Political Isolationism

Back to the Main Menu

For an overview, see John D Clare

Key individuals:

  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Warren Harding
  • Calvin Coolidge
  • Herbert Hoover
  • William E. Borah
  • Henry Cabbot Lodge Snr

Key themes and concepts:

  • Economic benefits & Industrial growth
  • Isolationism
  • The Failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles & join League of Nations
  • Normalcy
  • Washington Naval Conference, 1921-22
  • Dawes Plan, 1924
  • Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928
  • The Monroe Doctrine

Key Questions

  • Why did the USA reject the Treaty of Versailles?

Isolationism: Rather like ‘Brexiteers’ today, some Americans saw their countries involvement in the League of Nations as sapping of its sovereignty and freedom of action. Therefore they did not want to ratify the President’s signature on the Treaty of Versailles which would commit the country to joining the League of Nations. Warren Harding and other Republicans fought the Presidency and Congressional elections on a platform of ‘Return to Normalcy’ which looked back to the isolationism of the Monroe Doctrine as the way forward in the future. Senator William E Borah was outspoken in his demand that America ‘be permitted to live her own life’. Republican isolationists won a landslide in the 1920 election and were also connected closely to some other key features of the 1920s: economic and social isolationism (i.e. tariffs, the curtailment of immigration, prohibition, the culture wars & racism).

Money: Some Americans believed that joining the League could be damaging for the American economy because of its ability to impose sanctions. By not joining the League, the US could not be forced to suspend trade with them.

American Lives: Over 116,000 American lives were lost during WWI and a further 204,000 wounded. Americans did not want to see their sons sent to fight wars in Europe, and many felt belonging to the League would entail involvement in wars that did not concern America.

German ethnic groups: America contained a large German ethnic minority that did not view the Treaty of Versailles as fair and certainly did not want to see Germany punished. American politicians had to respect this demographic as it could prove crucial in an election year. Still others thought the attitudes of the British and the French towards Germany was unfair.

Empire: Some Americans saw the League of Nations as just a cover for British and French imperial interests. The award of Class A Mandates to Britain and France in the Treaty of Sevres (former Ottoman territories) and Treaty of Versailles (former German colonies) was an example of this. America had fought a revolutionary war against British imperialism: no American wanted the country to now see it fight on behalf of British colonialism.

It is important to realise, however, that there is a tendency to exaggerate American isolationism. A survey at the time found that 80% of Americans were in favour of a League of Nations. Other Republicans were not against the Treaty in principle, but wanted it amended Senator William Lodge put forward 13 reservations or amendments to the bill, principally because of article 10 – that included the power of the League of Nations to make war without a vote by the US Congress. Lodge appealed to the patriotism of American citizens by objecting to what he saw as the weakening of national sovereignty: “I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.”

The closest the Treaty came to passage was in mid-November 1919, when Lodge and his Republicans formed a coalition with the pro-Treaty Democrats, and were close to a two-thirds majority for a Treaty with reservations, but Wilson rejected this compromise. Cooper and Bailey suggest that Wilson’s stroke on September 25, 1919, had so altered his personality that he was unable to effectively negotiate with Lodge. Cooper says the psychological effects of a stroke were profound: “Wilson’s emotions were unbalanced, and his judgment was warped….Worse, his denial of illness and limitations was starting to border on delusion.”

In foreign policy isolation was not total:

  • Washington Naval Conference, 1921-22
  • Dawes Plan, 1924
  • Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928
  • of the 20 Latin American nations, the US effectively controlled 14.
  • Between 1924-2, US investment in Latin America rose from $1.5bn to $3.5bn
  • In 1926, the US marines intervened in Nicaragua to protect President Diaz;
  • in 1929 the sent arms to Mexico to back President Callas.

Read SHP, pp. 16-18;
Edexcel, pp. 160-163.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close