Beyond Isolationists versus Internationalists: Rethinking Conservative Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Christopher McKnight Nichols, Oregon State University
What are we to make of the conventional wisdom that the isolationist tradition was neither serious nor effective; that it was mostly negative, insular, and protectionist; and that it resisted global connections and virtually all internationalist orientations? This view, assumed by many people, including some professional historians, is stubbornly persistent and demonstrably inadequate. This paper rejects such notions by exposing the relationship of pre-and post-WWII thought and politics related to isolationism, such as the foreign policies of Senator Robert Taft and his conservative “isolationist” wing of the Republican Party. Though Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously remarked that Pearl Harbor effectively “ended isolationism for any realist,” isolationist arguments resurfaced after WWII, most notably in Taft’s speeches, but also in the addresses and writings of a powerful group of conservative leaders including John Bricker, Noah Mason, Howard Buffett, and Herbert Hoover.

My research reveals that these and other avowedly “conservative” foreign policy thinkers intricately blended non-interventionist, nationalist, and internationally-engaged positions in the early Cold War years. Thus, building on archival research as well as synthesis, this paper aims to overturn facile narratives reliant on the dichotomization of isolationism vs. internationalism to demonstrate new and enduring linkages in isolationist, non-interventionist, and internationalist thought from the interwar years through the early 1950s. It emphasizes how a conservative, isolationist bloc led by Taft rejected virtually every form of binding internationalism—particularly the collective security formula embodied in NATO—opposed the direct rearming of Western Europe, and expressed strong reservations about the United Nations, yet simultaneously advocated a wide array of American commercial and cultural engagements in the world.