The Magazine

The Myth of GOP Isolationism

Don't believe the historians

Nov 1, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 07 • By DAVID FRUM
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"A NEW ISOLATIONISM" -- that is the motive that President Clinton attributed to the Republican senators who opposed his test-ban treaty. His slogan was echoed on the front page of the New York Times in a news analysis by R. W. Apple: "The Senate's decisive rejection tonight of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was the most explicit repudiation of a major international agreement in 80 years, and it further weakened the already shaky standing of the United States as a global moral leader." Soon, a whole line of parrots was squawking the same refrain.


The weapons that the test-ban treaty would condemn to obsolescence exist principally to protect America's allies. It might seem an audacious stunt for the people who want to weaken the defense of those allies to accuse those who want to continue to protect them of isolationism. But why not? For half a century, the word isolationism has been one of the most effective cudgels in the armory of Democratic political rhetoric. The journalists who write about national politics in the 1990s learned their history from books written by professors whose first political passion had been the ordeal of Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations, and it is through the filter of that tendentious history that they understand the politics of the present.


Tom Wolfe describes in one of his essays a dispute with a left-wing German writer in the late 1960s. The German delivered an ominous warning: "The dark night of fascism is falling in the United States!" Wolfe replied that the dark night of fascism might be falling in the United States, but it seemed always to land in Germany. In the same way, while the Republican party is constantly in danger of succumbing to isolationism, it is the Democrats who consistently have succumbed.


What's usually omitted from the League of Nations story is the detail that Henry Cabot Lodge, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, had favored American intervention in the First World War almost from the firing of the first gun. Woodrow Wilson and his pacifist secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, enraged Republicans by refusing even to prepare for war. Wilson won the 1916 election by warning that a vote for the Republicans was a vote for war. Even when he himself took the country into war a month after his second inauguration, Wilson worried the Republican leadership by his willingness to contemplate a compromise peace with Germany that would have left the Allies in the lurch. At Versailles, Wilson signed two treaties -- both the well-known Versailles treaty, with its attached League of Nations covenant, and also a treaty by which the United States and Britain promised to defend France if she were again attacked by Germany. Lodge made it clear to Wilson that the Senate would ratify the guarantee to France; but when the Treaty of Versailles was voted down, Wilson held back the guarantee treaty, partly out of personal spite (a noticeable trait of America's most overrated president) but also because he feared that making commitments to other countries outside the structure of his league would lead the United States . . . to intervene in European wars.


The foreign policy fights of 1919-20 thus did not principally pit interventionists against isolationists, although isolationists certainly were heard from. They pitted Republicans who trusted in American power against Democrats who trusted in treaties and moral force. Wilson's league is described in the history books as a great lost opportunity to preserve the peace of Europe. But the league could only have preserved peace if it had controlled some effective military force -- and Wilson opposed the creation of such a force more adamantly than anyone. Theodore Roosevelt, by contrast, who would certainly have won the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 had he lived, favored retaining the draft and maintaining the U.S. Navy at something approximating its wartime size.


One could reprise this story again and again. Genuine isolationism has from time to time flared up inside the Republican party, as it did in 1940-41. And the traditional Republican commitment to protectionism in the decade after World War I inflicted more damage on the world economy and world peace than outright isolationism ever could have. Nevertheless, through most of this century, the main constraint on American world leadership has been the aversion of the leaders of the Democratic party to recognizing that world leadership is founded on power, not moral example. This aversion slowed American rearmament in the late 1930s, because the same Progressives who supported Franklin Roosevelt's domestic program were convinced that it was the greed of "merchants of death" that had provoked the 1914 war. And likewise, it was the Progressives' fantasies of postwar friendship with the Soviet Union that accelerated America's military build-down after 1945 and that slowed America's response to Soviet aggression and espionage for three crucial years.


This unwillingness to shoulder the responsibilities of power has come to characterize the Democratic party more and more strongly over the past three decades. Nowhere can it be seen more sharply than in the fascination with arms control that has served many Democrats as a substitute for a foreign policy idea over the past three decades, but it is on display in many other areas as well: the bugout from Indochina, the hacking at the defense budget in the 1970s, the refusal to aid the opposition to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s, the vote of the large majority of congressional Democrats against the Gulf War in 1991.


Since 1993, the United States has been led by a Democratic president who thinks of himself as an internationalist. To his credit, Bill Clinton is a free trader -- even if by now most of his party have become thoroughly protectionist. But Clinton shares his party's proclivity for grand aspirations unbacked by force. From Haiti, through Somalia, to Iraq and Yugoslavia, this administration has again and again made commitments and threats it was never able to muster the resolve to honor or carry out.


The critique of the Clinton foreign policy has been written many times of course. And yet somehow, it never quite takes hold. The old trope of Republican isolationism and Democratic internationalism is always ready to spring to life again, despite its falsity about both past and present. The trope lies ready to use because it accords so neatly with the received ideas about the two parties that furnish most journalists' minds. And it reminds us that until the Democratic partisan historiography that still fills America's textbooks is replaced by a more independent and objective story of the nation's past, Republicans will continue to be wrongfooted by ancient myths.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.