Charles A. Kupchan


On his book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World

Cover Interview of February 24, 2021

A close-up

I would encourage readers to start with the Preface. There they will find a concise summary of the intellectual journey that prompted me to write Isolationism and of the book’s aims. “My main objective in writing this book is to provide readers a go-to volume for understanding American isolationism. I aim, in accessible fashion, to tell the story of America’s efforts to shield itself from the world—from the founding era through the Trump presidency” (page xiv). Much of the book looks back at the nation’s history, but I also use that history to explore the present and future: “America’s isolationist past does have much to teach us about the nation’s current geopolitical predicament” (page xii). I would also encourage readers to skim pages 8-28. This section provides an overview of book’s main arguments and the flow of the historical narrative.

Finally, I would urge that readers jump into one of many historical turning points explored in the book—such as the account of the anti-imperialist backlash against the Spanish-America War of 1898 (pages 197-205). When President William McKinley launched a war to expel Spain from Cuba, he claimed he was acting “in the cause of humanity.” The U.S. Navy handily defeated the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and Pacific, and proceeded to wrest control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and the Wake Islands. McKinley called the annexation of Hawaii “manifest destiny” and portrayed the military occupation of the Philippines as a “holy cause,” explaining that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

Many Americans didn’t buy it—especially after a bloody insurgency broke out in the Philippines that took the lives of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. William Jennings Bryan, who ran against McKinley in the 1900 election, claimed that the nation could not “endure half republic and half colony—half free and half vassal.” William Sumner, an influential Yale professor, offered a similar critique: “Expansionism and imperialism (...) appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive (...). They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hard-headed enough to resist them.”

McKinley won the 1900 election and the United States kept hold of the territories it seized in 1898. But enthusiasm for further territorial expansion evaporated, and the backlash against foreign entanglement helped clear the way for the isolationist retreat of the interwar era. The debate over American foreign policy spawned by the Spanish-American War profoundly resonates with the debates taking place today over the nature of America’s role in the world.