Isolationism Definition

Isolationism may be defined as a former United States foreign policy doctrine advocating the avoidance of alliances with other nations in order to maintain freedom of action in world affairs. Never applied to economic or cultural affairs, isolationism was aimed primarily at keeping the young nation aloof from dynastic and nationalistic struggles among major European powers. See also isolationism in the U.S. Legal Encyclopedia.


U.S. isolationism had its roots in the American Revolution and the separation from Europe. Only military necessity forced the Continental Congress to sign a formal alliance with France in 1778. Early leaders endorsed commercial treaties and the expansion of trade, but they warned against long-term political and military commitments. President George Washington, in his farewell address (1796), advised Americans to steer clear of permanent alliances, and President Thomas Jefferson later added his warning against “entangling alliances.”For most of the 19th century, Americans developed the continent without interference; they viewed isolationism as a fixed principle.

The conditions that encouraged isolationism were hardly immutable, however. They included two broad oceans and a polar ice cap that provided formidable natural obstacles to invasion; neighboring countries that posed little military threat; and a balance of power among the major nations of Europe.

The World Wars

These conditions began to change by the early 1900s. The rise of Germany and Japan challenged the established order in Europe and the Far East. The development of steam-powered ships reduced the barriers of the oceans. After the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired commitments in the Caribbean and the Far East, but many Americans still believed their new position in the world did not mean an end to the traditional policy of isolationism. This belief was abruptly shaken by U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. After the war, resurgent isolationism kept the U.S. from joining the League of Nations.

In the years between the two world wars, many Americans became committed to world law, collective security, and other forms of internationalism. Traditionalists, however, worked to avoid involvement in the problems caused by the aggression of Italy, Germany, and Japan; isolationists in Congress obtained passage between 1935 and 1937 of strict neutrality legislation. An unintended result of these laws was the denial of aid to victims of aggression.

After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, and the fall of France in 1940, the isolationists lost ground to those who, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, favored sending aid to the Allied powers. Among the most influential isolationists of the time were the Republican senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. Isolationists were located throughout the country and included members of different ethnic groups, as well as conservatives and radicals.

Most were not pacifists, but like Taft, advocated national defense only. A coalition organization, the America First Committee, formed in 1940, included the American aviator and engineer Charles Lindbergh as its most famous speaker. The debate over isolation ended with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and U.S. entrance into World War II.

Postwar Policies

American postwar policy was based at first on international cooperation and collective security through the United Nations. Increasing confrontation with the Soviet Union, however, brought about changes in U.S. foreign policy. American policymakers sought to contain Soviet expansion and Communist influence through economic and military aid; eventually formal military alliances were established, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.

Although isolationism was abandoned as a practical policy after World War II, occasional appeals were made to isolationist sentiment. In the 1950s, for example, critics of the administration of President Harry S. Truman tried to limit military alliances to the defense of key island nations including Great Britain, Australia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan. Twenty years later, the war in Vietnam raised serious questions about the costs and effectiveness of U.S. military commitments to other nations.

The isolationism by which the U.S. had remained unallied and uncommitted was a 19th-century phenomenon. Expansion of American interests and power, together with technological developments that increase the destructiveness of warfare in a thermonuclear age, make such aloofness impossible.

Source: “Martial Law”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Martial Law
Civil Law
Foreign Policy

Introduction to Isolationism

Isolationism, policy where a nation’s interests are best served if the nation secludes itself from other nations and avoids forming alliances with them. Isolationism has been practiced by various countries throughout history, including Japan, China, and the United States. Japan followed a policy of isolationism for hundreds of years before forming an alliance with Britain in 1902. More recently, China followed an isolationist policy during much of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

The United States has a history of isolationism dating back to its earliest days as a republic, before the 13 colonies won their independence. Today, some political leaders favor isolationism and isolationist sentiment can be found in American society. Isolationist sentiment in the United States has been largely confined to the political arena and has not extended to commercial relationships with other nations.” (1)


Notes and References

Guide to Isolationism

Hierarchical Display of Isolationism

International Relations > International security > Foreign policy


Concept of Isolationism

See the dictionary definition of Isolationism.

Characteristics of Isolationism

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Translation of Isolationism

Thesaurus of Isolationism

International Relations > International security > Foreign policy > Isolationism

See also

  • Foreign affairs
  • Foreign relations
  • Hegemony



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