“Seeking Monsters to Destroy”: Isolationism in America after WWI

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 11, 2018, world leaders gathered in Paris to recognize the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI–on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. In his speech, French president Emmanuel Macron pointedly remarked that:

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

The remark was pointed because Donald Trump had recently declared himself a “nationalist” at one of his rallies. Macron went on to say:

“Old demons are rising again. New ideologies are manipulating religions, and history is threatening to repeat its tragedies. Let us vow once more as nations to ensure peace is the utmost priority, above all else, because we know what it cost.”

Since WWI and certainly since WWII there has been a strong push to erase nationalism, and to instead create a global world order that can prevent mass warfare. Yet this world order was not an inevitable result of world war, and certainly in the months after the armistice in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson faced fierce critics of his plan to create a “League of Nations.”

He first introduced the idea in January of 1918, eleven months before the war ended. Wilson called for a “general association of nations” which would work together to protect a global peace. This eventually became the League of Nations, which Wilson insisted the victors of WWI tie to the Treaty of Versailles.

As the war ended and Wilson’s idea seemed to be solidifying across the Atlantic, the strong strain of isolationism that had existed in American politics since John Quincy Adams warned of “seeking monsters to destroy” began to rise.

Whether this was out of real angst over the idea, or because the president had made a fatal political error, Henry Cabot Lodge sought to defy this shaky new world order.

Wilson to ParisLodge, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, watched Wilson go to Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles without consulting the Senate. Then, although Wilson asked Lodge to not speak publicly about the League of Nations until they could meet at the White House, the president spoke to a crowd in Boston to try to garner support. Lodge saw this as a betrayal.

Two days after the White House meeting in February 1919, Lodge gave a speech in the Senate casting doubt on the League of Nations. Lodge warned against “casting aside these policies which we have adhered to for a century and more and under which we have greatly served the cause of peace both at home and abroad.” He worried that such an agreement would necessitate an enormous American military force “capable of enforcing” the League at “a moment’s notice.”

Lodge asked, using rhetoric that many would recognize today, whether Americans were l of n cartoonready “to give to other nations the power to say who shall come into the United States and become citizens of the Republic?”

Wilson desperately tried to corral support for the League of Nations, but the damage at home had been done. In October of 1919, following an 8,000 mile 22-day tour attempting to muster support at home, Wilson suffered a terrible stroke. The Senate voted against the Treaty a month later. The end of the war was finally declared in a joint resolution in 1921, but the damage to both Wilson, his presidency, and any pretense of an American endorsement of the League of Nations had been done.

In the following two decades the League proved largely ineffective without American support. As Depression haunted people around the world, Americans at home increasingly leaned toward isolationist policies–and many saw WWI as a lesson that American casualties were not worth involvement in conflicts abroad. By the time FDR came to office, he had to combat not only growing fascism abroad, but the bitter memory of Wilson’s failures.

Since the end of WWII, and the creation of international bodies like the United Nations, the new global world order has felt permanent–the result of two world wars. Yet there remains a strong strain of isolationist feeling in the United States and abroad. Whether or not the world continues on a global path, or tips back into nationalism, has yet to be seen.