Thursday, June 30, 2011

American isolationism: A false concept?

For a long time I have learned in U.S. history classes throughout my life, in documentaries and the popular consciousness is that for hundreds of years, up until WWI, if not continued after WWII, America was an isolationist country. I am starting to question that idea. I was trying to fact check the new controversial Time Magazine cover story that asked about the death of the Constitution and I found the United States had numerous interventions in its history. But that’s not the reason I started to question this idea. In the inaugural speech Franklin Pierce made on March 4, 1853 he made a shocking statement. When I put President Pierce’s speech and the ideas I had come up with before, I questioned this idea that is taken for granted by many people and many experts.

To most people, they believe that America began to start intervening in the affairs of other countries in the Cold War. Students of history would say U.S. interventions are false in the beginning of the 1900s. Both ideas are false, as confirmed by the fateful words of President Franklin Pierce in 1853, “our attitude as a nation [is to] render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection...[They] a manner entirely consistent with the strictest observance of national act within the legitimate scope of my constitutional control will be tolerated.” ( I had no idea it stretched back that far and was shocked when I found out the truth. A Congressional Research report confirmed that what Mr. Pierce had stated was correct. These types of interventions had been happening for years and years:
  • 1810 -- West Florida (Spanish territory). Gov. Claiborne of Louisiana, on orders of the President, occupied with troops territory in dispute east of the Mississippi as far as the Pearl River, later the eastern boundary of Louisiana. He was authorized to seize as far east as the Perdido River.
  • 1812 -- Amelia Island and other parts of east Florida, then under Spain. Temporary possession was authorized by President Madison and by Congress, to prevent occupation by any other power; but possession was obtained by Gen. George Matthews in so irregular a manner that his measures were disavowed by the President.
  • 1813 -- West Florida (Spanish territory). On authority given by Congress, General Wilkinson seized Mobile Bay in April with 600 soldiers. A small Spanish garrison gave way. Thus US advanced into disputed territory to the Perdido River, as projected in 1810. No fighting.
  • 1813-14 -- Marguesas Islands. US forces built a fort on the island of Nukahiva to protect three prize ships which had been captured from the British.
  • 1814 -- Spanish Florida. Gen. Andrew Jackson took Pensacola and drove out the British with whom the United States was at war.
  • 1816-18 -- Spanish Florida - First Seminole War. The Seminole Indians, whose area was a haven for escaped slaves and border ruffians, were attacked by troops under Generals Jackson and Gaines and pursued into northern Florida. Spanish posts were attacked and occupied, British citizens executed. In 1819 the Floridas were ceded to the United States.
  • 1818 -- Oregon. The USS Ontario dispatched from Washington, landed at the Columbia River and in August took possession of Oregon territory. Britain had conceded sovereignty but Russia and Spain asserted claims to the area.
  • 1836 -- Mexico. General Gaines occupied Nacogdoches (Tex.), disputed territory, from July to December during the Texan war for independence, under orders to cross the "imaginary boundary line" if an Indian outbreak threatened.
  • 1844 -- Mexico. President Tyler deployed US forces to protect Texas against Mexico, pending Senate approval of a treaty of annexation. (Later rejected.) He defended his action against a Senate resolution of inquiry.
  • 1858-59 -- Turkey. The Secretary of State requested a display of naval force along the Levant after a massacre of Americans at Jaffa and mistreatment elsewhere "to remind the authorities (of Turkey) of the power of the United States."
  • 1865 -- Panama. - March 9 and 10. US forces protected the lives and property of American residents during a revolution.
  • 1867 -- Nicaragua. Marines occupied Managua and Leon.
  • 1871 -- Korea. - June 10 to 12. A US naval force attacked and captured five forts to punish natives for depredations on Americans, particularly for murdering the crew of the General Sherman and burning the schooner, and for later firing on other American small boats taking soundings up the Salee River.
  • 1876 -- Mexico. - May 18. An American force was landed to police the town of Matamoras temporarily while it was without other government.
  • 1893 -- Hawaii. - January 16 to April 1. Marines were landed ostensibly to protect American lives and property, but many believed actually to promote a provisional government under Sanford B. Dole. This action was disavowed by the United States.
  • 1903-14 -- Panama. US forces sought to protect American interests and lives during and following the revolution for independence from Colombia over construction of the Isthmian Canal. With brief intermissions, United States Marines were stationed on the Isthmus from November 4, 1903, to January 21, 1914 to guard American interests.
  • 1918-20 -- Soviet Russia. Marines were landed at and near Vladivostok in June and July to protect the American consulate and other points in the fighting between the Bolshevik troops and the Czech Army which had traversed Siberia from the western front. A joint proclamation of emergency government and neutrality was issued by the American, Japanese, British, French, and Czech commanders in July. In August 7,000 men were landed in Vladivostok and remained until January 1920, as part of an allied occupation force. In September 1918, 5,000 American troops joined the allied intervention force at Archangel and remained until June 1919. These operations were in response to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and were partly supported by Czarist or Kerensky elements.
  • 1970 -- Cambodia. US troops were ordered into Cambodia to clean out Communist sanctuaries from which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attacked USand South Vietnamese forces in Vietnam. The object of this attack, which lasted from April 30 to June 30, was to ensure the continuing safe withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam and to assist the program of Vietnamization.
  • 1983-89 -- Honduras. In July 1983 the United States undertook a series of exercises in Honduras that some believed might lead to conflict with Nicaragua. On March 25, 1986, unarmed US military helicopters and crewmen ferried Honduran troops to the Nicaraguan border to repel Nicaraguan troops.
  • 1988 -- Panama. In mid-March and April 1988, during a period of instability in Panama and as pressure grew for Panamanian military leader General Manuel Noriega to resign, the United States sent 1,000 troops to Panama, to "further safeguard the canal, US lives, property and interests in the area." The forces supplemented 10,000 US military personnel already in Panama.
  • 2001 -- Afghanistan [war]. On October 9, 2001, President George W. Bush reported to Congress, "consistent with the War Powers Resolution," and "Senate Joint Resolution 23" that on October 7, 2001, US Armed Forces "began combat action in Afghanistan against Al Qaida terrorists and their Taliban supporters." The President stated that he had directed this military action in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on US "territory, our citizens, and our way of life, and to the continuing threat of terrorist acts against the United States and our friends and allies." This military action was "part of our campaign against terrorism" and was "designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations." [this war has continued onto the present-day]
  • 2003 -- Iraq War. On March 21, 2003, President Bush reported to Congress, "consistent with the War Powers Resolution," as well as P.L. 102-1 and P.L. 107-243, and "pursuant to" his authority as Commander-in-Chief, that he had "directed US Armed Forces, operating with other coalition forces, to commence operations on March 19, 2003, against Iraq." He further stated that it was not possible to know at present the duration of active combat operations or the scope necessary to accomplish the goals of the operation "to disarm Iraq in pursuit of peace, stability, and security both in the Gulf region and in the United States." [this war still continues tody]

I found that as history came closer to the present, more so-called police actions were committed by the U.S. armed forces. That’s why it gets thin in the way of possessions of land. From evidence I reviewed, I believe the American Empire started to protect its citizens starting in the 1890s and increasing after the 1920s. During Pierce’s Administration (1853-57) there wasn’t acquisition of possessions as he exclaimed in his inauguration speech, but it was in the spirit of what he said. It was basically police actions to protect American interests:
- 1852-53 -- Argentina. - February 3 to 12, 1852; September 17, 1852 to April 1853. Marines were landed and maintained in Buenos Aires to protect American interests during a revolution.
- 1853 -- Nicaragua. - March 11 to 13. US forces landed to protect American lives and interests during political disturbances.
- 1853-54 -- Japan. Commodore Perry and his expedition made a display of force leading to the "opening of Japan."
- 1853-54 -- Ryukyu and Bonin Islands. Commodore Perry on three visits before going to Japan and while waiting for a reply from Japan made a naval demonstration, landing marines twice, and secured a coaling concession from the ruler of Naha on Okinawa; he also demonstrated in the Bonin Islands with the purpose of securing facilities for commerce.
- 1854 -- China. - April 4 to June 15 to 17. American and English ships landed forces to protect American interests in and near Shanghai during Chinese civil strife.
- 1854 -- Nicaragua. - July 9 to 15. Naval forces bombarded and burned San Juan del Norte (Greytown) to avenge an insult to the American Minister to Nicaragua.
- 1855 -- China. - May 19 to 21. US forces protected American interests in Shanghai and, from August 3 to 5 fought pirates near Hong Kong.
- 1855 -- Fiji Islands. - September 12 to November 4. An American naval force landed to seek reparations for depredations on American residents and seamen.
- 1855 -- Uruguay. - November 25 to 29. United States and European naval forces landed to protect American interests during an attempted revolution in Montevideo.
- 1856 -- Panama, Republic of New Grenada. - September 19 to 22. US forces landed to protect American interests during an insurrection.
- 1856 -- China. - October 22 to December 6. US forces landed to protect American interests at Canton during hostilities between the British and the Chinese, and to avenge an assault upon an unarmed boat displaying the United States flag.
- 1857 -- Nicaragua. - April to May, November to December. In May Commander C.H. Davis of the United States Navy, with some marines, received the surrender of William Walker, who had been attempting to get control of the country, and protected his men from the retaliation of native allies who had been fighting Walker. In November and December of the same year United States vessels Saratoga, Wabash, and Fulton opposed another attempt of William Walker on Nicaragua. Commodore Hiram Paulding's act of landing marines and compelling the removal of Walker to the United States, was tacitly disavowed by Secretary of State Lewis Cass, and Paulding was forced into retirement.

These actions in the 1850s made America into the so-called “global policeman”, years before Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick Policy, to use the U.S. Navy to gain global supremacy and keep the Western hemisphere under control of the federal government. As a result, America was not an isolationist state, rather it was involved in affairs of the world if it concerned the United States of America, its citizens or its interests. The report released by the Congressional Research Service last year confirmed these facts as valid. To justify this, let me define two terms: interventionism and isolationism. Isolationism, according to is: “the policy or doctrine of isolating one's country from the affairs of other nations by declining to enter into alliances, foreign economic commitments, international agreements, etc., seeking to devote the entire efforts of one's country to its own advancement and remain at peace by avoiding foreign entanglements and responsibilities.” By contrast interventionism is defined as “the use or threat of force or coercion to alter a political or cultural situation nominally outside the intervenor’s moral or political jurisdiction.” ( The United States did try to advance itself, but not all of its resources were devoted to betterment of the whole country. In addition, the U.S.A. did not isolate itself from the affairs of other nations and did not decline to enter foreign alliances, agreements, etc... as long as these affairs benefited the state of America. Efforts in what would now be called ‘police actions’, the U.S. military made sure that the U.S. never really remained at peace, even if it seemed there was peace. Peace means no war, and there have been armed conflicts throughout U.S. history. Before I get into more current arguments about isolationism and politics, I wanted to debunk another part of history many are thought in the classroom.

On Randi Forums a user commented: “Discussion "elsewhere" has made me aware that the idea that the US was strongly isolationist before Dec. 7th, 1941 still holds for some people. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out the results of polls taken by the Gallup organization and the Public Opinion Quarterly during 1939-1941 show that the US was NOT primarily isolationist. The fact of the matter is that many people were aware that we had to face up to the fact that we would drawn into the war, and, albeit it reluctant to face the maelstrom yet again, knew that we would have to fight the Axis.” I looked up the source that was quoted, the public opinion quarterly to see if this user was correct. I didn’t find that source exactly, but i found an essay about supposed isolationism before WWII: “At first glance, the empirical evidence seems to support this hypothesis. Polls taken from 1938 to late 1941 show that an overwhelming majority of the American public opposed direct U.S. involvement on the side of the allies...For example, a Gallup poll in June 1940 found that 72 percent of the respondents supported drafting men into the army “if enough men do not volunteer.” Moreover, a series of 10 Gallup polls from June to October of 1940 found that between 62 and 76 percent of respondents agreed that, “every able-bodied American boy twenty years old [should] be required to go into the army or navy for one year.” I tried to look more in depth on this issue and couldn’t find much more. Even if you were able to prove that America was isolationist in public opinion, the federal government continued a policy of interventionism. Even the government that we trust believes this is not true as conveyed on the State Department website. The website states: “During the 1930s, the combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in World War I contributed to pushing American public opinion and policy toward isolationism. Isolationists advocated non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in international politics. Although the United States took measures to avoid political and military conflicts across the oceans, it continued to expand economically and protect its interests in Latin America.” Interestingly enough, the State Department goes against its own argument. From a source I used earlier, a 2004 Congressional Research Service report, it mentions four interventions in the 1930s
- 1932 and 1934 (China)
- 1933 (Cuba)
After 1934, there is a gap in U.S. involvement until 1940, which should show isolationism, accompanied by the end of an intervention in the Dominican Republic that year (,741,1029&pid=11333). So, America may have been isolationist for six years, from 1934 to 1940, but otherwise, the U.S. was not isolationist in its history. However, this led to war as acedemicamerican stated. That war was WWII.

The myth of isolationism up until 1941 in U.S. history is false but it is brought up again and again in political talk today. John McCain recently talked about parts of the Grand Old Party, or the Republicans, that oppose the current war in Libya. Real Clear Politics quotes him as saying:
“Well, I was more concerned about what the candidates in New Hampshire the other night said [about the Libyan war]. This is isolationism. There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican Party -- the Pat Buchanan wing of our party.” At the end of the article it concludes: “This is not isolationism; it is a rational effort at judging how best to advance American values and interests in an ever-more witheringly dangerous world. The charge of isolationism should be reserved for the genuine article. Such name-calling advances neither rational debate nor national interest.” I believe that America being isolationist (as it was for six years of its history (1934-1940)) could be disastrous, but complete interventionism is not good either. The American empire must balance it’s ability to stand up for human rights around the world and respect the sovereignty of other countries. In order for this to occur, America would have to close many if not all of its military bases across the world, military spending, material, and manpower would have to be reduced. The American government must remember “the best defense is the best offense.” In the end, like every empire, America’s stretching of armed forces will break the country as a whole and cause it to decline 20-30 years in the future, if not sooner.

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