"Isolation and Expansion" by Walter Lippmann, 1952


SOURCE: From Isolation and Alliances: An American Speaks to the British, published by Little, Brown and Co., 1952


American history is brief. It is, I know, tiresome to hear this said again. But we are indeed a young nation. And in remarkable degree, the main ideas with which we approach foreign affairs are still those of provincial America. They are the ideas which became habitual during the century and a half before the American nation became a Great Power. The traditional and fundamental themes of American foreign policy are now known as isolationism. That is a term, however, which must be handled with the greatest care, or it can do nothing but confuse and mislead.

It began to be used about 1900 after the Spanish-American War, but it was not widely used until 1914-until the great debates about American intervention in the two world wars and about American participation in affairs outside the Western Hemisphere. The word isolation is highly charged with emotion-with the acute anxiety which twice in this century, so many, on both sides of the ocean, have suffered, as, facing defeat and disaster, they waited for American intervention, waited until it was almost too late-waited perhaps until it was too late to make a good peace. I have shared these anxieties. Yet, speaking as an old hand in these debates, I should like to point out to you that the term isolation is misleading as the name of any significant contemporary American movement in foreign affairs.

During the hard-fought battles over intervention the isolationists were the party of neutrality and of pacifism. They prevailed in the sense that the American nation refused to enter either world war until we ourselves were attacked and were, therefore, compelled to go to war. This has caused many abroad and at home to think of the United States as trying--rather foolishly and in vain--to be a kind of big and boisterous Switzerland, a sort of pushing and untidy Sweden--until, at long last, by dint of great argument and exhortation the Americans were aroused, though they are always in danger of relapsing, to do their duty as befits their power in the great world.

According to this legend, the American colonists along the Atlantic seaboard achieved their independence because of the follies of King George III and his Ministers. They found themselves with a vast, an empty and an enormously rich continent at their backs. The legend has it that as they moved into this vacant paradise, they forgot their European heritage. They became wholly immersed in their internal affairs, chiefly in making money. Thanks to the Pax Britannica, they were so secure that they did not need to bother themselves with the affairs of the Old World. In the enjoyment of their too many blessings, which they never seem to weary of boasting about, they became soft and timid-until they were stung into action first by the Kaiser and Admiral von Tirpitz, and then by Hitler and the Japanese.

This is, of course, a false picture and many Europeans are now beginning to appreciate that fact when they discover, often to their dismay, that if it was hard to arouse the sleeping giant, it is also hard to quiet him down again. The term isolationists, and the mythology which has grown up around it, suggest passivity and lethargy. The word isolationist conceals the dynamic and expansionist energy of the American nation. It suggests that the United States did not have a foreign policy until recently. All that is quite untrue. The United States has never been neutral in the European sense. It has always had a very active foreign policy, of which the central purpose has been the determination to expand across the continent from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.

American foreign policy has been in this sense continuous from the middle of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century. It has been a policy designed to open up the continental territory, to consolidate that territory firmly within the American union, and to make that territory and the approaches to it invulnerably secure as against all other powers. To accomplish these ends the American people have used diplomacy and war.

The struggle to acquire and consolidate what is now the national territory of the United States lasted until the close of the nineteenth century. It began with the French wars of the eighteenth century. The American colonists participated in these wars, always for American reasons. Officially, so to speak, the struggle for the national territory ended in 1890, when the last of our thirty-seven wars with the Indians was concluded.

Those whom we now call isolationists are the true believers in the foreign policy of the men who conquered and settled the American continental domain. The memory of their struggles against foreign powers, and against the Indians and against the wilderness, has been the living tradition of the Americans who have played leading parts in this century.

Isolationism, then, is not pacifism and withdrawal. It is a deposit of ideas from the experience of conquering, consolidating and securing the national homeland. The traditional American attitude towards European powers, towards alliances with foreign nations, towards war and towards peace, can be understood only when the words of American statesmen--of Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman--are read in the historical context of this struggle for the continent.

American foreign policy has not been so much a reflection of the old colonial cities on the Atlantic seaboard as it has been the instrument of the pioneers and settlers who pushed their way across the Appalachian Mountains into the Mississippi Valley, across the Rocky Mountains and on to the Pacific coast. They did not find that this territory was a vacant paradise. They had to open it up. They had to clear the wilderness. They had by diplomacy and war to work their way past the Great Powers-past Great Britain, France and Spain. They fought the Indians, who in the early days had often been armed against them by the Great Powers. They fought the Mexicans, who were the heirs of Spain in North America.

The famous phrases and injunctions and precepts which are the currency of the American tradition were minted in this struggle.

Consider, for example, Washington's injunction in the Farewell Address, which he published in 1796, when he had decided not to be a candidate for a third term. "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations," he said, "is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." For, he went on to say, "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation."

When Washington laid down this rule that we must have as little connection as possible with Europe, he had just completed the ratification of Jay's Treaty with the British Government. This treaty was being attacked bitterly on the ground that the United States was being forced to ransom its own property, the northwest posts, by humiliating concessions in commerce, shipping and maritime rights. But Washington and his Cabinet insisted on ratification because the treaty meant that the last frontier post occupied by British soldiers on American soil would be evacuated and the Ohio Valley opened up to settlement. When Washington spoke of political separation from Europe, he was deeply conscious of being surrounded--of being contained--by great unfriendly foreign powers.

Let me say a few words about another of the texts. It is from the address which Thomas Jefferson delivered at his first inauguration in 1801. The famous words are "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. Shortly after this disavowal of entangling alliances Jefferson performed the diplomatic feat of buying the Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. He seized a golden opportunity which was presented to him because France and Great Britain were at war. Jefferson, having no entangling alliance, did in fact negotiate with both powers, and he used his neutral position to make a bargain which brought into the union the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys.

Isolationism, I repeat, is the deposit of this fundamental American foreign policy. The principle of the policy was to keep a free hand in order to expand westward to the continental limits. In any current European usage of the words American isolationism is not neutralist or pacifist. By nature and by mood it is not prudent and it is not retiring. The isolationists of the twentieth century have wished to isolate not merely the American continental domain and the Western Hemisphere. In the last analysis they have wanted to isolate American decisions and actions, to have the final word wherever Americans are involved. They carry with them the thought and feeling which has come down from those who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries managed in one way or another, by war and by diplomacy, to expel all the foreign powers who blocked the westward expansion of the American people.

Many other influences have reinforced this basic pattern. Americans have always had a moral conviction that they were conquering a continent not as an empire to be exploited but as Jefferson, or perhaps it was Madison, put it, to be a new domicile of freedom. Americans have never thought of their territorial expansion as imperial conquest. They have always believed that they were opening the territory to all mankind--by which they meant all of the European mankind from which they were themselves descended. It was the European governments which they hoped to see expelled from the New World. The governments, they believed, were political tyrannies. The European social order, moreover, did not recognize that all men are equal. The Americans were mastering a wilderness which was inhabited by savages, and they were opening it up to all men who wished to escape from class, from privilege, from bigotry, and from persecution.

But the new nation formed out of families emigrating from all the countries of Europe was bound to know a certain tension. The ancestral lands in Europe are not altogether foreign. The separation is not complete. In times when feeling runs high, Americans are drawn back to, and then they push themselves away from, the old fatherlands. Whenever the United States has been the ally of one European power and the enemy of another the assimilation of Europeans into the American nationality has been interrupted. This morbid experience is known in America as hyphenization.

The traditional foreign policy--that of regarding the American system as separate from Europe--of keeping Americanism unentangled with loyalties in Europe, is adapted to this inner problem. . .

Around about the turn of the century the central purpose of the traditional American foreign policy had been achieved. In the eyes of all but a small adventurous and romantic minority our western expansion was completed: in the conquest of the Philippines we had in fact been carried beyond our natural and proper limits.

The Philippines were much too far away to be thought of as destined to become American territory. More than that, a permanent occupation of the Philippines would have violated the basic assumption, the inner moral sanction of the American expansion. Americans had always regarded it as self-evident that any territory they acquired would be organized into states and would be admitted into the Union, and that the inhabitants-who would be predominantly of European stock-would then be assimilated into equal American citizenship.

Americans have never wanted to rule over any territory which could not be admitted as a state into the Union or to govern peoples who could not be assimilated. The Philippines, obviously, could not be admitted into the Union and their people could not be assimilated into the American nation. In American eyes, therefore, they were beyond tile natural and the moral limits of American interest and American destiny, and in conquering them from Spain our western expansion had, so to speak, overshot its mark.

The fulfillment of the historic purpose of American policy coincided with the radical change in the world balance of power. The necessary condition under which the United States had been able to expand to the Pacific Ocean and to consolidate its continental territory had been the European equilibrium under the Pax Britannica. The architects of our foreign policy--Washington, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Madison, Monroe--had known quite well that it was the preservation of the balance of power in the Old World which made it possible for the weak nations of the New World to isolate themselves, while they were developing, from interference by the Great Powers of Europe. This had, however, been forgotten by the later generations.

The German challenge of 1914 put in doubt what no American then alive had supposed could ever be put in doubt. It challenged the existing order which was deemed to be natural and not historical. No one in America had anticipated this, and few were prepared to understand it. The nation had always faced towards the west. Now it had to turn around and to recognize that there was a great threat from the rear, where all had so long been so secure. Instead of continuing to look forward towards the west, where there had always been the American promised lands, the nation had to look backward across the ocean to the countries from which it had come.

Ever since then we have been learning by hard experience that the old order of the world is broken, and that it cannot be restored, and that the making of a new order is a task which our generation may hope to see begun but cannot hope to see completed.

The task of Americans who have had a part in events since 1914 has been to adjust, transform and convert traditional American ideas to the new necessities. That has been, that is proving to be, a most difficult thing to do.

Within the lives of one generation we have been called upon to remake our fundamental conceptions of the nature of the political world. By conscious reasoning, by imagination rather than long experience, we are having to transform our deepest habits and our oldest traditions. I do not think I have misled you in dwelling so much upon the American tradition. The great revision of the tradition, which history demands of us now, has to be made against the well-nigh instinctive feeling ingrained by the experience of a century and a half, that our expansion, our union as a single nation, and the security which we have enjoyed, were achieved despite the powers of Europe--were achieved, to use the contemporary words for these things, not by co-operation but by unilateralism and by insisting upon a free hand.

There lies the explanation of the Wilsonian ideology--the first great American effort to meet the New World situation. The principles which President Wilson enunciated when we were drawn--so reluctantly and with such deep misgiving--into a war on the continent of Europe were the improvisation of a man who knew he was forced by events to take a course which he, like all the older Americans, thought we had forever renounced. The Wilsonian doctrine was the adaptation of the American tradition to an unexpected necessity-that of returning to Europe, of fighting on the soil of Europe, and of reuniting politically with European nations.

President Wilson had hoped that he could avoid it, but he was finally driven to accept the necessity of following a policy of intervention in Europe. He was himself, however, an American fundamentalist, a sincere and deeply convinced believer in the postulates of the traditional policy. Only the extreme provocation of the unlimited submarine war, combined with the dire peril of the West in 1917, brought him to take the epoch-making decision to raise an army by conscription and to send it across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Wilsonian ideology was President Wilson's attempt to reconcile these new and heretical imperatives with the old, with his own deeply personal American orthodoxy. The Wilsonian thesis was, if I may put it in this way, that, since the world was no longer safe for the American democracy, the American people were called upon to conduct a crusade to make the world safe for the American democracy. In order to do this the principles of the American democracy would have to be made universal throughout the world. The Wilsonian ideology is American fundamentalism made into a universal doctrine.

The Wilsonian system of ideas does not recognize that America is one nation among many other nations with whom it must deal as rivals, as allies, as partners. The Wilsonian vision is of a world in which there are no lasting rivalries, where there are no deep conflicts of interest, where no compromises of principle have to be made, where there are no separate spheres of influence, and no alliances. In this world there will be no wars except universal war against criminal governments who rebel against the universal order. The Wilsonian ideology is a crusading doctrine, generating great popular fervor from the feeling that war is an intolerable criminal interference with the nature of things. The necessity of going to war is an outrage upon our privacy and upon our rights.

Therefore, all wars are wars to end wars, all wars are crusades which can be concluded only when all the peoples have submitted to the only true political religion. There will be peace only when all the peoples hold and observe the same self-evident principles.

In the Wilsonian ideology an aggression is an armed rebellion against the universal and eternal principles of the world society. No war can end rightly, therefore, except by the unconditional surrender of the aggressor nation and by the overthrow and transformation of its political regime.

The Wilsonian ideology has, it is fair to say, dominated American political thinking and has shaped American policy ever since it was formulated. As late as 1943, for example, Secretary Hull, who was a personal disciple of Wilson, and a lifelong true believer, came home from the Moscow Conference and announced that "as the provisions of the four-nation declaration were carried into effect there will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements by which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."

One can hardly exaggerate the compelling, and until very recently, the all-pervading acceptance of this ideology. The explanation of its enormous influence is, as I have been arguing, that in its motives, its modes and its manners, the Wilsonian ideology is a twentieth-century variant of the historic American fundamentalism.

In all the debates, beginning in 1914, and in the debates which are still in progress--for example over the appropriations for foreign aid in the present Congress--the Wilsonian ideology has shaped the arguments of those who have favored intervention, participation in the League of Nations and the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty, the intervention in Korea, the Mutual Security Act.

One can argue, in fact it is often argued at home, that this extraordinary series of measures could never have won popular support unless the highly charged emotions of the Wilsonian ideology had been aroused to support them. The American people and the Congress, it is argued, would have refused and resisted these measures had they not been backed by the proclamation of crusades against the Germans, the Japanese, the Soviets, the Chinese Communists, and Communism in general-had the American people not been fired by promises that these crusades would end in a universal order where all peoples, including the objects of the current crusade, would swear allegiance to the same purposes and would observe the same principles.

There is no denying that this has been the easiest and the quickest way to force through Congress measures which call for the use of American troops and the appropriation of American money for grants abroad. But this method of dealing with our people has, as many are now coming to see, established no political and moral foundation for a settled and steadfast policy. The great Utopian promises have too often turned out to be dust and ashes, and they no longer arouse the fervor and the ardent hopes of 1918 and of 1945.

The measures, it is becoming evident to many, which are promoted by resorting to the ideological incitement, by applying the technique of the crusade, tend to become gravely, and sometimes irreparably, deformed in the very process of getting them enacted. The original ends and intentions of these measures have been almost invariably noble and necessary. But the means employed to carry Congress and the people to accept those ends have often aggravated the troubles which the measures were meant to alleviate.

In my view it is becoming increasingly plain that the Wilsonian ideology is an impossible foundation for the foreign policy of a nation, placed as we are and carrying the burden of our responsibilities. Our people are coming to realize that in this century one crusade has led to another. After the first crusade we were not able to prevent the next war that was coming. We were not prepared for the war when we had to fight it. And twice we have not known how to settle the war when we had won it. Twice in one generation we have gone around this deadly cycle.

Voices are beginning to be heard, asking whether we can break the deadly cycle, and by taking thought and by mastering ourselves resist the destructive impulses of our democracy-which is to be too pacifist in time of peace and too bellicose in time of war. In this deadly cycle of pacifism and bellicosity we, and perhaps the other democracies as well, have wanted disarmament, neutrality, isolation, and if necessary appeasement. Then, as the wars which we did not avert, which we entered reluctantly and unready, rose to their climax of violence and victory, we have felt that our righteous wrath could do with nothing less than unconditional surrender, total victory, the total reform and regeneration of the vanquished-all of them the necessary conditions of the everlasting peace in which we could again disarm ourselves and could again relapse into a private and self-regarding existence.

There is, I need hardly tell you, no ready-made and well-tested philosophy and doctrine of international society which we can confidently and easily turn to. I do not suppose you have such a doctrine and philosophy either, or we should have heard something about it from you. But perhaps together, by genuine frankness in our discourse with one another, we may be able to fashion out of the old wisdom of mankind and a fresh appreciation of the new realities a philosophy which can guide our policy.


Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Cold War Page

. .