Populism, Pacifism, and Isolationism (Part 1): The Past

Historically, there have long been strains of pacificism and isolationism in our nation. Even before our nation’s founding, pacificism was a central tenet of the Quakers, and isolation was urged in George Washington’s 1796 “Farewell Address to the People of the United States,” wherein he warned: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”

While the Quakers’ religious tenet and Washington’s warning have usually been more honored in the breach, over the ensuing years, there have been those who adhered to pacifism and/or isolationism in both parties (against the formation of which Washington also cautioned). Nonetheless, through all of America’s Wars, there has been opposition to the conflict, its commencement and/or continuance. For example, in the 20th century, there were pacifist/non-interventionist Democrats, ranging from opposing entry into both world wars, the anti-war left during the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and the “No Nukes” movement. Today, they comprise large segments of the progressive populist movement. On the other side of the political divide, pacifist/isolationist Republicans’ opposed entry into World War I and its Treaty of Versailles and then helped drive the original “America First” movement of the 1930’s to prevent America’s entry into World War II. Today, they comprise large swaths of the Republican-Populist and/or MAGA movements’ neo-isolationist wing, notably the more Libertarian-oriented members.

To varying degrees, there has been some bipartisan overlap throughout the pacificist/isolationist movements. The aforementioned “America First” movement of the 1930’s was built upon the ruins of the failed, bipartisan opposition to American entry into World War I. Despite the times, which witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, both Republicans and Democrats converged to oppose American intervention in what would be another European war in roughly twenty years. This bipartisan America First coalition proved regrettably puissant, preventing a flustered and, at times, tentative President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration from being able to fully prepare America to defend itself and our allies against the Axis powers.

History has shown that the 1930’s America First movement was proven abjectly wrong in its assessment of world affairs and the requisite U.S. response to them. It is too easy to broad brush this bipartisan movement as a gaggle of rubes who foolishly believed our two oceans would continue to keep the U.S. in splendid isolation from her enemies. (Regrettably, it is also far too easy for some to forget the rank, bipartisan antisemitism pervading the movement.) Like their recent pacifist/isolationist predecessors who opposed entering World War I, the latter movement had a not irrational basis for its opposition to entering World War II—at least prior to Imperial Japan’s attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Like the English and French policymakers and populations, the horrific scars of the First World War led Americans to believe only a homicidal lunatic would start another European war, and their own fervent hopes to avoid such recrudescence of civilizational suicide precluded them from recognizing that, in fact, such a homicidal lunatic was ruling Germany and that an implacable military class bent upon conquest was the power behind Emperor Hirohito’s throne. Worse, many Americans who did recognize the threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan still believed the U.S. should avoid becoming entangled in a conflict with either or both nations. Battered by the Great Depression and still wondering what America’s sacrifice of blood and treasure had earned in our nation’s first overseas military conflict, especially given Europe’s determination to renew the slaughter, the America First movement revivified the earlier pacifist/isolationist coalition.

Since the disgraced demise of the 1930’s America First movement and America’s emergence as the leader of the free world, the parties’ pacificist/isolationist wings have carried onward. For instance, the anti-war movement during Vietnam was in varying degrees pacifist, isolationist, and immense, but it was largely a coalition built upon the old center-left and the “new-left” of the Baby Boomers. Support for the war was largely based on the center-right and the culturally conservative right, which at the time included conservative southern “Dixiecrats.” Still, there has since never been a bipartisan pacifist/isolationist coalition equaling that of its pre-World Wars predecessors. While one may consider such bipartisanship impossible in today’s divisive political climate, such a view is mistaken.

In fact, a pacifist/isolationist bipartisan coalition is not only possible; it may already be forming.

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 14: An American flag flies during a college football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and Cincinnati Bearcats on October 14, 2023 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)