The isolationist years

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

But when the war was won, within another year and a half, American idealists were shocked and dismayed to watch the British and French vultures descend to feast on the corpses of Austria and, especially, Germany. They watched them seize territories in the Middle East that had successfully revolted from the Turks. They watched as one vindictive measure followed another, and in a very short time they learned a lot about their gallant allies. As soon as Americans recognized that it had been not a crusade to make the world safe for democracy but a war between empires, they concluded that Wilson, and they, had been played for fools.

For a full generations thereafter, it became political suicide for an American politician to advocate any policy that seemed to risk again becoming entangled in European affairs. In the years to come, English and French statesmen would have many reasons to bewail American reluctance to participate in the League of Nations or to engage in “collective security” pacts or, after the war began, to intervene against Hitler until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war. There were many reasons for that reluctance, but a chief reason was that Americans remembered all too well what had happened the last time they had intervened.

Thus: The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the peace treaty with Germany and Austria, as being too punitive. We eventually signed separate treaties. It refused to ratify the treaty binding the U.S. to join the League of Nations, which was President Wilson’s brainchild and his main hope for the peaceful reconstruction of the world. America watched the Bolsheviks consolidate power in Russia, Mussolini take power in Italy, warlords divide China among themselves, and militarists rise to power in Japan. It watched the systematic and deliberate destruction of the German mark by its own government as its way of evading the crippling economic reparations imposed by the peace treaty. It watched the fearful malice of the French, hopeless desperation of poor Austrians and Germans, gradually subsiding chaos in much of eastern Europe. It watched the French and British land-grab in the middle east and the struggle for oil concessions in what had been the southern outposts of the Russian Empire. After a while it watched the rise of Adolf Hitler and the transformation of Germany into one huge war machine, the same thing that was happening, behind a veil of secrecy, in the newly created Soviet Union. It watched French and British governments lose their nerve as they tried to face up to this strange resurgent Germany. It watched all this, and, in those simpler days, no one took it to be America’s responsibility to do anything about any of it, let alone all of it. For better or for worse, America’s responsibilities were seen as mostly stopping at the water’s edge. The prevailing feeling was that we should let the foreigners sort out their own problems, as we expected them to let us sort out our own.

However, this stance came to be severely strained as it watched the world divide ideologically into right and left, with each side murderously afraid of the other, and each side determined to do whatever was necessary to prevent the other side from succeeding in reorganizing the world. George Gurdjieff said at the time that one would have to be blind indeed not to see that all the troubles in the contemporary world stemmed from the existence in Russia of a communist state, and although few would have agreed at the time, retrospect demonstrates that his judgment was correct. Because there was communism, with its systematic state terror and its professed determination to overthrow every other state in the world, there was the emotional fuel that led first to fascism, and then to Nazism – and both those movements took their tactics directly from what they observed in the Soviet Union. Because Fascists and Nazis were as international in their ambitions as were the communists, this conflict between right and left came to dominate every country’s domestic politics. Statesmen could no longer content themselves with considering their country’s traditional strategic interests. Now they had to weigh the effects of their actions on this on-going international civil war.

America tried to stay out of this conflict, too, but couldn’t. Political conservatives and liberals both came to suspect the motives of their opponents. Would this or that measure lead to the other side’s totalitarianism? Would this or that action aid Communists or Fascists in other countries? It was a form of madness, but it wasn’t very easily avoidable. It was in the air. America was too strong and too isolated geographically to be directly threatened by other countries: Nobody was going to impose either ideology at bayonet point. But before too long, overseas politics came to be seen as a sort of flank attack. Pulling back from world affairs proved to be just as difficult, and just as impossible, finally, as staying out of the war had been.

Hitler used a brilliant combination of threats and promises and guilt-trips to paralyze successive French and British governments while he improved his condition. The threat was actually two threats. The first (which the Western statesmen took very seriously) was the threat that without a militarily strong Germany, the West had no defense against Stalin. In this guise, the threat contained a promise: Germans were the defenders of European culture against the half-Asian barbarism to the East, and could be relied upon by the tired, aging, half bankrupt capitalists to save them. The second threat, which grew more serious year by year, was that if Germany were not given its demands, there would be another war, or rather there would be a resumption of the first war after the interrupted by the armistice.

Guilt-trips reinforced this strategy. Hitler started by demanding revision of the most obviously unjust of the provisions of the Versailles treaty. For instance, he attacked French control over the Rhineland, the German territories West of the Rhine, which had been demilitarized in order to provide security for the French. He took the Rhineland in a sudden movement in March, 1936, and only long after the war was over did the West learn that the German military, terrified of renewed hostilities, had extorted a promise from him that German troops would retreat immediately if even one shot was fired at them. Hitler gambled on French weakness and British indecision, and he won. Step by step, he moved, and met no determined opposition.

The French and the British longed to have the assistance and support of the American government, and President Roosevelt would have been glad to give them at least some of what they asked, but he didn’t dare. The American people’s memory was too fresh, and their understanding of the oncoming peril was too vague and confused. Europe seemed still far enough away for a resolute neutrality to be a viable policy.

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