United States non-interventionism

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Non-interventionism, the diplomatic policy whereby a nation seeks to avoid alliances with other nations in order to avoid being drawn into wars not related to direct territorial self-defense, has had a long history in the United States.

In the United States, non-interventionism has often been confused with isolationism. Critics of non-interventionism frequently add to this confusion by describing prominent non-interventionists as isolationists. However, true isolationism combines a non-interventionist foreign policy with protectionism or economic nationalism.

Early background

Thomas Paine is generally credited with instilling the first non-interventionist ideas into the American body politic; his work Common Sense contains many arguments in favor of avoiding alliances. These ideas introduced by Paine took such a firm foothold that the Second Continental Congress struggled against forming an alliance with France and only agreed to do so when it was apparent that the American Revolutionary War could be won in no other manner.

George Washington's farewell address is often cited as laying the foundation for a tradition of American non-interventionism:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to domestic nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

John Adams followed George Washington's ideas about non-interventionism by avoiding a very realistic possibility of war with France. Many Americans were clamoring for war and Adams refusal and persistence in seeking negotiation would lead his political rival Thomas Jefferson to take the presidency in the next election.

19th century

President Thomas Jefferson extended Washington's ideas in his March 4, 1801 inaugural address: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Jefferson's phrase "entangling alliances" is, incidentally, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Washington.[1]

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which some have interpreted as non-interventionist in intent: "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense."

The United States' policy of non-intervention was maintained throughout most of the 19th century. The first significant foreign intervention by the US was the Spanish-American War, which saw the US occupy and control the Philippines. Since this was the first take-over of non-contiguous territory where people speak a different language, this is generally considered the first colonial act of the US.

20th century non-intervention

United States President Woodrow Wilson, after winning reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war," promptly intervened in World War I. Yet non-interventionist sentiment remained; the U.S. Congress refused to endorse the Treaty of Versailles or the League of Nations.

The time between the World Wars saw a resurgence in non-interventionism in the United States. After the war broke out in Europe on September 1, 1939, such Americans as Charles Lindbergh, Gerald P. Nye, and Rush D. Holt prominently advocated U.S. neutrality. Groups like the America First Committee tapped into the overwhelming desire of the American people to remain out of this second European war, attracting hundreds of thousands into its ranks. The committee came under attacks by those who supported stronger intervention in the European war.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to aid countries at war with National Socialist Germany and Imperial Japan by providing economic aid (see Lend-Lease) and establishing embargoes undermined non-interventionism. After the Pearl Harbor attacks, the American isolationist movement quickly lost support.

After World War II

The interventionist policies did not evaporate with Allied victory in World War II. The Cold War and decline of the non-interventionist Old Right, replaced by the ardently anti-communist New Right of William F. Buckley, Jr., made interventionism the US foreign policy for the rest of the century.

Today, non-interventionists argue that the United States is far removed from its earlier history of non-intervention.

They point to both Republican and Democratic presidents who, since the 1950s, have often used intervention as a tactic of foreign policy, including:

Many of these military actions received overwhelming popular support, showing a lack of cohesiveness to the anti-war movement and message.

Some assert that through America's decades of membership in the United Nations, multi-lateral interventionism has become the dominant policy of the United States government, though unilateral interventionism was articulated as the preferred policy of the George W. Bush administration for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

A number of individuals in the U.S. are active in promoting a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy. These include progressives such as Ralph Nader, paleo-conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, and libertarian-leaning Republican Ron Paul.


  • Doenecke, Justus D. "American Isolationism, 1939-1941" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer/Fall 1982, 6(3), pp. 201-216. online version
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Explaining the Antiwar Movement, 1939-1941: The Next Assignment" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1986, 8(1), pp. 139-162. online version
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Literature of Isolationism, 1972-1983: A Bibliographic Guide" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1983, 7(1), pp. 157-184. online version
  • Doenecke, Justus D. "Anti-Interventionism of Herbert Hoover" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer 1987, 8(2), pp. 311-340. online version
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1935.
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