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isolationism, a national policy of abstaining from political, military, or economic alliances or agreements with other countries. Isolationism may be adopted in order to devote a country's energies to becoming self-sufficient or addressing domestic problems, or sometimes to contain foreign influence. Many countries have had policies of isolationism at one time, including China, Japan, Albania, Paraguay, and North Korea.
Political and military isolationism has been a recurring sentiment in the United States, beginning with George Washington's Farewell Address in 1796, in which he warned the young nation against becoming involved in European politics and wars. The aspects of isolationism inform the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which opposed European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Latin America, and stated that the United States would not interfere in European affairs. The country's reluctant participation in World War I marked a departure from its former policy, but the losses suffered in war and the failure of Woodrow Wilson's internationalism caused public opinion to once more turn against foreign entanglements, and contributed to the U.S. rejection of the League of Nations.
Isolationism again became a popular political stance in the 1920s and 30s. The Neutrality Act of 1935 was a reaction to the American public's fear of being involved in another costly war. The Great Depression also caused Americans to turn their concerns inward during this time. A strong noninterventionist lobby, led by the America First Committee and its popular spokesman Charles Lindbergh, was able to keep the United States from entering World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders subsequently supported establishing the United Nations and America's active participation in it. After the war, the rise of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence (and strong U.S. opposition to that), improved communication and transportion, increased world trade, and other changes made it impossible for the United States to again cut itself off from the rest of the world.
See S. Dunn, 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—The Election amid the Storm (2013); L. Olson, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939–1941 (2013).
in the USA, a term used since the mid-19th century, primarily to designate a trend in US foreign policy, the central idea of which is nonintervention in European affairs or in armed conflicts outside the American continent in general.
The theory and practice of isolationism, whose origins can be traced to the period of the War of Independence of 1775–83, took shape under the impact of a number of factors. The American continent was geographically isolated. In addition, the US developed a satisfactory internal market, which promoted the tendency for a significant part of the bourgeoisie to take very little interest in overseas expansion. Finally, during the first few decades of its existence, the US was relatively weak economically and militarily. A peculiar reflection of American nationalism, early isolationism played a crucial role in protecting the USA from intervention on the part of monarchist Europe, above all Great Britain, which longed to regain the position it had lost on the American continent.
The principles of isolationism, which were in fact applied only to Europe, did not mean that the US wished to remain generally isolated politically, and even less so economically. In practical terms, the leaders of American foreign policy regarded isolationism as a way of taking advantage of the contradictions between the European powers. Refusing to make any long-term military or political alliances with them and proclaiming US neutrality in European wars (beginning in 1793), US leaders later abandoned neutrality in major worldwide armed conflicts. Thus, in practice, isolationism gave rise to the policy of “having a free hand.”
Isolationist principles related to this policy and to the Monroe Doctrine contained the seeds of pan-Americanism and served as a screen for US expansionist aims in Latin America. With the entry of the USA into the epoch of imperialism, monopolist circles endeavored to take advantage of the principles of isolationism to broaden US expansionist policies, making use of the new possibilities arising from the world industrial superiority that had been achieved by the nation. In the 1920’s, American isolationism was associated with the refusal to ratify the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and to join the League of Nations, the raising of tariff walls, and restrictive immigration laws. The 1930’s were marked by a major outburst of isolationist attitudes. The Neutrality Acts of 1935–37, which were passed under the slogan of nonintervention in European affairs, were used by American reactionaries to “appease” the fascist aggressors. Thus, the acts contributed to the outbreak of World War II. After the war, isolationism in the traditional sense ceased to play an important role in US politics.
Since the late 19th century the term “isolationism” has also been used to designate a broad social movement—the isolationism of the masses, which is based on the desire to avoid participation in wars outside the American continent. One of the forms of the antiwar movement and the protest against expansion by US monopolies, the isolationism of the masses was quite widespread after World War I and was expressed in support for the idea of international cooperation in the interests of preserving peace as well as in the neutralist illusions that were widely held at the time of the Neutrality Acts. However, as the fascist states extended their policy of aggression, the opposition to war among the masses in the USA became less pacifist and “isolationist” (in the sense of aloofness from world events) and acquired an increasingly antifascist tone, becoming the breeding ground for statements favoring active opposition to fascism.
In the mid-1950’s and late 1960’s there was a noticeable rise in isolationist attitudes in American society. Referred to as “neoisolationism,” these attitudes are a result of intensified competition among the advanced capitalist countries, dissatisfaction of various social strata with the expansionist foreign policy of US ruling circles, and a number of other factors. Neoisolationism has been expressed especially in liberal criticism of NATO and other military alliances of the capitalist countries, in demonstrations of opposition to the excessive attention paid to foreign affairs at the expense of domestic problems, and in demands for cutting off military aid to other countries, for “withdrawal from Europe,” and for an end to the war of aggression in Southeast Asia.
D. G. NADZHAFOV