British Association for American Studies


Anglo-American Isolationism: The Case for New Archetypes

Edward Luce recently wrote an article for the New York Times in which he argued that the ‘farce’ made of British governance by the current crop of Tory politicians is indicative of the parochial outlook of ‘post-internationalist’ Britain’s ruling elites.[1] Whereas British politicians like Winston Churchill, Edward Heath, Denis Healy, and Margaret Thatcher demonstrated at least a modicum of understanding about the need for post-war European cooperation, people like Theresa May, David Cameron, and George Osborne seem never to have shown any particular affinity for international affairs. These politicians are not Little Englanders, but they have no serious internationalist hinterland. As such, Brexit is not a populist revolution, but an Eton mess contrived by an unthinking elite. This present-day British illiteracy in foreign affairs is of course mirrored – and is probably worse – in the centre of US government, where Donald Trump sits dismantling the international commitments made by his predecessor, including American involvement in the Paris climate change agreement.

Such is the plight of the progressive in 2017: harking back to a better past. The extent to which the past was better can, however, be exaggerated. Winston Churchill was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist and racist whose historical reputation is in need of serious revision (and I’m glad to see Srdjan Vucetic has recently set about doing just that), while Margaret Thatcher, with her partner-in-crime Ronald Reagan, started the tear in the social fabric that Anglo-American conservatives have been yanking at with gleeful abandon ever since.[2]

The Conference on Limitation of Armaments, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewin, 1921. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

There is, however, a grain of truth in the notion that today’s Anglo-American elites are uncommonly blind when it comes to international relations. Evidence for this comes not just from the contrast with departed British and American politicians, but also from the ways in which Britain and the US related to each other during the 1920s, a decade of heightened American nationalism resulting in three apparently isolationist Republican presidents: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. This was the decade when the US retreated from the liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson by refusing to join the League of Nations and when the US insisted that the British repay the money loaned to them during the First World War. Along with the question of naval disarmament, this all caused significant tension between the two countries. Yet the post-First World War period was also a time when a group of wealthy, influential, and internationalist elites sought to smooth over those issues that were causing discord between Britain and the US. Those elites were often members of the little-known but very important Pilgrims Society.

The Pilgrims Society was a dining club founded in London and New York across 1902 and 1903 with the aim of promoting better relations between Britain and the US. Its members came from that segment of society who could afford to enjoy brandy and cigars while sitting in the exclusive surroundings of the metropolitan clubs. Many of these people, though, were deeply interested in international affairs, for example the industrialist Andrew Carnegie; the Progressive writer Richard Watson Gilder; and the British academic, Liberal politician, and diplomat James Bryce. Other members, for example the senior British military men Frederick Roberts and Charles Beresford, were attracted to the Society due to their belief in the importance of Anglo-American strategic cooperation against Germany and the need for Britain and the US to safeguard international commerce. The Society acted principally by hosting high-profile banquets for diplomats, journalists, and politicians and provided an opportunity for these influential people to network in private or to make important speeches to the assembled press. Indeed, it soon became common practice for US ambassadors to make their maiden speech in Britain at a Pilgrims dinner in London, and for British ambassadors in the US to do the same in New York.

1919 witnessed one example of a particularly important maiden speech, when the new US ambassador in Britain, George Harvey, used his Pilgrims speech to publicise that the US would definitely not join the new League of Nations. This followed the election of President Harding on his ‘normalcy’ ticket and was an unwelcome message for the Pilgrims’ assembled dinner guests (who included Prime Minister David Lloyd George), not least because British statesmen had made major contributions to the formation of the new supranational League and were eager for the US to participate. It was, then, the job of the Pilgrims Society to ensure that this controversial message from Ambassador Harvey received a sympathetic hearing. By providing the venue for his speech, the Pilgrims ensured that his remarks were associated with a Society with a reputation for supporting transatlantic amity.

Charles Dawes at U.S. Capitol. Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing1, 921. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The Pilgrims Society would go on to play an important role in what Daniel Gorman has described as inter-war ‘international society’ and did so with a view to ensuring Anglo-American led European and global stability.[3] The US’s decision not to join the League of Nations partly undermined this vision and contributed to America’s isolationist reputation in this period. Yet its much maligned post-First World War political leaders nevertheless demonstrated a degree of maturity on the international stage for which they are not always credited. Warren Harding hosted the naval disarmament conference in Washington DC across 1921 and 1922, while US financial assistance for the reconstruction of inter-war Europe – like the 1924 Dawes Plan – was an example of a sort of unofficial interventionism or, as George Herring terms it, ‘involvement without commitment.’[4] The Pilgrims Society was a participant in many of these events, for example by celebrating the outcome of the naval disarmament negotiations in 1922 and by providing the venue for US Ambassador Alanson Houghton’s important 1925 speech on the need for the European countries to commit to peaceful relations if they wished to continue to receive American financial support.

The comparison between America in the years immediately after the First World War and America today is, then, only ostensibly clear. Then, as now, a nativist electorate returned an isolationist and nationalistic president, but in light of the activities of the Pilgrims Society – together with the US’s unofficial interventionism in Europe – it would seem that Trump’s government does not compare favourably with the archetypes of twentieth-century American isolationism. Britain’s inter-war leaders also come out well in comparison to those of today. It is true that some, including Lloyd George, had initially seen the League of Nations as a means to secure Anglo-American cooperation (until, that is, the US refused to join) and were not as ideologically attached to it in the way that people like Lord Robert Cecil were.[5] Nevertheless, enough of Britain’s post-First World War politicians knew a potentially useful supranational organisation when they saw one.

These considerations provide evidence for these elite historical actors’ serious engagement with international relations. It is true that the Pilgrims Society was chauvinistic, Anglo-Saxonist, and imperialist, and it might even be suggested that its form of internationalism later found expression in the adventurism of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. For all its faults, though, the Society was not led by Little Englanders, American nativists, or people with an underdeveloped sense for international feeling. Its elite members demonstrated a genuine understanding and interest in international relations, which is perhaps more than can be said for today’s British and American political leaders, whose irresponsibility and fecklessness would indeed seem to have few precedents.


[1] New York Times, 6 June 2017.

[2] Srdjan Vucetic, ‘The Fulton Address as Racial Discourse’, in Alan Dobson and Steve Marsh (eds), Churchill and the Anglo-American Special Relationship (London, 2017), pp. 96–115.

[3] Daniel Gorman, The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s (Cambridge, 2012), passim.

[4] George Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford, 2008), p. 436.

[5] David Dilks, ‘Introduction’, in Dilks (ed.), Retreat from Power: Studies in Britain’s Foreign Policy of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1: 1906-1939 (London, 1981), p. 11; Kathleen Burk, Old World, New World (New York, 2007), p. 459.


About the Author

Stephen currently teaches at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He is a transatlantic historian and has degrees from Northumbria University and the University of Stirling. The research upon which this blog post is based comes from work undertaken for his forthcoming book, The Pilgrims Society and Public Diplomacy, 1895-1945, which is published by Edinburgh University Press.