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Americans must reject isolationism

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Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2003 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:42 pm, Wed May 16, 2012.

American intervention here. American preventive strike there. American entanglements in foreign disputes seemingly everywhere.

As the grisly events continue to unfold in Iraq, many Americans have dropped "shock and awe" in favor of "stunned and horrified."

But in so doing, some Americans have unfortunately once again embraced a rejected myth - that isolationism is achievable in a global world.Chet Diestel

That there has been a strong isolationist impulse in our national history dating back to President George Washington warning the young republic in his 1797 farewell address "to steer clear of permanent alliances" is undeniable.

However, our world is not the world of sailing ships and flintlock muskets. It is one of dirty bombs, chemical and biological attacks and jet airliners used as suicide weapons.

But regardless of necessity or cause, there has always existed a bloc of Americans - sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right - who have believed, almost as an article of faith, that our values and interests are so different, so superior that we must isolate ourselves from the corruption of other societies, especially in terms of alliances and war.

And no matter how real those isolationistic feelings may have been, they never managed to interfere with international trade, expansionism - making Manifest Destiny come true - and assorted military adventures throughout the Caribbean and the establishing of an empire of far-flung colonies and territories across the Pacific at the beginning of the 20th century.

And if we measure isolationism by its political power, then never was it stronger at exactly the wrong time - the post-World War I era of the 1920s and 1930s. While the Nazis in Germany, the fascists in Italy and the militarists in Japan all rose to power, we were paralyzed by a cultural myopia that refused to see anything save the necessity of avoiding "foreign wars" at virtually all costs.

Indeed, so politically powerful had the dogma of isolationism grown that by October 1937 - when the Japanese had already invaded China; the fascists and communists had turned the plains of Spain into killing fields; Ethiopians had found out that tribesmen armed with spears and antique rifles were no match for Italian dive bombers and tanks, and Munich with "peace in our time" was less than a year away - William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful publisher in the nation, was able to ask every member of Congress a series of decidedly isolationist-loaded questions built around the theme of "how to keep this country at peace."

The nation's lawmakers answered en masse and regardless of party or geography said:

  • By 3 to 1 they were against establishing any foreign alliances.
  • By 11 to 1 they were against taking sides in any ongoing foreign conflict.
  • By 10 to 1 they were against using force to enforce peace between warring nations.
  • By 3 to 1 they were in favor of a national referendum before going to war.

However, World War II brought forth a generation of leaders who saw isolationism for the fiction it is and guided America center stage to lead the free nations of the world in a Cold War of nearly 50 years duration.

If Great Britain's standing virtually alone against Hitler in the summer of 1940 was, as Winston Churchill said, that nation's "finest hour," then America's struggle that spanned three generations to rid the world of the twin tyrannies of fascism and communism was ours. Now, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we - as a people - have been called upon once again to pick up the gauntlet of leadership in a new fight for freedom.

Yet, that lingering malady of isolationism has raised its skeletal hand and beckoned Americans to wrap themselves in the pseudo-intellectual rubbish that if we just ignore those who want to kill us, then our enemies will simply apologize and stop ramming airliners filled with passengers into crowded office buildings.

Well, they won't.

As Americans, we should always remember that once before we sat on our national haunches and let the world slide into barbaric chaos. We must not do it again. History will never forgive us. It is fundamentally important that the United States maintains its role as leader in the modern world - peacefully when possible, militarily when necessary.

And to those Americans who from faintness of heart, or for political gain advocate that we once again adopt a policy of defensive entrenchment, I will simply call to mind the words of President John F. Kennedy: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinel’s city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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