Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Gingrich’s take on U.S. history and ‘isolationism’? It’s a mess

Newt Gingrich uses the word “isolationist” to disparage those who disagree with his desire to perpetuate a permanent state of war.

Newt Gingrich was once an actual historian. Has a Ph.D in history (although, for purposes of this post, it might be worth mentioning that it was in European history; his PhD was on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945–1960”). He taught history (also geography) before becoming a full-time politician and now a grey eminence of the Right.

But after all these years in politics, his academic skills are sadly diminished and his historical discussions have been subordinated to his political diatribes.

Still, I’m grateful to him for deciding to honor the imminent Fourth of July holiday with an essay on the Founding Fathers (mostly because it provides me this opportunity to fulminate on a pet semantic peeve of mine, namely the universal abuse of the word “isolationist” to promote war-mongering.)

Former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich’s Thursday op-ed essay for the Washington Post was titled “Five Myths About the Founding Fathers.” The five myths he chooses to rebut are all pretty stupid, in my view. None of them particularly resonates as something that most Americans think is true of the Founding Fathers as a generality.

Article continues after advertisement

Then, having constructed a straw myth, Gingrich burns each one down by demonstrating that at least one or two of the Founders said at least one or two things to contradict the (non)-Myth that all the Founders felt a certain way. It turns out that in all five cases, the Founders felt the way Gingrich feels. I won’t bore you with all of the Gingrich myths, only one because, as I mentioned, it gives me a chance to call attention to the very common, virtually universal, misuse of the word “isolationist.”

Myth No. 3 that Gingrich explodes is: “The founders were isolationists.”

I can’t say that I know anyone who, when they think about the Founders, says one of their next thoughts is “bunch of isolationists.”

What Gingrich really wants to say is that Ron Paul is an isolationist who “calls for America to withdraw from its traditional role as a global power.” Gingrich disagrees with Paul and argues that the Founders would too (but this is pretty silly because in the time of the Founders the United States had no “traditional role as a global power” and no real clear collective position on the benfits of global powerdom).

But Gingrich apparently thinks that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (the three he discusses in that passage) would agree with him. Go ahead and click through to the Gingrich essay if you like and you’ll see that he evinces more evidence that Washington, Franklin and Jefferson were leery of things like “entangling” (Jefferson) or “permanent” (Washington) alliances than evidence to the contrary.

It’s a mess. The Post should be embarrassed to have run such a poorly argued piece. Gingrich’s main point is that he is not an isolationist and he was in the mood to take a shot at Ron Paul. But my main point is that Gingrich and pretty much everyone else (often of a neoconservative hue) who uses the word “isolationist” to disparage those who disagree with their desire to perpetuate a permanent state of war has decided to use the “i” word to mean something that it doesn’t mean. defines “isolationism” (accurately, in my view) as:

“The policy or doctrine of isolating one’s country from the affairs of other nations by declining to enter into alliances, foreign economic commitments, international agreements, etc., seeking to devote the entire efforts of one’s country to its own advancement and remain at peace by avoiding foreign entanglements and responsibilities.” Alternatively:

“A policy of nonparticipation in or withdrawal from international affairs.”

Article continues after advertisement

There is no one of any influence in the United States who resembles an “isolationist” when the word is correctly defined.

There are many people (I consider myself one) who are skeptical whether it is in the interest of the United States to enter every military conflict that the neocons can dream up, suspicious that these adventures often turn out not to work as well as the promoters of perma-war tend to promise and leery of whether in every corner of the globe there are conflicts that threaten to harm the United States or its often-invoked-but-seldom-defined “vital interests.”

There’s room for argument over this. But to call these poor, deluded peaceniks “isolationists” is just agenda-driven propaganda-peddling by loaded and inaccurate word choice.

The United States is a member — in fact the leading member — of the United Nations, NATO and the Organization of American States. An “isolationist” (please glance back at the actual definition) would favor withdrawal from them all. No one of any influence in U.S. foreign-policy circles does.

A proper ” isolationist” would say that it’s none of the United States’ business who has a nuclear weapon. But the argument in U.S. policy circles doesn’t include this idea. On the contrary, the argument is between those who want to bomb or invade or overthrow the government of Iran (presumably, as Gingrich apparently believes, just as George Washington would have done) and those (including the current occupant of Washington’s old presidential post) who prefer to assemble a large coalition of allies and seek to limit the Iranian nuclear program through negotiation, although never repudiating the option of bombing if nothing else works.

To call that second camp “isolationist” is inaccurate, or, in Gingrich’s case, either dishonest or divorced from any real understanding of what the word means. But those with PhD’s in history probably do know what the word means. They also know that the word “isolationist” sounds weeny and wrong to American ears, so at the risk of their intellectual honesty, they often throw it around when anyone tries to make the case that the next great effort (I feel like like saying “imperialist effort” but that might cross the line into the same kind of language abuse I’m condemning here) to dictate the behavior of foreign nations might turn out to be a bad idea.

A small addendum

During my (very enjoyable) years of fulminating for MinnPost readers, I made it a small tradition to write a piece around the Fourth of July arguing (well, really, demonstrating) that the Second of July in 1776 should be the day we celebrate. I think I may have neglected this duty for a few years, and now I’ve wasted my July 4 celebration fulminating about Gingrich and isolationism instead. If you missed the umpteem previous iterations of the July 2 essay, here’s one of the old ones. Whether you buy it or not (although the argument for July 4 is spectacularly weak), have a lovely holiday.