Americans and Their Foreign Entanglements
Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts To Shield Itself From the World, by Charles A. Kupchan, Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $29.95
It is not unusual for intellectuals who study U.S. history to conflate the views of political leaders with those of all Americans. This is how Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former member of the National Security Council, convinces himself in Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts To Shield Itself From the World that from the founding until the Second World War, “Americans” were dangerously, consistently, and almost universally opposed to foreign interventions—with the “notable departures” of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the subsequent decadeslong occupation of the Philippines, and U.S. entry into the killing fields of the First World War.
Since the intervention against the Axis in the 1940s, Kupchan argues that Americans have vacillated between a reluctance to intervene outside the national borders and a desire to remake the world in their image. But throughout our history, he maintains, “isolationism” has remained Americans’ abiding attitude toward foreign relations.
Until the 1930s, no polls measured U.S. attitudes on the subject, leaving us little information about the foreign-policy views of Americans who did not hold public office. But we know quite a bit about the beliefs among American presidents, members of Congress, and political intellectuals from all periods of U.S. history. Among this class, the record shows a remarkably consistent commitment to forging, expanding, and maintaining a worldwide American empire.
Like many historians, Kupchan repeats the standard claim that George Washington’s famous warning against “foreign entanglements” represented the views of the Founders and was followed by American leaders until the mid–20th century. In fact, the Founding Fathers were aggressive, unapologetic imperialists who fantasized about the creation of a global America.
Long before he entered politics, John Adams developed a theory of historical change that predicted America would become the next Rome. He wrote to a friend in 1755 that “the great seat of Empire” had been transferred from Rome to Britain and would likely move “into America.” The new country would “obtain the mastery of the seas, and the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us.”
Like Adams, Benjamin Franklin dreamed of an infinitely expansive America empire. In 1751, he provided a rationale, derived from John Locke’s theory that property belongs to those who mix their labor with nature, for conquering and occupying all the land held by indigenous people in North America.
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