George Washington, the first president of the United States, was also the last president to preside over a fairly unified country. Washington ruled for two complete terms during an era of general goodwill, but when he left office fierce bickering and character assassinations began occurring among the rest of our founding fathers, such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and others. The attacks on John Adams, our second president, became so virulent that Adams pushed through Congress a series of anti-sedition laws that were in direct violation of the freedom of speech and press provisions of the Bill of Rights. These laws made criticism of the presidency an act of treason with severe penalties attached. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, who co-wrote the Declaration of Independence with Adams, became a fierce critic of Adams and his anti-sedition laws, and to Jefferson’s credit, he managed to have them repealed during his term in the White house. He accomplished little else after that, however. But amid all the back-biting going on among our leaders in those early days of the Republic, there was one concept that they apparently all agreed upon. And that was George Washington’s admonition that the U.S. should not become entangled in the affairs of foreign nations. In other words the U.S. should follow a policy of isolationism.
Protected by huge oceans to our east and west, and mostly friendly countries to our north and south, the U.S. with a few exceptions during the 19th and early 20th centuries adhered fairly strictly to to the Washingtonian concept of non-interference with other nations internal affairs. After all, it wasn’t as if foreign countries could launch bomber or missile attacks on U.S. soil. This policy of isolationism received a severe setback however, as the U.S. became militarily involved in WWI shortly after the election of 1916. With U.S. allies including Britain, France and Russia bogged down in a trench warfare stalemate with Germany that neither side seemed capable of breaking, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson deemed that it was necessary for U.S. intervention to break that stand-off. As a side note, more soldiers on both sides died from disease caused by the filthy, disgusting conditions of the trenches they occupied, than from the opposing side’s bullets. In any event, U.S. involvement quickly broke the stalemate, and, of course, the Allies went on to defeat Germany and end the war. To help change the American mindset from isolationism to intervention, composers such as George M. Cohan wrote patriotic songs in support of the war effort. You can still hear theses tunes, such as “Over There” on YouTube.
With WWI, “the war to end all wars” concluded, the U.S. populace believed it was safe, once again, to retreat back into a comfy, cozy state of isolationism. But the 20 year respite between the conclusion of WWI and the outbreak of WWII showed otherwise. The U.S. was so militarily unprepared for war in 1941 because of isolationist policies, that if Japan could had invaded our West Coast right after bombing Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt Administration was prepared to cede all U.S. land west of Chicago before attempting to take a military stand. With the unbelievable horrors, atrocities and just pure evil emanating from WWII, and with new threats to world peace on the horizon from Communist Russia and China, a policy of non-intervention in world affairs seemed unthinkable to the American public. Isolationism appeared to be dead as a doornail, (as Ebenezer Scrooge might have put it.) Of course, a subsequent policy of global interventionism has not turned out to be all that terrific either.
It led to the Korean War in which we only able to save half of the Korean peninsula from tyrannical despotism, and then to that fiasco known as Viet-Nam where nearly 60 thousand American lives perished as well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, in a jungle war we eventually lost anyhow. And then on to the first Gulf War which let tyrant dictator Saddam Hussein remain in power, and then to the second gulf war which removed him from power at considerable cost in lives and treasure, and which also left chaos in its place. Also along the way during the 50 years after WWII, an anti-communist, “better dead than red” mentality sprung up in the U.S which cost us needless trillions of dollars that were spent beefing up our military-industrial complex in preparation for war against the old USSR which then collapsed under the weight of its own despotism.
Hence when Barack Obama moved into the Oval office in January 2009, people were generally fed up with globalism and ready to return back to a more isolationist policy. Obama appeared to comply with these sentiments by proclaiming that “America will lead from behind” when it came to military initiatives on the world stage. In other words, the U.S. would considerably lower its profile in world events. But there were serious consequences to that position. The U.S. is apparently the one indispensable nation in world affairs, and when it retreats, evil despotism seems to move into the vacuum. And so it has, as Islamic-Jihadist barbarianism has taken hold in the Mid-East countries of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as well as launching terror attacks in Europe, and even in the U.S. The token bombing raids that we’ve launched against these terrorists have hardly seemed to make a dent in their operations. And let us not forget the despotic tyrant of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who has launched unprovoked military action against the Ukraine, which has led to the deaths of thousands, while we’ve stood by and again did nothing. As far as foreign policy goes, “leading from behind” seems to be pretty much failure.
To top it all off, neither of our two presidential candidates, one of which will be in the Oval Office next January, seems to be offering up any new initiatives to offset Obama’s mostly failed foreign policy. Maybe the U.S. is just too worn out, too burdened by debt and fatigue, to launch any new meaningful action on the world stage. As I’ve written many times before, perhaps it’s the inevitable destiny of powerful empires like Rome before us, to reach the zenith of its strength, and then watch that strength slowly dissipate into dust.