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May 1952

The New Isolationism
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Early this year, when new crisis seemed to impend in Asia, the American people were exposed to an edifying exercise in the discussion of foreign policy. As Chinese troops massed on the Indo-Chinese border, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio spoke before a Lincoln Day banquet in Seattle, Washington. Barely mentioning the first Republican President, in whose honor the banquet was given, Taft addressed himself to the Far Eastern crisis. "Now that a Communist assault in southeast Asia is on the horizon," he said, "it should be clear to our government that the only chance to stop it is by a Chinese Nationalist invasion of Communist-held territory. An invasion, well organized, might snowball rapidly." He went on to express his disdain for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to announce his intention, after January 20, 1953, of placing General Douglas MacArthur in a position of high, if unspecified, military authority.

The next day, at Portland, Oregon, that Senator both strengthened and weakened his China policy. It was "the most idiotic thing in the world not to use the Nationalist troops," he said, adding anticlimactically, "at least for diversionary purposes." By this time Taft's grand strategy had begun to alarm certain fellow Republicans. Governor Warren of California demurred, and Senator Morse of Oregon flatly denounced "the ugly proposal on the part of this growing war clique in the United States that we commit an act which constitutes for the first time in American history an aggressive act of war." In the next few days, Senator Taft retreated behind a barrage of explanations. He hadn't meant an invasion of the Chinese mainland, he said; he had meant diversionary raids against the mainland and an invasion of such "Communist-held territory" as the island of Hainan (from which the invasion would presumably "snowball rapidly" into the Gulf of Tonkin). And he hadn't meant this as a means of stopping in advance a Communist invasion of Indo-China—an impression which unwary readers drew from his Seattle speech. "I would not advocate an invasion of China," he soon said at Pocatello, Idaho, "unless the Communist Chinese move into Indo-China." He was still prepared, however, to advocate action by ourselves in defiance of our allies.

Except for his faith in unilateral action Senator Taft had now whittled his original belligerence down to a position indistinguishable from that of Dean Acheson and Anthony Eden, both of whom had warned Peking that entry into the Indo-Chinese War would bring retaliation. But more was to come. By the time the Senator got to Denver, he said that, while he favored sending arms to the threatened states of southeast Asia, "under no circumstances, unless we were absolutely sure of winning, would I send American forces to that area." Suppose the Chinese Communist assault came and no absolute guarantee of victory (a rare thing in any war, and highly unlikely in a war against Communist China) was forthcoming; would he then help these nations? "No," said the Senator, "they would just have to fall."

Robert A. Taft is a man of high ability and considerable intelligence. His confusions are not to be explained simply in terms of campaign oratory. There is something deeper here—some essential perplexity of a powerful mind confounded by events which he cannot quite fit into a consistent scheme of interpretation. Senator Taft, indeed, is a man in transition, an Old Isolationist trying hard to come to terms with the modern world.

As doctrine and as program, Senator Taft's isolationism of a decade ago is surely dead. But the Old Isolationism was, of course, far more than doctrine and program. It was, above all, a set of intense emotions—emotions deeply founded in the American experience and sharply etched on the American psychology. And, in this deeper sense, isolationism has never died. The events of 1939-45 destroyed the doctrine and the program of the Old Isolationism, but they did not destroy the emotions which underlay and sustained it. In the last six months, the old emotions have begun to generate new doctrines and programs. Today we face a New Isolationism, bent upon what promises to be a fundamental attack on the foreign policy to which the United States and the free world are presently committed.

The internationalist euphoria of the past decade should not lead us to overlook the deep roots which isolationism has in the national consciousness. Americans have always had a natural and splendid exultation in the uniqueness of a new continent and a new society. The New World had been called into existence to redress the moral as well as the diplomatic balance of the Old; we could not defile the sacredness of our national mission by too careless intercourse with the world whose failure made our own necessary. Two great oceans fostered the sense of distance, emphasized the tremendous act of faith involved in emigration, and, at the same time, spared the new land the necessity for foreign involvements.

The resulting isolationism—this passionate sense of a unique national destiny—was, in the beginning, a generous and affirmative faith. We were, as Lincoln said, dedicated to a proposition; we were engaged in a fateful experiment. America was conceived to be perfect, not in achievement, but in opportunity. Our responsibility was not to be complacent about what we had done, but to rise to the challenge of what there was for us to do. Our nation had been commissioned—whether by God or by history—to work out on this remote hemisphere the best hopes and dreams of men. Isolation was a means, not of confining, but of releasing democratic energy. This was the isolationism of the younger George Norris, of the early Hiram Johnson, of the Robert La Follettes.

But American isolationism did not consist only in an affirmation of the uniqueness of America; it also included—and increasingly so—a rejection of Europe. In a sense, of course, the very act of migration had represented an extraordinary act of rejection. "Repudiation of Europe," Dos Passos once said, "is, after all, America's main excuse for being." Nor could such repudiation be without passion. America's love-hate relationship with Europe has dominated our politics as well as our literature. As European struggles began to force themselves on the American attention, isolationism began to react with ever more explicit hostility and even hatred. An image of Europe began to haunt the isolationist consciousness—an image of a dark and corrupt continent, teeming with insoluble feuds, interminable antagonisms; senseless and malevolent wars. Europe was morally and politically diseased and scabrous; and contact with it would bring the risk of fatal infection. No one defined this image with more precision and loathing than Herbert Hoover:—

"Here are four hundred million people on the continent divided into twenty-six races. They are crowded cheek by jowl in an area less than two-thirds of the United States. Suppose each of twenty-six of our states had its own language, its own racial inheritance, its own economic and political problems. And suppose through all these races for centuries have surged the forces of nationalism, of imperialism, of religious conflict, memories of deep wrongs, of age-old hates, and bitter fears. Suppose each had its own army and around each of these states was a periphery of mixed populations that made exact boundaries on racial lines hopeless. The outcries of separated minorities would be implacable and unceasing cause of war. Suppose they all had different forms of government and even where it was a democratic form it was class government. That would be Europe....

And periodically there boils up among these people some Pied Piper with silver tongue, calling some new Utopia....With a vicious rhythm these malign forces seem to drive nations like the Gadarene swine over the precipice of war."

In contrast, said Hoover, we in America have grown steadily apart from the ideas of Europe. "Freed of European hates and fears...we have developed new concepts of liberty, of morals and government." We must at all cost save ourselves from what he called, in a savage phrase, "the eternal malign forces of Europe."

In time, the old affirmative isolationism of Norris and La Follette began to give way before the negative isolationism of Hoover. The one was moved by hope for America, the other by hatred of Europe. The one shunned Europe the better to change America, the other, the better to keep America from changing. The one sprang from American progressivism—from a belief that the American experiment was unfinished; the other, from American conservatism—from a belief that American society was complete, and that change meant not progress but disaster. In the end, the abandonment of isolationism by men like Norris before the Second War, and the younger La Follette after, testified to their conclusion that its affirmative possibilities had been exhausted.

The progressive and hopeful form of isolationism thus came to a natural end. What remained was a petulant desire to seal off America from the winds of change which were blowing through the world. And even this conservative isolationism seemed increasingly irrelevant as a basis for national policy. The Second War itself apparently provided a conclusive demonstration of this obsolescence. For a time, we were all—or nearly all—internationalists. Thus the Harold Stassen of 1943 presented a detailed plan for world government—the same Harold Stassen who today opposes association with any nation which declines to swear eternal loyalty to the capitalistic system. In this mood, the isolationist doctrine and program perished; and even the underlying emotions succumbed for a season to feelings of guilt and went underground. But these emotions only went underground; they did not die.

The queer complex of feeling, fear, and prejudice was too deep to be repealed in a decade. The emotional core of the Old Isolationism survived—the hatred of Europe and its age-old troubles; the belief in an American purity which should not risk corruption in contact with outsiders; the agoraphobic fear of a larger world; the old, cherished, wistful hope that we could continue to live of ourselves and by ourselves. And, underground, these emotions have continued to exercise a paralyzing effect on policy. More than anything else, perhaps, they have kept America a slumbering giant, unable to export its democratic faith to the peoples of other nations, unable to play a full and affirmative role in the world.

In time, a new isolationist formulation was bound to come—a new triangulation by which the old emotions would try to make terms with the new realities and issue in the form of up-to-date doctrine and program. But the struggle for a new formulation was confused and difficult. Herbert Hoover, whose Old Isolationist fundamentalism has resisted every temptation of novelty, set off one phase of the discussion with his speech of December, 1950. General MacArthur, who never was an Old Isolationist, set off another with his speeches following his recall in April, 1951. At every stage, the confusions were registered with seismographic accuracy in the stream of consciousness of the ordinarily logical Senator Taft—as in his singular speech of April, 1951, when he demanded a cut in the size of projected military forces, a reduction in the military budget, and a more aggressive war in Asia (adding subsequently that our reduced forces should be committed to the protection of the Suez Canal).

In the past few months, however, it has become evident that the travail is over; that the process of crystallization has begun. Today the lineaments of the new faith are at last visible. Senator Taft has written a book on foreign policy. General MacArthur has given a series of able and eloquent speeches. Their many followers have made many other statements. Out of all this it now becomes possible to construct the broad and comprehensive design of the New Isolationism.

The first thing to be observed of the New Isolationism is its rejection of the word "isolationist." Mr. Hoover has even described his policies as the "opposite" of isolationism. "I don't know what they mean by isolationist," Senator Taft says "nobody is an isolationist today....I would say that anybody is an idiot who calls anybody else an isolationist." The fact that much of the New Isolationism emerged under the aegis of General MacArthur made this indignant repudiation of the isolationist name all the more plausible; the General, of course, had been recalled for being far more interventionist than the interventionists.

Indeed, it remains difficult at first glance to reconcile this enthusiasm for General MacArthur with the rest of the New Isolationism. But one is bound to conclude that General MacArthur's defiance of Truman provided the New Isolationists with protective coloration; it gave them an air of deep concern with the outside world. Even more important, perhaps, it provided them with political capital on which no opposition party could resist drawing. But it did not provide them with a serious program. Senator Taft, on the subject of the Far Eastern war, sounded far more like himself when he advocated retreat at Denver than when he advocated advance at Seattle; if he were President, would he really reduce the Arms and then expand the Korean war?

As for Mr. Hoover, who shudders at the commitment of a single American to the "quicksands" of Asia and Europe and believes that Communism "will decay and die of its own poisons," his praise for MacArthur can surely be no more than a sentimental gesture toward his former Chief of Staff. MacArthur's first function has plainly been to provide the New Isolationists with a convenient club with which to beat the Administration. It is, moreover, a club they wield with relish, because an appearance of solicitude for the Far East is a natural outlet for the traditional hatred of Europe. But, if this solicitude is more than appearance, one wonders at the glassy boredom which overtakes the New Isolationists when India is mentioned, or Point Four. Isolationism has always been most interested in the foreign countries that have already been lost to the enemy.

Still, the new Isolationism can actually make out a stronger case against the charge of "isolationism" than just its enthusiasm for MacArthur. This case rests on the fact that, on the surface, its general program does seem much more like the program of President Truman than it does like the Old Isolationism of the America First Committee. Senator Taft has concurred in measures which would have appalled the Taft of a decade ago. His book, in fact, reaches its climax in a seven-point program of his own; and his points are worth consideration. They are: 1) rearmament; 2) economic aid to anti-Communist countries; 3) military aid to anti-Communist countries; 4) warning to the Soviet Union that aggression beyond certain lines will be regarded as a casus belli; 5) sending American troops to nations threatened by or actually under attack; 6) ideological warfare against Communism; 7) subversive war behind the Iron Curtain. Not only do these seven points seem far from old-style isolationism; but each one of them is today—and has been for some time—part of the Truman foreign policy. If we are to take these seven points seriously, they represent me-tooism with a vengeance. No wonder that the Senator felt constrained to add, "There is much more agreement on the general character of the strategy to be adopted than is generally supposed."

But how seriously are we to take these points? The fact that they are imbedded in a book the rest of which is a bitter attack on the Truman foreign policy might raise questions in suspicious minds. And additional evidence is available. As Senator Brien McMahon noted in a skeptical analysis of the Taft book, there are certain oddities about Taft's proprietary claim to these policies. "The first is that as the Administration has proposed each of them to the Congress, Senator Taft has vigorously opposed each of them. The second is that having now stated the policies, Senator Taft immediately proceeds in this and subsequent chapters to make clear that he doesn't really mean it."

Behind the virtuous rejection of the term "isolationist," behind the façade of nominal support for existing policies, the New Isolationism has something quite different in mind. If the present policy can be briefly defined, in President Truman's phrase, as "peace through collective strength against aggression," the New Isolationism boggles at the word "collective," and it recoils from the whole theory of building "situations of strength." Its supreme emotional link with the Old Isolationism, for example, is its dislike of allies and its desire for unilateral action by the United States. "Go it alone," cried General MacArthur in the hearings; and Senator Taft recently added, "The United Nations is an utter failure as a means of preventing aggression. We can never rely on it again." Facts may have destroyed the Old Isolationist policies; it may now be necessary grudgingly to recognize the existence of the world. But, at least, let us not get involved in the worry, expense, and danger of intimate association with other nations.

If the New Isolationism is openly unhappy about "collective" restraint of aggression, it is only slightly less unhappy in its reaction to the whole policy of building strength in the free world. It does not disclaim the objective; but it wants other nations to establish their own strength first in order to prove themselves worthy of American aid (this rule does not apply, however, to Chiang Kai-shek or Franco); and it adds that, in any case, the free world can be built up at half the cost. Hence the persistent campaign to whittle down every proposal for aid to other free nations; any difference, the New Isolationists protest, is a difference in degree, not in principle. Yet differences in degree in this field quickly become differences in principle, as Senator Vandenberg used to demonstrate with his story of the futility of throwing a fifteen-foot rope to a man drowning thirty feet from shore. The New Isolationism is the policy of the fifteen-foot rope.

The difference in degree, of course, is the grudging compromise the Old Isolationist emotions make with the grim realities of 1952. But it is a compromise with these realities, not an acceptance of them. Senator Taft, once again, has given the most lucid expression of the New Isolationist view. "The policy on which all Republicans can unite," he recently said, "is one of all-out opposition to the spread of Communism, recognizing that there is a limit beyond which we cannot go." The editor of the New York Post has dubbed this the all-out, halfway policy. It is the essence of the foreign policy of the New Isolationism.

One must say "of the foreign policy" because foreign policy is not the main concern of the New Isolationism. Indeed, a survey of the New Isolationist literature quickly discloses the conviction that issues of domestic policy, for the United States in 1952, are far more important and fateful than issues of foreign policy. General MacArthur's concern with Korea may have obscured this fact; but it was MacArthur himself who stated the basic premise of the New Isolationism with classic simplicity in his speech last summer to the Massachusetts legislature. "Talk of imminent threat to our national security through the application of external force," he flatly said, "is pure nonsense." Taft has frequently made the same point: "I do not believe it is at all clear that the Russians contemplate a military conquest of the world...I believe they know it is impossible. It would take them at least a hundred years to build up their sea power."

From his military estimate, MacArthur marched on to the obvious conclusion. "It is not of any external threat that I concern myself," he said, "but rather of insidious forces working from within which have already so drastically altered the character of our free institutions...those institutions we proudly called the American way of life." The vital dangers to American freedom and survival, in short, are not external; they are internal. And of the internal dangers, two, it develops, are of decisive importance. One of these dangers is excessive government spending. The other is Communist penetration within our own country.

Government spending, in the New Isolationist view, is the overriding issue of national survival. It makes heavy taxation necessary; and "the unconscionable burden of taxation" in the words of General MacArthur, is destroying the free enterprise system. "It is just as easy to get to socialism by increased taxes," Senator Taft recently remarked, "as it is by the Government taking over industry." Worse than that, government spending brings the threat of inflation; and inflation provides one more pretext for the imposition of government controls. "All-out war and all-out mobilization," as Taft put it, "are an easy method of socializing a country, and that socializing can easily be made permanent." Thus government spending under the pretext of mobilization is the beginning of a perilous road, whose inevitable end is the extinction of free enterprise and the triumph of socialist regimentation.

If government spending is indeed the main threat, if the Soviet threat is "pure nonsense," what possible reason is there except for New Deal doctrine and socialist intrigue to continue spending at our present levels? So let us cut down the budget—at the expense first of economic aid to free nations, then of military aid, then of our military strength. The Chicago Tribune has already drawn the entirely logical conclusion from the MacArthur dictum: "with far less money for defense than has been appropriated, and probably without resort to the draft, this country can feel secure. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not needed for our safety." (This editorial was quoted recently at the UN meeting in Paris with cordial approval by Andrei Vishinsky.)

The spending issue is straightforward enough. The function of the Communist penetration issue is perhaps less immediately obvious, but on a moment's reflection it too becomes perfectly clear. The problem the New Isolationism faces is to disguise the awkward fact that, as we cut our outlays for foreign aid, we retreat, step by step, from the world wide fight against Communism. This fact has been favorably noted in Moscow, where the New Isolationist attacks on American policy received grateful editorial comment. On February 2, for example, Pravda gave nearly one quarter of its valuable space, ordinarily reserved for pietistic letters to Stalin from factory workers or collective farmers, to the most recent speech of Mr. Hoover, praising him for his attack on United States foreign policy. In a New Year's review of the crisis in American foreign policy, Pravda could happily invoke Joseph P. Kennedy, William Philip Simms of the Scripps-Howard press, Karl H. Von Wiegand of the Hearst press, David Lawrence, the Wall Street Journal, and the Commercial and Financial Chronicle.

How are the New Isolationists to get around the fact that their proposals are greeted with loud cheers in the Kremlin? Somehow they must cover their retreat; and what better way to do so than by raising a great outcry about the supposed dangers of Communism within our own country? Such a sham battle at home might well distract attention from the stealthy desertion of our allies abroad. And the outcry would have the further incidental advantage of putting frightened liberals out of action and of smearing the whole movement for domestic reform.

I do not suggest that these affairs arranged themselves in the minds of the New Isolationists in quite this Machiavellian way. Still, anyone advocating policies which benefit Communism abroad and win the approbation of Pravda might well be tempted to justify himself to his constituents by redoubling his zeal to extirpate communism at home. This, surely, is the powerful logic of the alliance between Taft and McCarthy. The simple fact is that Taft cannot repudiate McCarthy, because he needs him too much. McCarthyism is an indispensable part of the New Isolationism. Without McCarthyism the New Isolationism would be almost indistinguishable from a policy of appeasement.

The New Isolationism thus has its plausible façade. Senator Taft has his seven points: and one can assume that, if nominated, he will talk in an even more recklessly internationalist vein. He has all the isolationist votes anyway. But, beneath the facade, there remains the reality—the all-out, halfway policy abroad, and at home a state which will refrain from intervening in economic affairs but which will intervene like the devil in the thoughts and opinions of its citizens. The triumph of this policy could lead abroad only to an overflow of Soviet power into the regions from which we retreat—until we are forced back into the Western Hemispheres, or, what is more likely until we perceive what we are doing and then, having invited Soviet expansion, strike back in the panic of total war. And at home we will move steadily into a garrison state, run by men who admire Senator McCarthy and regard his operations as, in Senator Taft's lapidary phrase, "fully justified."

The words of the New Isolationism count less than the deeds: and the deeds shape up into a sinister pattern. The consolation is that this is probably a last convulsive outbreak of an old nostalgia. Once we have exorcised this latest version of isolationism, we may at last begin to live in the twentieth century.

Volume 189, No. 5, pp. 34–38