I wrote a piece about the uses and abuses of the I-word for the magazine in 2006. Digital subscribers can read the whole thing here. An excerpt:
1920 AND ALL THAT
It all begins with the Treaty of Versailles and the Republican-led refusal to ratify it. It should be remembered that the Republican party was not then a “conservative” party as we understand that term today. It was Republican Teddy Roosevelt who launched the Progressive party, and the GOP was on the whole more interventionist than the Democrats during that era. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep America at peace and insisted — correctly — that a vote for the GOP was a vote for getting entangled in a foreign war. Wilson eventually dragged America into that war, justifying it on absurdly idealistic grounds (far more idealistic than anything George W. Bush, super-democrat, has said). When Republicans, led by their Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge, opposed the treaty, critics assailed them as “isolationists.” But what usually gets omitted from the story, as David Frum has noted, is that Lodge had agreed to ratify Wilson’s other treaty. This treaty would have committed the United States to defending France if she were attacked by Germany. In the end, Wilson refused to submit it to the Senate because a) he was a feckless, egocentric crybaby and b) he feared it would lead to America’s getting too involved in European affairs.
Confused? It gets worse. Consider the muckraking journalist John T. Flynn, widely seen as the heart and soul of right-wing isolationism in the 1930s. The head of the New York chapter of the America First Committee, Flynn was a tireless and ubiquitous champion of non-intervention abroad and a relentless critic of Wall Street and big business at home. Guess where Flynn made his name? At The American Mercury? The Freeman? Some other oracle of the imagined paleoconservative past? Nope. The New Republic. He wrote a column there for nearly a decade called “Other People’s Money.” Flynn left The New Republic because of his opposition to FDR and his advocacy of non-interventionism. And while it’s true that in the 1930s “right-wing” was often defined as “anti-FDR,” serious observers would hardly claim that Flynn moved unambiguously to the right.
Indeed, throughout the 1930s, The New Republic had subscribed to that “enlightened” form of isolationism we call “pacifism,” and to people like Flynn it was The New Republic that moved right by embracing militarism. Before Flynn broke with The New Republic, it had ridiculed those who thought you could “end war by waging war.” “On the contrary,” it editorialized in 1937, “nothing is more likely than that the United States would go fascist through the very process of organizing to defeat the fascist nations.” This was the heart and soul of Flynn’s opposition to intervention. Not surprisingly, his allies in the isolationist cause were other liberals who thought they were staying loyal to liberal principles. This group included American Socialist party leader Norman Thomas, longtime Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard, Charles Beard, John Dewey, Joseph Kennedy, Bernard Baruch, and Progressive hero Robert La Follette.
In fairness, isolationism, or non-interventionism, was a defensible position before Pearl Harbor, and before it became clear that isolationism would lead to the triumph of Hitler. The memory of the transcendentally stupid First World War was still fresh in American minds. There was an enlightened bipartisan consensus that such hell should not be revisited, and isolationism was the smart stance among politically ambitious liberals. John F. Kennedy, who was a junior member of the America First Committee when at Choate, sent the AFC $100 while he was at Harvard with a note saying, “What you are all doing is vital.” Kennedy’s older brother Joe was the head of the isolationist group at Harvard. Sargent Shriver — who would become JFK’s brother-in-law, the founder of the Peace Corps, and George McGovern’s running mate — was a member of an AFC-affiliated youth group. Gore Vidal headed up the AFC youth chapter at Exeter.