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Isolationism (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

At the moment in which the United States’s presence on the world stage became more critical, they pulled back and pursued a policy of isolationism. 

American Isolationism in the 1920s

The United States had always been an open country. Born from immigration, for a long time, it put little to no barrier to the arrival of new people. Besides, in the beginning, the booming economy was hungry for workers, who were welcome wherever they came from. A policy of expansion over a large continent created the idea that there was no shortage of space.

But at the beginning of the 1900s, things started to change. A new American culture had emerged, and as it started to consolidate itself, it also began to fear that new influxes of different peoples and cultures could disrupt it. 

In this climate, WWI broke out.

At the moment in which the United States's presence on the world stage became more critical, they pulled back and pursued a policy of isolationism #AmericanHistory Share on X

The US initially stayed out of it, mostly because the public opinion didn’t care for the European war. But as the conflict proceeded, it became ever more clear that the consequences may touch the US too. 

Besides, even at home, things were changing. The German community was very numerous and economically powerful. Entire cities, like Cincinnati, were basically German colonies. An anti-German feeling, fueled by the Prohibition campaign, arose in throughout the country. 

When the news came out that Germany was considering an alliance with Mexico, with the promise that Mexico would regain its lost lands in case of a victory of the Central Powers, the entire United States feared that all these foreigners might pry over America.

It is then to protect themselves that the United States finally entered the Great War in 1917.

The League of Nations

The United States found themselves involved in the conflict more than they may have bargained for. Their military power gave a great advantage to the Allies (besides, all of the European nations had been at war for three years at this point), which gained them a place at the Treaty of Versailles table. 

Woodrow Wilson at the Treaty of Versailles
Woodrow Wilson at the Treaty of Versailles

But at the same time, the US involvement in the huge loans to different nations to sustain the war reparations, started to weigh on the country’s economy, especially when it started to lose its boom. 

President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations didn’t meet his country’s favours. The public opinion and a part of the Congress were not willing to become entangled in the thorny post-war situation in Europe, which was unstable at best. Many thought that although the war was over, grievances among nations were not, and some supposed that war was not really over. Nobody wanted to be part of that kind of mess. 

Eventually, the US was among the first nations to refuse to join the League. And for the next twenty years, the US basically kept to itself, away from any European matter.

The Immigration Act of 1924

After the Great War, the immigration situation of the US became busy on both its shores.

From war-destroyed Europe arrived throngs of people in search of a new life. Many of these new immigrants came from South Europe, which had long been less industrialised and advanced than the North; and from the East, where people fled from the new Soviet Union. 

These groups of people were very different from the second- and third-generation immigrants already present in the US. The worries of these consolidated ethnic groups added to the fear of the native-stock Americans, worried that their culture could be swarmed by different cultures, languages and religions. 

Meanwhile, on the other shore, the incoming of immigrants from Asia was also increasing. 

China knew a terrible famine in the early 1920s, a time of political unrest and civil war, which weakened the ancient warlord’s system but didn’t create a new one. In this situation of total confusion, Japan tried to conquer a part of the land. 

In these circumstances, many Chinese fled the country toward the land that for at least a century had welcomed them: the United States. 

The incoming of so many new immigrants strengthens the perception of an invasion and an attack on the true American way of life. The KKK capitalised on these fears, as did the Prohibition movements. 

In the growing uncertainty, the Congress finally passed a first emergency law in 1921, which put a maximum incoming quota on all nationalities. Then, in 1924, the draconian Immigration Law was passed, which effectively barred entrance to the United States to most immigrants. 

For decades, the doors of American were closed.


Andy Crown Net – US Isolationism in the 1920s
Norwich University – Isolationism and U.S. Foreign Policy After World War I
Facing History and Ourselves – Internal Strife in China

Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992


  • Leslie Moon
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 02:52

    Isolationism impacted many lives didn’t it? Nicely written article and thorough.

    Hope you are safe and well during this period of isolation.

    The Letter H

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2020 at 10:12

      Thanks for stopping by, Leslie. And be safe yourself. These are strange times which I never imagined to see in my life.

  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 04:01

    I learnt quite a few new things, or facts that I had forgotten such as Germany offering to help Mexico. It’s interesting for me to compare Australia’s attitude to immigrants which in some ways is similar to the USA and of course the involvement in WW1 and 2 which is very different.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2020 at 10:13

      What I find fascinating about history – and maybe more so with the XX century history – is that even one hundred years apart, it can tell us so much about ourselves, today.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 10:28

    I had two different great-grandfathers who went to American at the end of the 1910s. They worked there for a while but then both came back home. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if they didn’t…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 09:53

      My great-great-granparents on my father’s side desended from English Jews. At the end of the 1800s, a couple of them came to Italy where they had a child (my great-granddad). Because laws were different back then, my great-granddad was still considered English and he fought with the British Army during WWI. But then he came back to Italy after the war.
      Sometimes I wonder whether I still have some relative in Great Britain and who they might be.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 16:03

    The US wasn’t welcoming to Chinese. First Chinese women were banned from entering the USA in 1875. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first act to exclude all of the members of a group from immigrating to the USA. It was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It wasn’t repealed until 1943.

    The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 banned all Asians and limited others.

    I have a question about the photo up top – is that a wall ice box? It reminded me of one in my Cleage Grandparents house.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 09:56

      Thanks for the information, Kristin. I love when comments add to the info of the post 🙂

      I’m not sure that is an icebox. It’s a photo from an abandoned hospital in Ellis Island. But it may be. Might they have kept medicines in the icebox? Or is it something it wasn’t done yet?
      Besides, this may be the kitchen of the hospital.

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 16:17

    Great post as usual. “For decades, the doors of American were closed.”, hmmm, nothing has changed, no?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 09:57

      I always find it eerie how 1920s life echoes our present situation.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 19:50

    It’s horrifying to read about how the WASP ruling classes passed legislation they termed “emergency” to keep out all these Jews, Catholics, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, Orthodox Christians, anyone who represented an unfamiliar culture. Eugenics played a bit part in it too. So many death warrants were signed by these racist quotas, which were never filled any of the years they existed. That red tape should’ve been bypassed in the face of extreme emergencies faced by people desperately trying to escape fascist countries.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 10:00

      And we never learn. We are still doing it. We are still allowing unreasonable fear to guide our actions.

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 10, 2020 at 23:49

    The Chinese were instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad, which was finished in 1869. The Chinese on the west coast were very enterprising and were building various businesses including the opium trade . Americans wanted the Chinese out of the way. Their help on the railroad was no longer needed, they wanted to profits from the drug trade, so they passed both the immigration acts and created the FDA, which was the way drugs were legitimized and the government could have control of it and make a lot of money through licensing of it.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 10:01

      Thanks so much for adding to the post information.
      The Western World seems to always had a hard time dealing with China, doesn’t it?

  • Birgit
    Posted April 11, 2020 at 16:40

    The U.S. is based on fear which is not good in the least. One can see it now. I think my relatives might have gone through there in the 1880s but I have not looked at all. I know they settled in Chicago for a while.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2020 at 21:45

      Imagine that. Leaving everything bahind and start a new life from scratch.

  • Ninu Nair
    Posted April 12, 2020 at 15:59

    I read about this in the history class but you have made this so much more readable in this post.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 09:21

      Ninu, you made my day with this comment! Making history more readable and closer to us is what I’m trying to do with my blog 🙂

  • The Dream Girl
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 21:16

    The title seems just right for our situation!

    All my posts for the challenge can be found here:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 14, 2020 at 09:39

      I know. One would think that we would have learn some lessons from history, by now.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 15, 2020 at 16:13

    Sounds like history likes to repeat itself…

    An A-Z of Faerie: Domovoi

  • Bains Law Offices
    Posted September 13, 2020 at 14:24

    Great article. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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