Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

James Burnham

The Dream of Isolation

(February 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 8, 19 February 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The idea of “collective security” has never been popular with the majority of the people of this country. This has been proved on a number of occasions, most conspicuously during the period following the last war. In spite of the fact that the war itself showed that neutrality for the United States in a major European conflict was impossible, as soon as the War was over Americans wanted to steer clear of Europe.

This sentiment was reflected in the Senate. Wilson came back from Versailles with his head full of the new Treaty, Briand’s plans for collective security, and the grandiose scheme for the League of Nations. The Senate blocked adherence to the League, and in doing so undoubtedly represented majority opinion.

Even now, with the entire Administration, especially Roosevelt and Hull, driving for collective security, and with the outstanding bourgeois press holding the same perspective, the anti-collective security Ludlow Amendment came close to a majority in the House of Representatives.

Majority Favor Neutrality Policy

The majority of the people has been traditionally in favor of “isolation;” or, as it is often called, “neutrality.” There are historical reasons for this feeling, so different from opinion in Europe, even among the masses. For one thing, there is the important geographical fact that the United States is far away from any other great power, whereas the European nations are situated right next to each other. Again, there is the carryover from the hopes of the American Revolution, which was to build a new civilization freed from the conflicts of the Old World. And, in addition, there were the unparalleled resources and opportunities for expansion on the North American Continent.

There was always, of course, hypocrisy and unreality in the idea of “isolation.” Isolation from Europe was found to be perfectly consistent with the ruthless extermination of the native inhabitants of North America. The Monroe Doctrine, dating from the early years of United States history, was hardly an “isolationist “ conception. In actuality, from the point of view of United States capitalism, isolation and neutrality means only that up to a certain point in its history the United States had a sufficient sphere for exploitation and advance, in the Americas, and did not need to develop a “world outlook.”

Base for Isolation No Longer Exists

As the United States entered the imperialist stage of its development, the economic basis for the policy of isolation was destroyed. The idea of isolation lingered on in a vacuum. This was already clear in the Spanish War. It was fully shown by the War of 1914–18. The ramifications of American capitalism had become world-wide, and it was drawn irresistibly into the vortex of world affairs.

With the last War, the United States became a creditor nation, and has since become the first and most powerful of the imperialist powers. Its whole internal economy now depends upon its stake in the world market. Without its foreign trade and foreign capital investments, it would be bankrupt within six months. Far from decreasing in importance, the foreign trade and investments must necessarily play an ever more crucial role.

Beard Sees Where Policies Are Leading

In the New Republic debate over collective security between Earl Browder and Charles A. Beard, there is no doubt at all that Dr. Beard has much the best of the argument. He understands what Browder’s argument means, that it means advocacy and preparation for war; and with his mature and rather tired irony he exposes Browder’s meaning. He knows what Roosevelt is up to: “The Roosevelt Administration, bewildered and baffled by the economic impasse at home, is employing sentimental coverages for excursions abroad.”

He knows how “peace-loving” France and Great Britain are: “Having all the European territory required by their traditional ambitions and loaded with the spoils of empire, Great Britain and France do want peace – at their price ... The great democratic powers want peace and the possession of all they have ...” He knows that Italy and Germany and Japan are driven by conflicts too great to be stopped by any peaceful “quarantines “: “I find in history no justification whatever for assuming as truth that Italy, Germany and Japan would surrender unconditionally to a grand quarantine.”

Understands Value of Democracy

He knows also just what “democracy” is worth to imperialism, and just how democracy is served by imperialist war:

“Does anyone conversant with British history really believe that the operations of the British government since 1914, let us say, have been controlled by some conception of democracy, as distinguished from British interests in the Mediterranean, Africa and elsewhere? Or the operations of the French government? What did these governments do for democracy in Germany between 1919 and 1933? ... And if it comes to another war for democracy against the three offenders, have we any ground for expecting beneficent results in the way of a universal democratic advance? All I ask anyone to consider on this point is the record ...”

Lastly, Beard knows the real direction of Roosevelt’s program, which Browder so ardently defends: “That Roosevelt would take them in (to the next world war) swiftly if it comes is highly probable ...”

Fails to Make Positive Proposals

Beard knows all these things about the Roosevelt-Browder program, about collective security. But what does he propose in its place? In the debate he makes no explicit proposals. His views, developed elsewhere in his writings, are left implicit. They are the views of isolationism; he wants the Uridted States to stay home and mind its own business.

But, in truth, this alternative is no alternative at all; and Beard’s program is no program. The truth is that the business of U.S. imperialism is everybody’s business. The truth is that foreign trade and capital markets are necessary to U.S. capitalism if it is not to collapse. There are not enough markets to go around among the powers. The competition for them is a life and death question for each power. Therefore, in the end, they – including the United States, fight each other for them.

Does He Think U.S. Will Abdicate?

To assume that the U.S. capitalists, controlling the U.S. government, will not fight under such circumstances, is to assume that they will voluntarily abdicate, will stand by while the social system which supports them goes bankrupt. Does Dr. Beard, with all his historical knowledge and his irony, make such an assumption?

The idea that isolation is possible for imperialist United States is thus an empty illusion, utterly unrelated to historical and economic reality. If it and those who advocate it are less treacherous than collective security, the illusion of isolation is also a most powerful danger. For it is an illusion which leads the masses away from the genuine fight against war, dissipates their energies in empty air, and leaves them helpless when the war breaks out in spite of – in part because of – the illusion.

(This is the third in a series of four articles by James Burnham on the New Republic debate over collective security between Earl Browder and Charles A. Beard. The last article, summarizing the Marxist answer to collective security, will appear in the next issue.)

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 November 2014