Historian Victor Davis Hanson, pointing to the experience of the United States after World War I, warned of the dangers inherent in embracing isolationism during a speech at the Heritage Foundation Tuesday.
"This is the first administration that has not studied World War I or World War II or appreciates the post-war order that brought the greatest level of prosperity, personal freedom, security in the history of civilization," said Hanson. "It requires an engaged United States."
Hanson detailed how World War I was the first war in American history that ended without unconditional surrender and how the murky terms under which the United States left Europe and Asia opened the door for renewed aggression that manifested itself in World War II.
"The Allies committed the worst [sin] in a diplomatic scenario that you can imagine: talk tough, talk loudly, and to carry a soft stick," Hanson said.
Had the Americans defeated Germany on the two fronts and crushed the Germans on their home turf, Hanson said it is likely World War II wouldn’t have even occurred. The war’s relative ease for the United States led Americans to believe that a similarly minimal effort could stop Germany’s renewed effort 20 years later.
Most Americans believed the U.S. effort in World War I was a waste and that Versailles did not do enough for the country. Isolationism was extremely popular as a result, even as German aggression mounted following the rise of Hitler. Without the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the United States might have stayed out of the conflict altogether.
"It’s not whether you are strong or weak, it’s the perception of such and the abilities to use power. That’s what starts wars," said Hanson. The lack of a strong response in the face of Nazi aggression led the Axis to believe it could upend the social order put in place after World War I.
Hanson stressed the only way wars are truly ever "won" is when the opponent is not only defeated, but humiliated and forced to submit to terms set by the victor and its ideology.
The Allies learned their lesson from World War I, remaining engaged with the world when the fighting ended after World War II. They installed democracies in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Perhaps more importantly, the Allies succeeded in installing economic engines in each of those countries.
Hanson warned of the outliers who have attempted to upend the post-war order earned from the world wars. Aggressive actors such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic must be kept outside the system, and nations that threaten the post-war order like China or Iran must be contained and encouraged to conform via sanctions.
Hanson closed his presentation by hinting that America is edging toward making the same mistakes it made after World War I.
"If you want to disengage from Europe or the Pacific, there will be radical changes to the post-war order. Do you want to lead from behind?" he asked. "You don’t talk loudly and carry a small stick, because you endanger this post-war order that was so difficult to achieve and was based on lessons that were won on blood and treasure spent in World War I and World War II."