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Were the USA isolationists during the interwar years?

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Were the USA isolationists during the interwar years?

Background – context: WWI just ended. Wilson was president and was re-elected in 1916 based on the slogan “he kept us out of war”. BUT joined WWI in 1917 (RMS Lusitania sank).

At the end of war, Wilson issued his 14pts which led to TreatyOfVersailles (1919) (diff from 14pts bc not as idealistic, 14pts didn’t want nations to take advantage over another)

Traumatizing experience for the world and USA

Key Points – Dates

Notes – Details

Not much isolationist:


  • 14pts 🡪 ToV (does not ratify)
  • League of Nations (does not join)

Less isolationist:

Involved diplomatically:

  • Washington Treaty 1924
  • Kellog Briand Pact 1928

Involved economically:

  • Dawes Plan 1924
  • Young Plan 1928

More isolationist: (bc of Great Depression)

  • FDR New Deal
  • Neutrality Acts (public/political pressure)

Less isolationist as tensions rises:

  • New Neutrality Act
  • FDR Arsenal of Democracy speech 1941
  • Atlantic Charter

USA were not that much isolationist in the late 1910’s and 1920’s:

Post war: under Wilson

  • Wilsonianism: interventionist to spread/promote peace and democracy
  • Major involvement in post-war decisions: 14pts-> TreatyOfVersaillais (USA’s idea BUT did not join it…)
  • League of Nations (USA’s idea): collective security to prevent another war (BUT does not join because “loss of sovereignty”)

Actively involved in the 1920’s: Hugues and Hoover agreed that could not be isolated from international affairs (bc of USA’s influence and own interests)

  • Diplomatically:
  • The Washington Treaty (1924) (about disarmament): forces UK to end alliances w/ Japan 🡪 USA benefits bc naval parity with UK
  • Kellog Briand Pact (1928) (about outlawing war): eliminate war as a tool of national policy
  • Economically:

USA wanted to see Germany stabilized (it had to pay reparations of $33B)

  • Dawes Plan (1924): arrangement for Germany’s payment of reparations so that it can continue to pay FR & UK 🡪 adv. To USA’s bankers + promotes peace
  • Young Plan (1928) (continuity of Dawes’s): reduce the burden on Germany of the reparations payments

Became more isolationist in the 1930’s because of the Great Depression:

  • Roosevelt (1933) 🡪 issues the New Deal to counter the effect of the depression (based on Keynesianism!) 🡺 interests of the country first
  • Implements new tariffs on international trade 🡪 protectionism
  • Public/political isolationists put pressure on Roosevelt to maintain neutrality
  • Neutrality Acts: no money to be lent to countries who had not paid war debts + no sales of weapons to belligerents countries

As tensions rising in the world, less isolationist in the late 1930’s and 1940’s:

  • New Neutrality Act: sales of weapon allowed BUT on cash-and-carry basis (=no credit)
  • FDR Arsenal of Democracy speech (1941): prepare americans for USA involvment in WWII.
  • Atlantic Charter: draw vision for postwar world with principles to respect


After WWI, Wilson issued his 14pts which led to the ToV in 1919. However, USA did not join in especially because of the League Of Nations (even though it was USA’s idea). In the 1920’s, USA were involved both economically and diplomatically in foreign affairs, thus making USA less isolationist. However, the Great Depression convinced Roosevelt to deal with the USA first by taking care of its own interests. USA thus became more isolationist in the early 1930’s. But as tensions rose in the world, USA had no choice but to get involved again in foreign affairs to try and prevent an explosion of the tensions. WWII starts, USA gets more and more involved until December 1941: Pearl Harbor.


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