Isolation: The Dodo

June 16, 1639
DEAR ELISAVETA ANDRIEVNA : — Congratulations. You are fast becoming one of us. Soon you will be as American as a two-bagger or a cop bawling out a speeder. I like your definition of America at the moment: ‘A large body of confusion facing two one-way oceans,’ but your question upsets me. ‘Who is Senator Borah?’ It reminds me of the question asked by a girl of the Paris ballet in 1863 when Renan was at the height of his fame. ‘Tell me,’ inquired the little darling of a young man, ‘who is this M. Renan that everyone is talking about? Is he a member of the Jockey Club?’
Senator Borah, my dear, is one of our Institutions now and has been for a long time. He is upright, honest, sincere, and — most interesting to you at this stage of your education — an isolationist. You can find all you need to know about the Senator in the library; I’ll tell you the little I know about isolationism; then it will be your job to fit the garment to Mr. Borah’s massive frame.
This country is full of professional simplifiers lay and political, but I’m not one of them. I warn you therefore that in talking about isolation we shall have to consider such apparently unrelated matters as Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 and President Roosevelt’s purchase of Argentine corned beef in 1939; the tariff from Hamilton to Hoover; Hawaii from the landing of the first American whalers in search of girls and fresh water to our final acquisition of the islands; our recognition a few years ago that Soviet Russia, whether we liked it or not, was a fact just as tuberculosis is a fact — to say nothing of our foreign loans and investments, sales of scrap iron to Japan, of CocaCola and chewing gum to France, and a thousand other things, great and small, that reflect the relations of the world’s mightiest power with the world. But if brevity compels me to drop Hawaii, Hamilton, and Coca-Cola, by the wayside I hope you’ll forgive me.
As Mr. Roosevelt once remarked: ‘First things first.’ So let’s look at Washington’s Farewell Address where it all began. He said: ‘Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none, or a very remote connection. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies which are essentially foreign to our concerns.’
This is all to the good as far as it goes, but it seems to me Washington did not go far enough. Suppose he had told his audience this: ‘Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none, or a very remote connection. Frequently those interests come into conflict. Out of that conflict came our chance to become a free country. Now that we are free we must stay free. And we cannot stay free if we are drawn into the future quarrels of Europe.’
This would have been factually and historically accurate; would have placed America in perspective with the world; and would have laid down a policy. But Washington said what he said, and he did not in my opinion lay down any policy, for in order to do so he would have had to say that the quarrels of Europe must not under any circumstances concern us. And he was too wise to say that.
But, whatever he said or did not say, two things are certain. The one is that no man can bind this country to follow any policy, domestic or foreign, forever; we amend the Constitution when we see fit. The other is that Washington naturally could not foresee the time when the United States would become so intimately a part of the world that Europe’s quarrels would concern us, and the country so powerful that our policies would not only affect Europe but perhaps even bring about conditions that would cause European conflicts, or bring them to an end after they had started. Washington had not long been buried before the quarrels of Europe did concern us, and, of all places, in what was an immensely remote continent to the provincial, pioneering United States of the 1820’s: South America. There we parted from our isolation, were the first nation to recognize the revolting states of the southern continent, and soon warned Europe under the Monroe Doctrine to keep its hands off these states.
Let’s sum up before we go on. This is the genesis and early history of socalled isolationist America. (1) We secure our freedom because of the quarrels of Europe and the aid of the French in those quarrels. (2) As part of our struggle for freedom we enunciate the stupendous doctrines of the Rights of Man. These doctrines, falling on France with gigantic impact, are in part the motive forces of the French Revolution. (3) Out of this revolution come Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. We take advantage of Napoleon’s troubles and buy the vast Louisiana Territory, but at the same time his struggles throw us into the War of 1812 against his great enemy Britain. (4) Then the South American states, in a period of European wars and revolutions, rebel against Spain. We recognize their sovereignty and set up the Monroe Doctrine.
Thus two things were perfectly clear a century ago when America was a relatively weak country: (a) that we affect the world, and (b) that the world affects us. Certainly this is an inauspicious beginning for a country dedicated to isolationism.
Now let’s go on. Comes the Civil War. Mr. Lincoln, fearful that England will aid the South, accepts the aid of Russia. Russia, jealous of the power of England, comes to Mr. Lincoln’s aid and sends two squadrons of war vessels to the United States. One puts in at San Francisco; the other at New York.
Look at the paradox and confusion. Of all countries that hated the American system based on the Rights of Man, none could have hated it more than absolutist Russia, where even the most elementary rights of man were denied. And Mr. Lincoln, bent on freeing millions of black slaves, accepted the help of a country where even more millions of white slaves were held in the bondage of serfdom.
Now you tell me what this proves. My guess is that it proves that nations, like women, move according to the principles of earthy logic and necessity. For while a woman may flirt with handsome men while she is unmarried, when she settles down to the serious business of marrying she chooses one who will be useful. And nations abandon theories in the face of conditions. Witness Mr. Chamberlain’s frantic desire to press in friendship the hand of Mr. Stalin, stained with the blood of the relatives of the English royal family.
In New York you can learn dancing, I’m told, in six easy lessons. Let’s now observe the easy steps that we took to the mad music of a world at war.
(1) From 1865 to 1914 we were busy building America. From 1914 to 1919 we were busy getting rich. At the beginning of the war we were a debtor country to the extent of about $3,000,000,000; at the war’s end we were a creditor country to the tune of about $14,000,000,000 — the most prodigious economic transformation ever seen in modern times.
(2) Did we then talk about isolation? We certainly did. But only political isolation. We would have none of the League of Nations. Not only did we say nothing of economic isolation, but on the contrary we announced that New York would usurp the ancient rôles of London and Amsterdam and become banker to the world. The fact that we were no more qualified to play the part than Bob Burns is qualified to sing the leading rôle in Snergoutchka didn’t deter us at all. We had the money, and if money and wisdom aren’t as inseparable as gravy and chicken backs at a boardinghouse dinner, then we ought to repudiate Tom Paine and begin all over again. But that isn’t all. Frequently we not only leap before we look but won’t even look after we have leaped, because, in our mass-production and mass-thinking economy, vertebrae are interchangeable spare parts and a broken neck means nothing more than time out for quick roadside repairs. What I mean is this. We were so busy counting our billions we forgot that, in the modern interdependent and exquisitely sensitive world, you cannot keep politics and economics in separate watertight compartments. You cannot do it even in a single country. Is New Deal politics the result of economics, or is New Deal economics the result of politics?
(3) Now look at our position and our opportunity at the end of the World War. It was a position without parallel. In five years we had been transformed from a debtor into a creditor nation. We stood apart from the hatreds and conflicts of Europe. We asked neither territories, mandates, nor anything else. We enjoyed the good will of nearly all the world. We were the largest consumers of raw materials on earth and the largest producers of raw and manufactured products. Poverty-stricken Europe bitterly needed us both as a customer to whom she could sell and as a source of supply from whom she could buy. Our trade with many countries might have been the difference between prosperity and depression; orderliness or revolution; nationalism or internationalism. With this unparalleled opportunity to be an effective agent in the future of the world for war or peace, and without committing ourselves starkly to political internationalism, what did we do? What was the balm that we prepared to heal the wounds of a war-torn world and thereby make for our own eventual peace and prosperity? I blush to tell you.
(4) It was to lend money; to set the draft horses of politics and economics pulling in opposite directions. Our big talk of 1919 was soon converted into action by the big economic collapse of 1920-1921. (A vigorous, impatient people, we believe that an action a day keeps problems away.) At home we had idle billions, idle men, idle farms, and idle factories. Abroad Europeans had stomachs but little food; backs but no shirts; factories but no machinery. Here was a luscious combination like strawberries and cream. We’ll show the world, we said. And no sooner said than done. Immediately our bankers — some of them Skull and Bones, others Porcellian, but all of them as tweedy as any group of men in the City of London — tracked down the Argentines, the Greeks, the Rumanians, the Germans; anybody who was literate enough to sign his name on pretty bonds at 92 bearing 8 per cent interest. The money went into our banks; goods went out of the country; we had ‘prosperity’ again; and Uncle Sam’s coattails fairly flew in the wind as Rosinante, with him aboard, scorched around the track.
(5) Then the economists began to croak, but nobody paid any attention to them. Most of them had never earned as much as $15,000 a year in their lives, and if they had any sense they’d have proved it by earning more than what was mere popcorn money in those days. But the economists croaked just the same, and their croakings, translated into American, were to the effect that you cannot lend money abroad and get back money; you can receive only goods and services. Some of the kill-joys even brought up the unpleasant fact that we had paid our debts to Europe not with gold but with goods. We, however, didn’t, want goods or services. We lent money, and money we’d have in return. This is a New Era, said the smart boys.
I must tell you that we have a new era every twenty minutes. With us it is not only a period of history, — if only a twenty-minute period, — but a period that may be used like an epithet, or an old shoe. If you don’t like a man’s theories, you shut him up by hurling a new era at him. So new eras flew through the money-choked air, the economists hid in Harvard Yard, the bankers lent more money, the people bought foreign bonds, and everybody was prosperous, Finally the time came when we were lending our customers new money with which to pay interest on old loans, and more money to buy more goods. Stocks, as they used to say, soared, and we were growing richer and richer. Those were the days when so many Americans were in Paris that it was worth a Frenchman’s life to show his head in Montparnasse after dark; when everybody drank champagne on the morning boat-train from Cherbourg; and a woman who didn’t have a dozen Vionnet gowns complained to Papa that she hadn’t a stitch to put on her back.
(6) Then we, the richest and mightiest people on earth, began to be afraid of war-prostrate Europe. Afraid that she — and especially Germany — would flood us with cheap goods. The fact that every country in Europe desperately needed all the goods it could get for its population and the restoration of its exhausted stocks did not convince us. Simultaneously with the lending of money we passed higher tariff acts that would make the repayment of the money impossible in any form. Debtors could pay only with goods, and we saw to it that we could not take the goods. Already by 1921 Congress had enacted an emergency tariff, and in 1922 raised the rates still higher through the Fordney Act. But this was only a beginning.
(7) Soon two great events came at once. The first was President Hoover. He was no yokel like General Grant. He had been around; from West Branch, Iowa, to St. Petersburg, London, Peking, Paris, and way points east and west. He knew that hotel de ville was just a fancy way of saying city hall, and that the seat of the Greek Metropolitan is not Athens but Constantinople, even if it is in Turkey. Up to Mr. Hoover’s day in the White House and during his stay there, we continued to lend money with never a thought of how we could get it back. The Germans used some of our cash to erect magnificent workers’ apartment houses while our workers sat in stinking tenements; some of the South American countries spent part of the loans in celebrations for home-coming exiles while we had to dig down in our pockets for our own Mardi Gras in New Orleans; and the French ate our fat hams while we in the South lived on fat back. Evidently we were hell-bent on reversing the old adage to make it read ‘Charity begins abroad.’
But finally, in 1928, we woke up with an awful headache, and, just as we had abruptly started lending, so just as abruptly we stopped lending. Then the lights of fairyland began to go out. The shadows of depression, beginning in Austria, lengthened across Europe and spread from country to country. In 1929 our blazing sun was darkened by the fast-moving eclipse. The catastrophic depression of our times had begun.
Imagine our surprise, therefore, — and our rage in the cotton South, — when Mr. Hoover, who knew better, signed the Hawley-Smoot tariff act in 1930 raising rates to their highest point in our history and stripping us of the remaining remnants of our foreign trade. We had forgiven him for sitting on the fence in domestic affairs and for sitting on a log with Ramsay MacDonald in international affairs, but we shall never forgive him for sitting on us.
(8) In the larger aspect, however, we had achieved the dream of isolation: we were both politically and economically living on our own island apart from the world. We were not members of the League of Nations; we were no longer moneylenders; and the high tariff made us trade at home. The only trouble was that there was no trade. Country after country, incensed by our tariff rates, passed retaliatory tariffs; Canada, our greatest customer, in its rage practically forced Great Britain into the Ottawa Conference and Empire preference; and the farm products that we could not sell abroad were bought (at the nation’s expense) by Mr. Hoover’s farm board.
And what did Mr. Hoover say to all this? As President he had told an audience of Iowa farmers: ‘ We are part of the world, the disturbance of whose remotest populations affects our financial systems, our markets and the price of farm products.’ Then he signed a tariff act that would make it impossible for us to be part of the world. But. in 1933, when he had — shall we say? — retired as President, he wistfully meditated aloud on the subject of international trade at a Republican dinner in New York. The lovely maiden, Isolation, after we had flown into her unvaccinated arms, had given us a severe case of economic smallpox. This time the chastened but convalescent. ex-President said: ‘We cannot isolate ourselves. During the past two years the crash of one foreign country after another . . . has dominated the whole economic life of our country.’
(9) True enough, but what about the effect of our policy on European countries? If the world affects us, we affect the world, but that is a subject on which we seldom speak. We get typhoid from Europeans, but we never give typhoid to them. What was the mentality of European countries at the time we were handing out loans with one hand and high tariffs with the other? It was a war mentality. They had just emerged from the most catastrophic war of all time and they feared another might begin at any moment. (‘How long will the war last?’ was the question put to General Bliss, U. S. A., in 1917. ‘Fifty years,’ he replied.) They knew that gold was essential to war and their safety. They needed our goods, but we demanded gold in return, and gold they would not give us; the national interests of nations take precedence over other considerations. Could we expect a war-racked and warfearing continent to stand by and see all its gold drained off to the United States? And was it not true that our policy fed the fears of Europe for its gold? In any event, country after country abandoned the gold standard, depreciated its currency, and threw world trade into confusion. Our answer to all this was to pile confusion on confusion by more tariffs.
And more. Our policy played a part — if not a definitive part — in the rise of nationalism. For if (a) we are the largest market in the world and the largest source of materials, and if (b) that market is closed by tariffs and our goods can be had only for gold, when (c) other countries have little gold, it follows (d) that they will try to arrange their economies on a basis of self-containment. That is nationalism, and I need not tell you what nationalism has done already to the world and to us.
Furthermore: we had fought and won a war, but we did not comprehend the nature of peace in the modern world. For this is the axiom and the paradox and the futility of modern warfare between great powers: when you have vanquished your enemy, self-interest dictates that you put him on his feet as quickly as possible. It may be that in so doing you help him to rise and fight you again; or, hopefully, that being again on his way to prosperity he will grow fat and peaceful. But, whatever the risks, the victor must help the vanquished. Why? Because you need the markets of the vanquished country and he needs yours. Nations, like small villages, live economically by taking in one another’s washing, and they cannot live any other way unless they embark on the dangerous course of self-containment.
In all fairness it must be added that, if we were blind to the nature of peace, so were the British and the French.
(10) But to come back home. When Europe could not or would not pay us in gold, what did we do? We did not calmly sit down and reason the thing through and lower our tariffs so that we might recover something and help the world to recover. We simply got sore. We passed the Johnson Act which forbids the lending of money to any country whose debts are in default, to us. Now this is, to my mind, an extraordinary act for two reasons. One is that we actually had to pass a law tying our hands so that we could not throw good money after bad. If a man owed you a debt which you assumed he could but would not pay, would you have to pass a private resolution to keep yourself from lending him more money, or would you merely decide to give him the cold shoulder instead of cold cash the next time he came around? But that is not our national way. We had to have a law. This act, however, has something to commend it. It falls into that category of strait-jacket instruments not uncommon here in which the rich husband of a weak-minded wife draws up his will in such a manner that she cannot lose control of his estate to a gigolo but may merely draw enough to live on. Congress, it seems to me, acted toward Congress in precisely that manner when it passed this act.
The other reason I think it is an extraordinary piece of legislation is that it threw the burden of international lending back into the laps of London and Amsterdam, and such lending, we take it, is essential to the functioning of capitalism, and capitalism in turn is an essential component of democracy. But what if London and Amsterdam couldn’t shoulder the burden alone? Well, we said, that is no business of ours.
Have we learned a lesson? We have not. Here is a headline in my newspaper: ‘F. D. R. Navy Order to Buy Argentine Beef Stirs Storm.’ The President placed an order for 48,000 pounds of Argentine corned beef for the navy, and immediately cattle-country Congressmen began to denounce the President, the Argentine, and the immoral polygamous tendencies of pampas bulls. The American cow, it seems, becomes a sacred cow when we try to buy a chunk of the other fellow’s.
How nonsensical! The Argentine is the richest market, despite its small population, in South America. The Argentines are a sensitive people even if they are cow-raisers. And we have offended against their market by selling them more than we buy from them, and against their sensitivity by keeping their beef out of our market through the allegation that it is affected with hoof-andmouth disease. Imagine what we’d say and think if the British publicly announced that they would not buy our automobiles because they always fold up like an accordion in rough places.
But when the President seeks to ease our strained relations with the Argentine, an important market and the pivotal country in South American politics, by buying some of its beef he is actually denounced for committing an ‘unAmerican act.’ That, my dear, is isolation. Under this theory it is cheaper to drive the Argentine into the arms of Italy and Germany, and spend hundreds of millions for battleships to keep the Italians and Germans out of South America, than it is to trade across the counters to the benefit of the net economies of the two countries.
Now note the logic of our illogic. If the United States can get rich by isolation, why cannot a state, a county, a town, do the same thing? We are actually proceeding on this principle. The country is riddled with state taxes and prohibitions of commerce against other states that are in effect tariffs. Wisconsin, a dairy state, refuses to permit the entry of oleomargarine from cotton-oil states, and they in turn seek ways of keeping Wisconsin cheese from their doors. Such methods naturally tend to contract the existing market, and in an endeavor to escape the ever-constricting circle even more desperate methods are sought. Merchants all over the country put on trade-at-home campaigns, and for years there have been organized burnings in public squares of mail-order catalogues. It is amusing that mail-order investigators, attending these burnings, report that the local patriots bring to the fire not the current catalogue but last year’s. All this in the name of isolation and prosperity.
But, viewed in the larger aspect, what does it mean? It means the repudiation of the Constitution and the theory upon which the Thirteen Colonies became the United States of America. If the colonies had remained — as was once contemplated— completely sovereign entities, they would have had the power to levy tariffs; customhouses would have stood at the borders of every state; business would have been hampered, and the entire economy disrupted. The founders therefore took this power away from the states, and as the result, we have (or had) the largest free-trade area in the world. But now it is passing. If isolation is a sauce for the goose United States, then it is also sauce for the gander states.
Let’s now pursue the theory of international economic isolation to its bitter end. What would happen in the world if to-morrow we should announce our retirement from the world’s markets? We are the largest buyers on earth of silk, rubber, tin, coffee, cocoa, and a long string of other commodities. Our failure to buy would send prices plummeting downward; the economies of many countries would crash; there would be revolutions or drastic transformations, and possibly wars. Or, in the realm of actuality, what happens when depression in America sharply curtails our purchases abroad? Since we are the largest buyers on earth, many countries are disastrously affected when we can’t buy; they look to new outlets, with inevitably new political alignments; and wherever men live, from Tahiti to Turkey, the standard of living is lowered. Thus even our domestic affairs affect the world economically and politically, and because they do we too are affected economically and politically. Yet we talk of isolation as though the problem were one of isolating the microbe of the common cold.
Actually, of course, isolationism is feudalism, for it means and cannot mean anything except that which was of the essence of feudalism: localism. It means treating the wireless, the radio, the fourday transatlantic ship, and the airplane as though they did not exist. It means renouncing the superb instruments that men have made for bringing the ends of the earth together; abandoning far-flung commerce splendid in its possibilities of trading the ivory, apes, and peacocks of the East for the manufactures of the West, and subsisting instead upon the necessarily meagre resources of selfcontainment; giving up the broad life of the world for the narrow life of the village; and imprisoning once-free men within the walls that are prison walls however great the area they enclose.
And inevitably, in my opinion, it means bringing the centuries full circle. For just as capitalism was the death of feudalism and the genesis of democracy, so will a recrudescent feudalism — I don’t care what modern name you call it — mean the end of capitalism and of its concomitant democracy.
It might still be possible, by international pooling of colonial resources, diverting armaments expenditures to production goods, and breaking down trade barriers, to restore the world not to nineteenth-century economic internationalism but to a live-and-let-live world economy. My feeling, however, is that it is too late to go forward and we haven’t got the steel nerve to go deliberately backward. We shall waver and wait and be pushed, I think, into the abyss. But a thinking man has the right and the duty to try to orient himself in the world; to know how he got where he is, and if possible to guess where he is going.
It remains to ask: Why are Americans so hell-bent for economic as well as political isolation? The two, I believe, arc not dissociable. Is it because the other policy did not pan out? Or because it was not given a chance to pan out? Bread, we assume, is a good food. But I am told by my doctor that bread can make you ill just as well as green peaches, if you eat too much of it, if it is underdone, is soggy, or is not the right kind of bread for you. The eating of bread, therefore, if it is to be beneficial and not harmful, must be accompanied by the observance of certain laws that run with it. And the same is true of internationalism, political and economic. We not only did not observe the laws in this case, but we deliberately mocked and flouted them with catastrophic results.
Then, having broken the laws of internationalism, political and economic, and made a mess of things, we conclude that it is better to turn our backs on an ungrateful world that will not play the game according to our rules but only under the well-established rules of the past. And in our bitter disillusion — the product in part of our own illusions — we go back to George Washington and say that he was right and we were wrong. In quite the same way slaveholders in 1860 justified their position on the ground that Washington was a slaveholder: therefore, what was good enough for the Father of the Country ought to be good enough for his descendants. In our times only Emily Post is iconoclast enough to attack Washington. He ate with his knife — good manners in his time, but, says Mrs. Post, bad manners for our times. Is it barely possible that the economics and international relations of a weak, remote, detached United States in 1790 are no longer suited to a powerful United States intimately connected with the world in 1939, and that just as it is now bad manners to eat with a knife it is bad practice to try to be in the world but not of it?
At this stage of the world’s affairs perhaps these considerations are merely academic and parts of a dead past that will never live again. The fact is, however, that the country lives and will continue to live, and while it is easy cynicism to say that the lesson of history is that we do not learn from history, the forlorn hope persists that we will some day learn.
The other night I ran across a curious pamphlet which I wished might have been read by those who directed the policies of the country in the period 1919—1933, or at least one paragraph of it. And since it is an English pamphlet it might also have been taken to heart by Mr. Chamberlain and Sir John Simon. It is entitled A Rough Draft of a New Model at Sea by George Savile, first Marquess of Halifax, and was published in 1694. The author says: —
‘A Nation is a great while before they can see, and generally they must feel first before their Sight is quite cleared. This maketh it. so long before they can see their Interest, that for the most part it is too late for them to pursue it.’
Which awakens me to the fact that I must now go to see my Interest: a new mule called Heavy Duty that Galley, my foreman, tells me is the ‘ploughingest mule in de Delta.’