—have investigated the subject from the perspective of their respective disciplines.