Rethinking “Isolationism”

Popularly known as isolationism, it was more accurately unilateralism. The object was not to sever contact with the rest of the globe, especially in matters of trade and commerce, but rather to ensure that only Americans decided what the nation would and would not do overseas.

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

Klein’s point suggests another aspect of the Second World War and its prelude that needs to be re-examined. There may well have been elements in the American polity that were strictly isolationist, or were downright xenophobic, but the core of what we have branded “isolationism” is actually something subtly and importantly different.

For many it was much less about cutting America off from the rest of the world than it was ensuring that America engaged in international affairs (commercial, political, and military) on its own terms rather than on those set by foreign powers.

Rather than lump all opponents of the war in a single basket, we need to dissect the opposition movement into its components. To appreciate why, despite numerous provocations, US entry into the war did not take place until after Pearl Harbor, we need to dig deeper into the matter.

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