Trending Topics:

Sam Tanenhaus rebrands antiwar as– ‘isolationist’

on 16 Comments

Two weeks back the New York Times posted a video primer in which the defiantly unshaven writer Sam Tanenhaus cast the current antiwar debate as one of idealists versus isolationists. The argument over Syria calls on an ancient divide in the US polity.

Are we an isolationist country that doesn’t want to get involved in other nations’ problems or are we a global leader who must try to solve them?

Then Tanenhaus goes right to Charles Lindbergh opposing intervention in World War II, and puts everything in the isolationist blender. Opposition to the Cold War and Korean war and the Vietnam War. All isolationism.

Isolationism emerged again in the early 1950s when war broke out in Korea. Isolationists left and right opposed American intervention in that conflict and also the broader Cold War against the Soviet Union.

During Vietnam, liberals were labeled isolationists, he says. Were we? I remember that we called ourselves peaceniks, and antiwar. George McGovern an isolationist? He said, Come home America, Tanenhaus says, and there are more important battles to fight here than there.

Today after more than ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, isolationist sentiment is strong in both parties. Americans are tired of war.

As if war is the way you engage positively in the world. Says Annie Robbins, who pointed me to this: “Psychologically, this NYT piece said to me, Are you a Nazi sympathizing Lindbergh, or do you support intervention/bombing Syria?”

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

Other posts by .

Posted In:

16 Responses

  1. marc b.
    marc b.
    October 2, 2013, 2:47 pm

    right on, annie. I made a similar comment on an earlier thread that didn’t survive the editors’ scalpel, but it’s a rhetorical tactic called heresthetics (sp?), wherein a complicated question is posed in a way so that only one reasonable answer is possible. this is primarily done (as annie ably points out) by reducing issues to cartoons bubbles. so the arguments for and against intervention in WWII are synonymous with an analysis of the instance of mass murder at Auschwitz, and that same mass murder event is then hypothetically relocated to 21st century Syria and Iran.

    • Krauss
      October 3, 2013, 8:53 am

      I agree 100% with your consent on Annie’s comment.
      She’s right; that’s basically how Tenenhaus wants to portray anyone and everyone who disagress with interventionism. Notice that he even brands opposition to the Vietnam war and the Iraq war as isolationism!

      People like him are the true radicals. A good question to ask, which no mainstream media reporter like Howard Kurtz or others like him will ask, is why he is even with a supposedley ‘liberal’ newspaper to begin with?

      He’s almost to the right of Bill Kristol.
      And let’s not forget that the NYT briefly hired Kristol as an Op-Ed columnist before they had to back down. All thanks to their nutty publisher.

  2. Chespirito
    October 2, 2013, 3:39 pm

    Great post Phil, with a perfect kicker, Annie. After all, what’s an isolationist? An isolationist is a anyone who is unenthusiastic about whatever war FOX or MSNBC happens to be serving up that day. The I-word has been a smear term for several generations now, it is historically illiterate nonsense. Thinking that launching Tomahawks at Damascus is a bad idea does not make you Charles Lindbergh. I got this all of my chest a few years ago in an essay for the paleocon American Conservative magazine, in which I draw heavily on the great New Left historian William Appleman Williams:

  3. bilal a
    bilal a
    October 2, 2013, 4:36 pm

    If you know what Irving Kristol knew, about what happened when Brooklyn rolled into Deutschland , you wouldnt buy into the greatest generation whitewash:

    “My fellow soldiers were too easily inclined to loot, to rape, and to shoot prisoners of war. Only army vigilance kept them in check.” He felt sympathy for the civilian population of the enemy nation: “observing German women and young girls, living among the rubble and selling their bodies for a few packs of cigarettes … rid me of any anti-German feeling which, as a Jew, might otherwise have been present in me.” What’s more, “I was not so convinced that the American soldiers I knew were a different breed of humanity from their German counterparts.””

  4. lysias
    October 2, 2013, 4:57 pm

    Were the Americans who opposed entering World War One isolationists? Were the Americans who opposed supporting revolutionary France against Britain isolationists? That would make George Washington an isolationist.

  5. OlegR
    October 2, 2013, 4:57 pm

    Aren’t you isolationist Phil.
    What role do you think US should play in the world and more importantly , How ?

    • justicewillprevail
      October 2, 2013, 6:09 pm

      What role do you think they should play? endlessly supporting an ethnocentrist, colonialist state with no regard for human rights or real democracy, or taking a more multilateral, co-operative stance with equal human rights a priority, a respect for international law and a commitment to non-aggression? Nothing isolationist about that.

    • Ecru
      October 3, 2013, 4:25 am

      @ OlegR

      I realise as a Zionist this concept will be alien to you but just bombing the hell out of people and stealing their resources isn’t the only way to interact with the world.

  6. James Canning
    James Canning
    October 2, 2013, 5:41 pm

    The term “isolationist” is indeed used to slander those who oppose foolish American military interventions in the Middle East.

  7. Citizen
    October 2, 2013, 6:45 pm

    Annie read the cheap tea leaves perfectly.

    @ OlegR
    The US should support international law, not flout it, and it should support the UN, not flout it. Instead, the US has been copying Israel, which state loves the UN when it backs Israel, and ignores and disses the UN when it does not.

  8. Nevada Ned
    Nevada Ned
    October 2, 2013, 11:28 pm

    Phil, you wrote

    “During Vietnam, liberals were labeled isolationists, he says. Were we? I remember that we called ourselves peaceniks, and antiwar.”

    Actually, some liberals were big hawks, including John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey. Check it out. Humphrey once proclaimed, “The war is our great adventure, and a wonderful one it is, too!”

    The forces of Establishment Liberalism killed three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. This was a force in pushing many of us beyond liberalism.

    Phil, do you see any similarity between JFK/LBJ/HHH liberalism and to Obama’s great enthusiasm for bombing Pakistan and Afghanistan with drones?

  9. Marco
    October 3, 2013, 12:38 am

    According to the rubric of the neo-conservatives – almost every country in the world *except* the United States is isolationist. Even Israel, I suppose, since it mostly lets America take care of its self-perceived regional threats.

    That’s what it comes down to. Is the U.S. willing to act a little more like a normal country instead of like the last global empire?

  10. chris o
    chris o
    October 3, 2013, 1:39 am

    This “isolationist” label is very annoying. It is called Non-Interventionist, dammit. We don’t think we should intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, we should not be the global police force. But otherwise, we are very global. We love engagement. We love cultural exchange, travel, engagement with the world, diversity, world music, world literature. We just don’t love engaging in war with other countries! So they call you an isolationist. Sigh.

  11. Stogumber
    October 3, 2013, 5:45 am

    But even on a smaller scale, Tanenhaus is wrong. Eventually, he does not even represent the American Tradition after FDR.

    Interventionism meant at that time that the United States founded federations of states which agreed to defend each other (NATO, SEATO etc.). Nothing more. These organizations were not shaped to solve the problems of mankind with military means.

    And its leaders had (in the beginnning) some insights into the distinction between defensive and aggressive activities. Eisenhower saw clearly that the Suez campaign against Egypt was not an act of defence.

  12. Betsy
    October 3, 2013, 7:55 am

    the isolationist smear is an old old story in US. For good historical look, see Jackson Lear in a Nation review last year

    It was used against the late 19th century anti-imperialists, against the 1930s peace movements–which were also anti-corporate, anti-big business. It is still repeatedly used (even in scholarly texts) as a negative label for rural, Southern & Midwestern radical populism (along with accusation of racism). Since the 19th c. it is one of the main ways that the Establishment has written off the grassroots Left in America. A friend (who is older, Progressive except Palestine, practicing Jewish) recently gave me an article, I think from Jewish Times, which laid out this whole (fake) history — tracing anti-Israel feeling to ‘isolationism’ in American heartland & connecting it with Christianity, anti-Semitism, lack of education, complicity with Hitler, anti-progressivism, anti-internationalism. I was pretty unimpressed by this article (which seemed full of prejudices & poorly researched) — but didn’t say anything to her because I like her so much & she seems so out of touch with the lived realities of the times & places described in the article — that I literally didn’t know what to say. The internationalist, anti-imperial, peacemaking tradition in US might never have gotten power in the corridors of the Establishment. It might have been a minority (albeit a large minority or even majority in some places & times). But it has been an important current in American life. It *did* have connections to Christian socialism or progressivism at some times–but was also interfaith There is a rewriting of American history going on that is problematic here.

  13. quercus
    October 3, 2013, 9:06 am

    The word “isolationist” is used to manipulate opinion by attempting to make the person to whom it is applied appear uncaring. It’s not very subtle, and as such I ignore it.

    As an American citizen, I believe we should not interfere in the internal politics of another nation, and we respond militarily only if we or our allies are attacked, and I emphasize that word. “Terrorist” attacks don’t count because culpability often cannot be proved definitively and are often done by individuals acting outside of any established government. And by “attack” I mean an actual physical occurrence between two armies, a “threat” of attack doesn’t count. And we do not support allies who attack other nations, when they have not been attacked. If the UK were to get involved with Argentina militarily over the Falkland islands, for instance, the United States should not be involved.

Leave a Reply