“[America’s] previous attempts at isolationism were successful. Unfortunately, they were successful for Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan. Evil is an outreach program. A solitary bad person sitting alone, harboring genocidal thoughts, and wishing he ruled the world is not a problem unless he lives next to us in the trailer park. In the big geopolitical trailer park that is the world today, he does. America has to act.”—P.J. O’Rourke, Peace Kills: America’s Fun New Imperialism
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about getting out of world affairs in the wake of the current Middle East riot. As is always so popular in America, Isolationism seems to be making a comeback in the psyche of the nation. Great idea. Let’s take a look at how well isolationism has always worked in this country’s favor over the last century…
Coming off our crazy Manifest Destiny kick, Americans swung into a full isolationist mode in the early 20th century. So much so that when people started dying by the thousands in WWI we chose to do nothing. Thousand of soldiers—British, French, Italian, German, Austrian, to name a few—suffered in trenches with some of the most horrific conditions modern warfare has to offer. But it’s not America’s problem so we do nothing. The Ottoman Empire (ally of Germany and Austria) begins genocidally slaughtering Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks so brutally the Allies actually issue a statement using the words “crime against humanity” for the first time (so I doubt everyone in America was ignorant of this). America still does nothing, because still not our problem. Then one of our ships gets torpedoed while going through a war zone, so now it’s our problem. We come in with enough troops to end the war (if we had come in years earlier it would probably have ended the war then and spared thousands upon thousands suffering and death, but, oh, that’s right it wasn’t our problem at the time).
So World War I ends. President Wilson has a good idea in the form of a world organization to oppose tyranny and support democracy around the world, the League of Nations, but the isolationist quickly take power again in America and decide not to be a member of the organization. I’m not saying American participation in the League would have stopped World War II from happening, but explain to me how it would have hurt. So in the end the League of Nations is filled by almost nothing but countries that have pacifist views that will cower when anyone with a gun shows up.
The first major failure of this war weary League and America (both parties are equally guilty) is allowing the continuation of the Red Army in the former Russian Empire. World War I ended officially in 1919, but the Russian Civil War didn’t end until 1923, yet no one even really offered to help the White Army put down the communists (good call, because the Soviets didn’t cause any problems over the next 70 years or so). No, rather than actually take out the root of the problem at maybe the cost of a few thousand more lives for Western nations, here in America we chose the policy of going into a hysterical fit over the fear of communists in our country, mobilizing every federal and state power to track down what turned out to be nothing more than a few dozen radicals with access to gun powder and a rough skill in making bad mail bombs.( I’m not saying there weren’t Soviet agents ever in America, there were, but odds are they didn’t become entrenched until after the Russian Civil War was over.) So we’ll use police powers against our own people over the fear of a foreign nation but won’t actually deal with that foreign nation we fear, because it’s not our problem.
The next few years brought up other things that weren’t our problem. The Spanish Civil War, which allowed the country to fall to fascism. Italian aggression and empire building in Africa, but not our problem. The growing Maoist Army in China, not our problem. Invasion of China and Korea by Japan, not our problem. And dare we forget all those things Germany under Hitler did that weren’t our problem. Crimes against humanity each and every one of them. Not even counting the Holocaust, literally millions of people are being killed, raped, enslaved, and tortured. Americans can’t be that stupid to not know anything about this. Yes, many chose not to learn anything, just as nowadays many don’t bother to read about what goes on in the Sudan, because we know deep down if we knew we would be morally required to act, but American ignorance was one of choice, not one of lack of information (also much like how after we went into Germany all we found was a country filled with “Good Germans” who never knew what was going on in the concentration camps). And if all American’s were really that ignorant of these things, then how does one explain the very few Americans who went to all these wars to fight against fascism, to fight for what they believed to be right. They had to learn about it somewhere.
But these things weren’t our problem.
Then once again a weird thing happened. Low and behold after nearly every other nation who opposed fascism had fallen or was under siege, all of a sudden the fascists turned their eyes to us and it became our problem. Who could have guessed that an ideology founded on conquering the world would ever come to American shores. Completely unpredictable. So once again it suddenly became our problem again, and we went in and took down most of the bad guys. Then we went back to isolationist tendencies. Now some history buffs out there will call me crazy, because Truman’s post war policies could hardly be called isolationist—after all, we helped rebuild Western Europe and contained the Soviet Union. True, we contained the Soviet Union. This was isolationist in itself. Let’s go back to the day immediately following Japan’s surrender and look at the situation. You have Soviet Russia preparing to take total control of Eastern Europe as a “buffer zone” between them and Germany. Even at this point in history everyone knows Stalin is a worse butcher than Hitler. The bulk of the Soviet Army (devastated far more than the rest of the Allies by the war) is racing across Asia hoping to get a foothold into Japan and thus more land to control, thus leaving everything up to Moscow with minimal defenses. Gen. Patton (certainly not the most stable of men, but a strategic and tactical genius nonetheless) has this wacky plan to push the Russian army in Europe back to the Russian border if not destroy it completely. It was August, giving us at least a couple of months before those infamous Russian winters set in. Oh, and America was the only country that was a nuclear power at this point. It wouldn’t have been bloodless, but had the Allies decided to attack Soviet Russia it wouldn’t have been a long war, nor would it’s outcome been in the favor of communism. But we chose once again to not deal with a problem until it affected us.
We create the U.N., but then give two of the most evil governments in the world veto power to stop any action intended to stop their tyrannical ways.
Some more things that weren’t our problems after that. Eastern Europe is placed under a dictatorship as brutal and bloodthirsty as the one we just liberated them from. China, with Soviet help falls to communism. Tibet, after asking for U.S. help, receives no help and falls to Maoist butchers. The Soviet Union becomes a nuclear power (yes we did recognize that as our problem, but the fact is if we had recognized them as a problem a few years earlier, they wouldn’t have been around to become a nuclear threat). And after some half-hearted (I’m insulting the politician who made war policy, not the soldiers who fought) fighting we allow the communist to take North Korea (it’s not like allowing that one would ever lead to problems). Cuba also falls to communism, but not directly our problem, until low and behold communist from one part of the world start giving communist in another part of the world nuclear missiles.
So isolationism is not looking like a good option at this point to anyone who can count hundreds of millions tortured and killed as a direct result of it, but the U.S. still can’t give up it’s isolationist way. So we now try a kind of halfway isolationism. The use of the CIA to work behind the scenes and the use of the U.S. military only in “police actions.” The problem with police actions is if you have rules about when and where your troops can fire back at the enemy, and what lines they can cross, and just generally the falling short of fighting a real war then all you end up with is a lot of U.S. soldiers in body bags and a wall in D.C. commemorating the fact that despite being excellent soldiers, who never actually lost a real battle, politicians will make their deaths completely worth nothing by just leaving countries like Vietnam to communist governments.
Then Khmer Rouge takes over Cambodia and does things that might turn a Nazi’s stomach, but again, not our problem.
All this time it would take a whole book to recount all the bloody things being done in Africa that weren’t our problem.
Iran falls to a dictator whom we don’t support, falls to a dictator whom we do support, then falls to a radical Islamic cleric who no one in the world of the sane is not disturbed by. Our president at the time of this final change of power decides it’s best to be weak, and let them hold American hostages until he leaves office. But then again this is the same man whose grand stand against the invasion and resulting crimes against humanity in Afghanistan by the Soviets was best combated by boycotting the Olympics. Way to take a stand, Jimmy.
So we learned not to use police actions. So still not wanting to actually fight real wars, because it’s not really our problem, we just start arming people in their wars against our enemies. People like the rebel soldiers in Afghanistan to fight the communists (this guy named Bin Laden comes to mind), and people like Saddam Hussein to fight off Iran. I wonder if that policy ever came back to haunt us?
Oh wait, it did. Hussein invades other countries; we kick him out of Kuwait but leave him around for the next generation to deal with (incompetently I might add).
Our genius plan of dealing with the collapsing Soviet Union is to support whatever dictator comes along in the Balkans, which once again leads to genocide and U.S. troops having to go in under the cover of the U.N. (really wasn’t even our idea, it required Tony Blair twisting Clinton’s arm to get U.S. troops to go). And I’m still trying to figure out what drugs were being passed around when it came to our policies involving Russia itself, but the result was what it always is, let’s not get involved.
Then let’s try and help out in Africa, until a few bullets get fired (in a war zone of all places, who could have predicted that) and it’s decided that’s it’s better for a few soldiers to have died in vain, than to actually clear Somalia of the warlords.
Afghanistan falls to psychotic religious fanatics, not our problem. At least until the New York skyline gets a permanent makeover.
Is it just me, or does it seem that all of these things that aren’t our problem have a bad tendency of becoming our problem, and rather big problems at that? Ironic because they weren’t necessarily always big problems, in fact they would have been more easily dealt with problems back when it wasn’t our problem.
And let’s look at another pattern that seems apparent to me, when what wasn’t our problem becomes our problem we go in long enough to stop the current problem without sticking around long enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The few places we gone into with a plan and have stuck around in (Germany, Japan) seem to be pretty stable.
So no matter how you want to look at it isolationism on any country’s part, but especially one as large as the U.S. seems to lead to three things: (1) Torture (2) Death (3) and problems that become so big they do become our problems.
I’m not sure what should be done about Egypt, Yemin and Jordan right now, mostly because we need to wrap things up in Iraq and Afghanistan before further overextending ourselves…but not doing anything is a really dumb idea as history has shown.