Sound and Fury: The Last Stand of Isolationism

This is an historiographic essay written for my graduate history program discussing US foreign policy in the pre-war period. I think this is one of the most important chapters of US history. The change in global strategy occurred as the US reacted to Germany’s victory over France and revisionist Japan asserted a claim as hegemon of Asia. The term “isolationist” was applied to non-interventionists. The disillusionment from America’s intervention in World War I continued to weigh on public opinion. The Chicago Tribune was a leading newspaper aligned with the America First movement. The appendix of this paper discusses themes from its opinion and editorial pages in the years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.


At the end of the 19th century, the United States temporarily broke with the foreign policy tradition of isolation from global politics and a strict adherence to the Monroe Doctrine’s focus on the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. became an imperial power in a remarkably short period of time, primarily through its conquests in the Spanish-American War (1898) but also acquiring the territories of American Samoa, Hawai’i, and Wake Island, plus assuming control of the Panama Canal project. Jumping to the end of World War II approximately 45 years later, the U.S. was the global hegemon pursuing an internationalist, multilateral, and interventionist grand strategy across the world. The U.S. “occupied parts of Korea, Germany, and Austria, and all of Japan” and governed “135 million people outside the [U.S.] mainland.”[1]

A person unfamiliar with U.S. history may see a congruence in those two historical points and envision a through line from 1898 to 1945, a purposeful evolution over five decades. Of course, the story is more complicated, revealing a circuitous route to U.S. global hegemony in the first half of the 20th century. While the U.S. observed enforced the Monroe Doctrine and frequently intervened in countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, as well as Mexico, U.S. foreign policy relative to the rest of the world veered between modest internationalism and moderate isolationism, punctuated by Wilson’s experiment with idealistic intervention in World War I. The herky-jerky nature of U.S. policy can be explained by the frequent lack of consensus among political elites holding sharply differing views on how the U.S. should be in the world, a situation only exacerbated by an ever-changing U.S. public opinion which reacted to international events and U.S. foreign policy moves. America’s short-lived experiments exhibiting its power (turn of the century imperialism and Wilsonian internationalism) turned Americans away from internationalism, reifying the traditional strategy of isolationism, and thereby making U.S. entry in treaties and participation in international bodies problematic, especially when they may lead to a potential European or Asian security commitment. Arguably, the U.S. could have asserted its power on the international scene at any point in the early 20th century, meaning that U.S. superpower status was largely a matter of adopting global domination as a grand strategy. The challenge was finding political consensus to support such a grand strategy.

Focal Point: America and World War II

Historians have rightfully dismissed the popular narrative that the U.S. simply “found itself” with superpower status in World War II, and with that great power came the responsibilities of maintaining peace and building democracies, forcing an end to American isolation from the world. Nevertheless, while it was not known at the time, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 was to be the denouement of U.S. isolationism, but this change is best explained by an elite consensus to exercise American power that came to be supported by public opinion. Even prior to entering World War II as a combatant, New Deal liberals aligned with the Roosevelt administration began contemplating a post-war foreign policy. This planning work was done anticipating the need to win public support—a mindfulness of what would “sell” to the average U.S. citizen—as, at the time, public opinion remained both isolationist leaning and clearly opposed to entering the war. Thus, U.S. foreign policy experts closely followed public reactions to Roosevelt’s many pre-war moves.

One pre-war development that elicited reaction from isolationists was the Atlantic Charter of August 14, 1941 (see Exhibit 1), a public declaration of an Anglo-American alliance that would build a post-war world order, continuing Roosevelt’s effort to move America away from isolationism and unilateralism, and towards internationalism and multilateralism.[2] Announced less than three months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, isolationist reaction following the Atlantic Charter represented a kind of last stand of isolationism, prior to U.S. foreign policy shifting to liberal internationalism during the war,[3] an approach that has remained in place to this day. To further investigate isolationist views, the Appendix to this post examines original source material from the Chicago Daily Tribune following the Atlantic Charter and up to Pearl Harbor. As many will know, the Chicago Daily Tribune was a leading major metropolitan newspaper supporting the America First Committee, U.S. neutrality, efforts to make peace in Europe, and other isolationist policies. The Chicago Daily Tribune’s many isolationist arguments could be read as a single, protracted screed to keep America out of the war. Of course, this effort was ultimately futile following Pearl Harbor and America’s wholehearted entry into the war. Given the rigidity, certainty, and righteousness of its editorial positions in service of a lost cause, the Tribune’s effort is perhaps reminiscent of a line from Macbeth’s famous speech: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[4]

This post presents a historiographic review of recent efforts to reexamine the history of U.S. foreign policy with a specific focus on isolationism and the treatment of plans, debates, and controversies just prior to the U.S. entering the war. Prevailing American public opinion (as exemplified by the Chicago Daily Tribune, discussed in detail in the Appendix to this post) was generally anti-war and supported the isolationist foreign policy of the 1920s and early 1930s, largely believing American intervention in World War I as a mistake. Thus, prior to Pearl Harbor, U.S. foreign policymakers anticipated far more public resistance to the U.S. departing from its isolationist roots. Revisionist efforts indicate that foreign policy elites had formed a strong consensus for liberal internationalism prior to U.S. entry in the war, in stark contrast with isolationism, the long running, predominate strategic approach to U.S. foreign policy.[5]

By the end of World War II, the U.S. moved away from isolationism and its unilateral flexibility and towards a grand strategy of liberal internationalism sustained with security commitment and multilateral alliances. The pre-war period represented isolationism’s endpoint in the 20th century, as following the war isolationism was rendered a fringe idea, outside the “Overton Window” of respectable foreign policy discourse, and often associated with xenophobia, extreme nationalism, and other illiberal concepts. As the term was used after the war, isolationism meant both isolation in space—as if the U.S. could close itself off from the world—and isolation in time—a kind of conservatism pining for the 19th century.[6] The isolationist positions expressed by the Tribune (see the discussion in the Appendix to this post) may be understood, on one hand, as the partisan rhetoric of a specific time and place (thus explaining Anti-Roosevelt and Anti-British sentiments); however, on the other hand, the Tribune’s editors, and other isolationists of the late 1930s, were practitioners of a strategic approach to U.S. foreign policy that had deep roots in American history. This post examines recent historical work that attempts to explain America’s move away from isolationism in the 1940s, driven by a consensus among Roosevelt Administration leaders and foreign policy elites around liberal internationalism.

Historical narratives have tended to treat isolationism as problematic—a unique American problem—which, perhaps, reveals presumptiveness, as if a country as powerful as the U.S. behaves in a hegemonic manner as a rule. Recent historical work has looked more closely at both isolationism and debates over U.S. foreign policy leading up to World War II, including Stephen Wertheim’s Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, Elizabeth Borgwardt’s A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights, John A. Thompson’s A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role, and Charles Kupchan’s Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. While each book takes a different approach to U.S. diplomatic and political history, all four books investigate the historical underpinnings of the prewar debates and controversies exhibited in the Chicago Daily Tribune articles reviewed in the Appendix to this post, offering revisionist explanations for the end of isolationism in the 1940s.

U.S. Isolationist Foreign Policy

Given the scale and duration of America’s effort to maintain global power since the 1940s, it is important to explore potential explanations for this grand strategy. Thompson offers several potential explanations, such as the inevitability of the U.S. rising to world power given its economic scale, wealth, and abundance of resources, and an American nationalistic and ideological mission of promoting democracy and other liberal values. He concludes the best explanation is a combination of the U.S. desire to address security concerns (avoiding threats to the U.S. and its allies) and the promotion of economic interests (ensuring access to markets and foreign investments).[7] While the Axis threat is sufficient to explain U.S. entry into World War II and a short-term abandonment of isolationism, it does not fully explain the policy shift to what Kupchan termed “liberal internationalism” (which will be further explored below).[8] Conversely, neither security concerns nor protection of economic interests explains America’s imperial experiments at the turn of the century and Wilson’s World War I intervention, suggesting those foreign policies were experimental, temporary departures from the predominate U.S. grand strategy: isolationism.

Kupchan and Wertheim attempt to provide further context for isolationist foreign policy. Starting at the founding, for its first 100 years the U.S. steadfastly avoided involvement in Europe while maintaining the Monroe Doctrine (exempting the Western Hemisphere from European interventions) and extending its national territory across North America. Arising out of American exceptionalism, Kupchan refers to this foreign policy stance as “isolationist” and argues it was based upon six distinct tenets that informed U.S. grand strategy: “1) capitalizing on natural security; 2) serving as a redeemer nation; 3) advancing liberty and prosperity at home; 4) preserving freedom of action abroad; 5) protecting social homogeneity; and 6) promoting pacifism.” These “logics” involved international engagement but did not commit the U.S. beyond the Western Hemisphere.[9] Similarly, Wertheim considers America’s historical grand strategy to be a focus on gaining hegemonic status in the Western Hemisphere while remaining free of European power politics; however, he does not use the term “isolationist” to describe U.S. policy (as that term had not yet been created)[10] and emphasizes the early stages of internationalism among elite idealists who advocated peace and world organization. What ended up being called “isolationism” in the 1930s was really a unique American internationalism opposed to the style of realism and European power politics.[11]

Certainly, the end of the 19th century and the first four decades of the 20th century saw the U.S. shifting in its approaches to grand strategy. The U.S. experiments with empire under McKinley led to retrenchment under Roosevelt in the face of negative public opinion (concerns over the ongoing Philippines insurrection, as well as racial fears of allowing Cubans, Filipinos, and Cubans to become U.S. citizens). Taft followed a policy of “Dollar Diplomacy” to expand trade and “open door” policies, while furthering a modest internationalism which emphasized establishing international laws, avoiding warfare, and furthering free trade. Thompson emphasizes that this period created the “consciousness that the United States had developed the capability of playing a new and much larger role in world politics” which led to more support for internationalism. However, at the same time, there was no national consensus for the U.S. to be meaningfully involved on other continents given no security or economic threats.[12] Applying Kupchan’s 6-point framework, McKinney’s militarism and empire-building were short-lived, unlike the more traditional foreign policies of Roosevelt and Taft which allowed the U.S. to be internationally active but adhered to 19th century “isolationist” characteristics.[13]

Wilson’s presidency and World War I brought an extreme, albeit temporary, sea change in U.S. grand strategy, with the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles bringing about the end of what most Americans regarded as the failed experiment in idealistic internationalism. This experience would inform the debates of the late 1930s. Re-elected in 1916 on a neutrality platform, the weakening position of the British and French on the Western Front led Wilson to a decision to intervene, using affronts to American honor (the sinking of American ships and the Zimmerman note) to influence public opinion and call Congress to declare war, despite substantial numbers of Americans remaining opposed to joining the war in 1917 (both on the political left and traditional isolationists, both Democrats and Republicans). Thompson argues that Wilson recognized the stakes of war were small (freedom of the seas; there was certainly no security or economic threat to the U.S.) relative to the potential costs of war in Europe, so he raised the stakes of war by declaring a fight to secure a lasting peace which would be collectively enforced under a new international order conducive to American values. Similarly, Kupchan points to U.S. exceptionalism and the idea of being a “redeemer nation” helped sway public opinion toward intervention. “If the United States could not cordon itself off from Europe’s ills, then it would have to remake the Old World in the American image.” America’s military intervention was successful in forcing a German surrender. However, when it came to the Paris treaties, Wilson faced a lack of consensus along the Allies as well as political opposition from Henry Cabot Lodge and the other “irreconcilables” who opposed the Treaty of Versailles. This group of supporters of traditional U.S. strategy, to be labeled “isolationists” in the 1930s, opposed the Treaty for its limitations on the ability of the U.S. to act unilaterally, as well as what was perceived as a permanent embroilment in European power politics. The ultimate denial of ratification of the Treaty was a victory of the “isolationists” (as Kupchan defines that brand of grand strategy), preventing a treaty commitment that would compromise American sovereignty to act as it saw fit in the world, and avoiding a threat to America’s democracy from decisions imposed by the League of Nations on the republic. Thompson argues that Wilson and other internationalists recognized the U.S. had the capacity for global power and believed it should use it for America’s benefit. However, the American public did not see how a more engaged strategy would enhance both national security and economic strength. Finally, Wertheim points out the League debate was not between “isolationists” and the Wilsonian idealists, but rather between groups with differing approaches to internationalism: for conservatives, the League of Nations was too close to the U.S. being embroiled in European power politics, and for progressives, the League appeared to be a new “Holy Alliance” that would do nothing for the peace and disarmament movement.[14]

The 1920s and early 1930s were largely a return to the “dollar diplomacy” policies of Taft, albeit with more international engagement. There was a popular backlash to Wilsonian internationalism and the death toll of World War I, and general agreement that the U.S. needed to avoid involvement in foreign wars. Thompson points out that in the years of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover the U.S. had no major foreign policy objectives requiring it to deploy its full power, and thus its foreign policy decisions were of little strategic consequence. This allowed the U.S. to fall back to its default position favoring isolation. Kupchan labels this policy “isolationist internationalism,” described as a “return to a grand strategy of geo-political detachment, limiting…strategic exposure in Europe and East Asia and even beginning a pullback from Latin America.” Yet the “detachment” of this period also brought about an expansion of the State Department and the creation of the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as unprecedented U.S. participation in multilateral agreements and conferences. More importantly, the U.S. was highly active in international affairs in the 1920s, participating “unofficially” with League of Nations agencies, building agreements to facilitate international law and trade, mediating a revised program from German war reparation payments (the Dawes Plan), and leading further disarmament and peace efforts (coalescing in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 to outlaw war).[15] Thompson concludes, “By the 1930s, isolationism in this sense had developed into a fully fledged doctrine of American foreign policy, comparable to the Monroe Doctrine or to “containment” during the Cold War.”[16]

With the beginning of the Great Depression, the Hoover Administration pulled back geopolitical diplomatic efforts even farther to focus on the crisis and domestic policy. In the first of what would be many international crises, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 brought almost no response from Hoover, other than distancing the U.S. from involvement in the conflict. While the U.S. had informally cooperated with the League of Nations since its founding, Hoover ruled out joining the League’s economic sanctions on Japan to avoid the risk of war.[17]

The Roosevelt Administration and the Prelude to War

Roosevelt’s first administration was consumed by rolling out New Deal initiatives, continuing an inward facing turn for America where foreign policy issues were deprioritized. Roosevelt—an internationalist who ran for Vice President with Presidential candidate James M. Cox in 1920 on a platform supporting League of Nations membership (only to be beaten in a landslide)—inherited a Congress and a political culture that eschewed security commitments and projections of power. Meanwhile, the efforts of the revisionist powers (Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan) were underway to expand national territories and zones of influence, challenging the status quo of the Paris Treaties, and presented a challenge to the U.S. which rekindled debates on American grand strategy. Hitler’s rise led to increased German militarism and an arms build-up in Europe, while war broke across the world: the Abyssinia Crisis and the subsequent Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and German and Italian involvement in the Spanish Civil War. For the second time in two decades, the U.S. was forced to consider its policy position relative to combatant nations.

While unswerving isolationists like Senators Arthur Vandenberg, Hiram Johnson, and William Borah remained committed to U.S. neutrality, other foreign policy elites began considering responses to the disturbing overseas developments. For U.S. internationalists who favored the League of Nations, multilateralism, and the development of international law, the events of the ‘30s undermined their Wilsonian idealism. Believing that international public opinion informed by commonly held liberal principles would transcend nations and power politics, the rapid rise of the revisionist powers and their destabilizing actions caused U.S. internationalists to reconsider new means of “collective security.” Wertheim argues this line of thinking led American internationalists toward realism/power politics, with breaches of international law being met with military intervention. These internationalists included journalist Walter Lippmann, Yale law professor Edwin Borchard, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and others generally aligned with Roosevelt or members of his administration. As the League of Nations continued to fail, these advocates of collective security recognized there was no international body to enforce world order, rendering the overall concept theoretical.[18]

Roosevelt’s strategic outlook was also evolving in the mid to late 1930s. Roosevelt’s first response to the overseas conflicts was isolationist, working with Congress to pass a series of neutrality acts forbidding arms sales, loans, and American travel to combatant countries. The Neutrality Acts were a response to a contemporary historical belief that America’s entry into World War I was simply the result of being “drawn in” by maintain trade with/providing financing for France and England. In addition, neutrality legislation also addressed the findings of the Nye Committee implicating self-dealing financial interests in wartime arms sales and loans.[19] Neutrality was thought to be a kind of inoculant from a European war infecting America. However, by 1937 Roosevelt began working to weaken the Neutrality Acts, asking for the use presidential discretion to allow for “cash and carry” arms sales, generally thought to favor Britain and France.[20] Nevertheless, Roosevelt continued to favor neutrality so long as the revisionist powers did not represent a threat to the balance of power in Europe and Asia, and was even thought to prefer the continuation of British world leadership.[21] With the Munich agreement in 1938, Thompson argues that Roosevelt began taking steps to prepare for a conflict with Nazi Germany, observing “that the Nazi regime was too insatiably aggressive and untrustworthy ever to be incorporated into a stable, norm-governed European order.” Roosevelt believed a stabilized Europe was vital to U.S. interests; however, contrary to other narratives, Roosevelt and senior Army and Navy leadership did not view Nazi Germany was a security threat to North America. Subsequently, Roosevelt increased defense spending with a particular emphasis on building-up an air force.[22] However, isolationist views remained strong in Congress and among the public, as revealed by the debate and narrow defeat of the Ludlow Amendment, calling for a Constitutional amendment requiring a popular vote to declare war.[23]

The German invasion of Poland in September of 1939 further escalated Roosevelt’s efforts. Over isolationist opposition, Congress approved ending the arms embargo under the neutrality acts, further supporting Britain and France.[24] The advent of war also activated American strategic planning. Wertheim explores the planning process done for the Roosevelt Administration by elites in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the vast majority of which were internationalists, comprised of professionals in the State Department, belonging to institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Foreign Policy Association, journalists, and university faculty (particularly Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies and Yale University’s Institute for International Studies). The CFR worked with the State Department to “plan the peace” as the Roosevelt Administration prepared for war, forming a planning project called Studies of American Interests in the War and Peace. This was a group of over 100 intellectuals, analysts, lawyers, economists, bankers, business executives, and military officers organized in workgroups around various topics, generating memorandums to State Department officials with planning recommendations. The project was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. In the first eight months of the project, the CFR planners made recommendations that were not materially different from past U.S. strategies, “following nineteenth-century formulas of commerce, mediation, and disarmament.” There was a consensus the U.S. would avoid security commitments in Europe and Asia. Participating in any reconstituted League of Nations was also ruled out. Some planners believed England and France would quickly defeat Germany and sue for peace, while others believed the war would follow the experience of World War I and be a multi-year war of attrition. The CFR planners and the State Department agreed upon a recommendation that the U.S. attempt to mediate a settlement in Europe, basically rehashing Wilson’s “peace without victory” approach. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was sent to Europe to propose postwar settlement schemes of disarmament and economic cooperation, unsuccessfully attempting to broker a peace among the combatants. As the CFR project proceeded, the planners forwarded creative schemes for a postwar order, recognizing “that any effective system of security required force behind its word.” Yet none of these plans for new world orders involved the U.S. exerting its power as a global hegemon. While using U.S. force to bring peace was considered, public opinion remained over 80% opposed U.S. intervention, causing planners to rule out military options as politically untenable.[25]

The fall of France in June 1940 was a surprise to Roosevelt and administration leaders, as well as the CFR planners. Wertheim observes the fall of France was a major shock to foreign policy elites.[26] The State Department quickly abandoned its efforts to broker a peace in Europe. Roosevelt took more steps against Germany, once again increasing U.S. defense and continuing an unprecedented arms build-up. In addition, a peacetime draft was implemented for the first time in America, drawing the ire of isolationists, and giving rise to the American First Committee. In addition, Roosevelt moved to further assist England, striking a deal with England to lease bases in the Western Hemisphere in exchange for fifty older U.S. destroyers needed in the Battle of the Atlantic. Furthermore, the U.S. declared a larger “neutrality zone” in the Atlantic which was patrolled by the U.S. Navy, allowing the British Navy to concentrate its forces protecting shipping. The U.S. and Britain also began more secret coordination, including the negotiation of Lend-Lease and joint military meetings. Finally, while Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign emphasized remaining out of the war, he was making more public statements showing support for England—statements also aimed at further undermining U.S. neutrality, such as speculating about German bombers and fifth columnists attacking the U.S.[27]

Wertheim points out that the fall of France changed everything for the CFR planners, prompting them to reevaluate U.S. grand strategy. The group considered the implications to the U.S. in scenarios where Britain fell to the Germans, or there was a British-German peace treaty and Europe remained under the control of Nazi Germany. In considering the economic impact of a closed Nazi Germany “trading block” over most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the CFR’s economic planners attempted to measure the feasibility of the U.S. sustaining its economy within a “quarter sphere” of the world (North America, Central America, northern South America, plus England, Australia, New Zealand, and India and other British imperial possessions). In another plan, referred to as the “Grand Area,” added the entire Western Hemisphere, most of Africa, and China. Even in the “quarter sphere” the CFR planners were confident the U.S. “would remain territorially secure and economically well off”. The group concluded the U.S. would remain powerful enough so that any “block” controlled by Nazi Germany could not be an economic or military threat to the U.S. Wertheim points out the CFR economic planners began to expand the definition of vital U.S. goals and objectives, going beyond the Western Hemisphere and into the Grand Area—an area including Great Britain, then under threat of invasion. Consistent with planning for the post-war, it was clear the U.S. had to be the security guarantor for the Grand Area. Yet when the plan for the Grand Area was presented to the full CFR group and members of the State Department as a potential grand strategy for the U.S., the response was that the Grand Area was too limiting to the U.S. Certainly, it was limited geographically, but more importantly it was too limiting of American ambition. Thus, Nazi Germany was a threat to U.S. exceptionalism, threatening America’s role as a promoter of liberal ideals and its unique place in history. The survival of the British Empire and British victory against the Germans was found to be vital to U.S. security—leading planners to urge all possible support for England short of sending an American expeditionary force. This thought process culminated in the “Plan Dog” memorandum, which recommended that if the U.S. enters the conflict, it should prioritize war against Nazi Germany while defending U.S. interests in the Pacific. Wertheim argues the Plan Dog memo’s recognition of Nazi Germany as a threat within the broadened conception of U.S. grand strategy—one in which the U.S. could interact with the entire world—was an injection of realism: The United States had to exercise its power to win the war alongside England.[28]

The debate around the passage of Lend-Lease in March 1941 showed the U.S. was still sharply divided on the issue of war. Isolationists charged Roosevelt with wanting to bait Germany into declaring war on the U.S. The public narrowly supported Roosevelt’s pro-British policies, however anti-intervention opinion remained over 80%. Meanwhile, elites began being more vocal in expressing internationalist views, responding to the challenge of Nazi Germany and attacking the America First Committee. Thompson notes that the backgrounds of most elites were Northeast upper middle class, which was culturally aligned with England beyond considerations of banking or financial interest ties. Beyond cultural or liberal sympathies, many American elites (especially those engaged in the CFR process) began to advocate for intervention, criticizing pro-German spokesmen like Charles Lindbergh and other American First leaders of defeatism. The best example of this position was Henry Luce’s essay “The American Century” which called upon the U.S. to seize the opportunity presented by the war to take world leadership. U.S. elites possessed the confidence that America’s exercise of power would determine the outcome of the war in Europe.[29]

CFR planners began to focus upon designing options for the post-war order with a general recognition the U.S. had to play a role in maintaining peace. Initially, eschewing the concept of a world organization like the League of Nations, planners focused on a British-American alliance that would police the world following the war. Certainly, there were racial impulses at play, as part of the appeal was uniting predominately Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking nations in an alliance. After months of internal debate, the CFR planning group worked with British counterparts to jointly describe the vision for such an alliance, and then urged Roosevelt “to issue a declaration of postwar principles that would “dramatize” American-British cooperation, culminating in the Roosevelt-Churchill conference and the Atlantic Charter.[30] Borgwardt views the Atlantic Charter as a synthesis between Wilsonian idealism that envisioned a world organization, and the new vision for American society arising out of the New Deal. The Charter attempted to incorporate Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and much of the discussion with Churchill entailed negotiating wording so not overtly signal the end of the British Empire—though that is how independence movement activists like Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi interpreted the Charter. While Roosevelt anticipated isolationists reacting to any statements describing future collective security, Roosevelt agreed to the provision with the rationalization that there would be a substantial period of time need to implement a shared security program (this contrasts with Wertheim’s description of the CFR’s recommendations, suggesting Roosevelt may not have been as convinced the policy weas needed). Furthermore, Borgwardt points out the concept of “security” was emphasized as economic security in the New Deal, and could now be translated to the foreign policy concept of national security. The Atlantic Charter was the first document to establish a “new articulation of US national interests” that would be built into the postwar international frameworks such as “the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Nuremberg trials.” Contemporary reaction to the Charter by the press was mixed and ideologically influenced, while public opinion surveys of Americans revealed the vast majority had never heard of the Charter. Borgwardt argues the Charter “crystalized a more expansion vision of U.S. national interest.” The Charter’s accomplishments came more in the “subjective realm of ideas…its symbolic value was contested and ambiguous.” Given U.S. policy was in the process of a momentous shift, Borgwardt points out that Roosevelt used the Atlantic Charter so that Americans would be prepared “for an increasingly activist, multilateralist foreign policy.”[31] As such, the Atlantic Charter was met with isolationist criticism (discussed in the Appendix to this post), not seeing it as an accomplishment of liberalism but rather an “embroilment in power politics across the globe.”[32] While the Atlantic Charter may have been a product of Roosevelt’s ad hoc leadership approach (as well Churchill’s desperation to bring the U.S. into the war) and the ultimate significance of the Atlantic Charter remains debatable,[33] there appears to be no question that it was an important step in moving the U.S. away from isolationism and towards a new grand strategy.

Pearl Harbor is largely seen as the end of isolationism, as the attack “readily undermined and discredited…multiple variants of isolationist logic and the hold they exercised on American politics.” Following the attack the America First Committee disbanded and public support for war was at a 97% approval. Nevertheless Roosevelt, remembering Wilson’s travails, remained concerned that isolationist opinion would return to favor during the war. As a testament to America’s adherence to isolationism, Kupchan points out that but for Pearl Harbor, it did not appear the U.S. would enter the war even with the prospect of Japan and Germany becoming geopolitical rivals.[34]

Conclusion: Beginning the Era of Liberal Internationalism

U.S. grand strategy entered a new phase after Pearl Harbor, creating its own brand of strategy, never seriously considering the foreign policy templates of Metternich or Bismarck, nor reattempting the quixotic idealism of Woodrow Wilson. In forging this new path, the U.S. was influenced by the political culture of American exceptionalism and traditional interpretations of the U.S. as a “redeemer” nation—fundamentals that had also informed isolationism.

The emerging grand strategy of “liberal internationalism” was a combination of the realist brand of internationalism emphasizing power politics and Wilsonian idealism favoring rule-based order and multilateral institutions, aimed at “running the world and transforming it through American power and purpose.” As discussed, Borgwardt argues Roosevelt’s New Deal experimentation and pragmatism shaped America’s emerging foreign policy, where multilateralist institutions like the United Nations were supported by the American public through as they were viewed through the lens of New Deal programs and agencies, “solving” problems and ushering in a world respectful of human rights. This brand of internationalism was “a synthetic, institution-based, problem-solving approach.” In addition, following the war Americans saw the connection between international order and America’s security, leading to support for an expanded military and security guarantees across the world, regardless of cost.

Kupchan and Thompson appear to be aligned on the interpretation that the U.S. engaged in a discovery process as it evaluated responses to the war in Europe and increased Japanese aggression. While elites centered upon a new grand strategy for global power, that strategy only became feasible with public support that had grown over the course of the war. Borgwardt tends to align with this view as she sees that public support for American foreign policy at the end of the war being a direct result of the New Deal’s influence in building postwar world organizations focused upon human rights. In this sense, these books are an intervention with the revision offered by William Applebaum Williams who argued U.S. intervention in World War II was solely for economic reasons. However, Wertheim’s monograph attempted to complicate the prevailing view of isolationism (as it was implemented by Taft, Coolidge, and Harding), which emphasized mutual agreements, pacifism, and disarmament, and was superseded by a new grand strategy that was billed as “internationalism” but was entirely centered on the projection of U.S. power.[35] Both Thompson and Wertheim also recognized the necessary consensus among foreign policy elites and political leaders, as well as the importance of public support for the U.S. move to a policy of maintaining global military supremacy. More critically, Wertheim points out that by eliminating the concerns and arguments of isolationists, the U.S. brand of internationalism is dominated by power politics, where considerations for restraining the exercise that power were relegated to fringe opinion. The United Nations itself offered the veneer of a multilateral institution, as in structuring the U.N. the U.S ensured it would not be limited in protecting its own vital interests. Finally, America’s grand strategy enjoyed bipartisan political support and benefited from American nationalism, especially during the Cold War as the U.S. responded to an existential threat to its hegemonic status.[36]

In following this new grand strategy, the U.S. successfully navigated through the Cold War and has remained the global hegemon for over 70 years. As a result, the U.S. created its own unique form of empire, as Daniel Immerwahr explores in his monograph How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, eschewing colonial possessions for globalization and soft power (English language, industrial standards, the U.S. dollar), economic integration, close strategic partnerships, and a “pointillist” global network of military bases projecting “hard” power.



Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Kupchan, Charles. Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Thompson, John A. A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Wertheim, Stephen. Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.


Exhibit 1: The Atlantic Charter[37]

August 14, 1941

The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measure which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Franklin D. Roosevelt & Winston S. Churchill



Research on Chicago Daily Tribune Editorials


The Chicago Daily Tribune was the leading major metropolitan newspaper supporting isolationism and America First Committee policies, reflecting (and perhaps reenforcing) popular opinion in Chicago and the Midwest which held more popular support for isolationism relative to the rest of the U.S. The Tribune’s editorial decisions generally supported the isolationist position both in news coverage and opinion and editorial (i.e., what used to be called the “op ed pages”). Col. Robert R. McCormick, the editor and publisher of the Tribune, was both an America First supporter and highly critical of the British Empire. To investigate isolationist positions, this post will research the Tribune’s coverage of the Atlantic Charter, a controversial step in the eyes of isolationists given it was a public declaration of alignment with Great Britain which set forth a vision of world order “after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny”—strongly indicating the inevitability America’s entry into the war, as well as making strategic commitments in Europe.

This research was performed using ProQuest which contains a database of digitally archived materials from the Chicago Daily Tribune.[38] Both news articles and editorials between the dates August 14, 1941 (announcement of Atlantic Charter)[39] and December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor attack) were searched for references to Churchill, Roosevelt, and/or the Atlantic Charter (or the “the eight points” or the “Atlantic pact” as it was sometimes referred to). Over 80 articles were reviewed and, in general, the vast majority expressed support for the continuation of U.S. isolationism (and kept with the partisan style of print media at the time, where almost no alternative views were offered). Thus, articles tended to be repetitive in advocating isolationist reasoning, typically using a recent news event to promote an isolationist view. Given this, certain themes emerged which explained isolationist positions and reasoning, which are categorized as Pro-America First, Anti-Roosevelt, and Anti-British. To be clear, while Tribune articles could contain two or even three of those themes (taking a “shotgun” approach), there was a tendency to emphasize one of those three themes more strongly. The following discusses selected articles considered to be representative of those isolationist themes.

Pro-America First

The “Pro-America First” theme emphasized traditional isolationist arguments supporting neutrality (or, at least, against military intervention), opposition to involvement outside of the Western Hemisphere, or U.S. treaty commitments with England and other European nations. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Daily Tribune’s op ed section wholly aligned with the America First Committee, but the Tribune’s editors went even farther by covering America First events as news stories and offering an unadulterated summary of America First’s positions (thereby building editorial into its news coverage).[40]

For example, alongside news coverage of the Atlantic Charter on August 15, 1941, the Tribune ran an article covering America First’s leadership’s reaction to the news, largely spinning the Atlantic Charter as a victory for anti-war opinion. Quoting Robert E. Wood, Janet Ayer Fairbanks, and R. Douglas Stuart, America First’s leadership downplayed the significance of the Charter relative to U.S. involvement in the war (“utterly devoid of commitments on the part of the President”), speculated that Churchill did not get what he wanted out of the conference, and conjectured that the “eight points” may end up being as meaningless as Wilson’s Fourteen Points.[41] Similarly, a few days following the announcement of the Charter, a news article appeared covering a recent America First meeting held in Evanston which provided a detailed summary of ten points from a speech given by Rev. William H. Medler of Hyde Park Lutheran Church. Rev. Medler’s comments reflected common isolationist positions supporting American neutrality, criticizing of Roosevelt, claims that entry into war would bankrupt the U.S. and ruin its democracy, and reminding readers that 80% of Americans remained opposed to entrering in the war.[42] In that same August 17, 1941 edition, the Tribune ran a news article covering comments on the Atlantic Charter by Senator Wayland Brooks and Col. Robert R. McCormick. Their immediate reaction to the Atlantic Charter was to speculate about whether the Roosevelt administration was withholding important details about the eight points. Senator Brooks openly wondered about the secrecy of the Roosevelt-Churchill conference by asking, “What further promises or secret agreements will the American people be asked to fulfill?” McCormick recanted his disillusionment with serving as a combat officer in Europe during World War I and “came home to be disillusioned by that terrible peace treaty.”[43] Another example of this approach is an August 26, 1941 news article covering an America First event in Oak Park focused upon the recently announced Atlantic Charter, summarizing many of the critical questions asked of President Roosevelt about the Charter (including, for example, the extent of military commitments implied by the words “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny,” the authority on which he committed to U.S. to a “league of collaboration designed to police the world,” and why army and navy officers attended to Atlantic conference).[44] Additionally, an October 20, 1941 news feature entitled “Day Challenges F.D.R. Scheme for World Empire” covers Illinois Republican Congressman Stephen A. Day’s declaration that the Atlantic Charter was unconstitutional. Day called to citizens to sign petitions in order to stop Roosevelt’s “scheme for world empire.” The scheme for world empire was “clearly set forth in the joint declaration…executed in [Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s] celebrated conferences at sea, containing the eight points” and was “purported to commit the United States to a program of conquering and disarming the totalitarian powers and thereafter policing the world.” This news feature appears to be a word-for-word recitation of a press release from Representative Day’s office.[45]

Unsurprisingly, editorials in the op ed section were blatantly isolationist. An August 26, 1941 editorial reacting to Churchill’s comments on the Atlantic Charter seized on the post-war vision, namely the agreement that “guilty nations” would be disarmed and “the United States and British empire will see to it they stay disarmed.” Learning from the policy mistakes following World War I, the U.S. and Great Britain would actively enforce the peace, leading the editorial to accuse Roosevelt of allowing Churchill to speak for the United States, and criticizing Roosevelt for making a definite peacekeeping commitment in central Europe. The editorial accuses Roosevelt of making the same mistakes Wilson did, something he will have to answer for.[46]

An editorial entitled “Mr. Roosevelt Back in Versailles” ties Roosevelt to Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations, denouncing a foreign policy that revived “Wilsonian schemes” where the U.S. would become embroiled in European conflicts. Accusing Roosevelt of hypocrisy for running his presidential campaign with an anti-war message, the editorial highlights the provisions of the Atlantic Charter as “another treaty of Versailles” where the U.S. and England would police “nations which are to be disarmed and kept disarmed.” In signing the Charter, Roosevelt “signed a contract for the perpetual custody of Europe and the rest of the world.” Concluding that this version of a peace would require a long-term U.S. security commitment (“10 million American bayonets”), the editorial concludes with an almost prescient statement: “The United States is to have perpetual war.”[47]

Another op ed feature, excerpted from a speech by Professor Edward Reisner, characterizes the war in Europe as “a continuation of an old struggle on the part of England to keep on being the top dog in a selfish world” and accrues England of being “in the center of a web of political intrigue and military preparation and action designed to maintain the British empire in a position of unequaled advantage in the world.” Defending Germany as not wanting to be at war with England, Reisner urges U.S. neutrality in order to force the England to make peace with Germany. Stating “75 and more per cent” Americans regarded the entry in World War I as a mistake, Reiser voices isolationist views against interventions: the U.S. “cannot become the police force for the entire world. She cannot intervene in every struggle in which might seems to be triumphing over justice.” The op ed concludes with an urging for America to “stay out of this suicidal, pointless conflict and seek a better democratic community at home.”[48]

A November 9, 1941 editorial entitled “Our National Defense and England’s” describes the recent history of the war and describes Britain’s strong defensive posture against German invasion, and then goes on to take an America First position critical of Roosevelt for supplying the British while neglecting to strengthen U.S. defense. “Mr. Roosevelt and his other voices declare that we with all our advantages cannot defend the United States if we concentrate our efforts upon national defense and not upon expeditions into foreign parts.” This line of thinking was “unsound” with “a great deal of deceit and hypocrisy.”[49]


The “Anti-Roosevelt” theme emphasized personal attacks on President Roosevelt, accusing him of incompetence, dishonesty, megalomania, war mongering, and being a potential dictator.

The Tribune’s immediate reaction to the Roosevelt-Churchill conference and the Atlantic Charter was to question Roosevelt’s judgment. Dismissing the eight points as a diplomatic achievement, an August 15, 1941 editorial argues Churchill was primarily concerned with the war and only interested in securing an immediate U.S. military commitment, so he did not care about Roosevelt’s “rehash of Wilsonian futilities, to the freedom of the seas and the freedom of peoples” and only focused upon one phrase of the document: “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny.” Roosevelt was a willing accomplice in this manipulation as he willingly ignored the anti-war popular opinion in America. The editorial condemns Roosevelt:

As head of a nation at peace he had no right to discuss war aims with the ruler of a country at war. He had no right to take a chair at such a conference. He has no regard for his constitutional duties or his oath of office when he did so. He only likes to shatter traditions, he likes to shatter the checks and restraints which were put on his office. He is thoroly [stet] un-American.

The editorial goes on to question what commitments Roosevelt made to Churchill to bring about the destruction of Hitler and the Nazis.[50]

Similarly, an editorial the following week refers to the Charter as “a two man (stet) war and peace treaty” that was “deceptive and inoperative so far as the United States in concerned”. The Tribune went farther to accuse Roosevelt of obfuscation, claiming to have obtained an outline of what Roosevelt later reported in a meeting with congressional allies which revealed the British “would need and expect an American expeditionary force” in 1942 or 1943 to attack the Germans in Europe. Senator Alben Barkley, a Roosevelt ally, denied this and accused the Tribune of printing a “malicious falsehood”, only to have Roosevelt make a muddled statement that seemed to confirm an American expeditionary force had been discussed with Churchill. The editorial argued the entire discussion with Churchill was another instance where Roosevelt had “sought to delude the people, keep them from a knowledge of his full purpose while accomplishing it, and break down their determination to avoid what he is determined to have.”[51] The Tribune drew the conclusion that as a result of the Charter an American expeditionary force must have been agreed to by Roosevelt, and in another editorial urged voters to “regain control of their government” and vote against interventionist congressmen in the 1942 mid-term election.[52]

Another editorial raises questions about Roosevelt’s behavior given the grandiose language of the eight points and its vision for world government, only to realize after the conference that freedom of religion and freedom of speech (two of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”) were missing from the Atlantic Charter. The editorial criticizes the president’s conduct for not being “the natural behavior of the head of a great republic,” his “blunders not evidence of clear thinking”, and “[i]t may suggest hallucinations.”[53] Other editorials made light of the exclusion of freedom of religion. Roosevelt unilaterally added freedom of religion to the Charter, “a feature of the Utopia we’re to impose on the world by war”, the editorial then mocks Roosevelt for not consulting Churchill or Stalin (oddly, referred to as “Pal Joey”) prior to changing the document’s text.[54]

The criticism of Roosevelt as a “war monger” appeared frequently. An August 23, 1941 editorial titled “Roosevelt War Monger” accuses Roosevelt as playing a long game of bringing America into the war by taking gradual steps, where he “startles the people and then he allows the cooling off period to ensue.” Despite his efforts, “80 per cent [of Americans are] opposed to Mr. Roosevelt’s dark, devious, and calculating policy” and the editorial speculates that, “[a]s Mr. Roosevelt and the war party find they are losing ground they will become more desperate.” A September 11 editorial argues Germany and Russia were in a process of militarily exhausting each other, leaving England “sitting pretty” and putting itself in a better position to win the war against Germany. Arguing for U.S. neutrality and against the “war mongers in Washington”, the piece concludes, “[o]nly Mr. Roosevelt’s ambition to be a world figure can account for the continuing pressure in Washington for our entrance into the war.” Alluding to Roosevelt as a Wilson-like figure, the editorial argues Roosevelt wants to bring the U.S. into the war so he could “sit at the head of the table at the peace conference. To gratify this ambition will cost a million American lives.”[55] Similarly, another editorial begins with questions over the validity of Roosevelt’s claims made in public speech regarding U.S. obtained documents showing Nazi plans for ruling South America, as well as plans “to destroy all religion”. In accusing Germany of unlawfully attacking the USS Greer as well as sinking U.S. merchant ships, Roosevelt worked up to several bellicose statements against Germany. Emphasizing the lack of any declaration of war, the Tribune concluded this editorial with the following:

Mr. Roosevelt is sure that Americans will pursue his mad course of conquest and domination because their ancestors came here in search of independence and strove for it mightily. He neglected to add that the independence they craved was independence from Europe, its intrigues, its wars, its hates, its taxes, its political systems. They achieved their purpose. They made here the freest and richest country the world has ever seen. All of this Mr. Roosevelt would destroy. His excuses are justifications for national suicide.[56]

Many articles go far in denouncing Roosevelt as traitor or a potential dictator who will bring about the downfall of America. A September 3, 1941 editorial titled “Of Benedict Arnold and Enemies” reacts to Roosevelt declaring that any negotiation with Hitler would make him a “modern Benedict Arnold.” The editorial claims Roosevelt’s “ancestor” James Roosevelt was a loyalist during the Revolution, and then attacks Roosevelt for referring to Germany as “the enemy” when war has not been declared. “Step by step Mr. Roosevelt has pushed for war” and referring to the Atlantic Charter as “a statement of war aims” and concludes Roosevelt is “a betrayer of the confidence reposed in him.”[57] In another example, after Roosevelt requested changes to the Neutrality Act, an October 11, 1941 editorial accuses Roosevelt of trying to bring the U.S. into the war despite “Nazi power to conquer the world [being] less today” than it was when the Neutrality Act was passed. The editorial alludes to economic controls being implemented in the U.S. to preserve materials for usage in military production, hyperbolically concluding, “[w]ar and dictatorship are closing fast on America. The two are inseparable; and one is being used to promote the coming of the other.”[58] Similarly, a reprinted editorial from the New York Daily News appearing in the November 16, 1941 edition begins by comparing Roosevelt to King Louis the XIV due to a Roosevelt speech given to the International Labor Organization where he said, “The American people have made an unlimited commitment that there shall be a free world.” The editorial distinguishes the President’s commitment with that of the nation, questions the wisdom of Lend-Lease and exceptions to the Neutrality Act, and lists the various acts Roosevelt committed that lacked constitutional authority (the 50 destroyers given the England, stationing troops in Greenland and Iceland, U.S. Navy engagement with the Germans, and a $1 billion interest free loan made to Russia). Roosevelt’s speech went on to describe the vision for the postwar world as described in the Atlantic Charter, which the editorial dismissed as “nothing but a statement of joint philosophy of a dictator made such by British parliament and a dictator made such by himself.” The editorial concludes, “We think our White House dictator will lose his power over the house of representatives at the congressional elections Nov. 3, 1942—IF there are any congressional elections in 1942.”[59]

Several editorials take Roosevelt’s foreign policy and defense build-up and relate them to some of the more controversial aspects of the New Deal. For example, an editorial critical of a $7 billion appropriation request accuses Roosevelt as wanting to bankrupt the U.S. (“No dictator ever had so little regard for the permanence of his subjects’ economic structure.”) and argues that from his first term, Roosevelt “never resisted the temptation to assume a dictatorial attitude in the emergencies confronting the country.” Speculating that Roosevelt lacked the self-discipline to manage “the heighten excitement of his surroundings” which caused him to give into his worst impulses of self-aggrandizement, thus explaining foreign policy decisions that tended to heighten Roosevelt’s importance at the cost of U.S. national interest. The editorial refers to the Atlantic Charter conference as a “stage piece” and another example of Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizing behavior. The editorial ties New Dealers to communists and speculates that “collectivist minded men” surround Roosevelt and use him to “destroy the American system of society.”[60]


The “Anti-British” theme emphasized blaming England for starting and/or continuing the war, or how it was prosecuting the war, or was otherwise highly critical of the British Empire and British society.

The Tribune tended to be highly critical of how England was waging the war against Germany. One editorial cites historical examples of how the British relied on allies in its European land wars, and then alludes to American financial support and the desire for an American expeditionary force to join the British, concluding that Churchill “has found dollars to substitute for pounds as well as aliens to substitute for British.” Another editorial attacks Churchill for a stating that the American people needed to make sacrifices so that the U.S. could supply England with war materiel. The Tribune took the position that the U.S. was already doing too much both supplying Britain and cooperating in the protection of Atlantic convoys, and meanwhile the British were not fighting Germany with its army in Europe and not doing enough to help the Russians.[61]

Covering an America First rally in the Bronx on August 27, 1941, a Tribune news story quotes extensively from a speech delivered by isolationist Senator Gerald P. Nye. Critical of Roosevelt’s efforts to support Britain, Nye described an environment of pro-war hysteria being fostered by Roosevelt and his allies, emphasizing that “only a few people…are undertaking to shape out thinking” about the necessity to support Britain, which “built her empire thru aggression.” Nye sarcastically referred to the Roosevelt-Churchill summit that produced the Atlantic Charter as “history making ride of two men in a boat.”[62] Other op eds attack aspects of British culture, with one story seeming to imply that the Atlantic Charter would lead to tithes on American churches due to the Church of England’s tithing arrangement, while another seemingly humorous editorial calls out a British cabinet member’s comment that the Atlantic Charter could be prelude to common Anglo-American citizenship, using it to excoriate England for its peerage and imperial citizenship systems.[63]

Regarding the “eight points” of the Charter, the Tribune questioned British commitment on the third point holding “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” which called into question Britain’s colonial possessions. In fact, this was a point of contention between Roosevelt and Churchill at the conference. The Tribune attempted to draw attention to this issue, suggesting Churchill did not intend to follow this commitment because of the economic importance of the empire. The editorial goes to great length to draw a contrast between Britain and America given the end of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, and seemingly mocks the Charter’s vision for people “however primitive, whether Incans, mestizos, or Negroes, whether in the jungles or small villages, literate or illiterate…as full brothers in the world of American democracy.” Drawing attention to India— “a country of ancient culture, with leaders of great intelligence, patience, and knowledge in the ways of men”—the Tribune editorial concluded that American sacrifices would be in vain because Britain would not allow self-determination for India, despite its people being “the most cultivated and intelligent of his [stet] races”.[64]

Finally, somewhat ominously, a December 2, 1941 editorial dismissed the likelihood the British would help America if it came to war with Japan, pointing out the British had no interest in backing the anti-imperialist stance the U.S. took against Japan. “Mr. Churchill has said that the Atlantic charter of freedoms does not run in the far east.” The editorial speculates that if Japan did not threaten British holdings, the British and Japanese would come to terms. The editorial concludes by pointing out the possibility of war with Japan, with U.S. Navy engagement and “American bombers…destroying the populous Japanese cities,” which may be justice for “what the Japanese people have permitted their military to do to the Chinese.”[65]

Conclusions of Research

One of the best written editorials from the Chicago Daily Tribune appears on December 1, 1941 and is entitled “The Desirable Peace.” Unlike typical Tribune content, this editorial makes no attacks but rather decries the repeated mistakes of war throughout history. While celebrating America for both its non-intervention in European affairs and its openness to European immigration, the editorial questions the internationalism of Wilson and Roosevelt as old means of power politics, and challenges world leaders to find a new approach to keep a lasting peace, or at least “a peace which might break the circle for a few generations at least.”[66] With less hyperbole and political partisanship, would this style of high-minded journalistic argument been more persuasive?

As a post-script to demonstrate that point, a Tribune editorial written around the first anniversary of the Atlantic Charter entitled “Victories First” reveals a critical, albeit softened, editorial position. Arguing the Charter needed to be revisited as the chances for Allied victory improved and the end of war approached, the editorial asserted that there was bound to be debate over the meaning of the Charter, especially as the “eight points” had now been “accepted as binding” by “28 nations and governments” (referring to the Declaration of United Nations of January 1942). While avoiding anti-Roosevelt and anti-British views, the editorial criticizes the “eight points” for being “extremely vague” so to offer no value in determining the terms of a peace or the construction of a post-war order, stating that the Charter “is less detailed and less specific than were the Fourteen Points, and they proved far too vague to be of much practical importance at Versailles.” The article comes to a prosaic conclusion that “a great deal more discussion and clarification of the issues” was necessary before there could be a “blueprint of the peace” creating a post-war world organization—a thought which had been qualified with “if, indeed, it is to be organized at all” which may hint at the doctrinaire isolationism so strongly advocated by Chicago Daily Tribune editors the prior year.[67]



[1] Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 17. See also this related post on Immerwahr’s book.

[2] The Atlantic Charter serves as an important pre-war milestone as it would ultimately inform the development of the charter for the United Nations.

[3] Charles A. Kupchan describes liberal internationalism as, “[t]he intermingling of realism and idealism, or power and partnership, of interests and ideals” so that “idealist aspirations were moderated by realist restraint”. Kupchan, 310.

[4] William Shakespeare et al., The Norton Shakespeare, (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 2769.

[5] See Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 43-44; Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020), 112-114; John A. Thompson, A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 205; Charles Kupchan, Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020), 303.

[6] Wertheim, 32-35.

[7] The latter complements the arguments made by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin regarding U.S. engineering of the post-war financial system and economic order. See Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, (London: Verso, 2012), 67-87.

[8] See Thompson 3-24.

[9] Kupchan, 34-64.

[10] Wertheim points out that while the term “isolation” was commonly used in foreign policy discourse, the term “isolationism” as a brand of policy was used sporadically in the 1920s and only came into more common usage in the late 1930s to label the opponents to intervention in World War Two, and thus captured a broad group of liberals and conservatives who were opposed to war and feared U.S. militarism, but largely favored internationalism.

[11] Wertheim, 19-22. Note that this post has tried to avoid exploring these definitional issues as this is more a concern for political science and not history. It is likely definitions keep being debated because the word “isolation” is often understood literally by those lacking an understanding of U.S. diplomatic history. Also, Kupchan and Wertheim may be reconciled as follows: Wertheim attempts to redefine what is commonly referred to “isolationism” as a form of internationalism that is opposed to the European brand of power politics. Kupchan attempts to define “isolationism” using definitive (or positive) characteristics which includes avoidance of power politics. Both seem to align on what “isolationism” means as an approach to foreign policy.

[12] Thompson, 54-55; Wertheim 21-22; Kupchan, 193-216.

[13] However, it is important to note the U.S. continued to frequently intervene in countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America during this time, remaining consistent with the Monroe Doctrine plus the “Roosevelt Corollary” (the U.S. would arbitrate disputes between European and Western Hemisphere countries). This practice is largely outside of the isolationist-internationalists debate but raises the point of view of other historians who view U.S. foreign policy on a path of increasing territorial scope. The diplomatic and political histories reviewed in this post generally explore the changes in U.S. grand strategy, i.e., the global projection of power and treaty commitments in Europe and Asia arising out of World War II which are a milestone in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

[14] Thompson, 56-109; Kupchan, 217-254; Wertheim 22-28.

[15] Kupchan, 255-268; Thompson, 110-150; Wertheim, 28-29.

[16] Thompson, 132.

[17] Kupchan, 274; Thompson, 118.

[18] Wertheim, 29-35.

[19] The Nye Committee of 1934 investigated the influence of finance, banking, and arms manufacturing in bringing about U.S. involvement in World War I. The Committee generally recognized the positive economic impact the U.S. experienced in supplying and financing the Allies, which led to the conclusion that neutrality and embargoing all combatants was the best approach in avoiding being drawn into an overseas war. This conclusion was important as the U.S. considered the Neutrality Act of 1936. Thompson, 139.

[20] Thompson, 136-142.

[21] Wertheim, 35-37.

[22] Thompson, 157-163.

[23] Kupchan, 276-277.

[24] Thompson, 163-166.

[25] Wertheim, 37-46.

[26] Wertheim, 49-50.

[27] Thompson, 166-172.

[28] Wertheim, 47-79.

[29] Thompson, 172-192.

[30] Wertheim, 80-114.

[31] Borgwardt, 6-8, 14-45.

[32] Wertheim, 127.

[33] See Lloyd C. Gardner, “The Atlantic Charter: Idea and Reality, 1942-1945,” in The Atlantic Charter, ed. Douglas Brinkley and David R. Facey-Crowther (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 50-51.

[34] Kupchan, 296-298.

[35] Kupchan, 298; Thompson, 111 and 194; Borgwardt, 285-330; Wertheim, 180-182.

[36] Kupchan, 299-310; Borgwardt, 46-86; Thompson, 193-228; Wertheim, 145-172.

[37] “Atlantic Charter,” Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library, accessed April 16, 2021,

[38] ProQuest website;

[39] The full text of the Atlantic Charter was printed as part of a news story on the conference appearing on August 15, 1941 (see “Text of Statement on Roosevelt-Churchill Conference,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 15, 1941, Incidentally, the Tribune claimed to be the first Chicago post to break the story of the Roosevelt-Churchill conference on August 14, 1941 as the meeting took place on HMS Prince of Whales and prior to any official statement from the White House. See “First with the News,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 15, 1941,

[40] Research revealed only a few exceptions to this approach. Following the announcement of the Atlantic Charter, the Tribune ran an Associated Press story that excerpted editorial comments from multiple newspapers, including pro-Roosevelt and pro-intervention commentary from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. See “Editorial Views on F.D.R. Parley with Churchill: Varied Comments made in nation’s press.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Aug 15, 1941, Another exception was a published interview with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles which, despite a somewhat misleading heading (“Welles Urges U.S. Take Hand in Ruling World”) presents Welles’ internationalist views, where he criticized isolationists as being reactionary and contributing to the cause of war in Europe. See Arthur Sears Henning, “Welles Urges U.S. Take Hand in Ruling World: Blames Present War on Defeat of League,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 22, 1941,

[41] “Pact a Rebuff for Churchill says Gen. Wood: Peace Demand Being Felt, America First Finds,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 15, 1941,

[42] “America First Hears 10 Point Anti-War Creed: Intervention Propaganda Called Menace,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 17, 1941,

[43] “Senator Brooks Hits Secrecy of Sea Rendezvous: Fears Roosevelt Gave War Pledges to Churchill,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 17, 1941,

[44] “Clarify 8 Points, Anti-War Rally Asks Roosevelt: 15 Questions Posed at Oak Park Meeting,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 26, 1941,

[45] “Day Challenges F.D.R. Scheme of World Empire: Urges Citizens to Employ Power of Petition,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 20, 1941,

[46] “Mr. Churchill Tells Us.” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 26, 1941,

[47] “Mr. Roosevelt Back in Versailles,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 29, 1941,

[48] “States the Case Against American Intervention,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 7, 1941, Note that the date of Reisner’s speech was reported as July 21, 1941, prior to the announcement of the Atlantic Charter. Presumably the Tribune’s editors opted to publish the speech to publicize Reisner’s isolationist remarks and not for current newsworthiness.

[49] “Our National Defense and England’s,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 9, 1941,

[50] “What has Roosevelt Promised Churchill?” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 15, 1941,

[51] “Roosevelt, Barkley, and the Tribune,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 21, 1941,

[52] “Stop the AEF Now,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1941,

[53] “Mr. Roosevelt’s Behavior,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 24, 1941,

[54] “Editorial of the Day: Freedom of Religion,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 27, 1941,

[55] See “Roosevelt War Monger,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 23, 1941,, and “Britain Doesn’t Need Our Army,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 11, 1941,

[56] “A Policy of Suicide,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 29, 1941,

[57] “Of Benedict Arnold and Enemies,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 3, 1941,

[58] “A Slightly Tarnished Jewel.” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 11, 1941,

[59] “I am the State,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 16, 1941,

[60] “Two Explanations of Mr. Roosevelt,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 22, 1941,

[61] See “The Churchill Chin is on His Shoulder,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 31, 1941,, and “Mr. Churchill as our Prime Minister,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 3, 1941,

[62] “Sees U.S. Going Down in History as the ‘No. 1 Sap’: Nye Scoffs at the Ride of ‘Two Men in a Boat’,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 28, 1941,

[63] See “British Tithes Make Issue of Free Religion: Subject Omitted from War Aim Pact,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 24, 1941,, and “What Kind of Citizens?” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 21, 1941,

[64] “How About It, Mr. Churchill?” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2, 1941,

[65] “The Crisis with Japan,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 2, 1941,

[66] “The Desirable Peace,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 1, 1941,

[67] “Victories First,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 17, 1942,

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