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US Isolationism in the 1910s and 1920s Essay

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Following the maelstrom of violence that was the First World War, the United States retreated into a protective shell of isolationism. This is seen most through comparing the rampant international meddling that took place in the period 1900-1919 with the tariffs and political isolation that was the norm of the 1920s.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the US acted as a world power. They played both sides in World War I until they finally joined the Allies side.

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After their victory in World War I, President Wilson pushed his 14 Points on Europe, fundamentally dictating the resolution of the war to European leaders. With the assistance of other European leaders, Wilson essentially redrew the borders of Europe.

The US also took a very active political role in South America. Between 1900 and 1920, for example, the United States intervened in six Western Hemispheric nations, establishing protectorates in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and periodically stationing U.S. Marines in Nicaragua. In 1867 the United States pressured the French into removing troops supporting the Emperor Maximillian in Mexico. In the 1910s, however, as part of an ill-starred campaign to influence the Mexican revolution, the United States found itself sending an army of 11,000 troops into the northern part of the country in a futile effort to capture the elusive rebel and outlaw Pancho Villa. The US also worked with Columbian rebels to create Panama, so that the US could construct the Panama Canal, after the Columbian Congress refused to ratify the US’ treaty in 1903. Overall, the US took a very active role in global politics up through World War I.

However, after World War I, the US’s position changed radically: the American people had had enough of involvement and decided that isolationism was the way to go. This position, provoked by the disillusionment of the First World War, ingrained itself on the leaders and people alike as they both desperately wanted to avoid further bloodshed. This was just when the world needed America, the strongest remaining power, to get involved. They withdrew from politics, refusing to join the League of Nations and signing a separate peace treaty, independent from other nations, with Germany. They also essentially ignored the up-and-coming communist powers in Asia, in hope that the problem would solve itself without American intervention. The US basically greatly limited its role in global politics to the very bare minimum.

This isolation, however, was more than just political. Economically speaking, the entire European economy relied on the American economy following World War I, due to reparation payments required from the Axis states and the repayment of loans from the Allied states. This money could only be raised through trade. In 1913, the Underwood-Simmons Tariff greatly decreased tariffs, so as to increase trade. However, after WWI, rather than help the European states recover, the US Congress passed Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, which raised tariffs to record highs, with some tariffs reaching 60%. These increases meant that Americans would not buy imported goods, and placed the protective bubble of isolationism around the American economy.

The period between 1900 and 1920 was an unprecedented high point in American interactionism, both economically and politically. After WWI, the US decided that enough was enough and retreated into isolationism, politically and economically isolating itself from the outside world.


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Office of Insular Affairs. “All OIA Jurisdictions.” 13 May 2008. U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Insular Affairs. 9 November 2008 .

U-S-History.com. “U.S. Territorial Acquisitions.” 2007. Travel & History. 9 November 2008 .

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