Political Isolationism Revisited



A “prophet is not without honor save in his own house,” the scriptures tell us, or, if one may tinker with the scriptures: “a prophet is not without honor save in his own time.” That such a fate befell J. Reuben Clark, Jr. as a critic of American foreign policy can be ascribed almost wholly to his tenacious defense of isolationism. In the forties, J. Reuben Clark seemed out of date. Time, it appeared, had passed him by. America had plunged enthusiastically into an era of “internationalism,” and most of that generation of Americans thought that the United States had a moral obligation to set the world right. They threw themselves, therefore, headlong into the turmoil and tragedy of world politics, advocating policies which led to American political, economic, and military intervention in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Clark’s misgivings about these policies were ignored by most and ridiculed by some. Moreover, he was not unaware that he was out of step with the time: “Many think me,” he told one group, “just a doddering old fogy. I admit the age, but deny the rest of the allegation—the doddering and fogyness.”

If in the forties J. Reuben Clark and political isolationism seemed out of date, now, after more than two decades of “messianic” intervention by the United States in virtually every corner of the world and after two costly and perhaps unnecessary wars, they appear to be before their time rather than out of date. In any event, many of Clark’s arguments, just as he confidently expected, have stood the test of time, for he believed that despite what appeared to be a new set of circumstances “human nature does not change . . .”; hence his faith in isolation remained unshaken. It seems appropriate, therefore, now that Clark’s views on our “meddlesome busybodiness” in foreign affairs suddenly have become fashionable, to attempt a reexamination of the reasons why he believed so strongly in isolationism.


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