The Impact of U.S. Foreign Policy Between WWI and 1950s

Isolationism was a dominant foreign policy in the U.S. since George Washington’s rule. After the First World War, the American government continued its non-interventionist politics. Many Americans did not want to participate in other countries’ affairs given economic problems at home. The situation changed during World War II when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Fascism started to cause fear among Americans (“The history of American foreign policy,” n.d.). The U.S. switched to the policy of interventionism and declared war on the Axis powers. The new policy brought economic prosperity and significant changes in the lives of Americans. After World War II, the U.S. continued to intervene in global affairs and wanted to contain communist supremacy during the Cold War (“The history of American foreign policy,” n.d.). The American government cared more about its international influence than internal affairs at that time. As a result, U.S. citizens experienced a period of regression in social reforms and persecution of individuals with leftist ideas (Naranjo, n.d.). Overall, the shifts from isolationism to interventionism had both positive and negative consequences for American society that will be described further in detail.

Non-interventionism was an accepted policy in the country’s first two centuries. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wanted to maintain beneficial commercial relationships with other nations without entangling alliances with any of them (“The history of American foreign policy,” n.d.). When World War I started in July 1914, the U.S. maintained neutrality as Americans did not want to engage in the conflict (“Isolationism and U.S.,” 2017). However, after President Wilson saw Britain’s devastating losses, he declared war on Germany in 1917. Americans lost over 400 000 soldiers and incurred financial costs, which made the U.S. President think about ways to end the war (“Isolationism and U.S.,” 2017). The League of Nations was proposed, and Wilson wanted to grant freedom of the seas, open economic trade, and territorial integrity to its members. However, Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, never allowed the U.S. to participate in the League as Americans thought that participation in world affairs was too costly (“Isolationism and U.S.,” 2017). The subsequent isolationist policy is often credited with the onset of the Great Depression in the country (Klein, 2019). The U.S. administrators raised tariffs on internationally produced goods, which made it impossible for European states to sell products and repay debts, exacerbating recession.

The American government continued its isolationist policy until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the U.S. declared war. Engagement in war changed the American economy as more people were needed to produce food and weapons for men who fought in the war (IowaPBS, 2015). As men were called to duty, factories experienced a labor shortage. New jobs were created for those who were unemployed for many years. Women were hired to take over the positions of men who were sent to war. Existing companies changed their products from consumer goods to ammunition. They produced tanks, guns, and other military equipment to support allies and for the use by American soldiers (IowaPBS, 2015). World War II helped the U.S. to overcome the Great Depression and restart the economy. The government asked American citizens to take part in community wartime events and support the forces financially. The policy of rationing was implemented, and people could purchase goods only in limited amounts. Overall, the U.S. participation in the war allowed the country to decrease unemployment and overcome economic depression.

Following the victory in World War II, the American government felt the need to expand its influence in the world. The U.S. signed the Economic Recovery Act in 1948, and they promised to provide financial aid to European states for their recovery after the war (“Marshall plan 1948”, n.d.). The U.S. further established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. The primary goal was to contain the spread of communism in response to the increasing influence of the Soviet Union in Europe.

Efforts to defeat communist ideology resulted in significant costs for American citizens. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. participated in the arms race to establish dominance in the world arena. The increased production of military equipment and wars in other regions were costly for Americans. Between 1947 and 1991, the U.S. spent over $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons and lost over 100,000 people in the Korean and Vietnam wars (Goodwin, 1998). Moreover, some Americans were persecuted for holding communist beliefs during the second Red Scare (Naranjo, n.d.). The CIA interrogated government employees, actors, and producers to root out communism in the country. People’s lives were wrecked by weak evidence and refusal to answer questions. More than 2 million people in California lost jobs and were blacklisted (Naranjo, n.d.). Overall, the U.S. participation in the Cold War caused immense financial and human losses in American society.

To summarize, foreign policy has experienced several shifts since the country’s inception. The Founding Fathers of the U.S. believed that the government should abstain from committing interventions into foreign countries’ affairs. However, the events of WWI necessitated American participation at the front line. The costs of war and subsequent isolationism contributed to the economic recession in the country. In contrast, intervention in WWII helped the U.S. to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. However, further efforts to establish world dominance during the Cold War caused significant financial and human losses.


Goodwin, I. (1998). The price of victory in Cold War is $5.8 trillion for nuclear arms and delivery systems, says panel. Physics Today, 51(8), 49. Web.

Klein, C. (2019). How economic turmoil after WWI led to the Great Depression. Web.

IowaPBS. (2015). Impact of World War II on the U.S. economy and workforce. [Video]. YouTube.

Isolationism and U.S. foreign policy after World War I. (2017). Norwich. Web.

Marshall plan 1948. n.d. Ourdocuments. Web.

Naranjo, R. (n.d.). Historical analysis of the Cold War. Ehistory. Web.

The history of American foreign policy. (n.d.). Lumen Learning. Web.

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