Historicizing ‘America First’ and US Isolationism

Christopher McKnight Nichols
Oregon State University

Isolationism is much in the news in recent days. President Trump’s acquiescence to Turkish demands regarding a modern buffer area, including a new offensive, followed rapidly by an announcement that all, or nearly all, US troops will be withdrawn from Syria has drawn sharp rebukes, including from prominent Republican members of Congress. Disastrous consequences for Kurdish people, and former US allies, on the ground in Syria has added fuel to this fire. Most notably Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that Trump “must” rethink the US position, and argued that isolationism has not “worked” in particular historical moments, such as before the Second World War. Others have responded that these latest policy changes do not, in fact, amount to isolationist or even retrenchment politics, given the scale and scope of US military commitments worldwide. While yet others have cited history, noting, sadly, that major powers have a tendency to sell out allies when it is convenient or the going gets tough, which itself does not necessarily amount to any particular type of strategy or policy position.

In some of my work, including a recent TED Talk, I have argued that some of the ideological elements at work in Trump’s decision-making regarding an “America First” foreign policy are, in fact, rooted in almost primordial U.S. conceptions of isolationism — unilateralism, non-entanglement, and neutrality — that go back to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe (among others). One goal of the talk is to give a capsule history that reveals more of the longer, complicated development of ideas about isolation that defy easy characterization; the talk shows how the term “isolationist” became such a negative epithets, often hurled at opponents of interventions; and the talk explores some of the ways in which key isolationist concepts changed over time and generally centered on degree and type of U.S. engagement with the world, not on simplistic proposals of walling off the nation from the world.
In addition, if you are interested in the process of doing a TED Talk and also in the content involved in this talk, I recently was interviewed and wrote a piece entitled “I signed up for what?” which is an essay-interview with Dr. Danielle Holtz on the process of conceiving, writing, and delivering a TEDx TED Talk. Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review (September 2019): 47-51.