Isolationism culminated by 1940 in the group called “America First”. Charles Lindbergh (the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic) became its most famous spokesperson. The America First organization disbanded in December 1941–a few days after Pearl Harbor. It was a fitting end to Isolationism. George Washington’s foreign policy ideas were wise in an age when ships used sails. An age without airplanes. An age without phones. But the world where America First made sense is gone with the winds of modern transportation, communication and weapons. In many ways, America First was a comforting myth from a bygone era. An era without nuclear bombs and Russian dictators threatening to use them to turn the entire United States and its more than 300 million people into ash in less than one hour!
When the Great War ended (in 1918), virtually the whole world welcomed peace.
Nevertheless, a mere twenty years later (in 1939) another world war began. We called it World War II. And so, the Great War became known as World War I.
What insights and wisdom can we learn from the 1920s and 1930s to save us from fighting World War III? And to save the Jews from another Holocaust?
Innumerable books have been written with innumerable insights.
One generally agreed upon insight is that the refusal of the United States to stay engaged with Europe after World War I played a key role in the unraveling of the Peace, the rise of Hitler, and the horror of the Holocaust.
As you may recall, in George Washington’s Farewell Address (written in 1796 as he was about to step down as President), George Washington wrote:
Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world. . . . .
Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
In World War I and its aftermath, President Woodrow Wilson took military and diplomatic policies that were exactly the opposite of the military and diplomatic policies advocated by President George Washington.
In what ways?
Washington urged us not to fight upon foreign ground.
But Wilson declared war on Germany and sent an army of two million men to Europe!
Washington urged us not to have a “permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world”. President Jefferson agreed. Jefferson warned against such “entangling alliances”.
But Wilson made the bedrock of his policy for keeping the Peace after World War I, a permanent alliance—an entangling alliance!
Wilson urged the formation of the League of Nations: “a general association of nations . . . formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike.” (Wilson’s Fourteen Points Speech in 1918 setting forth United States war aims and terms for peace).
In a stinging rebuke to Wilson, the United States Senate refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles that established the League of Nations!
Thus was born the Isolationism that culminated by 1940 in the group called “America First”. Charles Lindbergh (the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic) became its most famous spokesperson.
The America First organization disbanded in December 1941–a few days after Pearl Harbor.
It was a fitting end to Isolationism. George Washington’s foreign policy ideas were wise in an age when ships used sails. An age without airplanes. An age without phones.
But the world where America First made sense is gone with the winds of modern transportation, communication and weapons.
In many ways, America First was a comforting myth from a bygone era. An era without nuclear bombs and Russian dictators threatening to use them to turn the entire United States and its more than 300 million people into ash in less than one hour!
My grandparents grew up in a time when they rode horses and used horse-drawn wagons. My grandfather served in the Army in World War I, working on the railroads around Paris. As far as I know, he never saw combat.
Afterwards, my grandparents (and most Americans) wanted nothing more to do with war and Europe.
I confirmed this when I asked them (about 1970) why the United States hadn’t joined the League of Nations. What did they think about it at the time? Were they for or against President Wilson? Were they for or against the League of Nations?
As I wrote in the chapter “Hakuna Matata” in my book Visions of America, at page 113:
When the War was over, Americans wanted nothing more than to return home and live happily ever after. I best learned this from my Grandma and Grandpa Harner. . . .
When they were quite elderly . . ., I asked them why they didn’t worry about what would happen to Europe after World War I. They didn’t seem to grasp my question: “Why didn’t America join the League of Nations after the War?”
When I pressed them for their memories of that distant time, they said, “We didn’t know anything about that. We just wanted to get married.”
Unfortunately, my grandparents (and many other Americans after World War I) weren’t able to see, hear or understand that their Wishful Thinking meant that they weren’t going to be able to “just get married” and “live happily ever after”.
Instead, the Wishful Thinking of my grandparents (and of many other Americans after World War I) meant that my Father would be sent to Italy to fight in a war that was far more destructive and far deadlier than World War I.
Why was it Wishful Thinking to hope that the Isolationist ideas of America First could keep the United States out of World War II?
If the Isolationist ideas of America First were good in the 1790s when George Washington was President, why were they bad in the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President?
The answer became clear on December 7, 1941 when planes from aircraft carriers destroyed our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and in 1945 when our victorious troops in Europe uncovered the horrors of the Holocaust.
But even before these proofs that the Isolationism of America First was outdated, Wise Thinking should have discerned that a foreign policy that was wise in the days of George Washington had become dangerous Wishful Thinking by the 1920s and 1930s.
Wise Thinking should have discerned that the victorious Allies were probably only victorious because the United States joined them late in the War, tipping the military, economic and moral scales against Germany.
Wise Thinking should have discerned that without the United States using its military, economic and moral might in the 1930s to stop the rise of Hitler and Anti-Semitism, the other Democracies would fail to stop Hitler and the Holocaust.
Among the great “what ifs” of history are:
—What if the United States had joined the League of Nations; and
—What if the military, economic and moral might of America had been committed during the 1930s to stopping Hitler and the Holocaust?
As with all the “what ifs” in our lives and in our world, we’ll never know how much better things might have been if Wise Thinking had guided us instead of Wishful Thinking.
What kinds of Wishful Thinking?
—Wishful Thinking that kept us from seeing the evil of Hitler, from hearing the hatred of Anti-Semitism, and from understanding that Hitler and the Holocaust could destroy Humanity.
—Wishful Thinking that kept us from seeing, hearing and understanding that the foreign policy that made sense in the time of President Washington and cavalry no longer made sense in the time of President Roosevelt and tanks.
—Wishful Thinking that today keeps some people from seeing, hearing and understanding that an American First foreign policy that made sense in the time of sailing ships and musket balls, no longer makes sense in this time of hypersonic missiles and nuclear bombs.
What kinds of Wise Thinking?
—Wise Thinking that builds strong, defensive alliances with democratic governments to deter aggressors such as Stalin and Putin because they’ll know that an attack on one of us will be an attack on all of us.
—Wise Thinking that builds strong, defensive alliances whose membership is limited (as in NATO) to democratic governments that secure Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; and
—Wise Thinking that builds strong, defensive alliances to protect wise civilizations that:
—bless all people;
—challenge all pharaohs to set all people free; and
—heal all hurting people!
For my thoughts about the American Civil War, and about World War I and its aftermath (especially in light of post-Cold War diplomacy and the war in Ukraine), please read my blogs: “A War That Spun Out of Control: The American Civil War”, “A War That Spun Out of Control: World War I”, “A Peace Lost by Wishful Thinking: The 1920s and 1930s”, “A Peace Lost by Wishful Thinking: Blaming Germany”, and “A Peace Lost by Wishful Thinking: America First”.
For my thoughts about establishing Peace, please read my blogs “Blessed Are the Peacemakers”, “Ending Violence: Putting Faces with Names”, “Ending Violence: Embracing the Spirit of Peace”, “Curtailing Force: Replacing Nails with Glue”, “Spilling Coffee”, “Chess Lessons: Playing for a Draw”, “Game Lessons: Sustainable Risk”, “Pandemic Wisdom: Multiple Choice Exams & No-Win-Scenarios”, “Deceptive-Drawings-Designed-To-Deceive-and-Divide”, “We Need Inspiring Visions of a Bright Future. Why?”, “Nationalism Is Patriotism Gone Astray”, and “Establishing Peace Without Limit”.
For related thoughts, please read my blogs “Jesus Climbs the Temple Mount”, “Nationalism is Patriotism Gone Astray”, “Keeping the Powers of Money, Religion and Kingdoms Separate”, and “How Do We Build a Civilization That Is Good—That Is Very Good?”.
For more of my thoughts about the need for systems of laws and customs to combat hatred, racism and violence, please read my blogs “Spilling Coffee”, “Individuals and Systems, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable”, and “The Webb Space Telescope: Many Parts, One System”.
For an overview of the road to World War II, please read the chapter “Hakuna Matata” in my book Visions of America (published together with my book Visions of the Church), at pages 113-117; and please read The Gathering Storm, the first volume of Winston Churchill’s World War II memoirs.