The Enduring Power of Isolationism: An Historical Perspective

Christopher McKnight Nichols


Are Americans becoming more “isolationist”? Four years ago, for the first time since the Vietnam War, almost half of those polled by the Pew Research Center stated they would rather the United States “mind [its] own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” and work to “reduce military commitments overseas” in order to decrease the deficit. Such cautious views about American involvement abroad are on the rise, up ten percentage points over the past decade, according to Pew polls released in 2011 and 2012. A majority of Americans think the United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan too slowly and are reticent to take direct action in Syria. This article explains the long historical context of these recent events to argue for the enduring power and significance of isolationist thought.