The dangers of isolationism
As a Syrian military intervention is on hold while a plausible, if not yet probable, diplomatic solution is being discussed, it’s a good time for reflection.
I understand why, given recent history, a substantial majority of Americans oppose any form of military intervention in Syria. They’ve endured more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many thousands of Americans killed and wounded at a cost that could ultimately reach $2 trillion.
Not only that, there are few positive accomplishments in these wars that would warrant even a fraction of that extraordinary sacrifice. Also, the millennial generation is almost unanimously against intervention. And I get that, too.
Yet history didn’t begin with the tragedy of 9/11. So we geezers who lived through a major part of the past century have a responsibility to remind our younger family members and friends, that as attractive as isolationism may seem today, it has not served this country well.
As America counted its losses at the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris to negotiate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which imposed heavy reparations on Germany but also included Wilson’s idea of a League of Nations — an international body designed to prevent future global conflagrations.
But in 1919 Wilson’s political opponents portrayed the League of Nations as a trap which could too easily drag America into future European wars. Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, then the dean of the Senate’s Republican majority, used that argument to successfully block Senate ratification of the treaty.
Not having the U.S. as a member of the League of Nations essentially doomed it from the start. American participation just might have given some spine to Britain and France to stop Hitler several times in the 1930s when it would have been relatively easy. But there was no stomach for war in most of Europe, as it was going through its own period of isolationism, having lost nearly a generation of its young men in the trenches of the Great War. Yet as understandable as those feelings were, it is not a stretch to argue that isolationism spawned the appeasement policies that allowed Hitler’s rise to power and whetted his appetite for world conquest.
(Whatever the many failings of the Treaty of Versailles, A. Scott Berg, author of a new biography of Woodrow Wilson, has a new take on why the Senate refused to ratify it. Berg told NPR this past week, “I found during my research there were documents in which Lodge and other Republicans were talking about opposing any peace that Wilson brought back from Paris, no matter what it was. … So whatever Wilson had was not going to fly.” Sound familiar?)
American isolationism grew throughout the 1930s, enhanced by the Great Depression and the millions of unemployed and destitute citizens for whom another war seemed an unspeakable burden. It would reach its peak in the two years after World War II began in September 1939. The conventional wisdom has been that President Franklin Roosevelt saved the British with war supplies and equipment, prepared a reluctant America for war, and after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, eagerly joined the fray to defeat both the Germans and the Japanese.
However recent historians are challenging that oversimplification. American author Lynne Olson has written several well-received books on World War II and the Anglo-American relationship. Her latest, “Those Angry Days,” focuses on the 1939-1941 political battle between American interventionists and isolationists. It’s a fascinating story in which President Roosevelt and the famous isolationist aviator Charles Lindbergh are the ostensible antagonists. But what surprised me was that for all his oratorical bravado, FDR comes across as a very reluctant warrior.
Even after winning his third term in 1940, Roosevelt constantly fretted that the American people would not support him if he did too much to aid Britain. Even when it was clear that America would be Hitler’s ultimate target after the British were defeated, (which seemed very possible,) Roosevelt remained conflicted — knowing full well his country was far from ready to take on Nazi Germany.
Conscription was enacted and thousands of young American men were sent to bases around the country. But a whole year went by during which few of them even received basic training, much less rifles. This created serious morale problems that nearly scuttled the draft.
Hundreds of ships carrying crucially needed supplies to Britain were sunk with their crews by German U-Boats. But until late 1941 Roosevelt refused to send U.S. naval ships to escort these convoys across the Atlantic to British ports.
Tens of thousands of British civilians were killed in the nightly German Blitz. Yet with Roosevelt’s apparent acquiescence, top American military commanders were mostly successful in their fight against providing the planes the British needed so desperately.
I was left to wonder what might have happened if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl harbor. Would FDR have entered the war before it was too late to save even America? Of course, we can’t know. What we do know is that Roosevelt initially only declared war against Japan. It was not until an angry Hitler subsequently declared war on the United States that Roosevelt reciprocated. What if Hitler had not been so rash? Author Olson suggests there is evidence America would then have placed all of its attention on the Pacific war, in which case World War II could have had a different and less definitive ending.
I am not comparing those days to today, President Obama to FDR or Syria’s Assad to Hitler. What I am saying is that history tells us that when the United States tries to hide from the moral responsibilities that come with being a superpower and the world’s strongest democracy, bad things can happen. And especially in this era of globalization, an America gripped by isolationism isn’t going to be any safer. It may actually be much less safe.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.