How Did the Policies of the American Government encourage Isolationism?


The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

HL Mencken (1923)



Tariff, noun,

1.  a list or table of duties or customs payable on the importation or export of goods.

2.  a duty on any particular kind of goods.

Hutchinson Educational Encyclopedia Dictionary (2000)


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The new government of Warren Harding brought in two developments which are often attributed to 'isolationism' (although they had other causes).


The first was to increase tariffs on foreign imports to protect American industry.

The second was to restrict immigration.






Senator Clancy attacks quotas, 1924

'Shut the door! - Senator Smith argues for restriction, 1924

Immigrant quotas under the 1924 Act

Account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case


YouTube on the Red Scare



- Giles Hill on American isolationism



•    Isolationism ppt.



1The Fordney-McCumber Act, 1922

Wilson believed in low tariffs.   He had reduced tariffs in 1913, and refused to increase them.  


Demand was growing, however, for higher tariffs (Source B).   As soon as he became President, Warren Harding passed an Emergency Tariff (May 1921) to increase duties on food imports, and in 1922 Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff.   This had two principles:


a.  'Scientific tariff': this linked tariffs to the wages in the country of export.   If wages in, say Italy, were very low, then Italian goods were given a proportionately higher tariff.   This negated the effect of lower wages in competitor countries.

b.  'American Selling Price': this linked tariffs to the price of American goods, not to the cost of production.   A German company might be able to produce, say, a certain chemical for $60, but if the selling price in America was $80, and the US tariff was 50%, the tariff would be $40.   This meant that foreign imports were ALWAYS more expensive than American-produced goods, however cheaply they had been made.


The Fordney-McCumber Act established the highest tariffs in history, with some duties up to 400% and an average of 40%.


An anti-tariff American cartoon of the time, linking the tariff to isolationism.   The French man is saying: 'But Monsieur, where does it end'.



In the long-run, the Fordney-McCumber Act damaged the American economy, because other countries retaliated by putting up their duties and stopping American exports.   However, for the moment, America was a huge new country, and there was plenty of demand at home.



Source A

If ever there was a time when Americans had anything to fear from foreign competition, that time has passed. If we wish to have Europe settle her debts, governmental or commercial, we must be prepared to buy from her.

Woodrow Wilson, speaking in March 1921

Wilson had just vetoed the Emergency Tariff Bill, just before he handed over the Presidency to Harding.



Source B

Why Americans wanted high tariffs [WAIF]

Tariffs stop imports!

a.  Wartime boom: American business had boomed during the war - possibly because the countries involved in the war hadn't been able to sell goods to America - and American businessmen wanted this to continue.

cAmerican wages: American wages were rising, and American businessmen feared that low wages in Europe would allow European firms to undercut them.  Thus Joseph Fordney claimed that tariffs would protect American workers' jobs.

bIsolationism: American isolationists wanted America to be self-sufficient .

d.  Farm Bloc: Overproduction was causing a depression in farming.   Farmers hoped that protection would help keep prices up.




















Is the Fordney-McCumber Act an example of 'isolationism'?


2.  Immigration Quotas

ALL Americans were immigrant families, of course, but until 1890 most immigrants were 'WASPs' (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) from the wealthier countries of Europe such as Britain, Germany and Sweden.   After 1890, more immigrants started arriving from Eastern Europe and Asia.


Demand was growing, however, to slow down immigration (Source F), and there followed a number of laws to restrict immigration:


a.  1917:   Immigration Law

     This required all immigrants to prove they could read English, banned all immigration from Asia, and charged an immigration fee of $8.

b.  1921:   Emergency Quota Act

      This stated that the number of immigrants from 'the eastern hemisphere' could not be more than 3% of the number already in America in 1910.  It set the maximum number of immigrants in any year at 357,000.

c.  1924: Reed-Johnson Act

      Maximum number of immigrants in any year at 154,000.   Quota from eastern hemisphere reduced to 2% of those already in America in 1890; the South and the East of Europe were thus only allowed to send 20,000 immigrants per year, and non-Europeans only 4,000.


An American cartoon of 1921  



At the same time measures were taken to 'Americanize' immigrants:

●   The Federal Bureau of Naturalization organised naturalization proceedings, and patriotic 'Americanization Day' rallies and Fourth of July celebrations.

●   The Federal Bureau of Education organised courses on politics and democracy to prepare immigrants for the 'citizenship exam'.

The courts clamped down harshly on political crimes by immigrants

     (The case you MUST know about is the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti - two immigrants from Italy who were anarchists - who in 1920 were found guilty of armed robbery and murder (and executed in 1927), even though the defence produced 107 witnesses that they were elsewhere at the time, and in 1925 the actual murderer came forward and gave himself up ... the jury did not believe the defence witnesses because they were all Italian immigrants).


Not all this was racism and prejudice - many social workers saw it a a way to help immigrants out of the terrible poverty many of them lived in.

Source C

America is God's Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!   Germans, Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians - into the Melting Pot with you all!   God is making the American.

Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot (1908)


Source D

New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship.   America must be kept American ...

I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted. Those who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America.

President Coolidge, Message to Congress, 1923


Source E

As soon as they step off the decks of their ships our problem has begun - bolshevism, red anarchy, black-handers and kidnappers, challenging the authority and integrity of our flag…

Thousands come here who never take the oath to support our constitution and to become citizens of the United Sates.   They pay allegiance to some other country while they live upon the substance of our own.   They fill places that belong to the loyal wage-earning citizens of America… They are of no service whatever to our people.   They constitute a menace and a danger to us every day..

Speech by Senator Heflin of Alabhama, 1921


Source F

Why stop immigration [PRT]

Racism and mistrust!

a.  Prejudice: after 1880, many immigrants were poor Catholics and Jews from eastern Europe.   This worried the WASPs; one Senator in the 1920s said that the American pioneers were turning into 'a race of mongrels'.

bRed scare: Communism terrified Americans; a number of bombs were planted in 1919-21, one by an immigrant Italian.   Immigrants were suspected of being communists and anarchists.

c.  Trade Unions: opposed immigration because they feared that immigrants would work for lower wages and take their jobs.




1.  Prejudice/ Red Scare/ Trade Unions  - can you see any of these prejudices influencing the statements in Sources D and E?

2.  Why do you think the 1924 Act pushed the Census year back from 1910 to 1890