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Isolationism in the 1920's

Warren Harding

Isolationism in the 1920's: Warren Harding was the 29th American President who served in office from March 4, 1921 to August 2, 1923. One of the important events during his presidency was the resumption of the United States foreign policy of Isolationism.

Definition and Summary of the Isolationism in the 1920's
Summary and definition:
Isolationism is the name of the foreign policy adopted by Republican governments under President Harding (1921-1923) and President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). The American foreign policy of Isolationism in the 1920's was a diplomatic and economic doctrine that aimed at self-advancement to make the United States economically self-reliant and retaining peace with other nations. 

The policy of Isolationism in the 1920's attempted to isolate the United States from the diplomatic affairs of other countries by avoiding foreign entanglements and entering into alliances, and limiting foreign competition by imposing high import tariffs (Taxes).

Facts about Isolationism in the 1920's
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Isolationism in the 1920's.

WW1, the Great War, had ended in victory for the allies. President Wilson had been instrumental in drafting of post-WW1 settlement plan which became known as Wilson's 14 Points speech.

President Wilson's Fourteen Points had called for the creation of a “general association of nations” which became known as the League of Nations.

The purpose of the League of Nations was to ensure that the League’s member nations would help preserve peace and prevent future wars.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles made a mockery of Wilson's Fourteen Points Plan and the United States Senate consequently opposed the adoption of the Treaty of Versailles and declined membership in the League of Nations.

President Harding's victory speech, the first to be broadcast on the radio,  called for "a return to normalcy" and declared the issue of America's involvement in the League of Nations "deceased".

The destruction and cost of WW1 had left their mark on America and the majority of Americans wanted to be kept out of any future involvement in European politics and simply wanted to be left alone to concentrate on building prosperity in the United States.

The American people wholeheartedly agreed with the idea of "a return to normalcy" and were in favor of the return to the American foreign policy of Isolationism.

The American economy was entering a boom period - see the Economic Boom of the 1920's. Before WW1 America was in debt to Europe. After WW1 the situation was reversed and the Allies owed the US more than $10 billion for the cost of armaments and food supplies.

The resumption of the American foreign policy of Isolationism in the 1920's appeared to be a logical decision.

  • The Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans surrounded the USA formed a natural, geographic barrier with the rest of the world

  • Memories of the destruction and loss caused by WW1 were fresh in the minds of Americans

  • Americans believed that radical political movements and ideologies such as socialism, communism, and anarchism were European in origin and threatened political stability in the United States. The events during the Red Scare (1917 - 1920) had fostered the fear and suspicion of foreigners

  • Americans did not trust Europeans after the Treaty of Versailles

Foreign Policy: The theory of following the path of Isolation was sound, but it was impossible to fully achieve in a practical sense in relation to US foreign policy.

  • The United States had emerged from WW1 as a world military, political and industrial leader

    • America was too powerful unable to avoid political involvement with international affairs. Although not members of the League of Nations, America participated in many conferences of the League of Nations

    • America was economically connected with other countries. It was vital for the US economy for Europeans to buy American exports

Domestic Policy on Immigration: America was able to control its domestic policy and the doctrine of Isolationism was evident in the measures taken by the Federal Government to limit and control immigration.

  • The 1921 Emergency Quota Act was passed using a quota system to establish limits and restricting the number of immigrants from a given country

  • The 1924 Border Patrol was established to combat smuggling and illegal immigration into America

  • The 'Golden Door' to America was shut with the 1924 Immigration Act that placed stringent restrictions on the number of immigrants from a given country

The 1922 Fordney-McCumber Act was passed introducing the highest tariffs in American history, this policy was called Protectionism. However the US law backfired. In response to the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act, European countries imposed a tax on American goods making them too expensive to buy in Europe and restricting trade which contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930's.

Europe claimed that America was hampering their economic recovery and adding to their difficulties in clearing their massive war debts. Europe believed that America should assume some of the financial burdens as they had encountered less war casualties than its allies. The US responded negatively to this request as, unlike the Allies, they had not gained any new territories nor were receiving the massive cash payments from Germany (Reparations) as compensation for the destruction and losses of WW1.

Germany and the Weimar Republic was on the brink of financial collapse and was in danger of not being able to pay its wartime reparations. The Dawes Plan was introduced by American diplomat and banker Charles G. Dawes in 1924. Dawes was the US budget director and his plan was to give Germany longer to pay its heavy war reparations and agreed to an American loan to Germany of 800 million gold marks.

American intervention in South America: American troops left Nicaragua in 1925 but US troops returned in 1927 when a civil  war broke out in order to protect American business interests in the country.

The 1928 Clark Memorandum saw a shift in US foreign policy when the State Department repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine  stating that the Monroe Doctrine could not be used to justify American intervention in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite the terrible experiences of WW1 and economic hardships, the major powers in Europe were involved in a naval arms race. The United States intervened by arranging the Washington Conference between November 1921 and February 1922 to discuss disarmament. The Washington Conference resulted in three agreements (the Four-Power Treaty, the Five-Power Treaty and the Nine-Power Treaty) in an effort to prevent future wars.

The success of the Washington Conference led the United States and 14 other nations to sign the 1928 Kellogg-Brand Pact agreeing to abandon war and settle disagreements by peaceful diplomacy.

The 1929 Young Plan was drafted in order to reduce the total amount of reparations due from Germany and extended the payment period until 1988. The adoption of the plan was short lived due to the 1929 Wall Street Crash as any form of financial support for the Weimar Republic was all but impossible as the US turned inwards on itself and stepped up its policy of Isolationism.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash and the policy of American Isolationism continued in the 1930s.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition
American Isolationism in the 1930's

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