Polished Paragraph(s) – American Isolationism

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The bulk of scholarship on American isolationism specifically focuses on the period of the twentieth century that encompasses the World Wars, and often ignores any earlier manifestations of the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major questions facing historians who tackle these earlier incarnations of isolationism center around its origins. While these historians do not often directly engage in a debate, their ideas nevertheless fall into two different camps: one considers the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1832 as the official starting point, while the other looks to various earlier moments in American history.

Most historians writing on the subject fall into the first category. Carl Becker wrote “The Monroe Doctrine and the War” shortly after the end of the First World War, making him the first historian to notice a connection between the Monroe Doctrine and the broader idea of isolationism, likely because isolationism was more prevalent than ever before in the years directly leading up to American involvement in the war. Several subsequent historians have shared his opinion; Gretchen Murphy (Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire), Jay Sexton (The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America), and John Kasson (“The Monroe Doctrine in 1881”) make the Monroe Doctrine the focus of their respective works on the American idea of empire in the nineteenth century. More recently however, several historians have come forward to suggest even earlier beginnings to isolationist practices. William Belko’s “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited” traces its development to a very specific event: the 1810 West Florida Revolt, which he proposes shaped the eventual “no transfer” policy of the Monroe Doctrine. Reaching even further back, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol looks to the 1790s as a period of early isolationism following George Washington’s suggestion to avoid entanglement in Europe in her article “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.”

While the establishment of a concrete point of origin for isolationism is undoubtedly the most contested point within the historiography, other historians have established an ancillary debate centering around the dichotomy of internationalism and isolationism. Some see these two ideas as completely incompatible, and choose to focus their work on the arguments between “imperialists” and “anti-imperialists” within the American government. David Healy (U.S. Expanisionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s) and Beverly Tompkins (Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate 1890-1920) both hold this view in their books dealing with both expansionism and anti-imperialism. On the other side of the debate, Mariano Marco’s “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine” and James Sofka’s “American Neutral Rights Reappraised” both point out the similarities between these two ideas, stressing the ways in which they could actually coexist. Both of these questions demonstrate the relative lack of consensus among the academic community when it comes to the history of American isolationism, making its study both useful and important in terms reaching new conclusions that may further the field.

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