In 1939, Dorothy Fulton of Cincinnati wrote to her senator, Robert Taft, urging him to support the Wagner-Rodgers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 German Jewish refugee children to the United States. Taft replied that the "appeal of assistance to helpless children is hard to resist." But resist he did. "It is said that refugee children will be provided with homes," Taft wrote, "but if homes are available in America for twenty thousand children, then certainly there are at least 20,000 American children whose condition would be tremendously benefited by access to such homes."
On the broader issue of Jewish refugees, Taft argued, "The only practical method of dealing with them seems to be some plan for colonization in Asia or Africa." "I believe that we are doing more than our share to relieve the situation," he concluded. "We cannot cure it in any event."
Taft wrote his letter one month after the doomed voyage of the SS St. Louis, in which nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees were denied entry to America and forced to return to Europe. It was seven months after Kristallnacht. Taft's proposed answer to the refugee problem, colonization, was also a favorite solution of some Nazis before the "Final Solution" took shape. (The Madagascar Plan, outlined in June 1940, was Adolf Eichmann's project.)
It is easy to judge historical figures in retrospect. In this case, it would require judging more than just Taft. A poll in 1939 found that 61 percent of Americans opposed the Wagner-Rodgers bill. The Daughters of the American Revolution came out against it. The measure was too politically toxic for Franklin Roosevelt to endorse (though Eleanor was supportive).
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Taft's foreign policy views—keeping a distance from the problems of an incurable world—were predominant (though contested by Henry Stimson and others) within the Republican Party. "I believe that the peace and happiness of the people of this country," Taft said, "can best be secured by refusing to intervene in war outside the Americas and establishing our defense line based on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans."
This belief was not merely a strategic judgment. While Taft hated totalitarianism, he believed that American involvement in a European conflict would lead to an expanded national security state—requiring vast spending and centralized planning—at odds with libertarian principles of freedom and self-government. Intervention, therefore, would be "more likely to destroy American democracy than to destroy German dictatorship."
In broad-brush historical treatments, it is often said that Pearl Harbor and the opening of the concentration camps discredited these views. In fact, they were not fully repudiated within the Republican Party until the 1952 presidential nomination contest.
In the aftermath of World War II, Taft accepted a more expansive American role in opposing communism. But he remained skeptical of American military deployments in Europe, of foreign aid ("the policy of scattering dollars freely around the world"), and of binding treaty commitments such as NATO, which he regarded as provocative to the Soviet Union. In 1951, with Americans fighting in Korea, Taft proposed a resolution that would have prohibited the president from sending additional troops abroad without congressional approval.
Taft was poised to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1952. As Dwight Eisenhower was heading to Europe to become supreme commander of NATO, he met with the GOP front-runner in Washington. Before the meeting, Eisenhower had drafted a Shermanesque statement disavowing any presidential ambitions, which he intended to issue that night. But Taft refused to affirm support for NATO and questioned President Truman's right to send additional troops to Europe. Taft's motivation, according to Eisenhower, was "cutting the President, or the Presidency, down to size." "After the senator left," writes historian Stephen Ambrose, "Eisenhower called in two aides and in their presence tore up his drafted statement."
During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower was ruthless in his attempt to marginalize and stigmatize Taft's foreign policy views. In a June televised address, Eisenhower said: "Those who assert that America can live solely within its own borders, those who seem to think we have little or no stake in the rest of the world and what happens to it ... such persons are taking an unjustified gamble with peace. They are no friends of American security. Theirs is not the counsel of enlightened self-interest. It is the counsel of eventual self-destruction. And the American people have shown time and again that they will not support this stupid and myopic doctrine."
"The bleak scene," Eisenhower continued, "of an America surrounded by a savage wolf pack could be our lot if we heed the false prophets of living alone."
Eisenhower's eventual (and close) victory over Taft was a fateful moment in the history of Republican and American foreign policy. It had been possible—at one point, likely— that one of America's two political parties would oppose the basic architecture of the Cold War in the decisive early years when that architecture was being constructed.
Today, Eisenhower is sometimes claimed by noninterventionists as an ally. But his primary motivation in running for president was to defeat a form of noninterventionism that he regarded as risky and potentially self-destructive. "The real, historical Eisenhower kept defense spending at 10 percent of GDP in peacetime," professor Colin Dueck of George Mason University observes, "issued blood-curdling nuclear threats against China on repeated occasions, toppled hostile foreign governments in Iran and Guatemala, ratcheted up domestic security against Communist agents, and said in his inaugural that 'forces of good and evil are massed and armed as rarely before in history.' "
"The American people have shown time and again that they will not support this stupid and myopic doctrine."
The six Republican presidents since World War II have often had serious disagreements about the theory and conduct of foreign policy, most dramatically demonstrated in Richard Nixon's détente with the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan's strong criticism of that approach. These arguments focused on the relative importance of stability in international affairs (Reagan had a higher tolerance for constructive instability) and the relative priority given to ideology in the fight against communism (with Reagan asserting that history has a pronounced ideological tilt toward freedom and self-government). Nixon believed that the Soviet Union could be pulled into a concert of nations; Reagan was skeptical that this was possible without a change in the regime itself.
Yet all Republican presidents of recent decades, whether realists like Nixon or idealists like Reagan, have shared a belief that America is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, with an essential role in deterring bad actors and fostering a liberal economic, social, and political global order. And all have asserted the need for a strong executive in the conduct of foreign and military affairs.
American foreign policy is often a story of surprising continuity between administrations of very different ideological and partisan bents. This makes instances of discontinuity all the more dramatic. The Republican Party is currently experiencing the most fundamental challenge to its internationalist consensus since Robert Taft's defeat. And his ghost wanders through the resulting debate.
ON INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, the early positioning of prospective Republican candidates is usually an exercise in reassurance—the foreign policy equivalent of calming the markets. Governors and legislators, often with little background in foreign affairs, talk of a strong military, fighting terrorism, working closely with allies, and a reluctant willingness to use force. For decades, the ticket punch for GOP presidential prospects has been a cautious internationalism.
Rand Paul of Kentucky, in contrast, has roiled the foreign policy markets. The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the "perpetual war" against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars). "This is not just the rejection of Bush 43," Dueck says. "It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance."
Paul does not consider himself an isolationist (which few isolationists ever have). But Paul's noninterventionism is, at the very least, an attempted revival of the GOP's Taft wing. While adopting modern libertarian views on trade and immigration, Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages "lethargy" and "insolence"). Paul's "constitutional foreign policy" denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.
The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab's Spring's frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul's rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. "That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco," he said, "or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination."
This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can't be trusted with advanced weaponry.
For Paul, this was less an argument than the reflection of a certain upbringing and background. Over the years, he has warned against the imaginary "amero" currency, accused Vice President Dick Cheney of pushing the Iraq War to profit Halliburton, and argued that a trade blockade may have provoked the Japanese into entering World War II.
Such conspiratorial thinking has accompanied the noninterventionist Right for generations and represents a political vulnerability. But Paul also has considerable advantages in pressing his case and advancing his (prospective) candidacy: a reasonable manner, a knack for exploiting populist issues, a skill at blunting the sharper edges of his beliefs, and a preexisting, national network of libertarian activists. The percentage of Americans who want the United States to be less active in the world has quadrupled over the last 13 years. As the debate over military strikes in Syria demonstrated last September (when 73 percent of Americans wanted to stay out of the conflict), anti-interventionist arguments remain the easiest for politicians to make.
SO WILL THE GOP see the return of an influential Taft wing? There is little doubt that Republicans are in a process of adjustment after Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult for a democracy to fight a war that lasts more than a decade. The entire American political spectrum, as Robert Kagan recently argued, may be moving toward a less engaged, less globally minded "normalcy." But there are several reasons that noninterventionism—as a philosophy rather than a tendency—may still have a low ceiling of support in the Republican Party.
Just over the last several months, the viability of Paul's central message has varied inversely with the seriousness of global challenges. On the eve of Russia's occupation of Crimea in late February, Paul said, "Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War that they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don't think it is a good idea." It was a line of argument typical of noninterventionism—that American engagement to confront threats (great power aggression, terrorism, proliferation) actually produces or amplifies those threats.
But here is Paul two weeks later, after the Russian invasion: "It is America's duty to condemn these actions in no uncertain terms. It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia's latest aggression." In times of stress, the only politically acceptable Republican rhetoric remains thoroughly internationalist: duty, leadership, strength in opposing aggression. There are no Paulists in foxholes.
In the upcoming presidential primaries, the shape of the GOP foreign policy debate will be largely determined by the manner in which the Obama legacy is attacked. If the outgoing president is broadly criticized for exceeding his constitutional authority in deploying drones or collecting bulk data, it would fit the noninterventionist narrative. But it seems more likely that Obama—who has elevated risk aversion and retrenchment into a foreign policy doctrine—will be criticized for irresolution. At the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference, for example, prospective Republican candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, and Gov. Bobby Jindal accused Obama of retreating from global leadership and scaling back the military—the explicit goals of Paulite noninterventionism. "Putin would not be acting with this level of aggression," said Sen. Ted Cruz, "if it were not for the consistent weakness and appeasement of our enemies of President Obama." It would be basically impossible for Republicans to criticize Obama for weakness while arguing (as Paul does) for an institutionally weakened presidency. A widespread belief that Obama's foreign policy is Carter-like is bound to provoke a Reagan-like ideological response.
Already these trends have placed Paul in a difficult political spot. Cruz has begun to position himself as the constitutional conservative contender who lacks noninterventionist baggage. And Paul has begun to refashion himself, in meetings with GOP policy experts and donors, as more of a foreign policy realist along the lines of Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft. So far, this effort has raised more questions about Paul's authenticity than it has provided assurances about his electability. But this attempted pivot is a confession of serious problems with the noninterventionist brand.
The Republican coalition includes a number of robust constituencies for internationalism. There are business interests that care about global trade and stability. There are advocates for proactive American leadership and a strong national defense. There are religious and humanitarian organizations that do not regard the provision of AIDS treatments or of bed nets to prevent malaria as causes of "lethargy" or "insolence."
A widespread belief that Obama's foreign policy is Carter-like is bound to provoke a Reagan-like ideological response.
Many Republicans now seem more concerned about American lethargy. The arguments for engagement reach both backward and forward. The lessons of World War II, the Cold War, and September 11—that deferred challenges multiply, that leadership vacuums get filled by the brutal, and that it is generally preferable to engage in fights nearer the enemy than closer to home—are still too vivid to be entirely unlearned. The shock of Taft's reply to Dorothy Fulton; the inspiration of Reagan's moral and strategic clarity; the horror of Lower Manhattan as a smoldering battlefield—these are not ancient history. Particularly in moments of national tragedy or challenge, the memories return in a flood. And then previous promises of cheap, unearned security seem escapist and deceptive.
The Republican case for internationalism is also prospective. Taft's noninterventionism was actually more viable before World War II, when the United States could pass some bucks to Great Britain and other providers of global public goods. Now, American retreat would be an invitation to further Russian adventurism. Remaining a bystander to the self-destruction of the Middle East would abet chaos and allow threats to spread. And American leaders will need to employ every element of power and strategy—diplomatic, economic, ideological, and military—to successfully manage the rise of China over the next few decades. A Republican presidential candidate who ignores these strategic realities has tripped on the first hurdle of seriousness.
Americans are, indeed, weary. But it takes political leaders to organize that weariness into a stupid and myopic doctrine. And, as Eisenhower noted and helped ensure, postwar Americans are a skeptical audience for the false prophets of living alone.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.
This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as 1952 All Over Again.