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19th Century Isolationism Essay

In 1796, George Washington wrote out the newly formed script for American foreign policy. He cautioned the United States to stay clear of entangling alliances with the hawkish European powers. In 1823, this isolationist tendency was reaffirmed with the Monroe Doctrine which warned the Europeans against establishing any new colonies or encroaching on the interests of any sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere. In kind, the United States would stay out of the old world. But this seemingly complete disregard for world politics did not mean that the United States had no territorial ambitions of its own.

On the contrary, for the latter half of the 19th century, the U. S. continued to expand. With the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, the Gadsden Purchase, and the assumption of Florida and the de-facto takeover of Oregon, the U. S. was on the verge of becoming a world power. By the turn of the century, isolationist sentiment was gradually giving way to a more aggressive, nationalistic undercurrent. After the SpanishAmerican War in 1898, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft pushed for a more assertive American foreign policy. They called for the U. S. o take its place among the powers and take action abroad for its own national interests. Many Americans agreed that the U. S. should be more involved. Yet, many still believed that isolationism was the right course and that the two vast oceans on either side would shield them from embroiling conflicts. Upon entering office in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson remarked, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs. ” He could not have been more wrong. The first 20 years of the 20th century saw the U. S. pursue an aggressive and dominant foreign policy especially in regard to the Western Hemisphere.

President Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal through the northern end of the Republic of Colombia. Upon encountering resistance from the Colombian government, he promised American military support to a highly suspect “independence movement” in Panama. On Nov. 3, 1903 Panama began its fight for independence and signed over its rights to the canal to the U. S. in the Hay-Bunau Varilla treaty. Apprehensive of the prospect of European intervention in Latin America, Roosevelt proposed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The Roosevelt Corollary served to strengthen the Monroe Doctrine in saying that the United States would be the only one to intervene in the Western Hemisphere even for the sake of the European powers. In 1905, he personally negotiated the peace settlement in the Russo-Japanese War for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. In the following year, he again served as the mediator between two powers, France and Germany, in the First Moroccan Crisis. Under Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, American foreign policy remained much the same.

Roosevelt’s Corollary had stated that if any nation in the Western Hemisphere appeared to be financially negligent or insolvent and at the risk of European intervention, the U. S. had the moral obligation to intervene instead. Taft, through his so-called Dollar Diplomacy, put this policy into practice. He used it as a pretense for defending the Panama Canal and attempted unsuccessfully to assert control over Honduras as well. In Nicaragua, the U. S. instigated a coup to topple the current government in favor of one more sympathetic to American mining interests. However, within two years the new regime faced a revolution of its own.

The Taft administration was forced to station troops there in order to prop up the tettering, corrupt dictatorship. They remained for over a decade. In the early 20th century, the Western European powers still dominated much of the world and kept each other at bay through an intricate system of military alliances. This giant jenga game had maintained the balance of power ensuring that no one nation became too strong or too weak. Progressives like Wilson had a different God-given mission in mind. They wanted to eliminate hostility, disarm nations and spread their democratic ideals around the world.

In the first few days of his presidency, Wilson faced a foreign policy crisis. During the Mexican Revolution, General Victoriano Huerta had forcibly seized power and imprisoned the Mexican president. Wilson quickly declared Huerta’s government illegitimate and called for free elections. Mexican Constitutionalists quickly raised an army and defeated Huerta in several battles but were unable to capture Mexico City. Wilson ordered a naval blockade of the port of Veracruz and after three months, Huerta surrendered and the American forces withdrew. This Mexican intervention was a test case for the so-called Wilsonian ideals.

American foreign policy would not be one of isolationism but rather, “Moral Diplomacy. ” At its core was the idea that the people of every nation would have the right to “self-determination” or the ability to freely elect their own leaders and government. Shortly after the start of World War I, Wilson declared American neutrality and impartiality. He tried to mediate a peace between the warring powers calling for Germany to cease unrestricted submarine warfare and for Great Britain to lift its blockade of German ports. In 1916, Wilson was reelected under the slogan, “He kept us out of the War. After reelection, Wilson quickly reversed himself. With a revolutionary foreign policy speech to Congress, Wilson outlined his plan for a “peace without victory. ” World peace he insisted rested on four main principles: Governments are legitimized only by the “consent of the governed” and have the right to self-determination, nations must reduce the size of their standing armies and navies, freedom of the seas must be maintained as a basic right, and all nations must join together in a “concert of power” to uphold these ideals. Despite Wilson’s efforts, the war continued on as before.

The British continued their blockade and the Germans restarted their submarine piracy. Germany went even further to flout Wilson’s high-mindedness with the Zimmerman telegram which offered to return the Mexican Cession to Mexico. These German actions gave Wilson the pretense he needed. For Wilson, WWI was “a war to end all wars” and the United States had the moral responsibility to “make the world safe for democracy. ” With American lives invested in the course of the war, Wilson again called for peace. In an address before Congress, he spelled out the pivotal Fourteen Points. In it he called for an end to all secret alliances and treaties.

All diplomacy would be conducted honestly and in the public eye; The seas with the exception of coastal waters would remain open both in peace and war: All economic barriers between trade would be eliminated; Nations would disarm keeping only so much as necessary to preserve domestic security; All colonial territories would have the right to self-determination. Wilson’s last point provided for a communal body of nations to provide mutual security and territorial sovereignty for both the strong members and the weak ones. The Covenant of the League of Nations represented a radical departure from tradition American isolationist foreign policy.

Wilson would have achieved everything he had set out to do had he consulted the Republicans as well. Because of this fatal oversight, the U. S. never joined Wilson’s lovechild organization. He glumly predicted that the U. S. refusal to join the League would inevitably result in “another struggle in which not a few hundred thousand find men from America would have to die, but … many millions …. ” The Bolsheviks provided the first practical implementation of the Wilsonian doctrine. When the Bolshevik leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky came to power in 1917, they demanded n immediate, all-encompassing democratic peace with the Central Powers and in addition, “no annexations and contributions with the right of all nations to self-determine. ” On December 3, 1917 the Bolsheviks brought the conflict on the Eastern front to an end. During the next three weeks, they drew up a series of five points for peace each dealing with selfdetermination. These points mirrored Wilson’s proposals in the Fourteen Points published just a few weeks later.

In the Fourteen Points, Wilson urged that all nationalities within the now defunct Ottoman Empire be granted an “absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development. But the European powers wanted to expand not downsize their colonial holdings in the Middle East especially with oil being found in large quantities. The British had made many conflicting, some downright contradictory promises during WWI. They had promised Arab national independence if they took up arms against the crumbling Ottoman empire. In 1917, Britain with the Balfour Declaration announced its support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In addition, the British and the French had made secret deals to partition the Ottoman Empire between them brushing aside the Fourteen Points and the rest of Wilsonian morality.

As a result, Wilson’s self-determination proposal did not have the effect he intended. The European powers simply used it as a pretext for holding on to their colonies and in some cases, acquiring new ones. They argued that these war-torn colonies were not yet ready for selfgovernance and that the old colonial empires were just holding the baton until they caught up. In the first 15 years after WWII, 37 newly-formed nations emerged from colonial status in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The main problem facing the United States during WWI was to balance its moral ideals with its national interest abroad.

The difficulty was in inducing the main Allied colonial powers – Britain, France, and to some extent the Netherlands – to adopt progressive American ideas. The quick collapse of France in WWII and the Japanese assimilation of British and French Far East territories made this relatively easy. On July 4, 1946 the U. S. granted the Philippines independence. Great Britain as well, in recognition of the changing reality, did not reassert its influence among its lost Asian colonies. The French also ended up losing their possessions in Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Indochina.

Although Wilson died in 1924, his highminded ideals returned to the forefront after WWII. In a speech which called to mind Wilsonian values, President Franklin D. Roosevelt identified “Four Freedoms” worth fighting for: freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear. Even during the Cold War, the spirit of Wilsonian managed to survive. In the 1975 Helsinki Accords, 35 nations, including the U. S. and the Soviet Union, promised to uphold the national borders created at the end of WWII. They also promised to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

U. S. foreign policy between 1900 and 1930 was characterized by intermittent aggression and caution, vacillating between isolationism and moral patronizing. The first 20 years saw the U. S. pursuing a clear interventionist policy abroad. During the next 15 years, the U. S. tried to extricate itself from the bloody mess of WWI and return to its isolationist roots. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered office, the rift between isolationist public opinion and actual interventionist policy grew wider. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U. S. entry into WWII, that rift disappeared for good.

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