In January 1938, Rep. Louis Ludlow, an Indiana Democrat, proposed a constitutional amendment strongly supported by the public: “Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a Nation-wide referendum.” Although narrowly defeated, 209 to 188, it might have passed without President Franklin Roosevelt’s last-minute opposition.
During Barack Obama’s, shall we say, sinuous progress toward a Syria policy, he has suggested, without using the word, that isolationism is among his afflictions. During his news conference-cum-soliloquy in Russia, he said:
“These kinds of interventions . . . are always unpopular because they seem distant and removed. . . . I’m not drawing an analogy to World War II other than to say, when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular both in Congress and around the country to help the British.”
He wisely disavowed (while insinuating) this analogy, lest Americans wonder which is more implausible, casting Bashar al-Assad as Hitler or himself as Roosevelt. But the term “isolationism” is being bandied as an epithet, not to serve as an argument for U.S. military interventions but as a substitute for an argument. To understand the debate that roiled America before World War II is to understand why today’s reservations about interventionism are not a recrudescence of isolationism.
In “Those Angry Days,” a new history of the intense nationwide controversy about whether America should enter World War II, Lynne Olson concludes that “by December 1941, the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country’s entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it.” Events, especially the fall of France, were most educational. Before this, however, isolationism was broadly embraced as a rational response for an America situated between two broad oceans.
“Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1935, “we have no need to drink.” America’s military — what little there was: the Army’s size was 17th in the world, behind Portugal’s — largely agreed. The Neutrality Acts banned U.S. arms sales to countries at war and denied Roosevelt the power to apply the prohibition only against aggressor nations.
FDR’s enormous domestic policy blunder — his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, for which he was resoundingly rebuked in the 1938 midterm elections — made him extremely tentative about attempting to lead public opinion regarding U.S. involvement in Europe. Others were not bashful.
Yale University incubated the America First organization. An undergraduate, Kingman Brewster, later Yale’s president and U.S. ambassador to Britain, was a founder. Other Yale student-members included future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, future President Gerald Ford and Sargent Shriver, future head of the Peace Corps under his brother-in-law President John Kennedy, who as a Harvard undergraduate sent $100 to America First.
Olson writes that people from many antiwar organizations with “Mothers” in their titles swarmed over Capitol Hill: “Dressed in black, many with veils covering their faces, the women made life miserable for members of Congress who were not avowedly isolationist. They stalked their targets, screamed and spat at them, and held vigils outside their offices, keening and wailing.” When an interventionist congressman said he refused “to sit by a traitor,” the offended isolationist knocked him down with what the House doorkeeper called the best punch thrown in the chamber in 50 years.
In October 1940, conscription began — for 12 months. By August 1941, training camps were chalked with the acronym OHIO — “Over the Hill in October.” Four months before Pearl Harbor, the House extended conscription for a year. The 203 to 202 vote was secured only by Speaker Sam Rayburn’s parliamentary trickery.
Olson says that in 1940, when the interventionist Wendell Willkie, the Republicans’ presidential nominee, campaigned, isolationists pelted him with “everything from rotten eggs, fruits, vegetables, rocks, and light bulbs to an office chair and wastebasket,” and “The New York Times ran a daily box score of the number of items thrown and those that found their target.” Montana’s Burton Wheeler, a senator since 1923, compared Lend-Lease for Britain with FDR’s program for plowing under crops to raise prices. He said Lend-Lease “will plow under every fourth American boy.”
It is preposterous to equate today’s mild debates about foreign policy with the furies unleashed by, and against, real isolationism. Yet again, ignorance of history causes us to disparage the present.