Mises Wire

Pushing the False Narrative of U.S. Isolationism

Every mainstream school curriculum and state narrative regarding American history includes a common story between the years 1919 and 1941, and it is the myth of American isolation. Americans, as they say, foolishly forgot that they too were part of the world and so left themselves and their allies vulnerable as totalitarianism swept across Europe and Asia. The conclusion that is being pushed with this fictitious tale is shockingly unsubtle. America—reasons the state and mainstream curriculum—has a moral duty to police the world’s nations, intervening at the sight of any potential geopolitical threat to itself and its allies. While there are some who genuinely believe this conclusion, there must be deeper reasons for why this lie gets pushed. After all, factual reality shows that the United States has never been isolated in its history.

The Lie Justified the Empire

The isolationist myth is either skillfully crafted or it developed to the point that it satisfied the state’s every need when justifying foreign intervention and the inevitable curtailment of its population’s liberties. One of the most foundational examples is the creation of historical legitimacy for the American empire. Like all empires, the American empire is backed by force because it is artificial. That is, its subjects did not want to be part of the empire. Otherwise, it would have emerged naturally. The pervasive use of force combined with the massive scale of the empire necessitates legitimacy. Unlike other empires, though, the American empire’s rise was abrupt and saw its hegemony established in only a handful of wars, which is dissimilar to the typical establishment of an empire through dozens or even hundreds of wars over centuries. America’s acquisition of Spanish colonies in 1898 serves as an explicit, if not late, beginning of the American empire. With the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1949 marks the formalization of the American empire, as America was now directly responsible for policing and influencing the world far beyond the home continent. Put simply, America’s rise to power within a mere five decades necessitates much more legitimacy than other empires have ever needed.

Such a rise to hegemony in so little time placed the American state in a precarious position. Not only has the American state made a long list of external enemies—a continually increasing list—but perhaps more threatening are the old internal enemies against empire building and other forms of foreign meddling, state expansion, and the incessant infringements of liberty. These enemies were in the heart of the empire and had the ability to alter policy and convince the population of the state and empire’s illegitimacy. How were these enemies dealt with? They were slurred and sidelined by the post–Franklin D. Roosevelt political establishment. Senator Robert A. Taft, often held up as the isolationist champion—though Murray Rothbard considered him on the extreme left of the extreme right for his compromising nature—was ridiculed as a “super appeaser” and snubbed in the 1948 election in favor of the interventionist Thomas E. Dewey (the man later credited with making Dwight D. Eisenhower the next election’s GOP nominee).

This one case demonstrates the general trend well. The Old Right, anti-interventionist in nature, was constricted to death by unremitting pejoratives lobbed at them by establishment interventionists—pejoratives like isolationist, appeaser, sympathizer, and crypto, each meant to coax those of the Old Right out of their principles. If these insults were the stick, then the carrot was the “looming threats“ of foreign nations and international conspiracies, which functioned as a great propaganda piece for dismantling anti-interventionism.

The pejoratives and the threat of a foreign enemy worked for one reason in particular. According to the mainstream curriculum, since isolationists opposed American foreign involvement after the conclusion of World War I, the blame for World War II lies at least partly with them. After all, their gutting of the League of Nations and refusal to intervene early was a direct cause of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Russia. This story was effective as it allowed interventionists to brand isolationists as both Nazi and Communist sympathizers. Obviously, very little of this telling of history is sensible, being as Hitler’s rise to power relied on continual foreign intervention—such as the occupations of Saarland and the Ruhr River valley region—and Stalin’s victory in the war relied on intervention in the form of aid from Britain and America.

However, the charge stuck. Over time, being called an appeaser was one of the worst things you could be called, and isolationist became synonymous with ignorant yokel or subversive. This meant that noninterventionism would fade out, having lost its institutional and popular power. The isolationists lost, and their positions were, for a time, unthinkable.

Interventionism Ascendant

With the internal opposition to the empire sidelined, interventionism reigned supreme. Every president after World War II increased American international involvement, either by military means—such as during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan administrations—or by economic treaties. Every increase in involvement was self-reinforcing. America and its connected foreign countries would depend on the new interventionist status quo, which served as a justification for maintaining or further increasing foreign involvement. With every increase in foreign involvement also came more external threats to the empire, adding to the list of enemies that could be used to cow so-called isolationist appeasers while uniting bellicose congressional warmongers. This meant that as America grew more involved, the popular moral case for further involvement grew stronger as well. Anything less would be wanting the Communists, Russians, Chinese, authoritarians, or dictators to win—an ironic assertion given later policies.

Some pushback against continued interventionism exists in the modern day, though the reasons are cause for concern. Few people are against interventionism because of its disastrous and immoral track record, instead opposing it because it is costly to the country in terms of expenditure. Aside from fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of prosperity and devastation, opposing empire on the grounds of current costs is not good enough. This limited utilitarian approach leads to greater looting and extraction from subjects by the state to temporarily solve the problem rather than cutting off the empire. More pertinently, any focus on costs and benefits obfuscates the underlying issue: the empire and its accompanying administrative state was built and maintained by lies.

Had the myth of American isolation not been crafted, the legitimacy of the empire would have never been present for it to extend so far. In the modern day too, there would be little in the way of maintaining that legitimacy. Every call for America to be the world’s policeman hinges upon the false idea that American isolationists inadvertently caused or escalated a world war; otherwise, the term isolationist would not still have a negative connotation. If we want to deprive the state and the empire of its legitimacy, we must begin by depriving this false idea of legitimacy. We must dispel its myths and replace them with historical facts.

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