This article discusses how discontent with the Afghan and Iraq wars is encouraging a non-interventionist mindset among some Americans. Huang then discusses the many implications this type of policy would involve, concluding that "from a strategic perspective, a policy of strict non-intervention is neither realistic nor desirable for the United States. Rather than convincing the United States...
20th Century Quotes on Noninterventionist and Isolationist Positions on American Foreign Policy
"Much interest has of late been manifested in this country in the discussion of various proposals to outlaw aggressive war. I look with great sympathy upon the examination of this subject. It is in harmony with the traditional policy of our country, which is against aggressive war and for the maintenance of permanent and honorable peace. While, as I have said, we must safeguard our liberty to deal according to our own judgment with our domestic policies, we can not fail to view with sympathetic interest all progress to this desired end or carefully to study the measures that may be proposed to attain it."
"Now I would be the last man in the world to say that war is never justified. Many men of my own family have borne arms. I myself in the course of the World War repeatedly stated that I was prepared to serve my country in any capacity from that of laborer to that of soldier in the frontline trenches. There are issues for which it is right that men, if need be, should sacrifice their lives to defend them.
Nevertheless, I had at that time 4 years of unique personal observation of the horrors of war, 4 years of study of its causes, and after the armistice I had another year in endeavor to stem the tide of famine to save the children and to reestablish economic life in Europe. I then had another 8 years of intimate study of its appalling aftermaths in dealing with the foreign commerce of our country. And I have grappled daily, in my last 30 years as President in the most responsible office of government in the world, with the fearful aftermaths which had overwhelmed the world from war. All these experiences have impressed upon my mind with ineradicable vividness the colossal error of war as an instrument of national policy. I have learned the futility of war as a solvent of great human problems, and I have perceived the fearful toll that war takes of the generations succeeding the one which fought the battles."
"Indelibly impressed upon my deepest emotions is the profound conviction that the very first of all problems pressing upon the human race generally, in its large assemblage of nations, is the problem of prevention of future wars. The greatest safety of the world from these crises we are now passing is to prevent war. I see this not only in its terms of crushing economic burdens, not only in its fearful disorganization and dislocation of economic life for years to come, not only in its crushing burdens of taxation for generations innocent of responsibility, I see it far more intensely as a supreme human problem. …
For these reasons, it has been a major purpose through all of my administration to guide the foreign policy of this Nation so as to maintain our traditional peace with amity with all nations. But, of even more importance, I have sought to do everything in my power to place the full weight of the moral strength of the American people behind every agency, existing or that can be devised, which has for its purpose the upbuilding of the spirit of peace in the world and the maintenance of peace among nations. I have made but one reservation, and that is, we will join no movement that proposes to use military or economic force in its attempts to prevent war. For that is a contradiction in method."
"By instinct and tradition our country has been, throughout its history, sincerely devoted to the cause of peace. Within the limitations imposed by time and circumstance we have earnestly sought to discharge our responsibilities as a member of the family of nations in promoting conditions essential to the maintenance of peace. We have consistently believed in the sanctity of treaty obligations and have endeavored to apply this belief in the actual practice of our foreign relations. In common with all other nations we have, since the end of the World War, assumed a solemn obligation not to resort to force as an instrument of national policy. All this gives us a moral right to express our deep concern over the rising tide of lawlessness, the growing disregard of treaties, the increasing reversion to the use of force, and the numerous other ominous tendencies which are emerging in the sphere of international relations."
"In announcing our intention to afford appropriate and reasonable protection to our rights and interests in the Far East, I stated clearly that we are fully determined to avoid the extremes either of internationalism or of isolationism. Internationalism would mean undesirable political involvements; isolationism would either compel us to confine all activities of our people within our own frontiers, with incalculable injury to the standard of living and the general welfare of our people, or else expose our nationals and our legitimate interests abroad to injustice or outrage wherever lawless conditions arise. Steering a sound middle course between these two extremes, we are convinced that a policy of affording appropriate protection—under the rule of reason, in such form as may be best suited to the particular circumstances, and in accordance with the principles we advocate—is imperatively needed to serve our national interest."
"I say it is the interventionist in America, as it was in England and in France, who gives comfort to the enemy. I say it is they who are undermining the principles of Democracy when they demand that we take a course to which more than eighty percent of our citizens are opposed. I charge them with being the real defeatists, for their policy has led to the defeat of every country that followed their advice since this war began. There is no better way to give comfort to an enemy than to divide the people of a nation over the issue of foreign war. There is no shorter road to defeat than by entering a war with inadequate preparation. Every nation that has adopted the interventionist policy of depending on some one else for its own defense has met with nothing but defeat and failure.
When history is written, the responsibility for the downfall of the democracies of Europe will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the interventionists who led their nations into war uninformed and unprepared. With their shouts of defeatism, and their disdain of reality, they have already sent countless thousands of young men to death in Europe. From the campaign of Poland to that of Greece, their prophecies have been false and their policies have failed. Yet these are the people who are calling us defeatists in America today. And they have led this country, too, to the verge of war."
"Why did I vote against the Atlantic Pact? I wanted to vote for it-at least I wanted to vote to let Russia know that if she attacked western Europe, the United States would be in the war. I believe that would be a deterrent to war. We issued just this warning in the Monroe Doctrine, and though we were a much less powerful nation, it prevented aggression against Central and South America. That was only a President’s message to Congress, and there were no treaty obligations, and no arms for other nations. But it was one of the most effective peace measures in the history of the world. I would favor a Monroe Doctrine for western Europe.
But the Atlantic Pact goes much further. It obligates us to go to war if at any time during the next 20 years anyone makes an armed attack on any of the 12 nations. Under the Monroe Doctrine we could change our policy at any time. We could judge whether perhaps one of the countries had given cause for the attack. Only Congress could declare a war in pursuance of the doctrine. Under the new pact the President can take us into war without Congress. But, above all the treaty is a part of a much larger program by which we arm all these nations against Russia. A joint military program has already been made. It thus becomes an offensive and defensive military alliance against Russia. I believe our foreign policy should be aimed primarily at security and peace, and I believe such an alliance is more likely to produce war than peace. A third world war would be the greatest tragedy the world has ever suffered. Even if we won the war, we this time would probably suffer tremendous destruction, our economic system would be crippled, and we would lose our liberties and free system just as the Second World War destroyed the free systems of Europe. It might easily destroy civilization on this earth."
"It follows that except as such policies may ultimately protect our own security, we have no primary interest as a national policy to improve conditions or material welfare in other parts of the world or to change other forms of government. Certainly we should not engage in war to achieve such purposes. I don't mean to say that, as responsible citizens of the world, we should not gladly extend charity or assistance to those in need. I do not mean to say that we should not align ourselves with the advocates of freedom everywhere. We did this kind of thing for many years, and we were respected as the most disinterested and charitable nation in the world.
But the contribution of supplies to meet extraordinary droughts or famine or refugee problems or other emergencies is very different from a global plan for general free assistance to all mankind on an organized scale as part of our foreign policy. Such a plan, as carried out today, can only be justified on a temporary basis as part of the battle against communism, to prevent communism from taking over more of the world and becoming a still more dangerous threat to our security. It has been undertaken as an emergency measure. Our foreign policy in ordinary times should not be primarily inspired by the motive of raising the standard of living of millions throughout the world, because that is utterly beyond our capacity. I believe it is impossible with American money, or other outside aid to raise in any substantial degree the standard of living of the millions throughout the world who have created their own problems of soil destruction or overpopulation. Fundamentally, I doubt if the standard of living of any people can be successfully raised to any appreciable degree except by their own efforts. We can advise; we can assist, if the initiative and the desire and the energy to improve themselves is present. But our assistance cannot be a principal motive for foreign policy or a justification for going to war."
"It is a well-known fact that during a war the State acquires powers that it does not relinquish when hostilities are over. When the enemy is at the city gates — or the illusion that he is coming can be put into people's minds — the tendency is to turn over to the captain all the powers he deems necessary to keep the enemy away. Liberty is downgraded in favor of protection. But, when the enemy is driven away, the State finds reason enough to hold onto its acquired powers. Thus, conscription, which Mr. Roosevelt reintroduced at the beginning of the war, has become the permanent policy of the government; and militarism, which is the opposite of freedom, has been incorporated in our mores. Whether or not this eventuality was in Mr. Roosevelt's mind is not germane; it is inherent in the character of the State. Taxes imposed ostensibly 'for the duration,' have become permanent, the bureaucracy built up during the war has not been dismantled, and interventions in the economy necessary for the prosecution of war are now held to be necessary for the welfare of the people. This, plus the fact that we are now engaged in preparing for World War III, was the net result of our entry into World War II. Whichever side won, the American people were the losers."
"Isolationism is not a political policy, it is a natural attitude of a people. It is adjustment to the prevailing culture within a country, and a feeling of security within that adjustment. The traditions, the political and social institutions and the moral values that obtain seem good, the people do not wish them to be disturbed by peoples with other backgrounds and, what is more, they do not feel any call to impose their own customs and values on strangers.
This does not mean that they will not voluntarily borrow from other cultures nor that they will surround themselves with parochial walls. Long before interventionism became a fixed policy of the government, American students went to Europe to complete their education and immigrants introduced their exotic foods to the American table. But these were voluntary adoptions, even as we welcomed German and Italian operas and applauded the British lecturers who came here to decry our lack of manners. We certainly enjoyed the bananas and coffee imported from Latin American countries, and, while we might deplore their habit of setting up dictatorships, we felt no obligation to inject ourselves into their political affairs; that was their business, not ours."
"And yet, isolationism is inherent in the human makeup. It is in the nature of the human being to be interested first in himself and secondly in his neighbors. His primary concern is with his bread-and-butter problems, to begin with, and then in the other things that living implies: his health, his pleasures, the education of his children, wiping out the mortgage on the old homestead and getting along with his neighbors. If he has the time and inclination for it, he takes a hand in local charities and local politics. If something happens in his state capital that arouses his ire or his imagination he may talk to his neighbors about the necessity of reform — that is, if the reform happens to engage his interests. Taxation always interests him. But, events and movements that occur far away from his immediate circumstances or that affect him only tangentially (like inflation or debates in the UN) either pass him by completely or, if he reads about them in the newspapers, concern him only academically. A Minnesotan may take notice of a headline event in Florida, as a conversation piece, but he is vitally interested in what has happened in his community: a fire, a divorce case, or the new road that will pass through. How many people know the name of their congressman or take the slightest interest in how he votes on given issues?
It has become standard procedure for sociologists and politicians to take opinion polls and to deduce behavior patterns from such data. Yet it is a fact that the subject matters of these polls do not touch on matters in which the questionees are vitally interested but are topics in which the pollsters have a concern. Putting aside the possibility of so framing the questions as to elicit replies the pollsters want, the fact is that the pride of the questionees can well influence their answers. Thus, a housewife who has been asked for her opinion on South African apartheid, for instance, will feel flattered that she has been singled out for the honor and will feel impelled to give some answer, usually a predigested opinion taken from a newspaper editorial; she will not say honestly that she knows nothing about apartheid and cares less. On the other hand, if she were asked about the baking of an apple pie she would come up with an intelligent answer; but the sociologists are not interested in knowing how to bake an apple pie.
The scientist immersed in the laboratory will weigh carefully any question put to him regarding the subject matter of his science and will probably not come up with a yes-or-no answer; but, he is positive that the nation ought to recognize the Chinese communist regime, because he heard another scientist say so. The baseball fan who knows the batting average of every member of his team, on the other hand, will denounce the recognition of the regime because he has heard that the 'reds' are no good. The student whose grades are just about passing will speak out boldly on the UN, reflecting the opinion of his professor on that organization. Everybody has opinions on international subjects, because the newspapers have opinions on them, and the readers like to be 'in the swim.' That is to say, interventionism is a fad stimulated by the public press and, like a fad, has no real substance behind it. If a poll were to be taken on the subject, should we go to war, the probability is that very few would vote for the proposition; yet, war is the ultimate of interventionism, and the opposition to it is proof enough that we are isolationist in our sympathies. A poll on the subject of isolationism — something like 'do you believe we ought to keep out of the politics of other nations and ought to let them work out their problems without our interference?' — might bring out some interesting conclusions; but the politicians and the energumens of interventionism would prefer not to conduct such a poll. Our 'foreign-aid' program has never been subjected to a plebiscite."
"My own view of war can be put simply: a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them."
"In a theory which tried to limit war, neutrality was considered not only justifiable but a positive virtue. In the old days, 'he kept us out of war' was high tribute to a president or political leader; but now, all the pundits and professors condemn any president who 'stands idly by' while 'people are being killed' in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, or the hot spot of the day. In the old days, 'standing idly by' was considered a mark of high statesmanship. Not only that: neutral states had 'rights' which were mainly upheld, since every warring country knew that someday it too would be neutral. A warring state could not interfere with neutral shipping to an enemy state; neutrals could ship to such an enemy with impunity all goods except 'contraband,' which was strictly defined as arms and ammunition, period. Wars were kept limited in those days, and neutrality was extolled."
"There is an important point about old-fashioned, or classical, international law which applies to any sort of war, even a just one:
Even if country A is waging a clearly just war against country B, and B’s cause is unjust, this fact by no means imposes any sort of moral obligation on any other nation, including those who wish to abide by just policies, to intervene in that war. On the contrary, in the old days neutrality was always considered a more noble course, if a nation had no overriding interest of its own in the fray, there was no moral obligation whatever to intervene. A nation’s highest and most moral course was to remain neutral; its citizens might cheer in their heart for A’s just cause, or, if someone were overcome by passion for A’s cause he could rush off on his own to the front to fight, but generally citizens of nation C were expected to cleave to their own nation’s interests over the cause of a more abstract justice. Certainly, they were expected not to form a propaganda pressure group to try to bulldoze their nation into intervening; if champions of country A were sufficiently ardent, they could go off on their own to fight, but they could not commit their fellow countrymen to do the same.
Many of my friends and colleagues are hesitant to concede the existence of universal natural rights, lest they find themselves forced to support American, or world-wide intervention, to try to enforce them. But for classical natural law international jurists, that consequence did not follow at all. If, for example, Tutsis are slaughtering Hutus in Rwanda or Burundi, or vice versa, these natural lawyers would indeed consider such acts as violations of the natural rights of the slaughtered; but that fact in no way implies any moral or natural-law obligation for any other people in the world to rush in to try to enforce such rights. We might encapsulate this position into a slogan: 'Rights may be universal, but their enforcement must be local' or, to adopt the motto of the Irish rebels: Sinn Fein, 'ourselves alone.' A group of people may have rights, but it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to defend or safeguard such rights."
"History taught that republics that engaged in frequent wars eventually lost their character as free states. Hence, war was to be undertaken only in defense of our nation against attack. The system of government that the Founders were bequeathing to us — with its division of powers, checks and balances, and power concentrated in the states rather than the federal government — depended on peace as the normal condition of our society."
"Washington's general remedy for keeping America on an even keel was to stress the proper role of interest in foreign policy. He insisted in the Address that 'there can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon real favours from Nations.' Washington had long held the conviction, as he had written to Henry Laurens in 1778, that 'no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.' But the Address argued that America's pursuit of its legitimate national interests in the world - especially when it came to questions of war or peace - ought to be 'guided by our justice.' Washington did not act according to the modern dichotomy between 'realism' and 'idealism' in the formulation of foreign policy. He agreed both with Hamilton (the supposed realist) that nations act solely out of their own interest; and with Jefferson (the supposed idealist) that there is but one standard of morality for men and for nations.
Was Washington confused or deceived when he said that interest could be guided by justice, or, more ambitiously, that interest and justice could be reconciled and comprehended? Part of the answer lies in the particulars of Washington's foreign policy in the 1790s .... But at a more fundamental level, Washington thought that a just foreign policy must begin with, and not depart from, the defense and advancement of particular American interests - especially those related to the nation's security and prosperity. Essentially, Washington believed that although the standards of justice were the same at home and abroad, their application necessarily differed.
To the extent that America was a true political community, self-sacrifice and gratitude (friendship) among its citizens was possible. But such 'disinterested friendship', as Washington called it, was not possible among nations. Justice in foreign affairs essentially meant making and keeping agreements faithfully, but it did not require sacrificing one's essential interests for those of other nations. Nor should the United States expect others to sacrifice themselves on its behalf. Differently put, Washington believed in the Socratic definition of justice: minding one's own business, but minding it well."
"On this side of the Atlantic, Burke is often seen as a friend of the American Revolution, which he most certainly was not. He argued not on behalf of Americans seeking independence, but as a Briton striving, vainly as it turned out, to preserve his country's choicest asset from the foolishness of his own countrymen.
In the first place, Burke argued that it blinked reality for British policymakers to ignore what had happened in America, where 'a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up.' Not only was Burke undisturbed by the American love of liberty, he feared that London's efforts to reduce that liberty threatened his own:
... in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavoring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself.
Here is the confluence of interest and ideology so typical of Burke. He was not celebrating America's 'spirit of liberty' as a pure value, but because his government's threat to America directly and tangibly threatened him."