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How accurate is it to say that the most significant influence on US politics, in the years 1917-1960, was a commitment to isolationism?
Although a commitment to isolation post both world wars had influenced US policy in shifting towards laissez faire and not becoming entangled in international affairs, this had not been the most significant factor which influenced US politics from 1917-1960. The impact of isolationism had not lasted in the long term, instead Roosevelt’s New Deal and actions during WWII had been the most significant factor in influencing politics by increasing presidential involvement in both domestic and foreign affairs and expanding presidential powers. The Cold War had also been a more significant factor in altering the course of US politics, again challenging the constitutional powers of the president. Therefore, a commitment to isolationism whilst significant had not been the most significant factor.
Post WWI, there had been an increasing desire for a return to normalcy amongst society due to the unprecedented and unpopular intervention of Wilson in the war and anticommunist hysteria that had emerged as a result. This commitment to isolationism led to growing opposition against Wilson’s aims for world peace and the rise of the Republicans, with Harding rejecting the League of Nations in 1921 and recognising that domestic needs of America were of greater priority, enforcing a laissez faire government. Thus, a commitment to isolationism created a precedent for US presidents to focus on domestic policy and reducing federal intervention instead of increasing involvement in international affairs. Even during Roosevelt’s presidency, neutrality legislation had been implemented due to a commitment to isolationism that had developed as a result of the post war conditions which had developed after WWI and a national fear of another war. 95% of Americans supported this policy, which included Cash and Carry, making it legal to sell anything but lethal weapons to belligerents. Roosevelt had been reluctant to dismantle this neutrality legislation. Therefore, a commitment to isolationism had been significant in making US policy more conservative and neutral. However, this commitment to isolationism had not been the most significant factor in influencing politics from 1917-1960 as the impact had only been temporary with the Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and both Roosevelt and the Cold War led to more dramatic changes in US policy which last throughout the time period.
Under Roosevelt in 1933-1945, the Great Depression had to be dealt with due to the remaining suffering of the poor and unemployed which Hoover had not resolved. Roosevelt had to exceed his presidential authority in order to establish a welfare safety net, establishing a separate executive office for the president to use when congress was not helpful and implementing 15 laws within his first 100 days. For the first time, direct federal aid was provided to elderly and the poor in the 1935 Social Security Act. This had allowed for future presidents e.g. Truman used executive powers in order to seize control of steel mills and suppress a strike and for presidents like EIsenhower 1953-1961 to establish programmes e.g. the Interstate Highway Programme which was larger than any public works programme of Roosevelts and helped to employ millions. Therefore, Roosevelt’s New Deal was a very significant influence on US politics by increasing presidential intervention in social and economic issues. Under Roosevelt, WWII also had great influence on altering US politics, not by increasing commitment to isolationism and patriotism but instead by challenging the congressional prerogative of declaring war and expanding presidential powers into international affairs. Roosevelt had dismantled Congress’s neutrality legislation
by using executive powers to implement Destroyers-for-Bases which lent 50 naval bases to Britain in exchange for bases in Britain. This increased the president's involvement in foreign affairs and without the need for congressional assent. For instance, this paved the way for Truman to order the 1948 Berlin Airlift and mobilist UN troops in South Korea without congress. Thus Roosevelt’s actions during WWII were also very significant in influencing US politics by altering the separation of powers and increasing the president's role in foreign affairs. Roosevelt had also signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 without congress, which was a list of war aims and suggested America was at war. This was significant as it acted as a declaration of war which was part of congressional prerogative. This led to future presidents e.g. Eisenhower to put troops in Vietnam without congress, also indirectly declaring war without congress. Thus, instead of commitment to isolationism, Roosevelt’s actions in the New Deal and WWII were the most significant influence in US politics as they led to more dramatic and large changes in the authority of the president nationally and internationally.
However, another significant factor of greater importance than commitment to isolationism was the Cold War. The Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War had been significant in diverting the attention of the president away from domestic needs and issues towards foreign affairs and increasing presidential powers internationally. In 1945-1953 Truman had become deeply involved in the Cold War, asking congress for power to place troops in Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion and also signing the treaty NATO without seeking congress’s approval. This portrays that the Cold War between US and USSR and anticommunism which had emerged from the war greatly influenced US politics by again increasing the involvement of the president in foreign affairs and the power to make decisions without congress. Under Eisenhower from 1953-1961, the Vietnam War had distracted him from domestic policy and pressured him into increasing defence expenditure despite wanting to decrease federal overseas deficit and expenditure. Eisenhower was Commander in Chief and Head of State meaning he was able to confidently choose where and when to deploy troops in countries. This means that as a result of the threat that the Cold War posed to America, the prerogative of the president in the latter half of the time period 1917-1960 expanded. Therefore, the Cold War was more significant than commitment to isolationism in influencing US politics and isolationism had not lasted up until 1960, and the Cold War had created changes in the role of the president internationally which would continue up until 1980. However, the Cold War was not as significant in influencing US politics as Roosevelt as he had created the precedent for an imperial presidency and extending power beyond America.
Overall, despite a commitment to isolationism after WWI influencing US politics by ensuring the rise of Republicans in the earlier years and restricting the power of the president in legislation and foreign affairs, the Cold War was a more significant factor in creating more long lasting developments to the role of the president in wars and authority. However, Roosevelt was the most significant influence on US politics as his New Deal had created a precedent for future presidents to intervene increasingly with social and economic issues such as unemployment and poverty and his imperial presidency during WWII is what allowed for the increased presidential powers in foreign affairs during the Cold War. Therefore instead of a commitment to isolationism, Roosevelt himself was the most significant factor on US politics by increasing the constitutional powers of the president domestically and internationally.