The Myth of Isolationism
The characteristic most often embraced by those driving America’s international economic expansion during the 1920s was one of peaceableness. The Market Empire was ostensibly only interested in peaceful solutions and rhetorically eschewed war. As one Rotarian put it “Let me confess the time has passed when the world trusted the politician, the statesman. One is accused of duplicity and treachery. The other with evasion and desertion. To someone somewhere civilization must turn with confidence and with hope. To whom shall it turn if it be not such as you.” Statesman and politicians had gotten the world into the horrific World War, businessmen were the only ones who could be trusted to avoid such a catastrophe.
On one level such rhetoric is accurate. Businessmen, rotarians etc. were interested in peaceful economic relations. War was not good for trade. On the other hand, such blandishments hid the deeply complicit nature of the Market Empire in war and repression. The very reason the Market Empire was ready to expand in the postwar period was the war itself. Europe lay devastated and prostrate, unable and perhaps unwilling to resist the penetration of an American Consumerism strengthened and emboldened by the war. Similarly, American industry had ready access to raw materials from Latin America and Africa, access acquired by means more closely resembling the actions of a traditional empire. Cuban relations form the clearest example of this behavior with the US government, usually at the behest of industry, literally dictating economic terms to Cuba backed by the threat of (and occasional use of) military force. During the interwar period, the US Navy expanded in power and influence, carrying the Market Empire in its wake. While rhetorically and ideologically distinctly at odds with traditional European Empires, the Market Empire was not entirely divorced from the military power that lay at the base of traditional empire.
Audio: The 1920s and the American Century (4:25)