150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
The New Isolationism
May 1952
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

At the height of the Cold War, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard history professor who would later go on to serve as an adviser to President Kennedy, warned against the resurgence of a long-standing—and in his view dangerous—aversion to American engagement with the outside world.

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 ...

How are the New Isolationists to get around the fact that their proposals are greeted with loud cheers in the Kremlin? ...

The triumph of [isolationism] 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 ...

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

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