Principles Without Program: Senator Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy
September 1, 2001
When it came to domestic policy, there was very little that was confusing about Senator Robert Alfonso Taft of Ohio (1889-1953). A die-hard conservative, Taft remained up until his death a convinced enemy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the assault on the Constitution which he believed it to represent. So solid were his political credentials that he came to be known widely as “Mr. Republican,” defining the party itself in an era when the terms “Republican” and “neanderthal” were, in the eyes of many, synonymous.
Yet in the realm of foreign affairs Taft’s policies have been subject to a good deal more misunderstanding, and they were certainly more ferociously attacked by his contemporaries, who tended to dismiss him with epithets such as “isolationist” and “obstructionist.” Frustrated by the Ohioan’s opposition to aid for Great Britain during World War II, one British intelligence officer described him as “a limited little man with ignoble values,” although he admitted that Taft had “a tough acute mind.” 1
After the war Taft became even more controversial as an early opponent of Cold War measures. When he dared criticize the Truman administration’s increasing overseas commitments, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in 1952 accused him of espousing a “halfway” policy in resisting communism—a policy which the historian likened to throwing a fifteen-foot rope to a man drowning thirty feet from shore. The prominent liberal columnist Richard Rovere similarly wrote Taft off as a legitimate presidential candidate in 1948, asserting that the next president “should be an executive of the human race…who will boldly champion freedom before the world and for the world…. [which] Taft simply could not do.” Soon after Taft’s death, John P. Armstrong in the Review of Politics attacked Taft’s foreign policy as “the psychology of the moat.” 2
In fact, given that many of these attacks came from some of the vanguards of 1940s liberalism, they often tend to sound strangely similar to those which Senator Joseph McCarthy would employ against his opponents in the early 1950s. The Nation, for example, called Taft and his allies in Congress “super-appeasers” whose policies “should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin,” while Averell Harriman claimed that “Taft would execute the foreign policy of Stalin.” Schlesinger agreed, noting with satisfaction how Taft’s opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty was met “with cordial approval by Andrei Vyshinski.” 3
It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, when many historians became disillusioned by the American experience in Vietnam, that Taft’s foreign policy came up for serious reevaluation. That reappraisal began with Henry W. Berger, a Cold War revisionist who in 1967 rejected the idea that Taft was an “isolationist.” Taft was rather a “conservative nationalist at odds with the struggling attempts of liberal American policy-makers to fashion a program in the postwar years.” Newspaper columnist Nicholas von Hoffman agreed, calling Taft’s policies “a way to defend the country without destroying it, a way to be part of the world without running it,” while historian Ronald Radosh called him a “prophet on the Right.” Russell Kirk and James McClellan in 1967 praised him as well, arguing that he consistently pursued “the principle of national interest.” 4
What, then, were the underlying philosophical principles behind Taft’s foreign policy? Was Taft misunderstood and underappreciated by his contemporaries, or were later historians misguided in attempting to rehabilitate him? The following essay will attempt to answer these questions by examining precisely what it was that Taft hoped to achieve through foreign policy, and what measures he took to do so.
Foremost among the principles that guided Taft’s foreign policy was a strong faith in the exceptionalism of America and its people. Although he was educated at Yale and Harvard, Taft’s belief in basic American values was one that he shared with most Midwesterners of his time, particularly those of his native Cincinnati. Like them, he was convinced that the United States was based on certain noble ideas that placed the nation far above the rest of the world. Of these ideas, individual liberty was for him the most important; indeed, he proclaimed early and often that the “principal purpose of the foreign policy of the United States is to maintain the liberty of our people.” He held that there were three fundamental requirements for the maintenance of such liberty-an economic system based on free enterprise, a political system based on democracy, and national independence and sovereignty. All three, he feared, might be destroyed in a war, or even by extensive preparations for war. 5
Perhaps the best example of his belief in individual liberty was his consistent opposition to the draft. Taft believed that the keys to success in life were “persistence and thoroughness,” but that the draft “cruelly cuts into a young man’s career, deprives him of his freedom of choice, leaves him behind in the competitive struggle with his fellows, and turns society into a garrison state.” 6
Taft, unlike many of his contemporaries, was always quick to point out the costs to economic and personal freedom involved in any particular course of action. “Every policy,” he claimed, “should be studied in the light of the regulations which it may involve, and in the light of its cost in taxation.” War by its very nature tended to concentrate power in the hands of the central state, and thus threatened the cherished American ideals of limited government and separation of powers.” In 1939 he made the dour prediction that war would lead to “an immediate demand for arbitrary power, unlimited control of wages, prices, and agriculture, and complete confiscation of private property.” In the months before Pearl Harbor, he repeated his belief that if the U.S. entered World War II, “before we get through with that war the rights of private property in the United States will be to a large extent destroyed.” 7
The Senator from Ohio sounded a similar alarm as tensions grew between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the wake of the European war. In the debate over Marshall Plan aid to Europe, he argued that none of the plan’s benefits would be worth the high taxes and inflation that he feared it would produce at home. He also based his opposition to arming the nations of Europe (under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty) at least in part on its possible economic consequences. He called such military aid “a waste of money,” and argued that since “our economic health is essential to the battle against communism…arms should be sent only to a country really threatened by Russian military aggression.” In the long run, Taft asserted, it was a simple matter of choosing “between guns and butter.” 8
Taft was also concerned about the increasing power of the executive branch of the federal government at the expense of the legislature, and this concern goes a long way toward explaining his opposition to American involvement Second World War. War measures, the senator insisted, would make the President “a complete dictator over the lives and property of all our citizens.” When in 1940 President Roosevelt announced his plan to trade U.S. destroyers for British bases in the Western Hemisphere, Taft denounced what he viewed as a “complete lack of regard for the rights of Congress.” The following year, when Roosevelt ordered U.S. naval vessels to shoot German submarines on sight, the senator called the move “contrary to the law and to the Constitution.” 9
The onset of the Cold War only heightened Taft’s fear of presidential power, and this became especially clear during the debate over the North Atlantic Treaty. In August of 1949 he wrote of that treaty: “Think of the tremendous power which this proposal gives to the President to involve us in any war throughout the world, including civil wars where we may favor one faction against the other…. I am opposed to the whole idea of giving the President power to arm the world against Russia or anyone else, or even to arm Western Europe, except where there is a real threat of aggression.” 10
Taft’s faith in the republican virtues of the United States also implied a certain disdain for Europe, a contempt which he gained firsthand during his months as legal advisor for the American Relief Administration immediately after the end of the First World War. Responding to what he viewed as outright obstructionism on the part of the Allies, Taft lashed out at Europeans in general. He accused the French of having “imperialistic notions,” and of running their economy “like a corner grocery.” Of the Italians, he claimed that “if they had food, ships, and money they would be worse than the Germans.” This attitude would become more pronounced after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. “European quarrels are everlasting,” he assured his Senate colleagues. “There is a welter of races there so confused that boundaries cannot be drawn without leaving minorities which are a perpetual source of friction.” Nor did U.S. entry into the war do much to change his views. In the summer of 1942 he wrote to a friend that he feared that in the future the United States would be dragged “into every little boundary dispute that there may be among the bitterly prejudiced and badly mixed races of Central Europe.” This attitude also shaped his argument against NATO, since he expressed concern that European nations might use American arms in trying to maintain their overseas empires. 11
Though often charged by his critics with being “soft” on the Soviets, Taft’s Americanism made him an implacable enemy of communism, even if he viewed the threat as more ideological than military. Even as consistent a critic as Schlesinger recognized that “he has spent more time denouncing Soviet delinquencies than he ever spent denouncing the Nazis.” Immediately after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Taft called Stalin “the most ruthless dictator in the world,” and claimed that “the victory of communism…would be far more dangerous than the victory of fascism.” The reason for this belief was his fear that ordinary people, especially workers, might be attracted to the egalitarian message of communism. By contrast, he argued, fascism and Nazism held no appeal whatsoever to the American mind. Indeed, in 1940 he wrote in the New York Times that “there is a good deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle in Washington than there will ever be from any activities of…the Nazi bund.” 12
Coupled with Taft’s love of American institutions and ideals was a profound hatred of war, born at least in part of an innate anti-militarism. So horrified was he by the numbers of American battlefield casualties in the First World War that, according to James T. Patterson, “he feared even to pick up a newspaper.” His own experiences in postwar Europe convinced him of the futility of armed conflict. He was also painfully ignorant of military matters, habitually referring to a commanding general as “the man in charge.” Such anti-military sentiments naturally contributed to his opposition to American entry into World War II. The First World War had, he claimed, “set up more extreme dictatorships than the world had seen for many days.” He was certain that another war would destroy American democracy, creating “an absolute arbitrary dictatorship in Washington.” “War,” as he put it bluntly in March of 1941, “is worse even than a German victory.” The development of the atomic bomb convinced him even further. In the final days of World War II he predicted that “in the normal developments of science a third war might well bring about the complete destruction of western civilization.” 13
At the same time, however, he remained certain well into the final years of his life that the United States, protected as it was by two oceans, was basically invulnerable to any threat from Europe or Asia. He believed that as long as the U.S. maintained a strong air force the country, as well as the rest of the Western Hemisphere, would remain safe from attack. Even the complete loss of Europe, he claimed, would not be fatal to the U.S. “Nothing can destroy this country,” he said, “except the over-extension of our resources.” 14
Nor did he believe that the preservation of U.S. foreign trade or overseas investments justified an aggressive foreign policy. Though he remained a stalwart defender of free enterprise throughout his career, he bore a distrust of Wall Street that was typical of his Midwestern upbringing, and he feared big business as much as he did big government. Responding to arguments that a German victory in World War II would cost the United States its markets in South America, Taft questioned why such a fuss was being made over exports totaling only $300 million, which at that time amounted to only about 10 percent of total exports. Besides, he insisted, going to war against a country because “some day that country may be a successful competitor for foreign trade is completely alien to the point of view of the American people.” He was certain that Americans would “rather give up that trade than go to war abroad.” He also wondered why ordinary trade ties could not be established with Nazi Germany after its war against Britain; after all, he said, “a supposed hostility to Japan, a totalitarian nation, does not prevent Japan from being one of our best customers.” 15
After the war Taft continued to question the value of overseas investment. In opposing the Bretton Woods agreement, for example, Taft denied that modern wars were brought about by economic causes, and asserted that the Truman administration was overemphasizing the benefits of foreign investment in helping to rehabilitate postwar Germany. “No people,” he insisted, “can make over another people.” Indeed, he even went so far as to question whether overseas economic expansion might not foster anti-American sentiments abroad. “I am a little troubled,” he announced in 1945, “by this theory of exporting capital so that we own billions of dollars of property all over the world—haven’t we experienced that this has created hard feelings? We have been absentee landlords and they are always accusing us of exploiting people. In Cuba, the fact that we have invested large sums of money…is the principal argument of the tremendously growing communist movement there today.” 16
Taft also feared that certain U.S. policies would have no other effect than to provoke Stalin into launching a war that he was certain the Soviet leader did not want. The Ohio Senator, like most Americans, was extremely slow to recognize a Soviet military threat, predicting in 1944 that “victory…will assure peace for a good many years to come, and it will be long before any other nation goes on a rampage.” Indeed, Taft feared Truman more than he did Stalin; during the debate on aid to Greece and Turkey, he asked “what our top military people think of the possibility that Russia will go to war if we carry out this program, just as we might be prompted to go to war if Russia tried to force a communist government on Cuba.” He similarly challenged the North Atlantic Treaty, claiming that arming “all the nations around Russia from Norway on the North to Turkey on the South” would be “more likely to incite war than to deter it.” “How would we feel,” he asked in the summer of 1949, “if Russia undertook to arm a country on our border, Mexico, for instance?” 17
Even the outbreak of the Korean War failed to change Taft’s opinion on Stalin’s intentions. Even though he was personally convinced that the North Korean attack was masterminded by the Kremlin, he still refused to believe that the Soviets “even contemplate military aggression with their own soldiers against other nations.” It was not until the publication of his book, A Foreign Policy for Americans, in 1951 that he modified his views. In that book he indeed admitted that there was both an ideological and a military threat, but he placed much of the blame for this on the Democrats’ failure to recognize Soviet intentions at Yalta. 18
Taft repeatedly stated that “the ultimate purpose of our foreign policy must be to protect the liberty of the people of the United States.” Having made this clear, he went to great lengths to discuss what U.S. foreign policy should not be. He was completely opposed, for example, to the idea that wars should be fought as “crusades.” He rejected the notion that World War II was fought “to impose our ideas of freedom on the rest of the world,” and that such actions would amount to “a denial of those very democratic principles which we are striving to advance.” In a speech given in the summer of 1946, he emphasized that the U.S. had only entered World War II in order “to maintain the freedom of our own people…. Certainly, we did not go to war to reform the world.” He found preposterous the notion that the United States should “cover the world like a knight errant, protecting its friends and its ideals of good faith.” Indeed, if the U.S. was to claim such a role for itself, it also “must admit that the Soviets have a right to crusade to impose communism on the rest of the world.” 19
Taft also feared that postwar America might follow the British example in embarking on a quest for empire. In 1941 he accused men such as Secretary of War Henry Stimson of envisioning “an Anglo-American alliance perpetually ruling the world,” a policy he claimed that was “wholly foreign to our ideals of democracy and freedom.” After a visit to Puerto Rico, Taft noted that poverty and illiteracy continued to thrive on that island even though it had been under U.S. control for forty-five years. If the U.S. could not “make a success of ruling a small island of two million people,” he asked, “how are we going to manage several billion people in the rest of the world?” In the 1947 debate over aid to Greece and Turkey, Taft suspected that the aid was a means of gaining control of both countries. “If we assume a special position in Greece and Turkey,” he warned in a New York Times article, “we can hardly…object to the Russians continuing their domination in Poland, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Bulgaria.” He used similar arguments in his objections to the North Atlantic Treaty, and in 1950 he accused Truman of being unable to draw “the line between imperialism and idealism.” 20
One final principle which proved decisive in determining Taft’s views on foreign affairs was a belief in international law, and a desire to develop international tribunals to interpret and enforce such a code. This had been a major goal for his father, President William Howard Taft, who had founded the League to Enforce Peace during the First World War. In 1943 he declared that one of the purposes of the war was to ensure that “might in this world will not make right.” Taft envisioned a world court to which disputes could be submitted, and any nation which defied court decisions would be labeled an aggressor. Member nations would then adopt economic sanctions or even apply force against the aggressor. He hoped, however, that public opinion would make the resort to force a rare occurrence. Such an arrangement seemed hardly feasible in 1945, however, given the vast differences between the United States and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. As will be seen later on, Taft would find the United Nations a poor substitute for his world court. An amendment that he supported would have authorized the U.S. delegate to vote only for measures which were believed to be in accordance with international law. When Truman called upon Congress to defeat the measure, Taft cited this as proof that the administration had “accepted the philosophy of force as the controlling factor in international action.” 21
We thus have a picture of a senator deeply devoted to American institutions, possessing strong anti-war convictions, a fear of imperialism and a trust in international law. But though his principles and his commitment to them were strong, he was never able to translate these beliefs into a coherent and consistent foreign policy, as his contemporary critics were quick to point out. John P. Armstrong, for example, claimed that Taft’s foreign policy “blew hither and yon in the political breeze.” Indeed, even his first biographer, William S. White, conceded that the senator “failed all his life to develop a coherent view of a proper foreign policy for the United States.” 22
However, in their defense of Taft’s foreign policy, Russell Kirk and James McClellan claim that his inconsistencies have been exaggerated. “He changed his front from time to time,” they write, “but not his ground.” They insist that “the diplomacy of a great power cannot be conducted with a rigorous consistency…without regard for altered circumstances,” and point to the “conversions” of Arthur Vandenberg and Wendell Willkie as being “more conspicuous than Taft’s.” Yet at times Taft seemed to change his mind on an almost daily basis, apparently unable to formulate a coherent position. These repeated reversals forced him into a purely negative role in the making of policy, constantly attacking the initiatives of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations while failing to offer any sort of alternative paradigm. 23
A prime example of this tendency was his wavering position regarding U.N. As mentioned earlier, Taft was far from hostile to the idea of an international organization to maintain the peace after the war. Indeed, he became a strong supporter of such a plan after Pearl Harbor, an event which did a great deal to convince the senator that U.S. security required world peace and stability. Yet after the framing of the United Nations Charter in 1944, Taft began to question whether the proposed organization might not be more likely to provoke war than to ensure peace. His main concern was that his cherished idea of international law was conspicuously absent from the charter. In May 1945 he wrote: “We are not abolishing the causes of war. We are not abolishing militarism. We are enthroning it on a higher seat. We are not abolishing imperialism…, for we are recognizing the domination of Russia over Finland, Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and to a large extent over Poland and the Balkans. We are recognizing the dominion of England over India and of the Dutch over the East Indies, without any agreement on their part that they will work toward self-government…. Any structure which departs so far from the freedom of peoples that desire freedom and the right of peoples to run their own affairs is handicapped from the start.” 24
Taft’s fundamental problem with the United Nations was the underlying presumption that international law and justice would develop during a period of enforced world peace. The Ohio Senator believed that this amounted to putting the cart before the horse; law and justice, he claimed, were not consequences of but rather prerequisites for lasting world peace. The veto power granted to permanent members of the U.N. Security Council was for him ample proof that there was no will among the great powers to establish a code of law. How could such a code exist, he asked, “if five of the largest nations can automatically exempt themselves from its application?” Thus finding fault with the charter, he then suggested renewed isolation from world affairs, this time on the grounds of international justice, not national interest. “The extending of justice throughout the world…is beyond our powers,” he concluded, “but certainly we need not join in the process by which force and national policy is permitted to dominate the world.” 25
Yet Taft in the end grudgingly gave his support to the charter, calling it “an essential feature of any peace hope or peace policy.” But his commitment was never more than lukewarm. Despite his regard for a universal code of international law, he continued to speak of the need for the United States to maintain a “free hand” in the conduct of foreign affairs. In 1950 he blamed the U.N. for not preventing the Korean War, claiming that “we were sucked into the Korean war, as representatives of the U.N., by a delusion as to a power which as never existed under the Charter.” He began to call for a revision of the Charter in 1951—a revision which would include elimination of the veto, the creation of a “basis of law,” and the organization of “a police force to carry out the law to which we have agreed.” If the Soviets refused to accept these reforms, then the United States should form a new international organization from which they would be excluded. By the time he wrote A Foreign Policy for Americans, however, he had scrapped this idea as well, proposing instead that NATO (which, ironically, he had originally opposed as a violation of the U.N. Charter) be converted into such an organization. 26
In Taft’s final speech (actually given by his son, since the senator himself was hospitalized with the illness which would cost him his life), he changed tack once again, this time advocating ignoring the U.N. with regard to Asia: “I believe we might as well abandon any idea of working with the United Nations in the East and reserve to ourselves a completely free hand.” He justified this by claiming that “in Europe we have practically abandoned it already,” since the North Atlantic Treaty was “the complete antithesis of the Charter itself.” Taft was roundly criticized for turning his back on the U.N. Vernon Van Dyke and Edward Lane Davis attempted to explain his rejection of the organization by pointing to the conflict between principle and practice inherent in collective security-sometimes peace must be purchased with the threat of war. “Taft can favor collective security as long as war is remote,” they wrote, “but when a crisis occurs he is inclined to recoil because of the dangers to liberty which war would involve.” 27
Taft was equally unpredictable in his stands on the Korean conflict. When Truman ordered U.S. ground troops to South Korea in June 1950, one of Taft’s aides suggested that the senator withhold support for the move, so that if the policy failed Taft would be in a position to use the war for partisan advantage. The Ohioan, however, rejected that cynical advice. On June 28 he called the North Korean invasion “an outrageous act of aggression,” and insisted that the time had come for the U.S. to “give definite notice to the communists that a move beyond a declared line would result in war.” During the next week he gave repeated assurances that he supported the president’s actions, at one point causing Truman’s Press Secretary Charles Ross to exclaim, “My God, Bob Taft has joined the U.N. and the U.S.” 28
But Taft’s support for Truman was not without reservations. In his June 28 speech he blamed the Korean situation not only on the Soviets, but also on “the bungling and inconsistent policy of the Administration.” Moreover, he challenged the president’s right to commit troops to a combat situation without prior congressional approval: “So far as I can see…I would say that there is no authority to use armed forces in support of the United Nations in the absence of some previous action by Congress dealing with the subject and outlining the general circumstances and the amount of the forces that can be used.” 29
Like most Americans, Taft supported Truman’s decision to pursue the retreating North Korean army toward the Yalu River. In his words, it was a simple matter of refusing to “permit an aggressor to retire behind his boundary and remain unpunished.” The involvement of Chinese troops, however, produced in him a profound change of heart. When asked in January 1951 how he would have responded to the initial North Korean invasion, Taft replied, “I would have stayed out.” When asked what he would do now if he were president, he responded, “I think I would get out and fall back to a defensible position in Japan and Formosa.” In March he charged that Truman’s original decision to commit ground forces was “an absolute usurpation of authority by the President.” 30
Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur in April led Taft to change his mind yet again. Now he joined MacArthur in advocating the use of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese troops in Korea and employing “every possible means to drive the Chinese Communists from Korea.” Withdrawing U.S. troops, he wrote to a friend in June, would result in Korea becoming “100 per cent Communist,” and might lead to a communist takeover of Japan. This latest shift flabbergasted his critics. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., charged that Taft and his allies were using MacArthur as “protective coloration” to give themselves “an air of deep concern with the outside world.” Richard Rovere agreed; it was, he claimed, “astonishing…to find Taft, who voted against the North Atlantic Treaty and the dispatch of troops to Western Europe, eager to form an alliance with the Kuomintang junta.” 31
Yet as the war dragged on Taft came around once again to something resembling his earlier views. In October he called the events in Korea “an unnecessary war which could have been prevented by common sense and a planned program against Communism.” By 1952 he was calling for the conclusion of a cease-fire, “providing it can be done with honor.” A “stalemate peace,” he concluded, was preferable to “a stalemate war.” When asked whether he had been inconsistent in his proposals for Korea, he conceded, “No doubt I have.” 32
Why did Taft have such problems in applying his principles to the formulation of a coherent strategy for foreign affairs? The standard answer has generally been that he was, of course, a politician, and an intensely partisan politician at that. He had, to quote James T. Patterson, an “instinctive distrust of the President,” whether it was Roosevelt or Truman. This tendency was obvious as early as 1939, when he called Roosevelt “the greatest menace to peace in this country.” When during the following year the President was considering changes in existing neutrality legislation, Taft accused him of “ballyhooing the foreign situation” to deflect attention away from the failure of the New Deal. 33
It was only after the 1948 electoral campaign, however, that the full extent of Taft’s partisanship became evident. His failure to win the Republican nomination in that year, and the subsequent defeat of Thomas Dewey, taught him two important lessons. The first was his realization that his reputation as an “isolationist” had severely damaged his standing among many GOP regulars, and that if he hoped to be the party’s candidate in 1952 he would have to prove that he could be just as anticommunist as anyone. The second was that the Republicans had not been using foreign policy as an effective political weapon against the president. Thus over the next few years foreign policy became Taft’s favorite political weapon. As he wrote in 1951, “We cannot possibly win the next election unless we point out the utter failure and incapacity of the present Administration to conduct foreign policy and cite the loss of China and the Korean war as typical examples of their very dangerous control. We certainly can’t win on domestic policy….” 34
But while simple partisanship may explain a good bit of Taft’s waverings during the Korean War, it does not explain his failure to provide a coherent alternative to the administration’s policy of containment. Indeed, there were many Republicans no less ambitious or partisan than Taft who did not oppose U.S. involvement abroad; some, in fact, faulted the Roosevelt and Truman administrations for not being more aggressive in foreign affairs. Moreover, there are certainly examples of partisan Republicans—Henry Cabot Lodge and Arthur Vandenberg spring immediately to mind—who are remembered as having made significant contributions to the making of U.S. foreign policy, even while Democrats controlled the White House. Why is Taft not among them?
Part of the explanation is that Taft often found himself committed to principles which were incompatible, which was indeed the case in his attitude toward the United Nations. He found himself divided between his strong desire for national independence and sovereignty—the so-called “free hand”—and his attraction, inherited from his father, to the concept of international law and justice. One sees a similar clash of principles in his positions on the Korean conflict. Here again he faced a difficult choice, between his desire to enforce international law against an obvious aggressor and his traditional hatred of war. In both cases, instead of making a clear decision he seemed to waver between two opposing views.
But even more important was the simple fact that foreign policy held relatively little interest for the Ohio Senator. Indeed, William S. White likened his role in foreign affairs to “an admiral who strongly dislikes the sea.” In the summer of 1941 he confessed to his wife, Martha, “I am far more concerned at the moment about taxes and inflation” than in the situation in Europe and Asia. Mere weeks before Pearl Harbor he chastised Wendell Willkie for having emphasized foreign affairs over domestic concerns during his presidential campaign of the previous year. “If this attitude of mind prevails,” he wrote, “then long before we have dealt with armed autocracy in Europe…we will see here a completely totalitarian government.” His opinion had changed little by 1951, when he became the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At a convention given by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he joked, “People have accused me of moving into foreign policy. The fact is that foreign policy has moved in on me.” He later admitted to a reporter, “I wish I could just stay out of that, but of course I can’t.” 35
What conclusions, then, may we reach regarding Taft’s overall importance for the history of U.S. foreign relations? As the revisionists have pointed out, he was remarkably prescient on many of the problems inherent in a highly interventionist foreign policy: unprecedented accretion of power in the hands of the executive branch of government, curtailment of civil liberties at home, the charge of “imperialism” arising from American influence abroad, and most importantly the danger of what Paul Kennedy referred to as “imperial overstretch”—the extension of overseas commitments beyond the ability of a nation to meet them. Even his contemporary critics, such as John P. Armstrong, admitted that the senator played an important role as a check on the internationalism of the Truman administration, raising difficult questions about particular policies even if only to be voted down. Indeed, in the wake of the Vietnam War many liberals, including (most ironically) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., proved willing to embrace many of Taft’s positions on foreign affairs. 36
But while it certainly would not do to reject Taft’s importance out of hand, it is equally erroneous to claim that he offered a coherent alternative paradigm for the conduct of foreign affairs. Republican party platforms in the late 1940s and early 1950s to a large extent echoed the interventionism of their Democratic counterparts. The reason for this was twofold: first of all, Taft never felt comfortable enough with the subject to put the sort of effort into foreign policy as he did into, say, domestic economic matters; and secondly his intense partisanship led him to view foreign affairs as little more than a stick with which to beat the Democrats. Thus to some he appeared as merely a mindless “isolationist,” while others failed to recognize any consistent viewpoint whatsoever.
It is probably a mistake, however, to place all the blame for this on Taft. The late 1940s and early 1950s were, after all, a period of America Triumphant, a time when almost all Americans believed in the role of the United States as leader of the free world, and very few questioned the wisdom of extensive overseas commitments. Taft himself seemed to accept these premises in his book, A Foreign Policy for Americans (though in it he often hedged about how to best follow through on them). Therefore even if he had mapped out a clear and coherent plan for foreign affairs derived from his core principles, it is unlikely that he would have found much support for it. It was when he was being most consistent and true to his principles, such as when he opposed the North Atlantic Treaty, that he appeared to be the most out of step with the times. It was not, therefore, until the 1960s and the doubts raised by the Vietnam War that a serious reevaluation of Taft’s foreign policy was possible. And indeed, as policymakers of the post-Cold War era struggle with the issue of foreign affairs, perhaps it is time for another such reconsideration.
John E. Moser is an Assistant Professor of History at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. Moser is the author of Twisting the Lion’s Tail—American Anglophobia between the World Wars and Presidents from Hoover through Truman, 1929-1953, which is due out in November 2001.
1. Quoted in Thomas E. Mahl, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (Washington, D.C., 1998), 164. Return to text.
2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The New Isolationism,” Atlantic, 189 (May, 1952), 37; Richard Rovere, “Taft: Is This the Best We’ve Got?” Harper’s. 196 (April, 1948), 298; John P. Armstrong, “The Enigma of Senator Taft and American Foreign Policy,” Review of Politics, 17 (April, 1955), 227: For a relatively rare defense of Taft in the popular press, see H. Reed West, “Senator Taft’s Foreign Policy,” Atlantic, 189 (June, 1952), 50-52. written in response to Schlesinger’s article. Return to text.
3. Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Cranbury, N.J., 1979), 200, 216; Schlesinger, “New Isolationism,” 38. Return to text.
4. Henry W. Berger, “A Conservative Critique of Containment: Senator Taft on the Early Cold War Program,” in David Horowitz (ed.), Containment and Revolution (Boston, 1967), 132-39; Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York, 1975), 119; Russell Kirk and James McClellan, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (New York, 1967), 158-61. Return to text.
5. John Morton Blum, V was for Victory: Politics and Culture During World War II (New York, 1976), 271-73; Armstrong, “Enigma of Senator Taft,” 208; Vernon Van Dyke and Edward Lane Davis, “Senator Taft and American Security,” Journal of Politics, 14 (May, 1952), 177. Return to text.
6. Speech before U.S. Senate, August 14, 1940, Robert A. Taft MSS, Box 1255, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Return to text.
7. Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 79; Radosh, Prophets on the Right, 121; “Aid to Britain-Short of War,” Speech before Senate, March 1, 1941, Taft MSS, Box 1256; Geoffrey Matthews, “Robert A. Taft, the Constitution, and American Foreign Policy, 1939-53,” Journal of Contemporary History, 17 (July, 1982), 510; Radosh, Prophets on the Right, 125. Return to text.
8. Doenecke, Not to the Swift, 116; Henry W. Berger, “Senator Taft Dissents from Military Escalation,” in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.), Cold War Critics (Chicago, 1971). 185. Return to text.
9. Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 196-97. Return to text.
10. Robert A. Taft, “Washington Report,” August 3, 1949, Taft MSS, Box 819. Return to text.
11. James T. Patterson,
Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft(Boston, 1972), 78; Remarks by Taft, Congressional Record, 76th Cong., 2nd Sess., March 2, 1940, 85 (pt. 13): A1218; Taft to Marrs McLean, June 23, 1942, Taft MSS, Box 110; Berger, “Senator Taft Dissents,” 185. Return to text.
12. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “His Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” Collier’s, 119 (February 22, 1947), 38; Taft to George F. Stanley, September 8, 1944, Taft MSS, Box 31; New York Times, May 21, 1940. Return to text.
13. Patterson, Mr. Republican, 76-77; William S. White, The Taft Story (New York, 1954), 149; Radosh, Prophets on the Right, 121; Taft, “Aid to Britain-Short of War,” March 1, 1941, Taft MSS, Box 1256; Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, A Man of Courage: Robert A. Taft (Chicago, 1952), 341. Return to text.
14. Patterson, Mr. Republican, 198; Doenecke, Not to the Swift, 199. Return to text.
15. Blum, V was for Victory, 125; Radosh, Prophets on the Right, 121; Taft, “Aid to Britain-Short of war,” March 1, 1941, Taft MSS, Box 1256. Return to text.
16. New York Times, January 6, 1951; Doenecke, Not to the Swift, 56-57; Berger, “Senator Taft Dissents,” 174. Return to text.
17. Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 188-89; New York Times, March 16, 1947; Taft radio address on the Drew Pearson Hour, July 24, 1949, Taft MSS, Box 552. Return to text.
18. Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 189; Taft, A Foreign Policy for Americans, 47-63. Return to text.
19. Berger, “Senator Taft Dissents,” 185; Harnsberger, Man of Courage, 228-29; Press statement, September, 1939, Taft MSS, Box 1250; James T. Patterson, “Alternatives to Globalism: Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy, 1939-1945,” Historian, 36 (August 1974), 676. Return to text.
20. Taft to Monte Appel, June 7, 1941, Taft MSS, Box 106; Taft address at Grove City College commencement, May 22, 1943, ibid., Box 546; Berger, “Senator Taft Dissents,” 177; Taft to Dorothy Thompson, July 25, 1950, Taft MSS, Box 819. Return to text.
21. Taft address at Grove City College commencement, May 22, 1943, ibid., Box 546; Patterson, Mr. Republican, 296-97; Taft, “Equal Justice Under Law: The Heritage of the English-Speaking Peoples and Their Responsibility,” conference at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, October 4-6, 1946, Taft MSS, Box 210. Return to text.
22. Armstrong, “Enigma of Senator Taft,” 221-22; White, The Taft Story, 143; Even his later defenders recognized severe inconsistencies, prompting at least one prominent revisionist to object to what he saw as an “exclusive focus” on Taft, preferring to study “other Republican politicians of the ’extreme Right’ who were far more consistent than Taft,”such as Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska. Murray N. Rothbard, “The Foreign Policy of the Old Right,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2 (Winter, 1978), 90. Return to text.
23. Kirk and McClellan, Political Principles, 173. Return to text.
24. Taft, “Notes on the Dumbarton Oaks Proposal,” May, 1945, Taft MSS, Box 546. Return to text.
25. Harnsberger, Man of Courage, 345; Armstrong, “Enigma of Senator Taft,” 215. Return to text.
26. Harnsberger, Man of Courage, 347; Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 185; Taft, A Foreign Policy, 46. Return to text.
27. Taft speech before National Conference of Christians and Jews, May 26, 1953, Taft, MSS, Box 1288: Van Dyke and Davis, “Senator Taft,” 183. Return to text.
28. Melvin Small, Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789-1994 (Baltimore, 1996), 94; Patterson, Mr. Republican, 452-53. Return to text.
29. Taft speech, June 28, 1950, Taft MSS, Box 256. Return to text.
30. Transcript from “Meet the Press,” January 7, 1951, ibid., Box 1280; Taft, “The President Has No Right to Involve the United States in a Foreign War,” speech before Senate, March 29, 1951, ibid., Box 554. Return to text.
31. Taft to Dr. H.L. Chandler, June 25, 1951, ibid., Box 874; Schlesinger, “New Isolationism,” 36; Richard Rovere, “What’s Happened to Taft?” Harper’s, 204 (April, 1952), 39. Return to text.
32. White, The Taft Story, 164; Taft to Fred Line, April 29, 1953, Taft MSS, Box 1064; “Meet the Press” transcript, January 20, 1952, ibid., Box 1294. Return to text.
33. Patterson, “Alternatives to Globalism,” 684; New York Times, April 21, 1939. Return to text.
34. White, The Taft Story, 159-60; Taft to J. Thomas Baldwin, July 31, 1951, Taft MSS, Box 1187. Return to text.
35. White, The Taft Story, 143; Patterson, Mr. Republican, 247; Matthews, “Taft and Foreign Policy,” 508-9; Taft to Forrest Davis, January 18, 1951, Taft MSS, Box 848. Return to text.
36. Patterson, “Alternatives to Globalism,” 682. For Schlesinger’s later views on foreign policy, see his The Imperial Presidency (New York, 1974). Return to text.