Charles Beard, properly understood

Charles Beard, properly understood – isolationism

A.J. Bacevich

THE STORY OF how the United States emerged–reluctantly and belatedly–to lead the world has long since acquired the weight of a well-known parable. Like any good parable, this one aims chiefly to admonish, to warn against the recurrence of error, to suppress wayward and irresponsible urgings to which Americans are thought susceptible.

It is a melodrama in two acts turning on the pivot of the Second World War. In Act I, encompassing the period from the founding of the republic until the onset of World War II, internal and hemispheric matters preoccupied the United States. American diplomacy was “immature.” Although the United States early on acquired immense wealth and possessed the potential to be a great power, it played a role in world affairs that was fitful, if not capricious. From time to time, rising out of the vagaries of politics, a prophet –most famously Woodrow Wilson–might rouse his countrymen, stirring up their yearnings to save the world and exhorting them to assume responsibilities commensurate with their power and moral pretensions. Yet, although not above flirting with such notions, Americans rejected both prophet and summons and–apart from a pronounced tendency to issue unsolicited moralizing advice–turned their backs on the wider world.

Events of the 1930s changed all that. Faced with the rise of Nazism and Japanese militarism, the American people struggled throughout much of that decade first to ignore and then to insulate themselves from the dual threat. But the enormity of the danger posed by Germany and Japan defeated that effort. Swept into war, Americans were likewise swept to the forefront of world leadership and the curtain dropped on Act I.

Well before that war ended, Americans had internalized an important lesson: never again would the United States hesitate to resist aggression; never again would the United States stand idly by, allowing other nations to drift, quibble, and appease. Yet from the very outset, Act II involved more than the negative aim of resisting aggression. At stake were the prospects for World Peace and the well-being of all humanity, both tied directly to the willingness of the United States to lead. Act II, in short, marked the triumphant rebirth of the ideals that Woodrow Wilson had espoused. In predicting that his Four Freedoms would prevail “everywhere in the world,” Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 anticipated and dismissed out of hand the criticism that he was conjuring up a utopian dream. “That is no vision of a distant millennium,” he assured his listeners. “It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”(1)

Similarly, the Cold War policies of Roosevelt’s successors did not aim merely to overcome an adversary. America’s true aim was Peace, which in this context meant far more than the absence of war. Peace implied the alleviation of evils that had beset humanity throughout ages past. Moreover Peace was indivisible, a blessing that none truly possessed unless all enjoyed its fruits. Although far from unique in its sentiments, President Harry S Truman’s State of the Union Address of January 1947 made the point well. “Our goal is collective security for all mankind,” said Truman. “The spirit of the American people can set the course of world history. If we maintain and strengthen our cherished ideals…, then the faith of our citizens in freedom and democracy will be spread over the whole world….” But it was not only a case of political rhetoric. Even NSC 68, the highly classified 1950 blueprint for building up American military power, emphasized that “it was not an adequate objective” for American policy “merely to seek to check the Kremlin design….” Rather, the United States needed “an affirmative program,” one that would “light the path of peace and order among nations,” leading to the creation of “a system based on freedom and justice.”

The Good War

THE ELITES WHO shaped opinion and crafted national policy were none too confident as to the steadfastness of popular support for internationalism. Persuading the American people to don the mantle of World Leadership would require something of a hard sell. Among the resources exploited to make that sell was the record of the past. In particular, the history of World War II and the events preceding it became a weapon. Sustaining popular support for a struggle of indeterminate duration required popular acceptance of World War II–the event that propelled the United States onto the center of the world stage–as very much the “Good War.”

Proponents of internationalism were well aware of the fact that Americans had considered their one previous foray to the battlefields of Europe to be a worthy undertaking, but only so long as it remained in progress. Hardly had the Armistice of 1918 taken effect than the so-called Great War became the target of fierce historical revisionism. The result had been to sour a generation of Americans on Wilsonianism. Preventing a recurrence of that catastrophe required that later generations not have comparable second-thoughts about the Second World War.

Facts that did not fit well with the image of the Good War were invariably discounted as irrelevant or insignificant, if not ignored altogether. That Britain was not a frail island democracy but an empire created by conquest and maintained by force; that the Allies had turned a blind eye to the plight of European Jewry until the horror became impossible to ignore; that in aligning themselves with Stalin the Allies made common cause with a tyrant every bit as vile as Hitler and his henchmen; that the “strategic bombing” campaign–culminating in the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–entailed the wanton slaughter of noncombatants; that the involuntary repatriation after V-E Day of as many as two million Russian POWs back to the Soviet Union consigned them to death or the Gulag: these and other uncomfortable facts–not hidden away in secret archives but known to all who cared to contemplate them–never dented the integrity of the story-line that portrayed the war of 1939-1945 as a Manichean struggle fought for the sake of democracy, decency, and respect for human rights.(2) Now, if the revival of internationalism which entry into World War II ignited was right, then opposition to internationalism was wrong. Thus, one adjunct of efforts to draw the proper “lessons” from World War II was a campaign to discredit those who in the years leading up to the war not only questioned the wisdom of American involvement in Asian and European quarrels but, more fundamentally, presumed to question the very premises of internationalism itself.

During the 1930s, such skeptics had been reviled as “isolationists.”(3) According to their detractors, isolationists came in two variants. They were either un-American radicals or ignorant provincials. In the words used by Roosevelt in one of his radio fireside chats, they were “the enemies of democracy in our midst–the Bundists and Fascists and Communists and every other group devoted to bigotry and racial and religious intolerance.”(4) Or they were rubes and crackpots, clinging to an outmoded belief that the United States could cut itself off from the rest of the world. By extension, and quite quickly, isolationism became a codeword summarizing the central theme and fundamental defect of all American foreign policy prior to 1941. To the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, those who had been oblivious to the spread of evil and indifferent to moral and humanitarian calamity in the 1930s represented everything that was deficient about traditional American diplomacy.

Only by the loosest conceivable definition of the term, however, could “isolation” be said to represent the reality of United States policy during the first century-and-a-half of American independence. A nation that by 1900 had quadrupled its land mass at the expense of other claimants, engaged in multiple wars of conquest, vigorously pursued access to markets in every quarter of the globe, and acquired by force an overseas empire could hardly be said to have been “isolated” in any meaningful sense. As the historian Albert K. Weinberg observed as early as 1940, isolationism “was the coinage, not of advocates of reserve, but of opponents seeking to discredit them by exaggeration.”(5)

During and after World War II, the historiography of American diplomacy became a literature of justification, offered on behalf of internationalism. Thus, even after the controversy over American entry into the war was resolved, accounts of the 1930s continued to depict opposition to internationalism as a vestige of the crabbed parochialism and mean-spiritedness that America had now outgrown. While scholars did eventually modify the imagery of oafs and bigots to produce a more nuanced portrait of the isolationists themselves, they left untouched the view that isolationists were people who refused to see the modern world for what it was. If the isolationists of the 1930s came to appear misguided rather than malevolent, the fact that they had been wrong on Hitler sufficed to consign them to continuing disrepute. Even today, the term isolationism retains its unambiguously negative connotation, as the ready resort to the term “neo-isolationism” to discredit those who favor the limiting of commitments in the post-Cold War era testifies. In the hierarchy of American knaves, isolationists still rank on a par with robber barons and segregationists.

To be sure, that adverse reputation is not entirely undeserved. No amount of historical revisionism is likely to revive support for such centerpieces of the isolationist agenda as the Ludlow Amendment (requiring a plebiscite as a prerequisite for declaring war) or the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s (aimed at curbing warmongering by “merchants of death”)–proposals crafted with an eye toward preventing a war even then already twenty years in the past. Nor is there any denying that isolationists utterly misjudged Hitler, failing to understand that Nazism constituted a threat that the United States could not ignore. If the Second World War was not a Good War, Hitler made it emphatically a necessary one. Finally, no amount of revisionism can conceal the fact that the isolationist movement contained a dark side, personified by the anti-Semitism and demagoguery of the radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin. All that having been said, however, by assuming that every facet of isolationist thinking is tainted, Americans have erased from memory the critique of internationalism that formed the essence of isolationism in the 1930s. And that is unfortunate.

Americans today could profit from availing themselves to such a critique. For it becomes increasingly clear that the epic of the United States leading humankind to World Peace bids fair to be a melodrama with no denouement. Act II plays on with no conclusion in sight. Despite the West’s historic victory over communism, the peace envisioned by Wilson remains as improbable today as it was in 1918 or 1945; rather than peace, a succession of new crises leads Americans to understand that the burden of fixing the world’s problems will remain theirs. Public opinion has responded to this prospect with muted enthusiasm. Yet suggestions that American priorities may lie elsewhere or that American resources might be finite trigger fevered predictions that the United States is about to retreat into isolationism, that it will forfeit its rightful place in the front rank of the world’s powers, that Americans will shirk their responsibilities. The unspecified but presumably baleful consequences of such developments have sufficed–thus far, at least–to dissuade Americans from breaking faith with internationalism.

In truth, they hardly know what else to do. Confined by the straitjacket of historical orthodoxy, Americans have lost their capacity to envision a basis for foreign policy other than the billowy promises and large obligations of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. It is this inability to envision responsible alternatives to internationalism that ought to lead Americans to give isolationists a second look. Wrong on many things in the 1930s, isolationists were arguably ahead of their time in deciphering the illusions on which internationalism was grounded.

Beard’s Critique

WERE AMERICANS willing to look beyond the parody of isolationism, a useful starting point would be the writings of Charles A. Beard (1874-1948). A scholar and publicist of impeccable progressive credentials, Beard was the acknowledged dean of American historians throughout most of the interwar period. Cosmopolitan in outlook, impatient with cant and with historians given to excessive piety, strikingly original in his own interpretations of the past, Beard was about as different from Father Coughlin as anyone could be. He was an astonishingly prolific writer. Two works in particular–the massively influential An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and The Rise of American Civilization–virtually defined the progressive school of history. As such, they provided inspiration for much of what passed for advanced thinking among American political intellectuals during the first three decades of this century: impatience with the status quo, preoccupation with economic self-interest as political motive, advocacy of bold reformist experiments, and certainty that government was the preferred instrument for ameliorating social injustice and inequity. Personally committed to political and economic reform, he was an early and vocal supporter of FDR’s New Deal. Yet in the twilight of his long and distinguished career, Beard turned against Roosevelt. Fearing the destructive impact of American involvement in a second world war, Charles Beard aligned himself with the isolationists and became one of the movement’s most articulate and insightful critics of internationalism.

As reflected in Beard’s extensive writings–as opposed to the writings of those who railed against him–what did isolationists actually stand for? To begin with, he did not call for the United States to cut itself off ostrich-like from the rest of the world. Indeed, isolationists like Beard considered such a course to be neither feasible nor desirable. Summarizing his case for a realistic foreign policy, Beard wrote in 1940 that it “did not seek to make a ‘hermit’ nation out of America….|I~t never had embraced that impossible conception…. It did not deny the obvious fact that wars in Europe and Asia ‘affect’ or ‘concern’ the United States. It did not mean ‘indifference’ to the sufferings of Europe or China (or India or Ethiopia).”(6) Beard complained (to no avail) that the term “isolationism” was itself a misnomer. If critics intended the term to represent “the creed that America owes nothing to other countries and has no moral responsibilities in the world; that foreign wars are none of our business; that the United States should shrink behind high nationalist walls, let the world go hang, and refuse to cooperate in efforts to maintain peace in the world,” then, remarked Beard, isolation was “indeed dead; or rather it never came to life.”(7)

Yet if isolationists like Beard would not ignore the world, neither were they optimistic that engagement in the world would remedy the ills afflicting it. Beard rejected outright the assumption–accepted among internationalists as an article of faith–that mankind was advancing, however slowly, toward a harmonious order based on universal ideals, ideals assumed to be indistinguishable from the secular creed of Western political thought. Isolationists like Beard portrayed the global landscape as diverse and turbulent, a world in which change was endemic, arbitrary, and too diffuse to be described as conforming to some unified pattern. Writing in 1935, for example, Beard faulted internationalism for its “exclusion of the national cultures–ideas, loyalties, passions, political traditions, the development and clash of races and nations” that in Beard’s view were not likely to disappear anytime soon. Similarly, optimism about the prospects for the spread of democracy “gave too little consideration to the differences in the stages of civilization which existed in Europe and other parts of the world….” To say that democracy was the preferred system of government was not to say that all peoples were equally capable of making democracy work. The reality of the world was simply too complicated “to treat it as something mechanical, on a plane surface, to be maintained in status quo or restored if damaged.”

If such a reality implied “a complexity of institutions and occurrences too vast for the human mind to encompass by formulas,” argued Beard, then “nothing is to be gained by any false simplification.”(8)

Beard did not dispute the fact that modern communications and commercial ties were creating a “universal web” joining nations to one another. Along with many others then and since, Beard had once speculated that such developments might presage an end to war. Events of the early 1930s disabused him of that hope.(9) “Notwithstanding this growing interdependence,” he observed in 1934, “the tendency of nations to engage in armed conflict has not disappeared.”(10) Indeed, Beard challenged the commonly held expectation that modernization would soften the sharp edges of human affairs, encouraging nations to view as partners or collaborators those whom they had previously seen as rivals. Beard was not persuaded that “the mere adoption and use of the machines and gadgets of modern industrialism” would suffice to transform “the ancient heritages of Europe and Africa and Asia.” Nor did he believe that “the common use of machines make men, women, and children of all nations alike in traditions, habits, sentiments, and values….” Thus, Beard rejected the proposition that “the closer nations are drawn together by commerce and intercourse, the more alike they become intellectually, morally, and spiritually”(The Republic, p. 316). Material advances alone would not eliminate the roots of conflict.

That the rich and powerful nations standing at the forefront of modernization should profess great interest in maintaining “peace and the possession of all they have gathered up in the way of empire” did not surprise Beard. Yet was it not true, he asked, that the nations possessing wealth and power had achieved their position “by methods not entirely different” from those being employed by the predators of the 1930s? Beard thought it unrealistic to expect that disadvantaged nations would respect calls that they accept the status quo out of sheer regard for the higher claims of world peace. On the contrary, the have-nots would insist upon their fair share. “In the future as in the past,” wrote Beard, these demands would raise the prospect of “profound changes in the distribution of populations, resources and imperial possessions….” With this prospect in mind, “the question for the United States” was “whether it wants to be involved in every conflict that arises in this historical movement.”(11)

Beard conceded that overriding moral issues could impel the United States to involve itself in situations that it would otherwise avoid. Yet he was not persuaded that the right and wrong of any specific dispute was as straightforward as it was typically portrayed. However obscure or ancient the dispute, competing propagandists bombarded Americans with competing versions of the truth, each one as self-serving and over-simplified as the next. Playing a leading part in this ritual of distortion were those for whom “advocacy of American interventionism and adventurism has become a huge vested interest”: the professoriate specializing in the new discipline of international relations, the private groups and associations devoted to fostering interest in foreign affairs, and, above all, “the daily press and radio, thriving on hourly sensations” while proving abysmally deficient in both attention span and historical perspective.(12)

Beard did not believe that among the various parties contending for advantage in the 1930s any one nation had a lock on either wickedness or virtue. Beard was not an apologist for Germany or Japan. Yet he hesitated to characterize the successive European and Asian crises of the 1930s strictly in black-and-white terms. As he observed in 1936, “greed, lust and ambition in Europe and Asia do not seem to be confined to Italy, Germany and Japan; nor does good seem to be monopolized by Great Britain, France and Russia.”(13) History seemed to teach that the high ideals for which nations professed to fight had all too often been a facade covering greed and duplicity. The diplomacy of World War I, exposed during the Twenties and Thirties in all its unseemly detail, persuaded Beard and many others that the moral issues of 1917-1918 had been simply a gloss contrived to induce American intervention.

“Tilling Our Own Garden”

CONDITIONING Beard’s assessment of how the United States should respond to a world that was complex, conflictive, and morally ambiguous were his very considered views of his own country. They retain considerable resonance today.

Writing at a time when an unprecedented economic crisis gripped the United States, Beard saw American democracy as flawed and fragile, a political system whose own survival was not to be taken for granted. More than a few Americans struggling to cope with the Great Depression and to make sense of such a stunning economic failure agreed with him.

Beard’s basic theme, to which he returned again and again, was to urge his countrymen to “concentrate on tilling our own garden,” which he described as “a big garden and a good garden, though horribly managed and trampled by our greedy folly”(“In Time of Peace Prepare for War,” p. 158). Beard thought it absurd that those who questioned the wisdom of involving the United States in foreign quarrels should be indicted for “shirking ‘moral responsibility'” or for “displaying a lack of sensibility.” America’s own imperfections gaped too large to permit such hubris. In Beard’s view, “anybody who feels hot with morals and is affected with delicate sensibilities can find enough to do at home, considering the misery of the 10,000,000 unemployed, the tramps, the beggars, the sharecroppers, tenants and field hands right here at our door. It is easy to get into a great moral passion over the distant Chinese. It costs nothing much now,” he warned, “though |ultimately~ it may cost the blood of countless American boys.” (“Collective Security,” p. 359).

That Americans would become exercised over the fate of distant Chinese while ignoring oppressed minorities in their own country astonished Beard. Considering “the condition of several million Negroes in the United States,” suggested Beard, “those who are deeply move in the virtuous sense implied by ‘the White Man’s burden’ can… find extensive outlets for their moral urges at home…, thus postponing for a considerable time the necessity for acquiring by force additional congeries of ‘brown brothers.'”(The Open Door at Home, pp. 55-56). Instead of trying to solve the world’s problems, Beard summoned Americans to the task of building in the United States a “bona fide civilization” rather than a mere “combination of aggregated wealth, economic distresses, almshouses, work relief and public doles.” Surely such an undertaking would be preferable to dispatching Americans soldiers to referee “a struggle over the bean crop in Manchuria.”(14)

As Beard’s reference to creating a bona fide civilization suggests, his critique of the nation’s problems included a dimension beyond economic health. In Beard’s day as in our own, the fissures dividing Americans along lines of race, class, and culture raised doubts about the very fabric of American society. Lacking “the cement of a long-established monarchy, State Church, or fixed landed aristocracy,” the United States needed a “great cohesion among the population and an enlarging capacity for cooperation.” That cohesion would necessarily be grounded in certain core values, “common conceptions of rights and wrongs” that in Beard’s view, “must be further developed, if American society is to endure.”(15)

To Beard, it was self-evident that meddling in far-flung foreign adventures would only undermine efforts to build that cohesion. When meddling led to war, the American polity was likely to sustain severe damage. Experience suggested that the passions provoked by war were less likely to enhance national unity than to exacerbate divisions within American society. All too often, war fed a massive disregard of civil liberties and led to the harassment of scapegoats, the home front hysteria of 1917-1918 and the infamous Red Scare that followed the war being recent examples. Even the relatively mild war scares of the mid-1930s, noted Beard, were sufficient to provoke the introduction of “a whole flock of alien and sedition bills” in Congress, “bills which, by their harsh and sweeping terms, made the old laws of 1798 look pale and harmless.”(16)

Beard worried about the militarization of American society produced by endless foreign crusades. Were the nation “to devote immense energies and a large part of its annual wealth production to wars, preparation for wars, and to paying for past wars,” he predicted, “then its civilian and cultural interests, like those of Sparta, will become the servants of military purpose and the military mind”(The Open Door at Home, p. 241).

There were other dangers as well. Increasingly disenchanted with the rhetoric and actions of Franklin Roosevelt, Beard warned that the supposed imperative of intervening in foreign crises, real or fabricated, could offer an unscrupulous president a pretext for diverting attention from bothersome troubles at home. War, noted Beard, “postpones any domestic crises at hand, and silences the voice of domestic dissent.”(17)

In addition, Beard warned that harnessing military power to internationalist ambitions could undermine constitutional checks intended to prevent the abuse of executive authority. By allowing the president routinely to decide on whether and how to employ the military, Congress effectively forfeited its war making powers. By 1940, Roosevelt’s at times disingenuous efforts to aid Great Britain had persuaded Beard that this had effectively occurred. “Our fate,” he wrote, “is no longer in the hands of the people or of Congress …. In fact wars are no longer declared. Situations exist or are created. Actions are taken by authorities in a position to act. The people wait for their portion.”(18) Thus did Beard foresee what was actually to happen in the cases of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

By attending to its own business, the United States could “command more respect and affection in other countries than by intermeddling with its neighbors’ affairs, whether under the formulas of Machtpolitik or those of democracy, beneficence, and world peace”(The Open Door at Home, p. 300). In other words, Beard expressed the belief–the hope, really–that by tending first to its own affairs the United States might come closer to achieving its self-imposed mission than it would by forcing itself on a world less malleable and less accommodating than the heirs of Woodrow Wilson let on.

Realism and Restraint

ACUTELY SENSITIVE to problems at home that had eluded solution, isolationists like Beard also suggested that the ability of the United States to solve intractable problems away from home might not be as great as internationalists fancied. With Americans hard-pressed to deal with their own economic and social ills, asked Beard, “how can we have the effrontery to assume that we can solve the problems of Asia and Europe, encrusted in the blood-rust of fifty centuries?” (“Collective Security,” p. 359). Beard pointed to what he called “the hard fact that the United States either alone or in any coalition, did not possess the power to force peace on Europe and Asia, to assure the establishment of democratic and pacific governments there, or to provide the social and economic underwriting necessary to the perdurance of such governments”(A Foreign Policy for America, p. 152). As Beard saw it, internationalists both overestimated American power and underestimated the capabilities of other friendly nations to deal with their own problems.

Viewing America as beset by its own maladies and possessing only a limited capacity to cure those of a nasty, violent world, isolationists like Beard allowed themselves limited room for describing the policies that the United States should follow. Of one thing at least Beard was certain: the American propensity for preaching to the rest of the world was unseemly, ineffective, and wrong-headed. Beard pleaded for American officials “to avoid vain and verbose dissertations on the manners and morals of other countries.”(A Foreign Policy for America, p. 153). He detested Franklin Roosevelt’s inclination, as evidenced by his loftier flights of oratory, to become “intoxicated by moral exuberance.” (“‘Going Ahead’ With Roosevelt,” p. 12). Such moralizing fueled the “theological assertion” that “American law, order, civilization and flag (force) are agencies of God,” feeding in turn the notion that “the creed that the United States must do good all around the world.”(19)

Moralizing served only to raise impossible expectations about the prospects for peace. Beard mocked what he called “the devil theory of war”–as much a fixture in public discourse of the Thirties as it remains today–according to which, because “the masses of the people are viewed as loving peace,” wars and the threats of war are laid at the feet of the dastardly politician, a “strange kind of demon, coming from the nether region and making the people do things they would never think of doing otherwise.”(20) Nonsense, said Beard; the people themselves were not to be absolved of responsibility.

Rather than constructing foreign policy around grandiose expectations for peace, isolationists emphasized realism and restraint as the touchstones of sound diplomacy. Those tagged as isolationists, wrote Beard, “do not propose to withdraw from the world, but they propose to deal with the world as it is not as romantic propagandists picture it”(“Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels,” p. 351).

To avoid over-reaching itself, a nation should define its own interests with clarity, concentrating its resources on matters vital to its own well-being. “Instead of wasting its energies and talents in vain efforts to impose its culture on other races,” wrote Beard, a prudent nation “channels and concentrates them on the building of its own civilization….” (The Open Door at Home, p. 301). Beard’s emphasis on the role of national interest in formulating policy was not a device to justify radical, head-in-the-sand isolation. He endorsed “collaboration” where the interests of two or more nations coincided–so long as collaboration did “not make world-wide claims”(The Open Door at Home, p. 301). Objectives should not outstrip available power. Although a Beardian foreign policy would not be passive, it would be informed by an awareness of the risks inherent in overcommitment. “The very essence of statecraft,” according to Beard, lay in maintaining “a sense for the limitations of power and for the consequences that may follow from the exercise of power….”(21)

From more than one point of view, therefore, the avoidance of war itself struck Beard as a worthy objective for American policy–an objective that he viewed as becoming more difficult than in the days when “the American people had not yet been conditioned by propaganda to the idea that the Government must favor one side or the other in every European or Oriental quarrel” (“Dr. Beard’s Rejoinder,” p. 164). A prerequisite for avoiding unnecessary war was to retain freedom of action, allowing the United States to remain neutral in controversies that did not involve clearly discernible American interests. To those who derided the feasibility of remaining neutral in an interdependent world, Beard responded that neutrality was “no more chimerical than belief in the power of our words or our arms to heal the wounds of a mad world.”(22)

Beard Today

OTHER THAN THE tepid prospect of America-as-exemplar, did isolationists like Beard have anything positive to offer? To listen to their detractors one would hardly think so. In the words of one distinguished historian, their views were “devoid of political, economic, or social content.”(23) Yet, isolationists like Beard did not simply take internationalists to task for their excesses; they prescribed alternatives. Beard advocated a policy of “Continentalism,” best understood as a proposal to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a bulwark against intrusion into a system of self-contained development. Granted, whatever merit it may have once possessed, events have long since rendered Continentalism obsolete. This is to be expected: as a model for American diplomacy in the 1990s, Wilson’s Fourteen Points or FDR’s Four Policemen look equally stale.

The broader issue is one of principles and assumptions. Do the Wilsonian under-pinnings of American diplomacy retain their cogency? Despite a great to-do about the need to recast United States policy for a rapidly changing world, that question is one that American elites have shunned. As a result, the debate over post-Cold War foreign policy has been largely a sham. The nearly invisible points of disagreement between Bush and Clinton, or between Republicans and Democrats, during the most recent presidential campaign tell the story: although purporting to offer fresh or provocative thinking, pronouncements issued from on high about future American diplomacy only dusted off the internationalist parable and gave it a new name. That will continue to be the case so long as American elites condemn as heresy any departure from the faith to which they have subscribed since taking up the sword against Hitler.(24)

It is in this regard that what for the purposes of this article we have argued to call “isolationism” might at last come into its own: in toppling the pedestal that has kept the Wilsonian premise beyond serious scrutiny since World War II. Recent events make it clear that the critique of internationalism devised by Beard and others remains as apt today as when it was first formulated: the Somalian mission, where messianic intentions–remember Bush commending the troops for doing “God’s work?”–have given way to would-be saviors being stalked by those whom they were sent to save; the paleo-Wilsonian clamor for intervention in Bosnia where American airpower will presumably untie the knot jerked tight by centuries of animosity; the extraordinary belief that a few billion dollars will forestall the disintegration of Russia–despite the manifest failure of spending on a much larger scale to alleviate disintegration on a lesser (but still disturbing) scale at home; the missile attack on Baghdad devised as much to allow a fumbling commander-in-chief to look momentarily presidential as to serve any discernible military purpose.

One can imagine the sulfurous contempt with which Charles Beard would have greeted such undertakings. One need not imagine–because Beard’s writings make the point explicitly–that it is precisely such fecklessness to which internationalism has consistently been prone. Deprived of the discipline of a clearly discernible proximate threat, the United States finds itself today more than ever susceptible to such tendencies. The resultant spasms of missionary activism promise much and cost more but typically yield little. Beard would tell us that when the United States bases its policies on the presumption of superior moral insight, such results are inevitable.

Moreover, with modern-day disciples of Woodrow Wilson finding echoes of the Thirties or Forties in every grim turn of the 1990s, the isolationist critique reminds Americans that while some problems justify extraordinary exertions, most do not. Then is not now. The third-rate dictators of current vintage are not to be confused with Hitler. However odious their policies, countries like Serbia are not to be mistaken for the Third Reich. However welcome the West’s triumph in the Cold War, the demise of Soviet totalitarianism does not signify that Lasting Peace is at hand if only we will try a bit harder to grasp it. On the contrary, as Winston Churchill foresaw several decades ago, ending the war of the giants has led not to peace but to an era in which pygmies vie to settle long-simmering grudges.

In these circumstances, a dose of Beardian skepticism would be salutary. It is time to readmit his critique into the canon of permissible opinion.

1 “Radio Address Delivered by President Roosevelt from Washington,” May 27, 1941 in Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1943), p. 611.

2 The most recent effort by a reputable scholar to question the necessity of American intervention in World War II is Bruce M. Russett, No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

3 As characterizations of the actual views of real people, the terms isolationism and isolationist are wildly misleading. Yet given the longstanding convention of thus labeling critics of internationalism, I will use those terms throughout this essay.

4 “Radio Address Delivered by President Roosevelt from Washington,” May 27, 1941, Peace and War, p. 670.

5 Albert K. Weinberg, “The Historical Meaning of the American Doctrine of Isolation,” American Political Science Review, 34 (June 1940), p. 539.

6 Charles A. Beard, A Foreign Polity for America. (New York: Knopf, 1940), pp. 151-152.

7 Beard, The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals (New York: Viking Press, 1943), p. 310.

8 Beard, The Open Door at Home: A Trial Philosophy of National Interest (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935), pp. 125-127.

9 Beard and William Beard, The American Leviathan: The Republic in the Machine Age (New York: Macmillan Company, 1930), pp. 701, 749.

10 Beard, The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), p. 153.

11 Beard, “Collective Security: A Reply to Mr. Browder,” The New Republic, 93 (February 2, 1938), pp. 357-358.

12 Beard, “Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels,” Harper’s, 179 (September 1939), p. 338.

13 Beard, “In Time of Peace Prepare for War,” The New Republic, 86 (March 18, 1936), p. 158.

14 Beard, “Peace Loads the Guns,” Today, 4 (June 1935), p. 23.

15 Beard, The Open Door at Home, p.202.

16 Beard, “Preparedness: An American Issue,” Current History, 42 (May 1935), p. 179.

17 Beard, “‘Going Ahead’ With Roosevelt,” Events, 1 (January 1937), p. 12.

18 Beard, “War with Japan,” Events, 8 (November 1940), p. 321.

19 Beard, The Open Door at Home, p. 47; Beard, “Dr. Beard’s Rejoinder,” Events, 2 (September 1937), p. 164.

20 Beard, “Peace for America: The Devil Theory of History and War,” New Republic (March 4,1936), p. 101.

21 Beard, “We’re Blundering Into War, “The American Mercury (April 1939), p. 398.

22 Beard, “‘Mandatory’ Neutrality,” Forum, 97 (February 1937), p. 89.

23 Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America, 1935-1941. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), p. 274.

24 A classic example of this condemnation was the reaction induced by a May 1993 speech made by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff to a room full of journalists. Built around the theme that the changed conditions of the post-Cold War world might lead the United States to consider “setting limits on the amount of American engagement” in sorting out international conflicts, Tarnoff’s speech provoked such a panicky reaction that one would have thought he had proposed pulling out of the United Nations. As reported in the Boston Globe (May 30, 1993), for example, Tarnoff’s speech was “a bombshell,” “shocking,” even raising “the specter of the Carter administration.” So “explosive” were Tarnoff’s views that within twenty-four hours both the White House staff and the Secretary of State felt obliged to repudiate them in the most emphatic terms, Warren Christopher hastening to deliver a speech in which he pointedly used some variant of the word “lead” more than twenty times.

A.J.Bacevich is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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