New Perspectives on American “Internationalism” and “Isolationism” from World War II to the Cold War

AHA Session 249
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in Saint Louis
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in Saint Louis and Michaela M. Hoenicke Moore, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

This panel builds on historians’ growing critical engagement with ideas of “internationalism” and “isolationism” in U.S. foreign relations. Unlike scholars who refine and complicate internationalism and isolationism, but accept them as binary opposites, this panel calls this very binary into question by historicizing its contested formation from World War II to the Cold War. How did “internationalism” and “isolationism” come to be seen as opposites? Whose interests did this imaginary serve? What competing visions and practices of U.S. foreign relations did it reveal and obscure?

The panel approaches these themes by investigating how ideas of “internationalism” and “isolationism” developed from the 1930s to the 1950s. Through deep archival research and historical analysis, each paper challenges prevailing interpretations of internationalism—and especially isolationism, which emerges as no retrogressive, monolithic position but a set of sophisticated diplomatic ideas and practices also pivotal to U.S. engagement with the world after the Second World War.

Wertheim and Nichols demonstrate how “isolationism” was born as an epithet, arrayed by those who sought to redefine “internationalism” by excluding anti-interventionists. Wertheim shows how the term “isolationism” became the foremost antonym of “internationalism.” It did so, he argues, shortly before America entered World War II, as part of a new self-understanding among so-called internationalists. Wertheim reveals how, from mid-1940 through 1941, foreign policy elites not only advocated intervention in the European war but developed a will for the United States to lead the world, and reconceived international organization to suit this new purpose. Branding their opponents “isolationists,” they expelled pacifists and other anti-interventionists from “internationalism’s” ranks. It was this new anti-isolationist internationalism that triumphed by the end of the war and underpinned historiographical interpretations ever since.

Nichols’ work picks up where Wertheim’s concludes, showing how arguments once associated with 1930s “isolationism” resurfaced in the early Cold War—most notably in Robert Taft’s speeches and also in the addresses and writings of powerful conservative leaders including John Bricker, Noah Mason, Howard Buffett, and Herbert Hoover. His research reveals that such avowedly conservative foreign policy thinkers intricately blended non-interventionist, nationalist, and internationally engaged positions in the early Cold War years. They rejected the collective-security formula embodied in NATO, opposed the direct rearming of Western Europe, and expressed strong reservations about the UN, yet simultaneously advocated international commercial and cultural engagements.

Finally, Kim’s paper explores the Korean War’s “Great Debate” as a critical episode in the shaping of Cold War internationalism. Focusing on Republican foreign policy elites’ clashing diplomacies and perspectives on the war, it emphasizes what the above papers also show: Americans engaged in diverse, equally international efforts to define U.S. foreign policy amid global crisis. Historicizing Republican elites’ experiences in the Korean War (including private, relatively unknown diplomacies), Kim argues that the Great Debate created two powerful, enduring schools of Republican Cold War “internationalism.” One embraced—albeit critically—dominant Cold War “consensus” approaches; the other sought their radical transformation. As domestic and world politics, the debate, Kim reveals, had an impact for decades to come.

See more of: AHA Sessions