The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.
David L. Prentice
The history of the Republican Party’s foreign policy reminds historians that national politics often entails efforts to hold together a diverse coalition. The party’s regional alignments, ideas, and positions were seldom static. Rarely has it enjoyed unity on foreign relations. Intra-party differences mattered as wings, factions, and insurgents feuded over both domestic policy and America’s aims, interests, and engagement with the world. Mugwumps, jingoes, insurgents, Irreconcilables, the Republican Right, and neoconservatives, among others, interpreted events differently. These differences modulated the party’s swings from isolationism to interventionism, pulling it closer to the center of American politics. Regarding foreign relations, Republicans have generally united around five themes. First, there existed a common understanding that US interests were paramount in defining foreign policy. A shared “America first” ethos made Republicans wary of liberal internationalism and reluctant to concede any autonomy on foreign or economic affairs. While different wings of the Republican Party may have backed divergent policies, each agreed the United States should preserve its flexibility and engage in unilateral action when necessary. Second, Republicans have supported preparedness for national defense and military superiority even when members may oppose US intervention in a foreign conflict. As for diplomacy, they maintained sound negotiations would come from victory or positions of strength. In a world of dangers, the strong survive. Third, the nature of the foreign foe mattered. Republicans opposed revolutionary regimes abroad whereas anti-fascist or anti-authoritarian causes drew weak or belated interest. The common Republican perception that the Soviet Union posed a greater threat to the international order than Nazi Germany accounted for much of the party’s isolationism before World War II. And during the Cold War, Republicans frequently turned a blind eye to the human rights and political abuses of America’s allies while condemning communist nations for the same. Fourth, the Republican preference for limited government influenced how they approached armed conflict. They resisted large peacetime armies and land wars while, in recent eras, placing inordinate faith in modern firepower to deter enemies and accomplish swift victory when used properly. They feared long wars encouraged the growth of the federal government. Finally, opposition to Democratic alternatives, especially in an election year, could bridge some of the party’s greatest chasms.
Cara Lea Burnidge
Since 2001, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to religion and foreign relations. More scholars and policymakers agree that religion is an important feature of foreign affairs, regardless of whether one thinks it ought to be. While policymakers and scholars often discuss “religion” as a single “lens” for understanding the world, religious traditions do not exist in isolation from the political, economic, or social and cultural aspects of life. Tracing religious influences on U.S. foreign policy, then, can lead scholars in a variety of directions. Scholars researching religious influences in foreign policy could consider theologies and creeds of religious organizations and figures, the rhetoric and rituals of national norms and civic values, the intersection of “sacred” and “secular” ideas and institutions, the service of individual policymakers and diplomats, international legal or military defenses for or against specific religious groups, or public discourse about religion, to name but a few options. Advances in the study of religion and foreign policy will require collaboration and dialogue across traditional boundaries for disciplines, fields, and subfields. For many scholars, this means broadening research approaches and methods. Instead of prioritizing “first-” and “second-” order causes, for instance, historians and social scientists could move beyond cause-effect relationships alone, complicating U.S. foreign relations by considering intersectional experiences and interstitial explanations. Rather than looking for “the” univocal religious influence, scholars might pay greater attention to the multiplicity of “religious” influences on a given topic. This will likely occur by reading and researching beyond one specific area of expertise. It will also require attention to differentiating between institutional and “popular” or “lived” religion; recognizing the disparities between the official dogma of a religious affiliation and ethnographic and empirical data on religious practice; and giving attention to the underlying assumptions that occur when international organizations, national governments, and scholars choose to pay attention to certain forms of “religious” thought, behavior, and organizations and not others.
Justus D. Doenecke
For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements. Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy. If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.