Securitizing isolationism: Nixon and the construction of US history and identity during the Vietnam War
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date11/10/2023
In 1969 Richard Nixon became President of the United States having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam. Amidst increasing domestic pressure to end US military involvement in Vietnam – which had escalated sharply in 1964 during the previous Johnson administration – the Nixon administration laid out a plan to withdraw from Vietnam and reduce US international responsibilities. As the administration presented this approach – which advocated a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam and insisted that allied states provide the troops to defend themselves – it repeatedly used the terms ‘isolationism’ and ‘isolationist’. American politicians, academics, and pundits had been calling contemporary policies, historical approaches, and each other, isolationist since the early 1900s. These terms were grounded in a broad narrative which asserted that during the interwar period an isolationist US had prolonged WWII, delayed US entry into the war, and increased the sacrifices made during the war. The ‘lesson learned’ by the US was that an ‘internationalist’ foreign policy was needed to protect the US and was necessary in the radically different post-WWII world. A supposed inclination to isolationism in the US was presented as an expression of a US moral example to the world, a historical effect of the policies of the ‘Founding Fathers’, and a consequence of geography. However, during the Nixon administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam war, public invocations of isolationism increased dramatically. Even more striking was the administration’s use of these invocations. While isolationism had typically been a pejorative term, the administration directed it at disparate targets – politicians and elites that the administration referred to as internationalists of the post-WWII era were called isolationists, as were segments of the US public. This thesis uses securitization theory to conceptualize the Nixon administration’s invocations of isolationism as a security discourse. This theorization allows for an evaluation of the administration’s invocations of isolationism as a series of political, discursive acts – which in turn allows this thesis to further problematize the concept of US isolationism. In positing isolationism as a security discourse, this thesis focuses on what else isolationism did – what it reinforced or created – rather than what isolationism was (such as a history, foreign policy, or characteristic). This thesis argues that isolationism discourse created conditions of security or insecurity and reinforced concepts of US identity. Through an analysis of the Nixon administration’s public discourse, this thesis identifies four conceptual isolationism discourses: ‘Ethical Responsibility’, ‘Spatio-Temporal Othering’, ‘Ideological Character’, and ‘Psychological Character’. An examination of these discourses furthers securitization theory by arguing that the Nixon administration’s isolationism security discourses constituted or reperformed historical narratives, knowledge, and identities through the process of discursively constructing threats during the Vietnam war.