fall of the Soviet Union the United States has been often described as the world's only remaining super power. Whether this description is accurate or whether it truly matters, is open to debate but how the United States came to the point where it is even a position to be afforded such a distinction is interesting. For a nation that began as thirteen loosely organized colonies and that for most of its history maintained a position of isolation its now being considered the world's only super power is highly ironic.
It has been the common position of many professional historians that the United States emerged on the world political scene when Commodore Dewey staged a showing of American military power in Manila Bay in 1898 (Fry, 1979). On May 1st of that year Dewey defeated a formidable Spanish fleet and sent a message to the rest of the world that the United States was now a force that deserved recognition. The battle, which was part of the Spanish-American War, has often been identified as the line of demarcation in regard to America's isolation policy. Prior to Dewey's victory it is argued that the United States largely ignored the concerns of other nations and stood on the perimeter and did not involve itself on any matters that occurred outside its borders (Chalberg, 1994). Geography played a major role in the United States maintaining its isolation from the end of the Civil War until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Physically separated from the rest of the world, the United States was able to concentrate on its own domestic situation and avoid getting embroiled in the political wrangling that was taking place in Europe. While the European powers were still active in their imperialistic efforts in Africa and Asia, the United States had the advantage of being able to expand its borders on its own continent and enjoying the expansion of its population through immigration and fecundity. While European nations skirmished among themselves fighting over the colonization of other lands, America went about colonizing on its own continent. At the end of the Civil War the United States had extended to the Mississippi River and spent the next several decades settling the lands west of the Mississippi. The settling of these lands kept the nation busy and there was little or no need for them to look elsewhere. Recovering from the financial burdens placed on their economy from the Civil War, it was all the nation could do to rebuild its industry and settle the Western states. The nation displayed little interest in matters outside its borders.
Toward the end of the 19th century the United States began expanding further and further westward and its population continued to grow. By the end of the Civil War the United States was the world's most populous nation in the world trailing only Russia and France. This fact did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world powers and other nations began preparing for the emergence of the United States on the world stage. One of the reasons that France and Great Britain supported the Confederacy was their recognition of the potential power of the United States and that a divided United States worked to their benefit (Lebergott, 1983). Both France and Great Britain were disappointed with the results of the Civil War.
America's involvement in the Spanish-American War is looked upon by many as America's departure from its historical political isolation. Such view, however, ignores the fact that the United States entered such War without joining into confusing and conflicting alliances with other nations or having to fight in Europe. The fighting was limited to either locations in or near the United States or Spanish possessions in Asia. The United States emerged from the War acquiring some colonies in the Caribbean and some Pacific islands but without any foreign support. As soon as the War was over, the United States quickly withdrew and adopted the isolationist policy that it had observed since the end of the Revolutionary War.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century there were developments that began to put pressure on the United States' isolationist position (Ninkovich, 2001). In Europe, nationalism was a becoming an increasingly more serious problem and its rise threatened to upset the balance of power on the continent. Changes in the United States also made it more difficult for the country to remain its position of isolation. Improvements in transportation and communication such steamships, undersea telegraph cables, radio provided links between Europe and North America. As a result of these improvements, the United States began to engage in increases levels of shipping and foreign trade.
Internal demographic changes in the United States also contributed to the weakening of the country's isolation policy. Immigration continued in earnest and due to increased industrialization the nation was becoming less rural. Both of these factors contributed to the lessening of isolationist pressure but the country, as a whole, continued to favor the U.S. staying away from foreign entanglements. Despite pressure from Great Britain and France for the United States to involve itself in European affairs the nation stood fast in maintaining its neutrality even after War broke out in Europe.
Although the United States managed to avoid being brought into War that broke out in Europe, the actions of the Germans in interfering with American shipping eventually forced the United States to abandon its neutrality. The United States entered the First World War late and briefly abandoned its isolation but once the War was over the pressures to withdraw and re-establish a position of isolation were strong. Then President, Woodrow Wilson, worked diligently to keep the U.S. involved in world affairs and advocated that the nation become a member of the League of Nations. The U.S. Senate, however, rejected the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which set the terms ending the First World War and also refused to allow the United States to become a member of the League of Nations. Isolation once again became the national policy of the United States.
Nothing would change in the United States for the next several decades relative to the country's involvement in world affairs. In fact, the country withdrew even further as Congress began to impose tariffs on the importation of foreign goods in an attempt to shield U.S. manufacturers. The period was marked also by a restriction in the number of immigrants permitted into the country (Timmer, 1998). It had been the policy of the United States prior to the First World War to encourage immigration and, as a result, millions of people had entered the country seeking opportunity. Beginning in the early 1920s the United States began to impose strict immigration quotas and the flow of immigrants into the country slowed to a trickle.
As the decade of the 20s ended, other problems caused the United States to withdraw even further from international affairs. The Great Depression begins late 1929 and all the country's energies for the next decade were directed toward battling the economic conditions with the country. What little involvement the United States had in foreign affairs took a back seat to economic concerns.
While the United States continued its position of isolation in the years following the First World War, world power and influence was being repositioned. Totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and Germany were being formed and the formation of these governments would have disastrous effects but these developments would have no effect on America's isolation.
As the Great Depression continued, matters throughout the world became quite complicated. In Europe, Germany was beginning its expansion program while Japan was doing the same in Asia. United States' president, Franklin Roosevelt, was sympathetic to the position of the Allied countries in Europe but the popular attitude in the United States and in Congress still favored isolation. As matters worsened in Europe and Asia and War eventually broke out there was increased pressure for the United States to become involved but the country remained neutral.
The War for the Allies in Europe did not go well. Within months, Great Britain found itself virtually fighting Germany on its own. Despite continued heavy pressure from isolationists to keep the United States out of the fray, Roosevelt was eventually able to convince Congress to provide financial and supplies support for the Allies but the pressure to remain neutral continued. Everything changed, however, when Japan suddenly conducted a sneak attack on the American Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States declared war against the Japanese empire the following day and, pursuant to their treaties with Japan, Germany and Italy both declared war against the United States four days later. Suddenly, isolation was no longer the national policy and the United States was thrust into world affairs. America's long tradition of isolation was ended and, although it was not known at that moment, it was ended permanently.