US Isolationism in the 1920s


After World War I the US attempted to become less involved in world affairs.


The US refused to join the League of Nations. Although President Wilson pushed hard for US membership, opposition in the US Senate was significant. Americans, after learning of the destruction and cost of World War I, did not want the United States to become entangled in another European conflict which could lead to another devastating war. Americans viewed the nations of Europe as conflict prone and likely to become involved in internal and external disputes which could draw in the United States into another war which really had little to do with American interests.


The US closed the doors to immigration during the 1920's. Early on the US had excluded Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians, but later the US began to exclude even Europeans, particularly eastern and southern Europeans.


Why did the US, a nation of immigrants, suddenly turn against immigration?


Answers: 1) anti-European feelings after WWI; 2) organized labor believed cheap immigrant labor forced down wages; 3) railroads and basic industries were well developed by 1920's and industrialists no longer felt the need for masses of unskilled workers; 4) more established Americans descended from northern Europe felt recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe could never be truly American, and they also saw them as inferior; 5) radical political movement and ideologies such as socialism, communism, and anarchism were viewed as European in origin and as potential threats to political stability in the United States.


Immigration Laws:


1) Quota Act of 1921 limited immigration from each country to 3 % of total number who had immigrated in 1910 and set a yearly limit of 350,000


2) The 1924 quota reduced the quota to 2%, the base year changed from 1910 to 1890. This discriminated against eastern and southern Europeans because many had come to the US after 1890


3) National Origins Act of 1929 the base year was moved to 1920, but total number was set at 150,000


The War of Tariffs:


America set high tariffs on imports to keep out foreign products. This raised prices for American consumers because cheaper foreign products were kept out of the US market. It also took away an essential market (the US) from many European and Latin American countries. People in these countries lost their jobs as factories were unable to sell their products to the US, and farmers began to accumulate huge surpluses. Eventually foreign nations responded by raising their own tariffs and excluding American manufactured and farm products from foreign markets.


War Debts Unpaid:


The nations of Europe had accumulated huge debts during World War I when they had borrowed massive sums of money from the US to buy war goods. By 1918 the total amount owed to the US was about $10 billion. The US lowered interest rates on loans when Europeans faced difficulties in repaying, but high tariffs in the US prevented Europeans from earning the dollars they needed to pay off the loans.


The European Allies looked to war reparations from Germany as the solution to their debt problems. In 1921 a Reparations Commissions fixed the total amount of German reparations at $33 billion. Germany however was in the middle of an economic crises with high unemployment and hyper-inflation and was completely unable to pay the reparations. Germany attempted to borrow money from European and US banks to pay the reparations, but there were limits to what the Germans could borrow. By 1930 Germany was totally unable to make any other reparation payments.


A Legacy of Bitterness:


European allies claimed that they had done most of the fighting and had suffered the most during the war, and that consequently, the US should cancel all war debts. The US claimed that as much as 1/3 of the loans had been made after the armistice and that therefore the Europeans should have to pay. In the end most of the war debts and most of Germany's reparations remained unpaid. Nonetheless, the US's unsuccessful attempt to collect the war debts increased Europe's resentment against the US. Also, the Allies' unsuccessful attempt to collect reparations from the Germans contributed to a feeling of bitterness among the German people that contributed to the rise of Hitler in the early 1930's  


American relations with Latin America in the early 1900's had been characterized by US intervention to protect American investments and lives, and to uphold the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe doctrine which said the US had the right to act as a police officer of the Western Hemisphere. The Latin Americans resented US military intervention and the influence of American business on their economies and governments. American critics of US policy called it "dollar diplomacy" while Latin American critics called it "Yankee imperialism."


By the early 1930's however relations with Latin America had improved as Coolidge and Hoover worked hard to develop friendlier relations. The State Department declared the Monroe doctrine would no longer be used to justify US intervention in Latin American domestic affairs, and Latin American nations encouraged US investment and gave greater protection to these investments.


Although Harding and Coolidge recommended that the US join the World Court, the Senate was influenced by Americans fears of getting entangled in European alliances and affairs and refused to join the World Court.


The US worked with Great Britain and Japan to establish a naval holiday and a 5:5:3 ratio for capital ships (battleships and heavy cruisers) to help stop the naval armaments race in Asia. France and Italy would have fleets of equal size with a ratio of 1:.75 in this Five Power Treaty.


In the Four Power Pact, Japan, Great Britain, the US and France agreed to respect one another's rights in the Pacific and consult in a case of aggression.


In the Nine-Power Treaty nine powers with interests in Asia agreed to maintain the Open Door Policy for China and guarantee the territorial integrity of China.


The Kellog-Briand Pact or the Pact of Paris, attempted to outlaw war and was accepted by 62 nations. This was the idea of 1928 US Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand. The pact was called "wishful thinking" since each country added its own reservations, not one outlawed a war of self defense (and most countries claim each war is a war of self-defense), and the document said nothing about enforcement.


The Peace structure began to crumble when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 in an effort to wipe out "foreign" influence from the Far East. Japan violated the Open Door Policy, the Covenant of the League of Nations which it had signed, the Nine Power Treaty, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Nonetheless, neither the US nor the League of Nations did anything to stop Japan beyond making statements of protest. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and made preparations to invade and conquer China and Southeast Asia.


Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany realized that they too could begin programs of aggression after 1933 without facing any real danger from the crumbling world peace structure. 


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