1952 All Over Again

It’s been more than six decades since Republican noninterventionists were this influential. They lost the battle to control the party then — and chances are, they’re going to lose this time, too.

Dwigh D. Eisenhower and Mamie Standing up in a car while campaigning  in Denver Colorado. 1952 
National Journal
Michael Gerson
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Michael Gerson
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.”

Robert Taft (Wiki­pe­dia Com­mons)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.

Sen. Rand Paul (Getty Im­ages)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.

“It is our role as a glob­al lead­er to be the strongest na­tion in op­pos­ing Rus­sia’s latest ag­gres­sion,” said Rand Paul. (Getty Im­ages)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.

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