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Albert Gates

The Myth of Isolation

(September 1938)

From New International, Vol. IV No. 9, September 1938, pp. 265–267.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

IMPERIALIST EPOCH of capitalist development is characterized by the immense growth of productive forces through the triumph of large-scale and mass production industries, and relegating agriculture to a secondary economic position; by monopolization and trustification in industry and the establishment of a financial oligarchy; the displacement of the home market by an international economy and the constant search for new fields of capital investment; finally by the growth of international antagonisms in the struggle of the powers for the division and redivision of the immense territories of the earth.

There never has been an hermetically sealed national development of the leading nations under capitalism. In all stages, a nation was compelled to engage in intercourse with other nations, in one form or another. In the pre-imperialist phase, however, the preponderant form of development was national, the determination of frontiers, the construction of industry and the development of the new classes.

Politics is the by-product of economic policy. In the stage of development of a world economy, politics has become international in substance. It is, therefore, false to regard the question of American isolation from the point of view of being for or against such a matter of state policy. One may as well ask: Are you for or against gravity? The answer would have precisely as much point or significance. Isolation is not and cannot be the result of desire. Essentially a relative question at best, it is, in the final analysis, determined by the scope of a nation’s economy and its share in the world market.

The United States, with its tremendous and far-flung economic interests, does not pursue a course of deliberate isolation and has not pursued such a political course for many decades. This country is intimately involved in all major international political developments and in many instances is the initiator of these phenomena: the Young Plan, World Court, League of Nations, World Economic Conference, etc.

In spite of that, it is impossible to deny that the subject of isolation is a much debated one in American political life. There is a genuine mass sentiment favoring so-called isolation, i.e., freedom from foreign alliances and entanglements based upon a sincere desire to avoid war which is always associated with “foreign politics”. This sentiment was given impetus by the experiences of 1914–18, and is exploited by sectional economic interests (The Middle West). Recently, however, a new force, led by the American Stalinists, has been organized to champion the cause of anti-isolation. They propose active intervention by the United States in world affairs for ... collective security and the war for democracy against fascism!

The whole manner in which the subject has been posed and discussed is responsible for the great confusion that now prevails. The isolationists, for example, turn with pride to Washington’s farewell address as providing the fundamental thought on American foreign policy. Washington had said:

“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible ... It is true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it.” (Emphasis mine – AG)

The statement is clearly a qualified one. Washington did not inveigh against any and all alliances. Mindful of the precarious existence of the republic, he warned against permanent foreign alliances. He understood, however, that “isolation” was intimately bound up with commercial policy. Obviously, he foresaw something of the future development of the United States as an industrial nation and the concomitant participation by it in the affairs of the world to an ever-increasing degree.

The struggle for independence itself was marked by “interference” from foreign powers interested in the outcome of the conflict between the Crown and the Colonies. No little reason for the victory of the revolutionists was due to the aid rendered it by France and other “foreigners”. But the favorable geographical location of the new country in addition to the agricultural character of its economy made unnecessary “foreign entanglements”, except those created by the limited American trade and its territorial expansion.

Territorial expansion took on a national character, proceeding from the Atlantic seaboard westward. Lack of communications, separation from the center of civilization and economy in Europe by several thousand miles of water, made geographical isolation possible and enabled the country to concentrate entirely upon national expansion. The absence of industry obviated a vast international activity and the limits of its trade and commerce did not interfere greatly with its insular development.


Up to the time of the Civil War, this country continued to experience an unfavorable balance of trade, importing largely manufactured goods and exporting agricultural products and raw materials (cotton, furs, lumber, etc.). Industrialization proceeded forward slowly. The country was a debtor nation and destined to remain one until the World War.

But the expansion of the United States was vigorous and militant. It purchased territory where it could (Louisiana Purchase); it went to war where purchase was either impossible or disadvantageous (Florida, Texas, California). Whatever means were available, they were employed to add new territories to the country and to push its constantly expanding frontiers to the Pacific Ocean. Precisely this concentration on national territorial expansion altered the form of development of America from other possible directions and forestalled its earlier transformation to an industrial nation. Nevertheless, it made this development more certain by the acquisition of vast new territories rich in raw materials, metal ores, agricultural areas, and gold. Prior to the Civil War industry was growing by giant strides. In 1850 there were 123,000 [1] manufacturing establishments with a total production value of $1,019,000,000. By the year 1860, manufacturing establishments had grown to 140,000 with a production value of $1,885,862,000, a growth of 17 thousand establishments and almost a billion dollars in value within ten years. While the country was still predominantly agricultural, the tendency toward industrialization was plain.

The results of the Civil War hastened this. In the next decades the United States plunged headlong into industrial growth. Urbanization of the population accompanied the rise of industry. Whereas in 1790 only 3.3 per cent of the population lived in the urban centers, in 1860 it had grown to 16.1 and in 1930 to 49.1. The occupational census illustrated the same trend. In 1870 there were 5,920,000 farmers and 6,586,000 otherwise gainfully employed. The 1910 census showed 11,463,000 farmers while there were 25,779,000, otherwise gainfully employed. In the space of forty years industrial workers far outstripped those engaged in agriculture, although both recorded absolute increases. Yet, by 1930, when the United States had entered the crisis, there was reported 10,472,000 farmers and 38,000,000 workers, or otherwise gainfully employed. Here one notes for the first time a decline in numbers of those engaged in agricultural and a continued sharp increase of those engaged in industry. The transformation of the United States from an agricultural to an industrial country is sharply reflected in the growth and character of its foreign trade. In millions of dollars, for the years 1861–65, exports stood at 170.2 and imports at 255.4. Even bearing in mind the economic dislocations brought about by the Civil War, the relations of exports and imports are properly represented. At the time of the World War and the post-war period (1915–1920), exports stood at 6,416.5 and imports at 3,358.4. For the years 1926–30 exports declined to 4,687.8 and imports to 4,033.5. Since the rise of the United States to the most powerful capitalist nation in the world it has enjoyed an uninterrupted favorable balance of trade.


At the end of the 19th Century, the United States had become a world power, an imperialist nation. Conscious of its new power, it entered the world arena in struggle to obtain a greater share of the world market, colonies, sources of raw materials, and cheap labor. The growth of the American Empire resulted in struggles with the other imperialist nations of the world and was testimony of its tremendous material resources. Isolation, hitherto the result of the agricultural character of economy became a myth in the imperialist epoch.

The methods pursued in the establishment of the empire differed in no essentials from those of Great Britain, France, or Germany. The United States became a first rate military power and this was necessary for its world expansion. World intervention became the rule of conduct of Republican and Democratic administrations alike in their faithful representation of the interests of the new ruling financial oligarchy.

In review, let us examine some of the methods employed:

  1. The establishment of spheres of influence (in China, through the application of the Open Door policy);
  2. Political regulation (Hawaii, Panama, Mexico);
  3. Armed intervention (Santo Domingo, Haiti, Nicaragua);
  4. Acquisition without annexation (Cuba), and
  5. Conquest and purchase (Philippine Islands, Virgin Islands).

The year 1898 was the most active year for American imperialism. The war with Spain laid the basis for the colonial empire. In that year, Hawaii was annexed, a protectorate was established over Cuba in response to the demands of the American sugar interests, Puerto Rico was annexed, as were the Philippine Islands and Guam. In 1899, Samoa (Tutuila) was annexed by treaty with Great Britain and Germany.

With the turn of the century another period of growth of America’s colonial empire was to be observed. In 1903, a general supervision over Panama was established. Supervision of the finances of Santo Domingo was obtained in 1907, and in 1918 a military administration began to dominate all affairs of that country. Haiti came under the control of this country in 1915 through supervision of its finances which was later followed by more direct methods of intervention. In 1913, a protectorate was established over Nicaragua which was strengthened in 1916 through the granting of canal rights and the use of this country’s territory as a naval base. The subsequent attempt of the Nicaraguans to free themselves from American domination led to its vigorous suppression by the Marines. In 1917 the Virgin Islands were obtained by purchase.

However small these possessions appear to be when compared to the gigantic British Empire they are extremely important to the United States for military strategic reasons as well as economic. Within a period of only twenty years, American imperialist policy resulted in the addition of over 281,000 square miles of territory and almost 18 million people. These territorial gains were buttressed by the increased intervention of the United States in the affairs of Latin and South America. A series of Pan-American conferences have by and large strengthened its position in the Western Hemisphere and at the present time the Roosevelt administration, quite conscious of its tasks, engages in tremendous promotional work to advance the economic interests of the ruling class in these countries.

The United States is not self-contained in spite of the fact that she is better fortified for self-sustenance than other countries. Her vast industries look to foreign fields for such highly important materials as rubber, jute, sugar, manganese, chrome ore, tungsten, vanadium, nickel, tin, silk, clothing, carpet wool, paper, and minerals. Even more important than that, the export of capital brought about by the rise of industry transformed America’s international relations. At the end of the World War, she had become a creditor nation to whom the leading European powers were indebted. In 1930 American investments in foreign properties and long term credits (not including war loans) reached the immense total of $15,400,000,000. In spite of the severe effects of the world crisis at the end of that year, foreign investments stood at the high figure of $12,600,000,000. These investments brought in an annual interest of $521,000,000. Foreign holdings in the United States in the same period were $5,000,000,000, with an annual interest paid out of $146,000,000.

While the percentage of American production entering the arena of world trade is not yet preponderant, it is steadily growing. The world market is the fulcrum of a normal and prosperous operation of American economy and that is why it is necessary for this country to involve itself in world affairs for the purpose of improving its position therein.

The foreign policy of the United States is based upon its economic interests in the world. The statistical citations above demonstrate why isolation is impossible, notwithstanding the large sentiment in its favor. Different administrations brought about varying emphasis in foreign policy, but the fundamental character of the imperialist policy has not changed since the rise of the American Empire. This is true for all administrations from McKinley to the present Roosevelt.

The financial oligarchy in the United States, intimately bound up with the government and directing the affairs of the State Department, has the decisive word in matter of its foreign policies. This section of the ruling class, the most decisive and conscious capitalist group, is the bitter foe of isolation. It understands that the only way the United States might achieve isolation is to surrender her international economic possessions. Assuming this was done, the whole structure of American capitalism would shatter. As long as this country maintains its dominant world economic position it will pursue a militant international policy, the direct antithesis of isolation.

However, in a declining world capitalism with a contracting world market, the antagonisms between the United States and the other powers will become more severe. The needs of American capitalism will compel it to intensify its international expansion in conflict with and at the expense of England, France, Germany, Japan and others. This is the unavoidable course of capitalist development and is to be observed now in Latin America, Europe and the Far East. The world powers are moving inexorably toward a new world war for the redivision of the earth and a reconquest of the world market. The United States is intimately involved in this process.

America’s geographical situation appears to lend favor to the desires of the isolationists. They believe that because this country is separated from Europe and Asia by great distances, isolation can be achieved through pressure and desire. Fearing war and its effects upon their economic position, the isolationists, already sharply exploited by finance capital and suffering the severe effects of the long-existing crisis, carry on a hopeless agitation to keep America out of foreign entanglements. But they cannot seriously affect the natural and logical foreign policy which emanates from the needs of American imperialism.

Revolutionaries cannot permit themselves to debate the question of isolation in the manner of the isolationists or the Stalinists. If the revolutionary Marxists demand that American imperialism refrain from intervention in Latin and South America, or, to withdraw the marines and navy from China, they do so not because they are advocates of isolation, but because they are enemies of imperialism and capitalism, and because they are opponents of capitalist wars. The policy of the revolutionaries stems from their opposition to capitalism and its economic, political and military policies.

When, however, the Stalinists enter the fold to champion the cause of anti-isolation, or conversely, to demand American intervention in foreign affairs, they do so on the basis of a pro-war policy which is the essence of their demand for collective security – the war of democracy against fascism. Motivated by the exigencies of Soviet diplomacy and urging the alliance between the United States and Soviet Russia, the American Stalinists demand that the government (!) take the initiative in world politics, to join hands with Great Britain and France for the purpose of isolating the fascist powers and securing the world for the beautiful life under “democratic capitalism”.

Where does such a policy lead? It compels one to become an active supporter of the financial ruling class of the nation. The Stalinists assert that isolation will aid the expansion of the fascist powers in Latin America at the expense of the United States. It means that the economic gains achieved by American imperialism through the employment of a brutal military policy by the government acting for the big banks and trusts, will be endangered.

Fred Brown, writing in the Communist of March, 1938 said,

“It is now when the aggressors of China are penetrating Latin America, Canada, are nearing the Philippines, that they must be stopped.”

The “aggressors” are attacking the economic interest of the United States. Whose economic interests? The economic interests of the House of Morgan, the Rockefeller domain, and Wall Street. How shall the aggressors be stopped? By a State Department bull? Or, perhaps a conference? They will be stopped by the military might of American imperialism.

The plea to stop the aggressors is a plea for war to determine the right of exploiting backward and colonial countries by the contending powers. This is true not only in the specific areas now controlled by the United States, but it is true for the entire world and for all imperialist nations. Judging from their position, the great fear of the Stalinists is that a redivision of the earth may take place at the expense of the United States. Their attempt to identify the interests of the financial ruling class of this country with that of the working class and other exploited groups is characteristic of social patriots.

“Cooperation (collective security) means peace”, the Stalinists contend. Why should cooperation insure peace? Genuine international cooperation is possible only upon the overthrow of capitalism. Cooperation under capitalism cannot be anything else but a temporary cooperation of one set of imperialist bandits against another. In 1914 you had precisely this kind of cooperation between the Allied powers and the Central powers. It was collective security, a form of international cooperation for both sets of powers. But it was collective security and cooperation for war. The present developments in the diplomatic relations between the powers approximates the pre-war jockeying for alliances, all aimed to secure the best position for victory.

When Harry Cannes says in the Daily Worker of January 29, 1938, that “Playing into the hands of the Japanese fascist-military foreign policy is every brand of isolation advocated in the US”, he is asking for direct intervention by American imperialism in the Far Eastern War. He divides the isolationists into two groups: the shortsighted but honest isolationist peace sentiment, and the out and out fascist intrigues assisted by Trotskyite-Lovestoneite hatred of the Soviet Union and their desire to defeat its collective peace policy.

Unquestionably, should a war between Germany and Italy on one side and Great Britain and France on the other take place, the former would endeavor to strengthen isolationist tendencies to keep America out of such a war; the latter would seek to involve this country on their side, or vice versa. In any case, America’s economic interests would not permit it the luxury of a neutral position. The very presence of the war would be a signal for American war industries to plunge full force into trade with the belligerents. This is assuming that America will not be a participant in such a war, an unlikely prospect.

An active anti-isolationist policy can only lead one into the camp of Wall Street. The ruling financial oligarchy is adamantly opposed to isolation. They are not interested in the slightest in the Soviet collective peace policy. They are interested in the cold proposition of preserving their interests in the world arena by an active policy on the part of the Administration, buttressed by a big navy, the world’s greatest air force, and the best equipped army that modern industry can create. The logic of the Stalinist policy leads them into the camp of the war-mongers, the imperialists. Their present denunciation of Wall Street is so much straw in the wind. In the impending international crisis and the subsequent outbreak of war they will be found on the side of the vested interests.

That is why the war-mongers, Republican and Democratic, the financial oligarchy, and the Stalinists have so loudly applauded the foreign policy of the Roosevelt Administration. Roosevelt is a blatant imperialist and militarist. Under the direction of Secretary of State Hull, American foreign policy is extremely militant in the defense of its imperialist possessions. Even the bitterest critics of Roosevelt’s domestic policies have come forth publicly to declare their solidarity with the actions of the Department of State.

War will unite the factions of American capitalism in the struggle to advance its economic interests. The plans of the War Department already insure the organization of industry and personnel for the prosecution of such a war. All opponents of the war will be denounced as enemies of the nation in the pay of the adversary. In the front line, advocating the prosecution of the war and the persecution of its opponents will be the Stalinists acting as the bloodhounds for the ruling class and its military machine.

Revolutionary Marxists cannot seriously debate the question of isolation which is answered by the nature of the economy of the nation. They recognize that it is impossible in a capitalism advanced to its imperialist stage, the stage of world economy and world politics. We are opposed to foreign intervention because we are opposed to imperialism. We are against collective security because it means collective organization for war. Safeguarding the imperialist interests of the United States, which is another way of saying, the property rights of the monopolies and trusts, is not the problem of the working class or the revolutionary movement. We are interested only in the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. Any other policy must lead to subservience to the ruling class of the United States.



1. These figures and others quoted are taken from A Graphic History of the US, by Louis M. Hacker, Rudolph Modley and George R. Taylor.

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