Even in that prehistoric time before television, Robert Alphonso Taft seemed an unlikely leader of men. Looking like a small-town grocer, he spoke in what one admirer conceded was a “whiney Midwestern voice.” When trying to pose as a deep-sea fisherman, Taft once allowed himself to be photographed in a boat that was visibly tethered to the shore, even as he was shown landing an already dead sailfish. (A reporter for Time dubbed him the “Dagwood Bumstead of American Politics.”) Despite an aloof and sometimes awkward manner, Taft sought the presidency three times. The son of former president William Howard Taft (who once had to summon aides to extricate his more than 300-pound girth from a White House bathtub), young Bob wistfully referred to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as “the old homestead.” Even though he never occupied that address in his own right, Taft was so widely respected as a legislator that, a mere four years after his death, a bipartisan committee of the Senate named him (along with John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Robert La Follette) as one of five members of that body who “left a permanent mark on our nation’s history.”
Although the vast majority of Americans under the age of 70 would be hard-pressed to identify Taft, much less explain his importance, he has recently become a hero to conservatives displeased with the way their movement has been hijacked by ex-Trotskyites, Cold War liberals, and Israeli fifth-columnists. In the September 13, 2004, issue of the American Conservative, Rep. John Duncan (R-TN; one of only six Republicans in Congress to vote against the invasion of Iraq) labeled Taft’s views on foreign policy the “traditional conservative position.” What Duncan neglected to mention was the fact that Taft’s personal political ambitions were consistently thwarted by the crusading internationalists of his own day.
At the time he was elected to the Senate in 1938, Bob Taft was known as an articulate opponent of the New Deal with minimal credentials in foreign policy. Had he been willing to go along with the Wall Street financiers who were eager to involve the United States in the war in Europe, he might well have gotten the Republican presidential nomination two years later. His fate was probably sealed when he attended a dinner party thrown by Ogden Reid, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, on June 2, 1940. The rest of the guest list consisted of the British ambassador and several prominent American Anglophiles. Before the evening was over, Taft got into a shouting match with a utilities executive named Wendell Willkie, who said he would vote for Roosevelt before backing any Republican who did not favor aiding the Allies. Although Willkie was a registered Democrat who had never held any position in government, the East Coast internationalists were soon backing him for the GOP nomination. They flooded the delegates to the convention with fake telegrams supporting Willkie and packed the stands with demonstrators paid to chant, “We want Willkie.” The Wall Street crowd got what it wanted—a stooge who would parrot the interventionist line while handing Roosevelt a predictable, if unprecedented, third term.
Although revisionist historians have tried to tar all the nonimperialists of the late 30’s and early 40’s as protofascist, Taft’s reluctance to plunge America into another world war was a sentiment shared by principled leftists such as Norman Thomas (whose pacifism Taft and his wife, Martha, admired) and Dwight Macdonald. In his book Prophets on the Right (1975), the left-wing historian Ronald Radosh writes of Taft’s stand against intervention:
Almost alone among political leaders, he had called attention to the negative effects of concentrated executive power, and had condemned the usurpation of an independent congressional role by the executive. . . . He had [also] warned his fellow citizens against creating a Pax Americana at the war’s end, and he spoke of the possibility of a new imperialism breeding what would later be called the military-industrial complex.
Like all loyal Americans, Taft supported the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unlike Arthur Vandenberg and so many other former “isolationists,” however, he did not become a born-again internationalist. Even if war was forced upon us, he had no illusions about its creating a New World Order. On June 25, 1941, Taft noted the irony of Roosevelt talking about the Four Freedoms while shipping arms to the Soviet Union. “If through our aid Stalin is continued in power,” he asked, “do you suppose he will spread the four freedoms through Finland and Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania? Do you suppose that anybody in Russia itself will hear of the four freedoms after the war?”
Taft was willing to stand alone against war-crazed jingoists. In October 1946, for example, he gave a speech at Kenyon College in which he criticized the war-crimes tribunal at Nuremberg because the defendants were being tried for violating an ex post facto statute. Taft’s own wife, who agreed with his reasoning, had warned him not to give the speech for fear of being considered sympathetic to Nazism. (He had already gone against the tide by opposing both the internment of Japanese-Americans and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) For a man who was still hoping to secure his party’s presidential nomination, the speech was a public-relations disaster. Prominent Republicans repudiated Taft’s position, Democrats denounced him, and the CIO News ran his picture next to that of two Germans acquitted at Nuremberg. The caption read: “SENATOR ROBERT ALPHONSO TAFT AND ‘FRIENDS.’” By 1956, however, Taft’s lonely position had won him a chapter in Ted Sorenson’s Profiles in Courage.
Today, Taft’s vision seems so timely because, in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he was among only a handful of prominent American conservatives to express any skepticism concerning the holy struggle against communism. In his own time, that skepticism made him appear a throwback to the 1920’s and 30’s. In our time, he seems more like a premature foe of neoconservative triumphalism. As late as 1951, Taft wrote to Norman Thomas:
I see no reason for the President and the Secretary of State and everybody else calling the Russians names on every occasion. I realize they are impossible to deal with, but I really do not believe that they intend to start a third world war.
No doubt, Taft’s pique with the administration was exacerbated by the fact that much of the strategic advantage the Soviets enjoyed was because of concessions Roosevelt and Truman had made to Stalin. The Democrats were rattling sabers over a situation they had helped to bring about.
In addition to the blood and treasure that were spent in time of war, Taft believed that conflict abroad inevitably limited freedom at home. (As we are now discovering during the Jihad on Terror, perpetual war—especially of the undeclared variety—leads to such enormities as the PATRIOT Act.) Even before Japan was defeated, Taft warned against peacetime conscription in a speech delivered at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1945. “It is useless to destroy totalitarianism in Germany and Japan,” he declared, “and then establish them in the United States.” If a large standing army was necessary, Taft believed that good pay and treatment would be enough to raise a sufficient number of volunteers. When faced with the argument that draftees would receive needed discipline, he replied: “My own opinion is that we need more initiative and original thinking and less discipline rather than more.”
Because the president is uniquely qualified to speak for the nation as commander in chief, Taft believed that it is all the more imperative for the chief executive to consult with Congress before policy is made. In contrast, the Truman administration made policy in secret and then demanded congressional support in the name of bipartisanship. In the 1948 election, Truman actually used the issue of bipartisanship to Red-bait the Republican right. According to this scenario, the communists were supporting Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party in the hope of splitting the liberal vote and electing a Republican president. “The Communists want a Republican administration,” Truman charged,
because they believe its reactionary policies will lead to confusion and strife upon which Communism thrives. . . . [T]he Communists have real reason to hope that Republican isolationism will exert its pressure within the Republican party, and, in a period of time, they can take over nation after nation.
Might this absurd statement by the protector of Alger Hiss have been the inspiration for David Frum’s diatribe about “unpatriotic conservatives”?
Although Taft has been branded an isolationist, he was really a pragmatist who wished to hold the communist beast at bay without committing American troops to another ground war in Europe. He favored using American air and sea power as a deterrent against Soviet aggression, while insisting that the European countries be their own first line of defense. (To assist them, he supported the Marshall Plan, despite his misgivings about the cost.) Joining NATO, however, represented too open-ended a commitment. As Taft noted in a speech delivered to the Senate on July 11, 1949, changes in government in one or more of the countries signing the pact might result in our arming a nation today only to see those same arms used against us in the future. (As we recently learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, yesterday’s strategic ally can be today’s terrorist.) For Taft, providing aid to a specific country under compelling circumstances, or even extending the Monroe Doctrine to Western Europe, was far different “from arming half the world against the other half.” When the Senate approved NATO membership by a vote of 82 to 13, Taft was among the dissenters.
If Taft seemed soft on Europe, he was hard on Asia, which he believed to be far more vulnerable to communist advances. (The shock of Pearl Harbor made him particularly wary of threats from the East.) Despite the imperious way in which Truman involved the United States in defense of South Korea, Taft thought that General MacArthur should have been given a freer hand in waging that war, just as he thought that the United States should have shown greater support for Chiang Kai-shek in his battle against Mao. Once Chiang had been defeated and MacArthur sacked, however, Taft was too much of a realist to encourage a direct confrontation between the United States and Red China. Ironically, his very moderation on this point helped cost him the Republican nomination in 1952 by alienating such influential members of the China lobby as Richard Nixon and William Knowland of California and Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In his last major speech, which was delivered for him by his son in May 1953, even as the senator himself was dying of cancer, Taft warned against sending American soldiers to the continent of Asia, which would have included the embattled French colony of Vietnam.
Had Taft not died when he did, he might have continued to be the Republican leader in the Senate throughout the 50’s and 60’s. (In 1970, he would have been 81 years old, which is hardly a prohibitively advanced age in the era of Strom Thurmond.) In A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951), Taft tried to define an enlightened internationalism, which would allow us to fight communism while still putting American interests and American ideals first. If his strategic vision was still a work in progress, it was nevertheless motivated by sound principles. In this, his only book, we find arguments against both nation-building and preventive war, as well as an unwillingness to destroy concrete American liberties simply to bestow an abstract version of those same liberties on countries where they are neither understood nor appreciated. If Bob Taft opposed the New Wilsonianism, we must remember that it was the defeat of his father (the man in the bathtub) that spawned the original version.