Monday, May 2, 2011

Isolationist Communities

In Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, Christopher McKnight Nichols offers an arrestingly useful lens through which to view the history of isolationism

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?" Sydney Greenstreet asks Humphrey Bogart in a classic moment from Casablanca (1942). Ever since Pearl Harbor, "isolationist" has been a virtual canard in American life, a term that tars its target (NATO skeptics, Vietnam War skeptics, free market globalization skeptics, et. al.) with the odor of the Nazi apologist. In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of the concept by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities -- and surprising bedfellows -- over the next-half century.

In brief, Nichols makes a compelling case for thinking about isolationism in a way comparable to that of Michael Kazin's discussion of populism in his 1995 book The Populist Persuasion. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Kazin provides a blurb for Promise and Peril.) Just as the core of populism is located in an anti-elitist sentiment, broadly construed, isolationism rests on a core aversion to avoid overseas conflict. But like populism, isolationism defies easy ideological pigeonholing: depending on the circumstances, it has been claimed by both Right and Left -- sometimes simultaneously. Some isolationist advocates were avowed nationalists for whom unilateral action, including military action, was paramount. Others were passionate pacifists who saw it in humanitarian terms. The concept had commercial, military, and cultural connotations that could overlap or diverge. Recognizing this fact both leads to an at least partial rehabilitation of isolationism, even as it demands precision in grasping and invoking it.

The problem with this book is that it never manages to convey this argument quite so succinctly. The defect is most obvious in the title, which, publishing being what it is these days, may well have been foisted on the author. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of the Global Age creates the misleading impression that the book is a broad overview of the U.S. place in the world at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, the it's closer to a (very good) doctoral dissertation in intellectual history: a study of seven figures -- Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne Eugene Debs, William Borah, and Emily Balch -- and the way their sometimes evolving sensibilities captured the fluid and competing discourse on isolationism from the 1880s until the 1930s. Nichols offers a very good taxonomy of isolationism in an appendix, but the term could have used a little more chiseling in the introduction -- indeed, much of the conclusion, beginning with the popular distrust and misunderstanding of isolationism, probably should have been points of departure. Nichols doesn't compartmentalize his subjects, who straddle chapters, and that's good. But the book could have been shorter, especially if it continued to evolve away from intellectual portraiture and more toward chapters defined in terms of perspectives rather than people.

But enough with the complaints. Besides having a truly arresting big-picture idea, Promise and Peril offers nuggets of insight in pleasingly granular character sketches. One is intrigued to learn, for example, that Eugene Debs was tapping promising veins of support in the South with his pacifist stance toward World War I, even as his Socialist doctrines made it impossible to build sturdy bridges with old-time Populists like Ben Tillman or William Jennings Bryan. Nichols manages both to convey the nuances of Randolph Bourne's thought and the way his almost egalitarian cosmopolitanism was grounded in Bourne's physical handicap and penurious circumstances.

Nichols is also good at untangling underlying continuity amid sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. Finding consistency in the logic Idaho U.S. Senator William Borah could challenge even his most stalwart allies, but Nichols traces a coherent Jeffersonian strain in his thought, albeit one that could prove, well, strained. (One of the more intriguing relationships in this book is that between Borah and the Nobel Prize-winning Wellesley Professor Balch; the two formed a common alliance in pushing for the Kellogg-Briand pact that outlawed war, even as they maintained cavernous differences in other controversies.) One might discern tension, even contradiction, in Henry Cabot Lodge's avowedly globalist advocacy of the Spanish-American in 1898 and his isolationist hostility toward the League of Nations twenty years later. But no: his stalwart advocacy of economic globalism and political unilateralism proved remarkably stable (and repellent) over the course of his long career. Perhaps not surprisingly, the real chameleon here is Du Bois, whose ambivalence about immigration and the potential of government power led him to make finely-tuned, but always rational, calculations about what geopolitical stance would be most likely to advance the cause of African Americans.

But the presiding spirit over the book, and the isolationist movement -- and, one hazards a guess, Nichols himself -- is William James. Though James's search for a moral equivalent of war amid the drumbeat for empire at the turn of the 20th century seemed quixotic to many at the time and ever since, Nichols makes a good case that his capacious vision could ultimately prove quite pragmatic. Not only do institutions and programs ranging from the Works Progress Administration to the Peace Corps have decisively Jamesian accents, but the critique James and his allies advanced in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War effectively prevented the United States for formally establishing a colonial administration or expanding its army and navy (at least for a while). If this is a partial victory at best, it's no less worth remembering -- and emulating.

Yes: certain forms of isolationism, and aspects of its most compelling critiques of global intervention, can prove dangerous in underestimating geopolitical threats or promoting a callously amoral stance. William Borah was perhaps fortunate to die in 1940, not living to see what strands of his brand of isolationism condoned in Europe and Asia, which is the only one we tend to remember. But similar accusations can be made of any policy, foreign or otherwise. Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew -- and to wield it responsibly.