American Interventionism: Origins, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we learn about the history of American interventionism. We discuss the origins of American interventionism and identify the pros and cons of intervening in foreign affairs.

American Interventionism: A Hot Topic

If you ask a number of different people for their view on American military involvement in the Middle East, you're likely to get a number of different, strong opinions. Many Americans believe that the U.S. government should focus on domestic affairs, and that what happens in the Middle East is ''none of our business.'' Others believe that in this modern era, America must have a global presence in order to protect its interests. Differences of opinion over American interventionism in foreign affairs are nothing new; they have been present since almost the founding of the United States itself. In this lesson we explore interventionism throughout American history. Let's dig in!

Origins of U.S. Intervention and Early Instances

When President George Washington gave his farewell address in 1796, he warned against entangling alliances with foreign powers. As president, he worked hard to maintain strict American neutrality, and he encouraged his predecessors to employ the same approach. In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution (1780s and 1790s), isolationism was popular and perceived by many as America's path forward.

This did not last, however. Within two years of Washington's address, America found itself caught in the middle of a war between Great Britain and France. Though it did not officially declare war, the U.S. entered the Quasi War (1798-1800) against France. This was basically an undeclared naval conflict. The causes of the war are complex but stem from French naval attacks against American merchant vessels. Intervention in the war helped establish a greater American presence on the high seas.

A few years later, under President Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. chose to intervene in North Africa against bands of rogue pirates. The Barbary Wars (1801-1805; 1815) were fought because the U.S. refused to pay tribute in exchange for sailing rights to the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. This was an important intervention because the U.S. was essentially standing up for itself and telling the world, ''Look, we're not going to be pushed around.'' Early American interventionism was mainly related to trade but was also tied to the need for the young, untested nation to assert its power to the world.

American and pirate vessels engage near Tripoli during the Barbary War.
Barbary Wars

Other Notable Instances of Interventionism

Unfortunately we don't have the time to address every instance of U.S. intervention, but we can highlight some of the more notable ones. Intervention in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) was mainly due to U.S. imperialism. In both wars, the U.S. intervened to gain territory. The Mexican-American War was fueled by an adherence to Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was America's destiny to extend its boundaries from coast to coast. Both conflicts were extremely popular with the public and helped secure America's status as a leading world power.

American intervention in World War I was not without opposition. In the years leading up to 1917, isolationism was very popular in the U.S. Nevertheless, under President Woodrow Wilson, America entered the war in 1917 and helped bring it to an end. As a result, the U.S. played an enormous role in the peace process and in the restructuring of the postwar world.

Intervention in World War II (1939-1945) resulted in the U.S. emerging as one of the two world's superpowers (the Soviet Union was the other) and arguably the most powerful country on earth. The war did wonders for the American economy: industry boomed. In the postwar period factories that had once produced tanks and planes were reconfigured to turn out automobiles, appliances, and other commercial products. Following intervention in World War II, the U.S. was unable to retreat back into isolationism. For better or worse (depending on one's perspective), the U.S. was now a global power with forces deployed all over the world and has remained so ever since.

U.S. intervention in World War II resulted in a boom to the American economy, notably the industrial sector.
willow run

In modern U.S. history, intervention in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Middle East has become highly controversial. The Vietnam War, especially, resulted in widespread protests as many Americans believed the U.S. had little or no reason for fighting. In the Iraq War (2003-2011) and other Middle East conflicts, the feelings were much the same.

Protesters of the Vietnam War give a flower to military police, 1967.

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Pros of military intervention would likely include all of the following EXCEPT:

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