November 14, 2018 | By John Richard Cookson

World War I and the Long Decline of US Isolationism

Sunday marked 100 years since the end of World War I. The armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 brought an end to fighting that left more than 16 million people dead and as many as 20 million wounded. But the peace did not bring quiet. American participation in the war began a years-long quarrel over what role, if any, the United States should continue to play in the world.

More than a decade after the war, a young Chicago lawyer named Adlai Stevenson reflected on how the Great War was still shaping US public opinion. Stevenson would go on to become the president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the precursor of today’s Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He would also go on to become the governor of Illinois, a US ambassador to the United Nations, and a two-time candidate for president for the Democratic Party. But before then, he wrote his reflections in the essay “Chicago Looks at the World.”

“The war introduced international politics to interior America,” Stevenson wrote:

“It revealed problems, names, and places few people west of the State Department had ever suspected. But the war was just a prelude. When the thunder of guns ceased, the rattle of voices commenced. Out of the clamorous meeting of the international creditors in Paris emerged the Versailles Treaty and a host of problems and perplexities which made many intelligent people cease wondering what the war was really all about—so engaging were the contents of this new Pandora’s box. Our comfortable frontier isolation was irrevocably shattered once we began imbibing international politics with our morning coffee . . . .”

Indeed, the Council owed its very origin to this shattering of America’s “comfortable frontier isolation.” Chicagoans were eager to learn about the world like never before. To meet this new demand, the Council brought to the city such luminaries as French statesman Georges Clemenceau, co-founder of the League of Nations Lord Robert Cecil, and author of “The Great Illusion” Norman Angell. Out of World War I, Stevenson explained, came a “war-born world consciousness” among Americans in general, and Chicagoans in particular, that had changed everything:

“Those golden days when we never heard the dawn coming up like thunder out of China ‘cross the sea are gone forever. We can no longer escape the fact that Europe is not five thousand miles, but only a stone’s throw away from us. . . . The intelligent thing for us to do now is to inform ourselves as accurately as possible on the great international questions which are of increasing concern to Congress, and consequently to the public opinion behind Congress.”

But everything hadn’t changed, of course. Instead of wanting to engage with the world, many Americans after World War I felt a lot like Americans before the war, preferring the United States stay out of troublesome entanglements abroad. As historian Sarah Churchwell explains in her smart new book Behold, America:

“The country’s sentiment had not broadly changed; a majority of the population still felt that Europe’s problems were its own, and that the US government should focus its energy domestically. They had made an exception for the Great War; that exception was over and it was time to return to the isolationist norm.”

In fact, Stevenson’s own city of Chicago became a center for isolationist politics in the interwar period. In 1940, the nascent America First Committee moved its base to Chicago and quickly became, as Churchwell explains, “America’s primary non-interventionist organization, categorically opposed to any American involvement in the European conflict.” The organization had a large and politically diverse membership of more than 800,000 members, Churchwell writes, including Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, E. E. Cummings, Lillian Gish, Henry Ford, Gore Vidal, and Gerald Ford. Many Americans of all political stripes, then, remained adamant that Europe, its wars, and the rest of the world could be kept more than a stone’s throw away. History would soon, and again, prove otherwise.

Fast forward to today and US public opinion looks a lot more like what Stevenson described in 1932 than what Churchwell describes of 1940s isolationism. According to the latest Chicago Council Survey, 70 percent of Americans think it would be best for the future of the United States if it takes an active part in world affairs. Only once since 1974, when polling on this question began, has support for an active role abroad been higher. Just as remarkable, at no point since 1974 has such support dipped below half. If the US public sought a fulsome return to isolation in the years after World War I, no such sentiment grips a majority of Americans now, nor has it for at least the last four decades.

Also in contrast to after World War I, majorities of Americans today embrace multilateralism. Six-in-ten Americans believe that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations, even if it means Washington will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice. Nine-in-ten Americans say that it is more effective for the United States to work with allies and other countries to achieve its foreign policy goals, rather than tackle world problems on its own.

“What you find in the poll is a recognition of the importance of allies and friends, and bringing people back to our side,” explained current Council President Ivo Daalder at a recent event on the survey results (Watch the video here). Indeed, three-fourths of Americans want to maintain or increase support for the NATO alliance, and two-thirds of Americans support US participation in international agreements such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

But in the biggest contrast with the post-World War I period, Americans today envision instances when using US troops in other parts of the world would be justified. More than half of Americans say they would support using US troops to defend the NATO Baltic allies if Russia invaded, to defend South Korea if North Korea invaded, or to defend Japan if North Korea attacked. Support to maintain US military bases in Asia and Europe remains strong as well.

As the world marks 100 years since the end of World War I, the American public of 2018 looks ever more distant from the isolationism that was rising in the American public of 1918. “History has taught us that isolationism doesn’t work. We are part of the world,” one respondent to the 2018 Chicago Council survey explained. Another added, more colorfully, that “isolationism is a fool’s gambit . . . whenever America turns away from the world, the world bites America on the ass.”

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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