The United States of America was established as an independent nation with a fairly clear understanding by most involved that it would eschew the kind of foreign interference that had contributed to this nation’s founding. The belligerency and imperialistic tendencies of Britain and France had instilled in the Founding Fathers a deeply held conviction that the diplomatic maneuverings and military conflicts that permeated the so-called “Old World” must be avoided. Thomas Jefferson in particular was adamant in his statements and writings that the United States should refrain from alliances and linkages that would inevitably result in conflicts. Note, for instance, in the following quotes, Jefferson’s aversion to the kind of international relations that characterized Europe:
"I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment. And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance, or joining in the confederacy of Kings to war against the principles of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:77
"We have a perfect horror at everything like connecting ourselves with the politics of Europe." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1801. ME 10:285
"Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations--entangling alliances with none, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural Address, 1801. ME 3:321
It is with this sentiment in mind that one must examine the development of the United States over the following decades and into the 20th century. It is, perhaps, possible that Jefferson's isolationist goals could have been reached absent the continuing roles of Britain and France in North America. As students of American history know, conflict with Britain was hardly settled with the end of the Revolutionary War, and relations with France became increasingly problematic both with respect to French colonial holdings in North America and to France’s ongoing rivalry with Britain. The diplomatic maneuverings needed to secure U.S. interests necessitated a very quick reappraisal of the views and hopes held by Jefferson and others. Additionally, France and Britain were not the only obstacles; Jefferson’s dispatch of the navy to confront piracy in the Mediterranean Sea and his later role as U.S. ambassador to France in the Second Barbary War definitively eliminated any notion of insularity from global conflicts and alliances. Finally, westward expansion of the United States under the banner of Manifest Destiny cemented America’s view of imperialist undertakings.
During much of the 19th century, the United States was preoccupied with domestic issues, especially the debate surrounding abolition of slavery. Relations with Britain, which had become a forceful opponent of the slave trade, complicated an already intractable issue, and it would take President Lincoln’s resolve to retain the unity of the states in the face of Southern secession. On the global front, however, the United States had succeeded in remaining out of many of the conflicts that continued to spring up across Europe. The United States had become engaged in the “opening” of China, but it continued to perceive itself as distant from Old World conflicts. Domestic hysteria stirred up by newspapers regarding Spanish colonial ambitions in Cuba and the Philippines, however, destroyed once and for all the Jeffersonian vision of foreign policy free of foreign entanglements. The United States had now officially joined the imperial club, with Cuba and the Philippines now a part of this nation’s conquests.
In one of the most spectacular policy reversals in history, President Woodrow Wilson went from opposing American participation in the Great War (World War I) to sending thousands of U.S. soldiers to fight on the side of England and France. This reversal did not, of course, occur in a vacuum. German submarine warfare and the attempt by the German government to entice Mexico to enter the war on its side (the so-called “Zimmerman Telegram”) precipitated Wilson’s transformation. The fact remained, however, that the United States was now directly engaged in the largest conflict in human history.
What should have been the U.S. role in the world as the 20th century evolved? The histories of European diplomacy, conflict and imperialism left the United States little choice but to become and eventually remain firmly engaged in international diplomacy. The failure of the League of Nations and popular opposition to becoming engaged in the newly-developing war in Europe in the late-1930s represented a continuation of American reluctance to be diverted from its isolationist path. Humanitarian ideals, threats from German militancy, and America’s own colonial holdings in Asia (i.e., the Philippines), however, left the United States no other option but to become more internationally engaged. President Franklin Roosevelt’s determination to assist Great Britain in the face of Germany and Japan’s aggressive imperial ambitions across Asia forced the issue.
Isolation was never really a viable option. Had the United States been more active internationally and acted upon the growing threat from Germany during the 1930s, it is possible that World War II would not have entailed the scale of carnage that occurred. The war was a certainty, given Hitler’s determination to wage one against Russia and Poland. It is possible, however, that its scale could have been limited, at least in Europe, had the United States been an early and fervent ally of Britain and France at the outset.