John G. Murphy John G. Murphy
Senior Vice President, Head of International, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


August 17, 2017


With little fanfare at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on August 9th delivered a stirring defense of U.S. engagement in world affairs — and offered a sobering reminder of the heavy cost, in blood and treasure, isolationism has imposed on America in the past.

Secretary Mattis made the comments in response to a question from a young officer identified as Lieutenant English, who asked:

Sir, with the ever-increasing complexity of global economics and instantaneous information, do you feel that our place is still with the level of involvement we’ve had post-World War II, or should we get back to our isolationist roots?

Secretary Mattis replied (from a Department of Defense transcript, with some edits for readability):

If we were standing here in 1945, let’s say, December. It’s Christmastime. You guys are coming back in from all over, places called Japan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Philippines. You’ve taken the Army and the Marines all over. You’ve landed on the islands yourselves. You’re Seabees and corpsmen. You’ve set up logistics dumps…

And you look around. Now you’ve grown up in a depression, when your dad didn’t have a job, and he couldn’t find work no matter what. You’ve just gone through a war that cost us hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, and … we’re not sure how many millions — 40 million — people dead.

And they looked around, and they said, what a crummy world. And they’ve just come through a war, and some of you know what that’s like.

And they said, like it or not, we’re a part of that world, and they did something. They made the United Nations. Never had a place where everybody came together and talked before. It’s still not perfect. A lot better than nothing.

And they made NATO. The Australian ambassador to the United States once told me [this] was the single most self-sacrificial act in world history — [to create NATO] instead of turning their backs on Europe, two World Wars in 30 years. They could have said, “We’re through with you… We’re just not going to put up with any more of your crap…”

We put together something called the International Monetary Fund, so people for economic reasons wouldn’t be driven to elect a guy like Hitler — you what I mean? — as the answer.

And by the time they got done, they created a new world order, and every nation on Earth … has actually benefitted.

In addition to forging new alliances and a financial infrastructure for the global economy, the United States also took the lead in framing a global, rules-based trading system based on the principles of reciprocity, non-discrimination, and openness.

Successive rounds of tariff-cutting negotiations over half a century helped increase world trade from $58 billion in 1948 to more than $20 trillion today.

America’s investments in global security, economic development and international trade have paid off — and no country benefitted more from this expansion of trade than the United States. Overall, trade today supports 41 million U.S. jobs and has raised the income of the average American household by $18,000 per year.

America’s Greatest Generation established this post-war trading order because they knew the costs of protectionism. The disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 triggered a 66% decline in world trade between 1929 and 1934. This contributed powerfully to the Great Depression, which set the stage for war.

As Secretary Mattis explains, they vowed not to let history repeat itself. And for 70 years, trade agreements have fostered economic growth and good jobs, but they have also strengthened ties of peace, cooperation, and friendship between nations. The 40-fold increase in world trade over the past seven decades helped drive the dramatic decline in absolute poverty worldwide, which in 2015 fell below 10% for the first time.

Secretary Mattis continues:

So, do we return to our isolationist roots? We could only do that if we forget the example, Lieutenant English, of the Greatest Generation. And we ought not forget that example. They’re not called the Greatest Generation for no reason, OK? …

We’re going to have to grow the fleet. That’s all there is to it. But … we’re also going to have a second line of effort that’s going to be that we’re going to build stronger alliances. We’re going to do more with our allies…

If we want to turn over a world to our next generation — and every generation of Americans have to do that — we can’t learn the lesson the Greatest Generation learned the hard way.

That answer your question?

Yes, sir. Yes, it does.

About the authors

John G. Murphy

John G. Murphy

John Murphy directs the U.S. Chamber’s advocacy relating to international trade and investment policy and regularly represents the Chamber before Congress, the administration, foreign governments, and the World Trade Organization.

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