The US Followed a Policy of Foreign Intervention Long before World War II
In history classes (in public or private schools, colleges, and others), state propaganda, and mainstream history, a historical fiction has been spun that allegedly debunks any notion of noninterventionism. This is the myth of American isolationism.
The assertion usually goes that America was extremely isolationist prior to World War I and had no interest in involving itself in unnecessary warfare. After the Zimmermann telegram was sent, America was then forced to enter the war, quickly ended the war, and promptly withdrew from meddling with the outside world, even refusing to enter the League of Nations. America then spent the next two decades in isolation, foolishly ignoring the world stage until being unexpectedly attacked by Japan.
Variations exist, but this is the general reasoning pushed by the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Wikipedia. I also distinctly remember hearing that line of reasoning in multiple history classes going back to when I was in the seventh grade.
The narrative that America had its time of isolationism is frequently wielded as a cudgel, used to illustrate in simplicity how backward and cowardly the policy is. To anyone who has adopted this narrative, isolationism is evil because it either exacerbated or directly caused World War II, leaving the Allies without American military and industry. Its supporters usually claim that the war would not have happened or would have been much shorter had America supported the Allies from the beginning. Although not always, this moralizing is usually tied in with popular criticisms of appeasement. When the two are combined, a powerful cause for intervention exists. After all, ignoring whatever has been deemed the foreign “threat” by the state is pig-headed isolationism, and downplaying the threat is evil appeasement.
This supposed history of isolation is complete fiction. The minor details can be dealt with first. America was by no means forced to enter World War I because of Arthur Zimmermann’s infamous proposal to Mexico. The telegram is very short, and I invite you to read it for yourself if you have not done so before.
Every single promise in the telegram, though considered briefly, was determined to be unreliable or unbeneficial. Mexico was, at the time, embroiled in a civil war, which is a rather inopportune time to strike a much larger, much more powerful neighbor. The financial support was written off out of hand, as Germany had admitted only a year earlier that it had no gold to spare. In the event of victory, the possibility of Mexico holding on to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona was slim, and the Mexican government realized this. They understood that in the near seven decades since Mexico lost these territories, the Southwest had been settled by millions of fiercely independent Anglo Protestants. These Anglo Protestants would not take kindly to Mexican governance. As we can see, the Zimmermann telegram would have been discarded as a diplomatic faux pas if not for the powerful interests determined to enter the war.
Upon entering World War II, the Japanese attack was also not unexpected or even the first attack of United States vessels by the Japanese during Japan’s imperialistic expansion. Though the bombing of Pearl Harbor was not planned on, an American entry into the war was certainly in the works for quite a while beforehand.
The Major Problem
However, what this narrative surrounding isolationism gets most crucially wrong is that America has never been isolated, not before World War I and not after World War I. The Global Policy Forum keeps a list of American foreign interventions that is “not . . . definitive or absolutely complete.” Leaving out operations from the prosecution of World War I and starting in 1890 just to illustrate how not isolated the US was for the almost two and a half decades prior to World War I, the list reads:
1890 Argentina US sailors land in Buenos Aires.
1891 Chile US sailors land in the major port city of Valparaíso.
1891 Haiti US Marines land on the US-claimed Navassa Island.
1893 Hawaii Marines and other naval forces land and overthrow the monarchy.
1894 Nicaragua Marines land at Bluefields on the eastern coast.
1894–95 China Marines are stationed at Tientsin and Beijing. A naval ship takes up position at Newchwang.
1894–96 Korea Marines land and remain in Seoul.
1895 Colombia Marines are sent to the town of Bocas del Toro.
1896 Nicaragua Marines land in the port of Corinto.
1898 Nicaragua Marines land at the port city of San Juan del Sur.
1898 Guam Naval forces seize Guam Island from Spain, and the US holds the island permanently.
1898 Cuba Naval and land forces seize Cuba from Spain.
1898 Puerto Rico Naval and land forces seize Puerto Rico from Spain, and the US holds the island permanently.
1898 Philippines Naval forces defeat the Spanish fleet, and the US takes control of the country.
1899 Philippines Military units are reinforced for extensive counterinsurgency operations.
1899 Samoa Naval forces land.
1899 Nicaragua Marines land at the port city of Bluefields.
1900 China US forces intervene in several cities.
1901 Colombia/Panama Marines land.
1902 Colombia/Panama US forces land in Bocas del Toro.
1903 Colombia/Panama With US backing, a group in northern Colombia declares independence as the state of Panama.
1903 Guam Navy begins development in Apra Harbor of a permanent base installation.
1903 Honduras Marines go ashore at Puerto Cortés.
1903 Dominican Republic Marines land in Santo Domingo.
1904–5 Korea Marines land and stay in Seoul.
1906–9 Cuba Marines land. The US builds a major naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
1907 Nicaragua Troops seize major centers.
1907 Honduras Marines land and take up garrison in the cities of Trujillo, La Ceiba, Puerto Cortés, San Pedro Sula, Laguna, and Choloma.
1908 Panama Marines land and carry out operations.
1910 Nicaragua Marines land in Bluefields and Corinto.
1911 Honduras Marines intervene.
1911–41 China The US builds up its military presence in the country to a force of five thousand troops and a fleet of forty-four vessels patrolling China’s coast and rivers.
1912 Cuba US sends army troops into combat in Havana.
1912 Panama Army troops intervene.
1912 Honduras Marines land.
1912–33 Nicaragua Marines intervene. A twenty-year occupation of the country follows.
1913 Mexico Marines land at Ciaris Estero.
1914 Dominican Republic Naval forces engage in battles in the city of Santo Domingo.
1914 Mexico US forces seize and occupy Mexico’s major port city of Veracruz from April through November.
1914–34 Haiti Troops land, along with aerial bombardment, leading to a nineteen-year military occupation.
1915–16 Mexico An expeditionary force of the US Army . . . crosses the Texas border and penetrates several hundred miles into Mexican territory. This force is eventually reinforced to over eleven thousand officers and men.
1916–24 Dominican Republic Military intervention leads to an eight-year occupation.
1917–33 Cuba Naval forces land, which begins a fifteen-year occupation.
So, by this list, in the twenty-seven years leading to American involvement in World War I, there were forty-three interventions in eighteen different countries or colonies across three continents. During this time, America occupied nine countries or colonies, permanently annexing four. This is not “isolation” in any sense of the word.
But what about the interwar period? Did America finally turn her back on foreign intervention between 1918 and 1941? No. The list continues:
1918–22 Russia Naval forces and army troops fight battles in several areas of the country during a five-year period.
1919 Yugoslavia Marines intervene in Dalmatia.
1919 Honduras Marines land.
1920 Guatemala Troops intervene.
1922 Turkey Marines engage in operations in Smyrna (Izmir).
1922–27 China Naval forces and troops deploy during a five-year period.
1924–25 Honduras Troops land twice in a two-year period.
1925 Panama Marines land and engage in operations.
1927–34 China Marines and naval forces are stationed throughout the country.
1932 El Salvador Naval forces intervene.
1933 Cuba Naval forces are deployed.
1934 China Marines land in Foochow.
This is far less, a mere twelve interventions compared to forty-three. The US has added one continent, Europe, to her scope here. Also, remembering the occupations from the last list, four were ongoing in this interwar period. This is still not isolation, League membership or not.
Looking back at the original assertion from mainstream history, little to nothing is accurate. The United States has been in a constant state of intervention for more than a century now, and the attempt to characterize the interwar period as “foolish isolationism” is falsifying history. Whenever the regime and anyone else pushes this fictious “era of isolationism,” the American public is being duped. Not content with merely lying to get the country into these interventionist wars, the regime must also self-servingly rewrite history into one of lies. How else could it maintain the racket?