The Surprising Zionist: Senator Robert A. Taft and the Creation of Israel

By Kennedy, Brian | The Historian, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Surprising Zionist: Senator Robert A. Taft and the Creation of Israel


Kennedy, Brian, The Historian


IN EARLY 1951, the Israeli Knesset Library arranged to dedicate a series of the American Congressional Record to Senator Robert A. Taft, who "was unquestionably a major factor in the shaping of President Truman's positive policy" towards Israel. (1) Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the leading American Zionist of the era, designed a label for each book that thanked Taft "for the outstanding and loyal support which he rendered toward the establishment of the state of Israel." (2) At the luncheon held for the occasion, Taft took the opportunity to promote a loan to Israel, arguing that "Israel is entitled to every assistance from the American government." (3) Given that Taft was a fiscally-conservative, isolationist Republican, this event seems out of character for him and it raises many interesting and important questions.

At the time of Israel's creation, Robert Taft was one of the most powerful figures in the Senate and one of the leading Republican voices in the nation. The son of President William Howard Taft, Taft was educated at a prestigious Connecticut prep school, Yale University, and Harvard Law School. After a brief period in a Cincinnati law firm, Robert entered politics, first in the Ohio Senate and then in 1938 in the United States Senate. Soon after arriving in Washington, DC, Taft established himself as one of the leading Republican Senators. In 1940 he made a strong run at the Republican presidential nomination, losing to Wendell Wilkie on the sixth ballot. He ran in each subsequent presidential election for the remainder of his life, save for 1944 when he deferred to a fellow Ohioan, John Bricker. In the Senate, Taft was widely viewed as the architect of Republican policy, as exemplified by his position as chair of the Republican Steering Committee. From this position he set policy for his party and, after the Republicans took control of the Congress in 1946, for the Senate. (4) Nicknamed "Mr. Republican," Taft was one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate throughout his lifetime and in 1959 the Senate named him one of the five greatest Senators of all time.

An avowed isolationist, Taft consistently opposed American intervention in the affairs of foreign countries. As late as June of 1941 Taft was warning against war and advocating negotiations between England and Germany. He dismissed the idea of formulating foreign policy around ideals of democracy and freedom, which he claimed Wilson and Roosevelt had done, comparing such policies to the "religious fervor" that motivated the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. (5) Two years later, at the height of the Second World War, Taft stated that no country "should insist on interfering with the internal affairs of other nations unless it is prepared to submit to the same interference itself," adding that "[w]e can't force independence on India except as the British see fit to arrange it." (6) Even after the war, Taft remained a vocal isolationist. As the Cold War developed, he opposed American involvement in NATO and was one of the foremost critics of the Marshall Plan. (7)

Taft's actions towards Palestine seemed to violate many of his foremost principles. Despite being one of the foremost isolationists in the nation, Taft proposed the United States serve as the primary arbiter in the Middle East. Although publicly stating that the United States had no right to dictate policy towards Great Britain in regards to India, he consistently sought to influence British policy in Palestine. Meanwhile, even as he criticized the efforts to grant foreign aid to allied nations in Europe, Taft proposed $150 million in aid be given to Israel. Moreover, at a time when he was running against Truman for the presidency, and while he engaged in extremely contentious and partisan political struggles with the President, Taft surprisingly seemed to agree with the President on the issue of Israel.

What caused Taft to act in a way that appeared so contrary to his general political ideology and strategy?

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