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The End of American Isolation

The American people were as ill-prepared to meet the spiritual challenge of the war as they were to protect themselves against its distressing economic effects.

American troops preparing for WWI on a mock battlefield in 1917.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
American troops preparing for WWI on a mock battlefield in 1917.

The self-complacent isolation of a great people has never received a ruder shock than that which was dealt to the American nation by the outbreak of the European war. We have long been congratulating ourselves on something more than an official independence of Europe. We considered ourselves free in a finer and a deeper sense—free from the poison of inherited national antipathies, free from costly and distracting international entanglements, free from a more than incidental reliance on foreign markets for the sale of our products, free to make mistakes with impunity and to gather fruits by merely shaking the tree. We were more nearly self-contained, more completely the master of our own destiny, than any other nation of history.

Yet this consummate example of political independence has been subjected to a visitation of fate almost as disconcerting as those which beset wandering Indian tribes. There broke over the country a European war which the American people individually and collectively were powerless to prevent or to mitigate, yet which may have consequences upon the future and policy of the country as profound and far-reaching as our self-made Civil War. Independence in the sense of isolation has proved to be a delusion. It was born of the same conditions and the same misunderstandings as our traditional optimistic fatalism; and it must be thrown into the same accumulating scrapheap of patriotic misconceptions.

The American nation was wholly unprepared to cope with such a serious political and economic emergency. It possessed no organization and no equipment with which to protect its citizens against the loss and the suffering caused by the war. It was equally unprepared to take advantage of the opportunities for an increase in foreign trade which the sudden belligerency of the European powers thrust into its hands. No disposition was shown to sit down patiently under the affliction.

The industries and interests whose prosperity was affected jumped swiftly to the conclusion that a loss which was the result of an international crisis, and which was serious enough to threaten their own subsequent economic efficiency, should not fall upon themselves alone, but should be redistributed. They all promptly appealed to the government for assistance either in carrying the burden or in taking advantage of the unexpected opportunities. The railroads demanded an increase in rates as compensation for diminution in business. The cotton-growers tried to draw an additional five cents a pound for their cotton out of the United States Treasury. Congress was asked to provide the ships which were needed to transport American products to foreign countries; and it actually consented to place upon the nation the extraordinary risks of marine insurance.

In every direction the need of more flexible and responsible national business organization was apparent, yet everywhere the country was obliged to put up with unsatisfactory makeshifts. There was no adequate political and business machinery for dealing with an essentially collective business emergency. Winter will soon set in without the making of a proper provision for the relief of the greatest sufferers from the war, who are not railroads or cotton-growers or brokers, but the increasing body of unemployed wage-earners. The national economic system has been wholly unable to meet the obligations, which in the opinion of the great majority of American citizens the war had imposed upon it.

The American people were as ill-prepared to meet the spiritual challenge of the war as they were to protect themselves against its distressing economic effects. Their sense of international isolation has bred in them a combination of crude colonialism with crude nationalism. In the beginning they constituted themselves into a supreme court, whose affair it was to sit in judgment on the sins of Europe. They passed the day in objurgating the war, in abusing Europe for bringing it to pass, and in crying for peace at a moment when there could and should be no peace. But their protests against the war did not prevent them from taking sides violently for or against the Allies, and from giving expression to latently bellicose sympathies and antipathies. They traveled so far along this road that President Wilson felt obliged to read them a lecture on the expediency and the moral grandeur of being neutral.

The instinctive colonialism of American public opinion was balanced by a similarly inconsiderate expression of national self-assertion. The United States was going to penalize Europe for engaging in the war by snatching away many of its existing superiorities. American manufacturers proposed to capture European trade in South America and the Orient. The profits of financing international commerce were to be transferred from London to New York. Fashions for women would be designed on Fifth Avenue rather than the Rue de la Paix. A great national revival in the fine arts would follow a cessation of the importation of painting, sculpture and music. The United States would be thrown back upon its own resources, and then it would show to Europe a full measure of national accomplishment.

When Americans indulge in these expectations they are merely being pursued by the evil spirit of their traditional national delusion—the delusion of isolated newer worldliness. The European war has done nothing except in certain fugitive respects to make them independent of Europe, or to give them an advantage over Europe. Less than ever before will their geographical isolation result in genuine independence. No matter who is victorious, the United States will be indirectly compromised by the treaty of peace.

If the treaty is one which makes for international stability and justice, this country will have an interest in maintaining it. If the treaty is one which makes militarism even more ominously threatening, this country will have an interest in seeking a better substitute. Neither will our merchants derive permanent advantages in their own or foreign markets as a result of the war. When it is over, European nations will immediately become both more efficient and more insistent competitors for foreign trade than they were before it began. They will be obliged as a matter of popular subsistence to reconquer and extend their markets, and they will therefore be better organized and equipped for the work. Thus the war has brought with it increasingly numerous and increasingly onerous American national and international obligations.

In its deepest aspect, then, the European war is a challenge to the United States to justify its independence. The nation can not be independent in the sense of being isolated. It can be independent in the sense of being still more completely the master of its own destiny. The control of its own destiny will not mean, as it has done in the past, merely the renunciation of European entanglements, because entanglements will inevitably ensue from the adoption of the positive and necessary policy of making American influence in Europe count in favor of international peace. Neither will the control of its own destiny by the American nation mean, as it has done in the past, its own control by a triumphant prophecy of prosperity. What it will mean is a clearer understanding of the relation between our democratic national ideal and our international obligations, and such an understanding should bring with it a political and economic organization better able to redeem its obligations both to its own citizens and to a regenerate European system.