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The Roaring Twenties: America's Decade of Isolationism

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Explore how the US turned inward during the 1920s.

description: a vintage black and white photograph of a group of men in suits and hats standing outside a government building, symbolizing the political climate of the 1920s.

In the aftermath of World War I, the United States found itself at a crossroads. The country had emerged from the war as a global superpower, but many Americans were wary of becoming entangled in foreign conflicts once again. This sentiment, combined with a desire to focus on domestic issues, led the US to pursue a policy of isolationism during the 1920s.

Isolationism was not a new concept for the US. Throughout its history, the country had oscillated between periods of engagement with the international community and periods of isolation. The 1920s marked a particularly pronounced shift towards isolation, as the US turned inward and focused on rebuilding its economy and society in the aftermath of the war.

One of the key manifestations of America's isolationist policy during the 1920s was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act. This legislation severely restricted immigration to the US, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe, in an effort to preserve the country's cultural homogeneity. The act reflected a broader desire to limit the influence of foreign ideas and cultures on American society.

Another significant aspect of America's isolationist policy during the 1920s was its refusal to join the League of Nations. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's efforts to establish the League as a mechanism for maintaining world peace, the US Congress ultimately rejected the Treaty of Versailles and refused to join the organization. This decision reflected a deep-seated reluctance to get involved in international affairs and a belief that the US could best protect its interests by staying out of foreign entanglements.

Cuba has long been a major foreign policy challenge for the United States. President Biden is the latest U.S. leader to grapple with how to approach relations with the island nation. During the 1920s, the US maintained a policy of non-intervention in Cuban affairs, refusing to become embroiled in the country's internal politics. This hands-off approach exemplified America's broader isolationist stance during the decade.

The US also pursued a policy of economic isolationism during the 1920s, implementing high tariffs and trade barriers to protect American industries from foreign competition. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, in particular, raised tariffs on thousands of imported goods, leading to a sharp decline in international trade. While intended to protect American jobs and industry, the act ultimately exacerbated the Great Depression and contributed to global economic instability.

Despite its isolationist tendencies, the US did not completely withdraw from the world stage during the 1920s. The country continued to engage in diplomatic relations with other nations and participate in international conferences, albeit with a more cautious and reserved approach. America's isolationist policy began to wane in the late 1930s as the threat of war loomed on the horizon, ultimately culminating in the country's entry into World War II in 1941.

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