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The New International, September 1943

Notes of the Month

The End of Isolationism in the United States


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 8, September 1943, pp. 227–231.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Isolationism as a strong force in American capitalist politics is dead. In the Democratic Party, of course, it has long ago been interred, and as for the Administration, it has been committed to an exactly contrary policy since it took office. Now isolationism is making its last, not very confident and not even very assertive stand where it used to have its greatest hold and for a long time prevailed without serious contest – in the Republican Party.

Only two years ago, the House of Representatives approved Roosevelt’s proposal to extend the period of military service for Army draftees by a majority of one single vote. It was just five months before Pearl Harbor, and isolationism was still riding high in capitalist politics. The House Republicans voted against the President six to one. On virtually every other question of “involvement” in foreign, especially European, politics, most of the Republicans had to be dragged every foot of the way and, often, against their vociferous resistance.

A drastic change has since occurred, and it is a sign of the times. At the April 1942 meeting of the Republican National Committee in St. Louis to elect a new chairman, a mild “internationalist” resolution of policy was adopted – on Willkie’s threat to make a public scandal, to be sure, but adopted nevertheless. “We realize,” wrote the Reluctant Dragons of Isolationism, “that after this war the responsibility of the nation will not be circumscribed within the territorial limits of the United States; that our nation has an obligation to assist in bringing about of understanding, comity and cooperation among the nations of the world ...” This “realization” marked a change as revolutionary in the thinking of its authors (and as creditable to them) as would have been the admission by the late Prophet Voliva of Zion City that the world, after all, was round and not flat.

Since the St. Louis meeting, the fight in the last important citadel of isolationism has come out into the open, with the mossbacks retreating all along the line. The very fact that Willkie, who continues to nurse his presidential aspirations, to the discomfiture of several other claimants, is the principal sponsor of a change in Republican policy, has the not very paradoxical effect of retarding the adoption of a new course by the party octogenarians still fighting a furious reminiscential battle against Woodrow Wilson. But the change is inevitable. In fact, it has already taken place, to all intents and purposes.

Before the Senate lies the resolution sponsored jointly by Democrats Hill and Hatch, and Republicans Ball and Burton, which aims to put Congress on record in favor of the United States taking the initiative in calling a conference of the not very United Nations for the purpose of forming a post-war union and implementing it with force to make its decisions binding. A more recent resolution, sponsored this time by two Republicans only, White of Maine and Vandenberg of Michigan (who has not been known in the past as a notorious “interventionist”), declares, among other things, in favor of “the participation by the United States in post-war cooperation between sovereign nations to prevent, by any necessary means, the recurrence of military aggression and to establish permanent peace with justice in a free world.” Woodrow Wilson, in his time, did not put it differently. Almost a dozen similar resolutions are now in the hands of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

In the House of Representatives, isolationism is doing just as badly. On June 15, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved a slightly modified version of Democratic Representative Fulbright’s resolution “favoring the creation of appropriate international machinery with power adequate to establish and to maintain a just and lasting peace,” and as favoring participation of the United States therein. The author of the original resolution rightly called the committee’s action “a positive disavowal of the isolationist policy.” Significant is the fact that it was adopted not only by the fourteen Democratic members of the committee but also by the eleven Republicans. In the House floor discussion that ensued, the resolution even met with the approval of Hamilton Fish.

The fight is being taken right to the Republican National Committee. Although the recently organized Republican Post-War Policy Association has the backing of Willkie, it would be erroneous to conclude that it is a mere instrument for obtaining next year’s Republican nomination or him. Strong Republican forces are behind it, especially among the “younger” elements, and it is growing in strength all over the country. Its Eastern regional conference in New York on July 19 was attended by three hundred delegates and addressed by Senator Austin of Vermont, Representative Eaton of New Jersey, the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Governor Baldwin of Connecticut, and a sprinkling of important Republican Representatives from the Eastern states. The conference not only damned isolationism and demanded “the establishment of an organization of nations to assume full responsibility in maintaining world peace,” but authorized a committe to confront the Republican National Committee and its chairman, a zero named Harrison E. Spangler, with the demand that the conference policy be made the official policy of the party. How serious the association is may be judged by the statement issued by its national chairman, Deneen Watson, after meeting with Spangler and hearing that the association is trying to split the party:

“Our answer to that is that unless the party is smoked out now, there will be a split in 1944. We want to start now, and not wait for the bells to toll at the Republican convention.”

It is the first time such words have been uttered since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Bull Moose, when the Republican Party developed a violent allergy to the very word “split.”

In the Senate, again, there is work in progress, as if isolationism had never been heard of Senator Vandenberg, “speaking for at least a majority of the Senate Republicans,” takes a position unmistakably aimed at smoothing the road for the coming international pacts. Where formerly the Constitution could not be satisfied with less than a two-thirds Senate ratification of such pacts, Vandenberg now finds that justice will be done by a simple Senate majority. The New York Times appropriately recalls that “no only the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, but the World Court were slaughtered because of adherence to the idea that the United States could not join them without approval of two-thirds of the Senate.” “Remembering the low between President Woodrow Wilson and the Senate, which ruined efforts at international collaboration after the First World War and kept the United States isolationist for two decades, there has been much fear at home and abroad that the same will happen this time.” Vandenberg, Ball, Burton, Hatch, Hill, Austin, Baldwin, Willkie, Watson – to say nothing of Roosevelt and his circle – are at work to see that “the same” will not happen this time.

“We realize” – said the Republican National Committee resolution of 1942. But they realize too late. Isolationsm is dead, but it took too long in dying. The noble sacrifice made by the air-starved minds of Republicanism will help American imperialism survive the coming storms about as much as swimming lessons would help a castaway caught in a mid-Atlantic hurricane.

American Imperialism’s Great Task

American imperialism has a tremendous task before it and an appetite to equal it. When Hitler declared years ago that Germany must expand or die, he was not giving expression to a singular predatoriness of Aryan fascism but to the motive forces inexorably at work in modern imperialist society. They are at work in United States capitalism, and it too must expand or die. How else is it to begin to solve the economic problems whose acuteness is only aggravated by the war? How, if not by expanding throughout the world, is it to find a market for the products of an industrial plant enlarged to an unprecedented point? How, if not by world expansion, is it to find fields of investment for its huge accumulation of capital which would otherwise lie fallow? How, if not by establishing its direct or indirect sovereignty over the world, is it to enforce acceptance of its rule of the market, of investment fields, of the sources of raw materials, of the highways, seaways and now the skyways of the earth?

”We realize that after this war the responsibility of the nation will not be [read: imperialist interests cannot be] circumscribed within the territorial limits of the United States.” Thus the Republican officialdom. If they had “realized” it fifty or a hundred years ago, and had the economic power then that the United States has today, it might have been very helpful. Now it is too late.

England became a mighty empire, the “despot of the world market,” when the modern world was still young and largely undiscovered, when capitalism was still young, when hundreds of millions in the backward countries were still in a torpor which facilitated foreign depredations, and the working class and labor movement of the advanced countries were either non-existent or inconsequential.

The United States faces the task (not the prospect, but the task) of world imperialist domination under radically different circumstances. To think that it can satisfy its expansion requirements by acquiring a little colony here and there, or a special privilege or two somewhere else, is ridiculous. It is world dominion it must get in order to survive; little less will do. But it is a different world it lives in, and there lies its tragedy and, fundamentally, its hopelessness and defeat.

There are not less than four decisive factors, all interrelated, that stand in its way. Taken together, they constitute such formidable obstacles that not even by stripping its baggage of the burdensome weight of isolationism can the United States surmount them.

In the first place, capitalism today is not what it was when England was able so easily to extend its sway over the globe. In those days, capitalism was a progressive force. No other class existed capable of performing those miracles of economic achievement which Marx and Engels were among the first to acknowledge. Capitalism was able to develop the productive forces of society on a scale never before known in history. After each of its periodic crises, it rose to new heights. Now, however, capitalist society is in decline. The ruling class is no longer the stimulator of production, but a parasite upon it. It no longer develops the productive forces, taken on the whole, but seeks desperately to contract them, to compress them within ever-narrowing limits.

This was sufficiently demonstrated in the world crisis that broke out in 1929, and demonstrated most spectacularly in the regime established during that crisis in the strongest capitalist country of all, the United States. It was further emphasized, from a different direction, so to speak, by the fact that a “real” return to large-scale production was possible only with the outbreak of the war. But it is precisely here that the deceptiveness of capitalist “expansion” may be discerned. Capitalism can resume its old pace and even appear to exceed it, only when it goes over to producing means of destruction. It can put the paralyzed Ruhr to work only in order to destroy the productive forces of Poland; Detroit gets a new lease on life only in order to paralyze and destroy the Ruhr. It is absurd to imagine that an American capitalism which could not, in peacetime, gets its own economy into operation, will be able after the war to achieve that miracle plus the miracle of getting Europe’s economy into operation.

In the second place, the conflicts between the big rivals of declining capitalism have assumed such feverish sharpness that it is impossible for them to agree peacefully for a fairly long period of time to a satisfactory division of the world. That, too, is a special characteristic of our epoch.

This is not to say that in the “old days” there were no rivalries and no conflicts. There were. But the world had not yet been divided among the big powers, and as its remoter corners were opened up to imperialism it was found possible to give each power a share which, although never considered “enough,” was nevertheless sufficient to maintain a state of relative peace among them. China could be parcelled out among half a dozen big powers and several small ones; so could Africa. Not even the Monroe Doctrine prevented the infiltration into Latin America of the big European powers. In any case, it is enough to point out that between the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century and 1914, there was not a single inter-imperialist conflict that can even be mentioned in the same breath with the First and Second World Wars.

Now it is no longer a question of dividing the world among empires-on-the-make, but of re-dividing it. Empires can no longer be established or expanded merely at the expense of the backward countries. Not one of the great imperialist powers of today can advance an inch without taking at least a corresponding inch from one or more of its imperialist rivals. Yesterday they could jointly attack and reduce to colonies the backward countries. Today they must attack each other and reduce to colonies those nations which are themselves imperialist, or, in any case, advanced capitalist nations.

This stage was opened up dramatically by the war of 1914–18. It continued without a break, even in the “peace” that followed the First World War, when England-France tried to reduce Germany to a semi-colonial position and when the United States sought, in the brilliant phrase of Trotsky’s analysis, to put all of Europe – advanced, imperialist Europe! – “on rations.” It has reached its peak in the Second World War, with Germany reducing the whole continent to a series of colonial and semi-colonial appendages, and her principal rivals, the United States and England, seeking to do what comes fundamentally to the same thing.

The United States operates in Europe under the same basic economic compulsions as Germany. The fact that weakened Germany required the brutal armor of fascism to accomplish what the stronger United States can still try to do under the cloak of “democracy,” serves to distinguish the form but not the substance.

What is important here, however, is the fact that Germany could not establish its rule over Europe, and oust or subjugate its rivals, without precipitating the most violent war in history. That is, it met and continues to meet with resistance on such a scale as prevents it from enjoying the fruits of conquest by stabilizing the “new order.” There is no reason to believe that American imperialism will succeed where German imperialism failed, and every reason to doubt it.

America’s post-First World War attempt to put Europe on rations by sheer economic power met with stiff resistance from such countries as England, France and Germany, and was one of the most powerful factors contributing to the social upheavals in Europe and finally to the present war itself. American intervention in the Europe following the Second World War would have to be of a much deeper and more extensive character. The more it would take for itself, the less there would be not only for its European enemies of today but also for its present European allies.

The British Empire, for example, may represent a dying world force, but it is not yet dead. Precisely because it is dying, its resistance to encroachments upon its preserves is and will remain intense and violent. Weakened though it may be after the war, weakened though Germany and France and the other large European powers may be, they will nevertheless be compelled to, and they will, combat the advance of their American imperialist rival on the continent, fundamentally for the same reasons and with the same determination that the rivals of Germany resisted her advance over Europe. The resistance to the United States may not take the same form that it takes in the case of Germany today – namely, armed warfare – but that is a matter which, after all, relates essentially to external forms and momentary capacities.

What is and will be decisive is the fact that the United States will not be able to establish its dominion over Europe without encountering fierce resistance not only from the masses of the Old World, but also from the bourgeoisie. This resistance will not only prevent it from establishing the “order” necessary to exploit its advance but will actually accelerate and intensify the social crisis in the United States itself.

The Coming Resistance of the Masses

In the third place, all the subtle economic power that the United States can muster will not suffice to obviate the need to employ less subtle means of power to impose its rule upon the colonial peoples. England could rule India for centuries without encountering the kind of resistance which is almost commonplace in the colonies today. The epoch of feeble, isolated rebellions of Sepoys and Boxers, doomed to defeat, has given way to the epoch of colonial revolutions in which millions participate. Torpor has been succeeded by alert consciousness, acquiescence by organized defiance, physical impotence by a knowledge and possession of arms.

Even the most thick-witted and arrogant Dutch Mynheer now “realizes” (like the Republican National Committee!) that the slaves of the Dutch East Indies will not merely sigh with relief when their Japanese masters are driven out and then leap with joy at the return of their former Dutch masters. Even if these slaves did not understand it before, hypocritical Japanese imperialism has involuntarily hammered into their heads a hatred and a noble intolerance of the doctrine of racial superiority. Allied imperialist propaganda has involuntarily hammered into their heads no less violent a hatred and intolerance for the doctrine of foreign rule. The idea that it is just to resist it with arms in hand is now sanctified. The fact that the Japanese are opposed only to the racial superiority of others, and that the Allies are opposed only to the foreign rule of others, is not lost upon the colonial peoples. But, in their own way, the contending imperialists are teaching them invaluable lessons.

It is simply inconceivable that American imperialism will be able to march into the reconquered or newly-conquered colonies all over the world and establish its domination without further ado. If resistance in the colonies to foreign rule could be measured by units before the war, it will be measured in tens and hundreds of units after the war. Imperialism today does not have Kipling’s “fuzzy-wuzzies” to contend with, but tens and hundreds of millions of colonial people who have come of age politically, who have acquired a keen national consciousness and a determination to rule their own destinies. They have been taught and are even now being taught by imperialism itself that big political and social problems are decided not by “appeasement” or negotiation or capitulation, but by struggle and power. Irony of ironiesl It is the imperialists – not, God forbid! the revolutionists – who are teaching the colonial peoples the way, the only way, to get rid of imperialism.

Whether the United States tries to gain control of the colonial and semi-colonial countries directly or indirectly, by means of “subtle” economic infiltration or that means plus military measures ranging anywhere from those employed by England in India to those of Japan in China or Java, its success (and therefore its prospects for world rule and power) is already circumscribed to the vanishing point. The masses in these countries are in no mood to accept foreign rule in any form, even though it seeks to establish itself in the guise of benevolence, “for the good of the people themselves.” One of the troubles with the masses is that they often accept the promises of imperialism. One of the troubles with these promises is that the masses some day impatiently demand their fulfillment.

Right now the people of China may be inclined to accept, even if with justified suspicion, the “aid” and promises of the United States, and even the alliance with imperialism, in order to fight the Japanese invader. Once the invader is driven out, it is altogether unlikely that the people will simply allow their “ally” from across the Pacific to move into his place. To one extent or another, this holds true of all the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, even of those who are blinded by illusions about the democratic nature of “Anglo-Soviet-American” imperialism. And it is their day that has come, not the day of American imperialism.

And finally, in the fourth place, American imperialism must advance not against peasants and artisans, but against a modern, politically-advanced, industrial proletariat, especially in Europe. Agricultural Sicily, backward and isolated, is anything but a decisive test or a typical example. Of all the preposterous ideas about the war and what will follow it, the most preposterous is that the European proletariat will stand by quietly and passively when the war is over and accept whatever social and political regime the victorious Allies (we will assume for the moment a military victory of the Allies) are prepared to grant it.

Messrs. Berle, Long and others in the State Department, to go no higher in the government hierarchy, may plan among themselves the establishment of a safe and sane clerical Europe, blessed by the Vatican and dominated by Washington. They will yet learn that the miracle of changing the wafer and the wine into the body and blood of Christ is a trifle compared to what they are attempting to do. The reduction of Germany to a score of impotent provinces is talked of as though the strongest working class of Europe will simply acquiesce in this game of imperialist feudalism without a murmur. The imposition of such American puppets as Giraud upon France is dreamed and talked about as if it were as easy to do as to say. One would think that the violent social upheavals that raged for years throughout Europe after the First World War left no impression on the mind or else had passed out of the memory of man.

The United States has even less chance of consolidating its power over Europe following the present war, than France had following the war of 1914-8. Above all, it cannot consolidate its power by peaceful means, by establishing a serious semblance of “order,” which is the same as saying that it cannot consolidate its power at all.

German imperialism did not establish its kind of regime over Europe merely because it wanted to, or because it is in the nature of what our “anti-Nazi” (yes, anti-Nazi!) political anthropologists call the Teutonic soul. It had to act the way it did for German imperialism to survive in a declining, contracting capitalist world. The United States has to act likewise, somewhat less brutally, perhaps, but not sufficiently less to overcome the obstacles which are there without it and which it helps to increase and to heighten.

But even the impossible must be attempted when to do less means speedy death or at least slow strangulation. The problem of the “impossible” is resolved when it is borne in mind that for imperialism, American included, there is no choice but to make the attempt. What it involves is not only increasingly clear to the statesmen of the Republic, but is also made increasingly evident by them.

They all talk about abandoning isolationism and proceeding to “international cooperation” because the latter alone will guarantee peace. Willkie is for “America’s effective and active cooperation in world councils and treaties with other nations for the preservation of peace.” Vandenberg-White are for the “participation by the United States in post-war cooperation” in order “to establish permanent peace [not less] with justice in a free world.” Deneen Watson’s Republican Post-War Policy Association includes in its six-point program the “establishment of an organization of nations to assume full responsibility in maintaining world peace.” Even the Republican National Committee resolution of 1942 comes out for “cooperation among the nations of the world in order that ... the blighting and destructive processes of war may not again be forced upon us and upon the free and peace-loving peoples of the earth.”

But all this is just talk and talk and talk, and it is meant, as Stalin would say, for the sheep.

On “International Cooperation”

Whom would this “international cooperation” be directed against? Against the “aggressor” nations. Who are they? Why, as every child knows, they are Germany, Italy and Japan, and under no circumstances any other country, particularly not the United States or England. But all the plans for “post-war international cooperation” call for what Senator Austin, at the Republican Post-War Policy Association conference, called “disarmament and disorganization of the armed forces of the Axis [and] disqualification of Germany, Italy and Japan to construct facilities for the manufacture of implements of war.” If these – the only – aggressors are disarmed, disorganized and disqualified, what possible source of conflict would remain to disturb the haggard and harassed dove of peace? What possible aggressor, outside of the Republic of San Marino, would be left to imperil once more the peace of the world?

It seems to the anti-isolationists and the converted isolationists that even after the “aggressors” are disarmed and otherwise prostrated “international cooperation” alone won’t suffice to protect the world from unmentionable sources of conflict. It seems that stronger medicine than palaver about the “comity of nations” will be required.

The same Willkie declares in his August 12 message to the Republican leaders of his home district that “we must also see to it that our country, after the war is over, retains adequate military, aeronautical and naval strength of implement and, if necessary, protect and enforce, its foreign policy.”

Protect it from what? Enforce it against whom? What happens to “America’s effective and active cooperation in world councils and treaties with other nations for the preservation of peace”? Evidently, it may be ever so active – effective it will not be. Force – “adequate military, aeronautical and naval strength” – will be needed to curb the disturbers of the peace. Who? Where? How will they get a chance to disturb the peace to such an extent as requires the permanent maintenance of “adequate” armed forces? Aren’t the real big and bad aggressors to be disarmed down to their hobnailed boots?

Even Senator Taft, who is not fully reconstructed, discovers that “our people must commit themselves to use military force under certain conditions where aggression has been found by an international body to exist.” Again: aggression by whom? The United States? Perish the thought! The disarmed and impotent “aggressors”? Of course not! England, perhaps, or one of our other allies who will be part and parcel of the “international cooperation” and the “international body”? In the first place, that is out of the question, for all our allies, thank God, belong to the category of peace-loving nations. In the second place, if they should fall into sin, and war against them should become necessary, then obviously the “international cooperation” for permanent peace is not only a failure, but this fact is realized in advance and provided for in the permanent maintenance of “adequate” armed force.

We grow a little wiser when we read Point 6 of Senator Austin’s address:

“Provision and maintenance of armed forces at home, united with corresponding forces in each of the United Nations, to maintain peace and order.”

And we grow still wiser when we read Point 4 of Deneen Watson’s program proposed for adoption by the Republican National Committee: “Preparation now for the problems of disease, civil disorder, famine and social security which might arise when the over-all fighting ceases.”

Now our ideas of what the post-war armed force is needed for are sufficiently clarified. American imperialism will require a world-wide police force to maintain “order.” To anyone who does not quite understand what this means, Mr. Watson’s phrase should suffice: Armed forces will be needed by the United States after the war to deal with “civil disorder ... which will arise when the over-all fighting ceases.”

Let us put it more simply: The end of isolationism means a recognition that American imperialism must make a bid for world domination and that such a bid cannot even be attempted without the force necessary to suppress the class struggle, social revolutions and revolutionary struggles for national independence.

Can such a force be mustered? Will not the “isolationism,” not of the old-line politicians, but of the masses of the American people, for whom the “doctrine” has always been a mixture of “keep out of Europe’s affairs” and “down with war,” become strong enough as soon as the war is over to make it at least extremely difficult for American imperialism to maintain a huge police force throughout the world for the preservation of counter-revolutionary “order”? In all likelihood, yes.

Even if such a force can be mustered and maintained after the war, is there enough ground to believe that its work will be successful, and thus realize the ambitions of American expansion? No, there is not. For this we have the testimony of our own eyes and intelligence, if they are only put to use. We have some supplementary testimony in the form of the remarks of one of the last of the “isolationists,” Senator Wheeler, whose “isolationism,” by the way, like Lindbergh’s and that of most other authoritative reactionaries, never extended to Asia and the Pacific.

... As to a police force, it seems, while in theory perhaps perfectly legitimate, that the size of the police force necessary to police effectively. or the degree of sovereignty which each nation must surrender, would in practice probably be unacceptable to most of the great countries, or, if acceptable to them, would lead to burdening those charged with its operation with an ungrateful task, involving it in heavy responsibilities with the danger of international discord and the possibility of a breakdown of the system through defection by some of the most important countries. Should that happen, the world might well have to face another period of serious political disturbance. Nor is it likely we could police the world any more effectively than Germany has policed Europe, or with any less disastrous results. (New York Times, June 6. Our emphasis)

In this statement is contained not only an involuntary admission of the bankruptcy of Wheeler’s own “isolationism” as a means of obtaining world peace, but an equally involuntary admission that the abandonment of isolationism has come too late to do capitalism here any good.

It is worth while repeating:

It is not the day of American imperialism that is coming – it is the day of the people and their revolutionary victory.

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