The Republican Road Not Taken: The Foreign-Policy Vision of Robert A. Taft

Article excerpt

First elected to the Senate in 1938, Robert A. Taft represented Ohio from 1939 until his death in 1953. Although Taft was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination three times, in 1940, 1948, and 1952, he was universally acknowledged as the leader of the Republican Party's congressional wing. Taft offered both a positive vision of international organization following World War II and a prescient critique of the internationalist policies developed by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Dwight Eisenhower embraced and continued these internationalist Democratic policies during his two terms in office (1953-61), so his victory over Taft at the Republican convention in 1952 represented a decisive rejection of the alternative foreign policy advocated by Taft and other isolationist Republicans of that period. The significance of Taft's defeat--and the thesis of this article--was well articulated by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, writing in the midst of the Vietnam War almost two decades later. Observing that Taft's critique of internationalism had been vindicated subsequently on almost every point, von Hoffman characterized Taft's foreign-policy vision as "a way to defend the country without destroying it, a way to be part of the world without running it" (qtd. in Radosh 1975, 147).

Many of Taft's contemporaries dismissed him as an "isolationist" in foreign policy (for good examples, see Schlesinger 1952 and Van Dyke and Davis 1952). Although subsequent scholarship has suggested that this characterization was highly misleading (Berger 1967, 1971, 1975; West 1952), Taft was isolationist if isolationism is defined, following careful scholarship, as "an attitude of opposition to binding commitments by the United States government that would create new, or expand existing, obligations to foreign nations" (Rieselbach 1966, 7). Like many Americans of his era, Taft did not welcome the intrusion of foreign policy and gladly would have "let the rest of the world go its own way if it would only go without bothering the United States" (Osgood 1953, 433). For much of his career, Taft advocated what he called "the policy of the free hand," whereby the United States would avoid entangling alliances and interference in foreign disputes. This policy permitted government leaders the freedom of action to decide in particular cases whether a sufficiently vital U.S. interest warranted involvement (Taft 1951, 12). (1)

The real problem with the term isolationism is not that it misrepresented Taft's general orientation, but rather that it permitted defenders of various Roosevelt and Truman policies to discredit Taft without having to engage his arguments seriously. Labeling opponents of administration policies as "isolationists" implied that they were naive, like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, nostalgic for an earlier era in which the United States could hide behind the safety of two oceans and avoid involvement in international affairs (Doenecke 1979, 11-12; Graebner 1968). (2) In reality, however, none of the members of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party ever believed it possible for the United States to isolate itself from the rest of the world, and so all of them accordingly rejected that label.

Taft's foreign-policy views were neither naive nor nostalgic. To the contrary, his critique of internationalism deserved to be taken seriously and was vindicated subsequently on many points. Taft criticized the Roosevelt/Truman approach to postwar international organization, correctly pointing to features of the United Nations that would prevent its serving as a real force for peace and equality under the law. He also challenged the Truman administration's assessment of the Soviet military threat against western Europe, a threat that now appears to have been overstated consciously and deliberately to secure congressional support for the Marshall Plan, universal military training, and an expanded air force (Berger 1967; Kofsky 1993). …