The decade of the sixties has produced a new school of isolationism. The reaction to the war in Vietnam, the demands of domestic problems and the seeming hollowness of traditional assumptions of international involvement- all give rise to this outlook. The isolationism is sometimes incoherent, occasionally inconsistent, and very attractive to a large portion of the younger generation.

Essentially, the isolationists are assaulting the cherished lessons of the thirties, the war years and the aftermath of the cold war. Alliances, so valued in the fifties, have no more appeal than the ideas of the men responsible for them. The threat of communism to U.S. security no longer seems real. Like their fathers who rejected the isolationism of the twenties and thirties, their critique of American foreign policy is straightforward and all-inclusive, and, like their fathers they guarantee that when they control foreign policy they will not repeat the tragic errors of the present.

The isolationists are heterogeneous by age, ideology and temperament; however, the most rapid increase in converts is among the under-thirty generation, which is my own. In February of 1969 the Gallup Poll released a report with the following headline : "Isolationist Viewpoint Gains in Appeal." Respondents in their twenties accounted for the significant increase from 1967 to 1969. In 1967 only 11 percent of the persons between 21 and 29 said the United States should "keep independent in world affairs." In 1969 that percentage jumped to 28 percent, due-in Gallup's estimation-to discouragement caused by the war in Vietnam. A June 1970 report by Louis Harris and Associates on college students verified the important shift in attitudes of young people currently enrolled in college. It emphasized the dramatic differences between the students and their parents on the threat of communism to American society, the conduct of the war in Vietnam, and President Nixon's success in the handling of American foreign policy. Youth is not alone, however. The anti-Vietnam war statements of a broad spectrum of peace groups challenge American foreign policy throughout the world. The "Vietnam is no accident" theme is commonplace. Although certainly not all the youth are in organized peace groups, and only a fraction of the general American citizenry, the breadth and depth of isolationist sentiment is growing rapidly.

Many commentators, however, misunderstand the current isolationist sentiment. In my view, it is the juxtaposition of isolationism with internationalism that is responsible for much of the misunderstanding, for this juxtaposition is not appropriate for a meaningful analysis. Two words summarize the real conflict in orientation in the current debate : isolationism and interventionism. The isolationists of the current generation are in no sense xenophobic. They have travelled more, studied more about foreign countries, and probably sympathize more with the aspirations of the developing countries than any group in American society. They are neither suspicious of foreigners nor unsympathetic to their problems. Such important ingredients of the internationalist credo as economic aid, international trade and technical assistance, if properly administered, are strongly supported by many holding the isolationist position. Further, they consider that the problems of nuclear armaments, their potential for world destruction, are crucial, and soluble if at all, only on an international scale. Isolation from the dangers of nuclear war, they realize, is impossible.

Moreover, the isolationist of the 1970s is more attuned to the Eastern intellectual of the 1930s than the anti-British, chauvinistic Midwesterner of that era. He would be no more at home with the Chicago Tribune of the 1930s than with the Chicago Tribune of today. Just as some Eastern intellectuals, primarily on the Left, saw their alliances as horizontal rather than vertical, the younger generation today sees an alliance among the students, the minorities, the non-superpowers of Europe and the third world. Such an alliance in both instances is more a romantic affinity than a real alliance. Nevertheless, the perception of international camaraderie is real.

The central issue for the new isolationists is the use of American military power. The companion issues of economic and diplomatic presence are important, but not as important. The current definition of American military policy, though distorted by our involvement in Vietnam, remains firmly rooted in the experience of World War II. The widespread popular support for the Second World War was based on the unique combination of moral outrage and fear for national security, a combination which resulted in a deathblow to the isolationism of the thirties. However, the reluctance of the American populace to respond to the Nazi and Fascist danger prior to 1941, the fervor of the "Keep Us Out of War" movement, and the disillusionment following the settlement at Versailles, all testify to the depth of the prewar isolationism.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the catalyst of American commitment in late 1941 and early 1942. The Japanese triggered a total response which, without a direct attack, would have been virtually impossible, or at any rate would have come much more slowly. Nevertheless, many argue that the threat to England and the continued expansion of the Germans would have inspired American military action in any case. The major difference between the two paths to commitment of military forces in the two wars was the degree of consensus that existed in the United States. Moreover, because of its scale, the experience of the Second World War was very personal to most Americans. Everyone knew someone who had joined the military effort. The Jewish people felt the impact of being under ferocious attack.

The depth of commitment following Pearl Harbor and the "lessons" of the thirties made it relatively easy for the country to adjust to a shift of focus in the late forties from Hitler and Germany to Stalin and the Soviet Union. The threat was similar in many respects. The ideology of communism as manifested in the Soviet Union seemed in its effects to be as evil as Nazism. The threat to national security and the threat of expansionism were made real in Eastern Europe, Greece and finally in Korea. Though the postwar domestic demands did require a shift of emphasis, acceptance of the Marshall Plan and the policy of containment indicated that the country accepted the assumption that the international involvement engendered by the Second World War must be continued. There was no discussion of pulling back behind the protective illusion of the Atlantic and Pacific. America felt she had a duty, and she took it seriously.


The most basic change in the perception of international political reality in the last 18 years is that the delineation of the world into the "good guys" and the "bad guys" on a one-dimensional scale is impossible. The simplistic concept of a "free world" and a communist world which differ on essential standards of personal liberty, economic systems and participation in governmental institutions and decision-making is no longer believed. The younger generation neither accepts the contrast with the communist system nor understands the fear and condemnation of it. The generation of the cold war applied the word communist indiscriminately. Few particulars that distinguish Soviet communism from our own system are even pointed out- differences which would have greater impact than the overused and unspecific "communist" label. But the Soviet Union of today appears to be very different from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union of the late forties and early fifties. Stalin and Hitler are gone. The existence of Jugoslavia and the more liberalizing communist régimes of Eastern Europe, plus the very success of the policy of containment, temper the modern view of the "enemy." Even the invasion of Czechoslovakia was not a sufficient departure to change significantly the general perception of the communist system among the young in this country. If anything, it seems to have illustrated the similarity between the hegemony of the United States in its sphere of influence and the Soviets' dominance in theirs.

The old kind of American idealism is gone-and with it the sense of world mission. Youth does not think America is the showcase of democracy. Far from it. Fifty-eight percent of the college students questioned in the recent Harris survey indicated that they viewed America as a "highly repressive society-intolerant of dissent." Even among students who described their political outlook as conservative or middle-of-the-road, more than 40 percent agreed with that description. Further, Harris finds that 80 percent of the students think that protests will continue after the war in Vietnam is concluded due to "more basic faults in the society." He reports that 76 percent believe that basic changes are needed in the American political and social system to improve the quality of life in America. Youth cannot see the dramatic contrasts which would lead to a commitment to fight for this specific form of government or way of life.

The new idealism that does exist among American youth developed along remarkably different lines. The civil rights movement of the early sixties, the Kennedy era, and the general politicization of American youth-brought on by the gap between theory and practice-have combined to produce a new orientation toward political and social change. The national idealism of former days sought to present the world with the picture of a nation which was worthy of emulation, and indeed the American experiment seemed close enough to success for many to take seriously the possibility that the United States might set an example to the rest of the world.

Being neither nationalistic nor patriotic, the young today often claim, and justifiably so, that they show a deeper concern for the health of American society than nearly any other group. They are strongly committed to solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition, racism, pollution, urban decay and other grave social problems. But they do not see their electioneering, lobbying, and general political organization in an international context. The idea of using American domestic change for international propaganda is offensive, and in a curious way they find our unfortunate image abroad not objectionable. It reconfirms the disillusionment they themselves feel and lends additional support to their cause. Further, most young people feel that the United States will require long years of commitment to reform in order to achieve a credible record in the problems it must solve.

There is another important change in outlook toward the communist world. The communist expansionism which followed the Second World War seems to have reached its end. With only rare exceptions does anyone under thirty worry about countries "going communist." The often quoted statements by Soviet leaders dedicating the communist party to world domination are considered relics of the past. Moreover, why should we accept their definition of intentions? The fear that we might confront a monolithic international force has collapsed with the emergence of communist polycentrism, the liberalization in Eastern Europe and the Sino-Soviet conflict. And the possibility of a Chinese threat to us seems unlikely as long as China's internal situation remains unsolved.

Aside from an indigenous revolution in Cuba, it has been 20 years since a country has been taken over by a communist military or political man?uvre. For this reason the anti-communist dogma of the past has less and less meaning. One must now be over 40 to have any real memory of the era of communist expansion. And half the population of this country is under 25.


A further change in outlook results from changes in the technology of war. The conventional armaments of the thirties and forties made the possibility of world conquest real. Now the threat of nuclear war dominates any discussion of international conflict. The rhetoric of destruction is well known. The symbol of the mushroom cloud and the picture of the nuclear wasteland are truly fearful. However, the Cuban missile crisis marked the only brush with nuclear disaster; the wars of the sixties have been conventional in weaponry.

Fear of the destructive capability of the long-range bomber could generate in the thirties the same forceful language that we hear today in talk of overkill and multiple warheads. Norman Thomas said frequently that a Second World War could bring the "destruction of civilization as we know it today." Rhetoric aside, however, the differences in technology between the two periods have produced a new reality. The major fear of the earlier generation was more of domination by an alien power than of actual physical destruction. The perception of armed conflict could be compartmentalized geographically into traditional concepts of theaters and fronts ; ideas of containment and counterattack were significant. Nuclear capability has changed all that.

Today, the peace movement is no longer focused on "the Bomb." The late fifties and early sixties were times of test-ban rallies and nuclear disarmament excitement. The everyday potential of annihilation that we live with has permanently changed the perception of interdependency. America is both more vulnerable to physical destruction and less dependent on other countries for defense or survival.

Yet the discussion of communism, expansionism and weapons technology fails to reflect adequately the overall attitude of young Americans to involvement with other countries. The current sense of isolationism involves more than the analysis of international conflict and geopolitical calculations. Young Americans are disillusioned about what good America can do abroad. In the idealism of the Kennedy era, represented in the early years of the Peace Corps, they were convinced of their ability to contribute to international development. The successes of the Marshall Plan had been a source of encouragement. Besides the Peace Corps, young people were attracted by the AID program and the numerous private programs designed to develop the third world.

Several factors have combined in the past five years to shatter their optimism. The riots in American cities-Watts to Hough to Newark-focused attention on the overwhelming domestic problems of racism and urban decay. The gulf in culture and politics between the young and the rest of the society became wider. Shootings at Kent State and Jackson State reinforced the feelings generated by the war in Vietnam. Blacks who fought in Danang and Hue came home to fight even harder for a menial job and helped change the climate here.

The coming of independence in Africa changed the climate abroad dramatically. Since World War II, 37 new states have come into being, plus Rhodesia. Foreign countries would vary their policies and attitudes on foreign assistance, but the trend throughout was toward nationalism and self-sufficiency. The poverty, frustration, and restlessness in the new states had a domestic counterpart. An affinity developed between the emergent African countries, assertive, proud and defiant, and the younger blacks in the United States, similarly assertive, proud and defiant, proclaiming black is beautiful. Those few blacks who actually went to Africa often came back disappointed, but, for most, the empathy was strong indeed. White sympathizers rallied to their cause, attempting to shed the chains of affluence and narrow-mindedness which they felt fettered their parents and were an embarrassment to them themselves.

Seemingly unrelated factors also combined to dash the remaining hopes of the idealists. Returning Peace Corpsmen reported the futility of what they had been doing in some areas. They brought news that the struggle to bring development in many countries would take decades, if not generations. The revelations of the CIA involvement with American student, youth, and academic institutions dealt the ideological idealists a crippling blow and reinforced the outspoken critics of American international involvement. As AID appropriations decreased, many countries were forced to become more independent of the United States. In general, the possibilities for a constructive American presence or support greatly decreased throughout the decade.

Disillusionment with the American potential for good was also related to the hostility with which U.S. foreign policy was viewed abroad. American economic policy in Latin America, American support for Israel, American intervention in Vietnam-each caused a significant portion of the world not to welcome Americans. Young people who are critical of these policies feel helpless and would rather not be involved internationally at all in the current mode of behavior.

Even in light of the success of the Kennedy confrontation with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba, the changed perception of the national interest by the younger generation would preclude them from supporting risks which the Executive would have taken at the height of the cold war. In their eyes, the nuclear age has rendered obsolete the traditional concept of collective security. They see no country for whose security they would fight. This has come to include Israel, which has traditionally evoked strong positive sentiments. In a Harris poll of May 1969, only nine percent of the respondents favored sending American troops to help Israel if she were in danger of being overrun by Soviet-aided Arabs.

Paradoxically, in a world of increasing interdependence the isolationists consider that the policies of the major powers are becoming increasingly independent. As they have turned inward, focusing more on domestic problems, they seek to minimize external commitments. The United States has had to become more concerned with race issues, poverty and urban discord. Soviet Russia has serious economic and political troubles. Europe is examining ways to strengthen itself by its own means. China has not yet recovered from the internal upheaval of the cultural revolution. Everywhere the need to remedy troubles at home leads nations to try to avoid troubles abroad.


Proponents of the new isolationism differ significantly among themselves as to whether there are limits beyond which defense requirements cannot be disregarded. A large portion of the group does not consciously advocate unilateral disarmament. Many are excited about the potential of the SALT talks for easing what they recognize as the nuclear crisis. However, an equal number would regard nuclear retaliation in response to a first strike as unconscionable-the willful destruction of human life is simply unacceptable for any reason. In this view, the building of new weapons systems, regardless of any Soviet or Chinese initiatives in that direction, is equally unsupportable. Indeed, the excesses of defense spending are considered so deplorable that in many cases literally no international crisis or threat to national security could generate support for defense appropriations at the current level. The isolationists are not the force which makes the strategy of nuclear deterrence credible.

Critics are quick to point out that the new generation has not confronted conditions like the Nazi expansionism in the late thirties and early forties. They have not faced existence versus annihilation. The critics also question the isolationist assumption that the United States will not be attacked as well as the demand that domestic priorities be set at the expense of allocations for defense. And perhaps rightly so. The response of the new isolationists to a conventional threat might well be to give more support to defensive measures than the current rhetoric would indicate. Actual physical destruction, imposition of foreign rule or a military coup might elicit a strong response. Many of the young who are so disillusioned with the present imperfect society would nevertheless fight a conventional war for it-if only for the chance to improve it. Only a small percentage are absolute pacifists.

Conventional threats of the type listed above may never test this generation, and until they do the response is unpredictable. One can only say that the current diversity of outlook, the changes in the technology of war and the prevailing mood of disillusionment would prevent formation of a broad consensus that would see justification for war of the sort that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The underlying issue is national commitment, and perhaps a new definition of the national interest. The divisions in the country which in part arise from the war in Vietnam preclude the consolidation of a national will which could force steps to eliminate the poverty and hunger of millions of American families, rebuild the cities and save our natural resources. None of the problems is unique to the United States, and isolationists in no way advocate turning our back on other nations with similar ills. But we must cure them here; if we can simultaneously assist foreign countries, so much the better. Those who argue for new priorities for human needs are sensitive to those needs both at home and abroad. The grape workers in California, as an example, oppressed and exploited, received fervent support from idealistic American youth. Real people were fighting for a decent life against overwhelming odds, and the "now" generation felt direct concern.

The statement of the issue in terms of national commitment highlights another important component of the priorities argument. If the war in Vietnam were to end in a few months, the issues of national security and national defense would not die. Congressional debates on the Anti-Ballistic Missile System, defense contracting, the space program and the development of supersonic air transport have stimulated public awareness and challenged automatic approval of such military and military-connected expenditures. Domestic politics will be permanently affected by the intellectual force of arguments against preparations for military intervention.

At bottom, the prolongation of the war in Indochina is mainly responsible for the popularity of the new concept of the proper American international posture. Many young Americans have lived their entire political lives with Vietnam as the overriding issue. The teach-ins started in the spring of 1965-five and one-half years ago. Then, earlier this year, the war expanded to Cambodia. The effect of the prolongation of the war and the resulting frustration has been to end discussion of intermediate solutions in many quarters. From 1966 to 1968 the fear that a precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam would lead to a communist takeover prevented many Americans-again, most of them over thirty-from calling for an immediate end to the war. But in a Gallup poll in June 1970 more than half the population of the United States supported immediate withdrawal or scheduled withdrawal within one year. Middle positions based on hopes for coalition governments, ceasefires, pauses in military activity and negotiations have all but passed from active consideration. These changes are more dramatic among the young, but they represent a general realization that the costs of continued intervention in Vietnam far exceed the consequences of even a precipitate withdrawal. The traditional "victory" over the enemy in war lies outside the frame of reference of Second-World-War babies. Growing up in a compromise atmosphere-balance of terror, of fear, of power-they find the alternative to winning not only acceptable but imperative.

America has a long isolationist tradition. Now that the interventionism which followed the Second World War has run its course, the price of intervention seems higher than ever. One need only think of the likely public response to another-hypothetical-invasion of the Dominican Republic to sense how far the national attitude has evolved.

For many years the isolationists were said to be willing to risk repeating the mistakes that led to the Second World War, to turn their backs on international realities. Today among young people the pendulum has swung dramatically in the opposite direction. Interventionists have taken on the burdens of a major military mistake in Southeast Asia. They also are considered responsible for the anti-Americanism of major portions of opinion in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. They are criticized for their unwillingness to discard what are considered outmoded assumptions about the "communist threat." Even among the not-so-young, many persons have a sense of past errors. A new internationalism based on a peaceful response to human needs is the only effective response that the new generation of isolationists will heed.

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