Desperate Times

Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-45

by Wayne S. Cole
University of Nebraska Press, 698 pp., $26.50

In this age of promiscuous interventionism, the word “isolationism” has lost much of the odium it used to have forty years ago. Global crusades have latterly proven a source of infinite mischief, and to many Americans it no longer seems such a bad idea to limit the world aspirations of the United States. Critics of globalism like Walter Lippmann and Senator Fulbright have not even flinched from the charge of “neo-isolationism.” If it is too much to talk of an isolationist revival, still the swing in intellectual circles—and in public opinion too, to judge by the polls—has been for some time in the neo-isolationist direction.

Contemporary neo-isolationism is very different, however, from historic isolationism. In the period Professor Cole discusses in his able and interesting book, both Walter Lippmann and Representative Fulbright (as he then was) were notable internationalists. Neo-isolationism signifies doubt about American omnipotence and omniscience and desire to confine intervention to areas of indisputable American interest. It does not signify economic, commercial, or cultural isolationism; but then neither did historic isolationism (which is why those historians altogether miss the point who think they have exposed isolationism as a “legend” by demonstrating that “isolationist” United States in the 1920s had financial relations with other countries).

Historic isolationism meant not autarky, but unilateralism—no “entangling alliances” in Jefferson’s phrase; unrestricted freedom of political and diplomatic action. Many contemporary neo-isolationists are quite ready to approve entanglements that they believe protect American interests, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. Traditional isolationism would reject such entanglement per se, whether in the form of alliances or of membership in collective security organizations.

Professor Cole defines the isolationist tradition as unilateralism plus “nonintervention in Europe.” This second item is more dubious. For three centuries we have participated in every European war that involved large-scale naval action in the North Atlantic, from the War of the Second Coalition against Louis XIV (1689-1697) through the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions and the Seven years’ War to the Second World War. Still it is true enough that intervention in Europe, not unilateralism, was an immediate issue in the late Thirties, and to that extent Professor Cole’s definition has its justification. But unilateralism remained the lurking issue, for isolationists feared, among other things, that intervention in war would lead ineluctably on to collective security in peace.

Roosevelt and the Isolationists traces the evolution of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relations with the isolationists (or atleast with one important isolationist faction) from warm important collaboration on domestic issues in his first term to wary disagreement over foreign policy in his second to calculated determination on his part in his third term to eradicate isolationism forever. Professor Cole is, along with Justus D. Doenecke, one of the ranking scholars of isolationism. He has written books on Charles A. Lindbergh, on Gerald P. Nye, on the America First Committee. His new book, the culmination of his isolationist studies, is based on exhaustive research; over a hundred manuscript collections…

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