From empire to isolation : internationalism and isolationism in American thought

Nichols, Christopher McKnight, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia

From Empire to Isolation: Internationalism and Isolationism in American Thought explains the origins of modern American isolationism and examines its genesis in relationship with internationalism and domestic reform from the 1890s through the 1920s.

This dissertation takes a new approach to isolationism by examining it as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon. Based on archival research and interdisciplinary synthesis, From Empire to Isolation focuses on eight eminent activists, thinkers, and politicians - and their wider intellectual communities - as they first confronted the challenges of modernity and then grappled with urgent pressures to balance domestic priorities and foreign commitments. The core group in this study are Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Mott, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs, William Borah, and Emily Balch. Each individual represented a distinct strain of thought. Each strove to reconcile America's founding ideals and ideas about national isolation with the realities of America's multiplying affluence, rising global commerce, and international opportunities for cultural exchange and the protection of rights.

From Empire to Isolation examines the dynamic interplay between the thought and activism of these individuals who spanned the political spectrum -- e.g., from radical and nationalist political thought and racial reform, to cultural criticism, imperialism vs. anti-imperialism, and from suffragism at home to pacifism and missionary zeal abroad. This dissertation shows the ways in which isolationist views had to be, and were radically reoriented in light of America's ascent to global power in the 1890s. At that time, a developing cluster of modern isolationist principles gave a "progressive" cast to isolationism and became integral to the anti-imperialist political philosophy. In turn, these isolationist ideas not only framed assessments of the nation's proper role in the world, but also shaped domestic reform perspectives. From 1914 to 1917, as the nation debated going to war, isolationist ideas further shaped the American political landscape. Modem isolationist arguments provided potent rhetorical-ideological resources for both radicals and nationalists who opposed preparedness, the draft, and entry into World War One. Following the war, when retreat from worldwide political commitments became an increasingly popular stance during the 1920s, isolationist ideas crystallized and fused with non-binding forms of internationalism.

This dissertation reveals that an examination of the development, interconnections, and influences of the modem skein of isolationism allows us to better understand how these powerful principles served to limit American imperialism after 1898 and slowed American involvement in WWI. Taken together these forces undercut Wilsonian internationalism, partly preventing the ascendance of Woodrow Wilson's political philosophy after WWI. In the context of the vast social, political, and economic transformations of the Progressive period, modem thinking about balancing isolation, internationalism, and domestic social change came to structure American apprehensions of the nation's proper global role. The resulting new hybrids of internationalist and isolationist perspectives were powerfully important in their day and are with us still.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: