Jun 1, 1981
The Anti-Interventionist Tradition: Leadership and Perceptions
Transformation: International and National
Of all the decades of this century, one might well argue that the 1940s was the most significant. Within a ten year span, the Soviet Union became one of the world’s two great superpowers, a mighty Germany was divided in half and substantially reduced in size, and the far-flung Japanese empire was destroyed. Both Britain and France lost major parts of their empires in Africa and Asia, and witnessed these regions being dominated by indigenous nationalist governments.
The United States too was radically transformed. Never an insular power, it had long been an empire with dominions beyond the seas. Yet, with the advent of World War II, the nation found itself fighting in such varied places as Tarawa, Messina, the Ardennes, and northern Burma. Then, when the conflict was over, the United States underwrote the economy of Western Europe and encircled the globe with a string of air bases. In 1949, it entered into a binding military alliance with some eleven different powers, and in the process made commitments that exceeded the most ambitious dreams of Woodrow Wilson. Within ten years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States was fighting Communist forces in Korea.
Internally the change in the United States was equally radical. Military Keynesianism created the greatest economic boom since the 1920s, but it was a boom that made the economy increasingly dependent upon armament spending. A massive government bureaucracy found its counterpart in huge corporate conglomerates, often subsidized by a defense-minded government and finding their own counterparts in large and powerful trade unions. Small enterprises were becoming steadily less important to the economy. Although the term agribusiness was not yet in vogue, large farms were increasingly displacing smaller and less efficient units. The accompanying social and geographical mobility—more women occupying fulltime jobs, massive migration of blacks and Chicanos—produced accompanying strains, as seen in higher divorce rates, racial violence, and juvenile delinquency.
A country engaged in fighting external evil and totalitarian forces found itself equally concerned with rooting out such forces within. Hence, in the forties, the United States experienced a battery of sedition trials, loyalty checks, and congressional investigating committees, all of which generated a climate far from friendly to dissent. The government, through such bureaus as the Office of War Information, fostered its own propaganda, one initially revealed in war bond drives and Hollywood battle films. Furthermore, with a press, cinema, publishing industry, and radio broadcasting (and later television) becoming increasingly centralized, minority voices had fewer outlets.
“Isolationism”: A Matter of Definition
Some Americans found such developments inevitable. One does not have to be steeped in the sociological analysis of a Max Weber to claim that such bureaucratization was bound to occur, particularly in time of cold or hot war. Other Americans, however, believed that such rationalization of both economy and society could be halted, or at least considerably slowed down, especially if the United States avoided full-scale military conflict. These Americans were often labelled “isolationists,” a term that did little justice to either the complexity of their position or the reasoning behind it.
In the best short essay yet published on the history and nature of isolationism, Manfred Jonas defines the position as “the avoidance of political and military commitments to or alliances with foreign powers, particularly those in Europe.” As Jonas notes in his own work, there is far more to the position of most isolationists than sheer withdrawal, or (to use the phrasing of one historian) acting like “that species of bird which, when threatened, simply goes on pecking the ground until danger passes—or it is slain.” So-called isolationists often sought to increase foreign trade, endorsed noncoercive forms of international organization, fostered cultural interchange, and supported relief and recovery. In fact, they might take pains to deny they were isolationists, preferring the name anti-interventionist, neutralist, or nationalist. In the decade before Pearl Harbor, they differed among themselves on a variety of issues, including a navy based upon battleships, retention of the Philippines and Guam, the desirability of peacetime conscription, and recognition of the Soviet Union. What they shared in common was unilateralism in foreign affairs, that is, in the sense of rejecting binding military commitments, and war.
A Variety of Explanations
During the past twenty years, there has been a resurgence of scholarship on noninterventionism, and a complete annotated bibliography takes up a small monograph. In addition, historians have offered various explanations for this phenomenon, all of which interpretations have their limitations. Some argued that isolationism was rooted in such ethnic groups as German and Irish-Americans, although the great majority of isolationists came from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. Others saw isolationism grounded in middle-western Populism, although it was later noted that the Mississippi Valley had long possessed a heritage of overseas expansion and imperialism. Still others asserted that isolationism was a form of ethnocentrism, with an insecure and xenophobic “in-group” projecting its fears and self-hatreds upon all “outsiders.” Driven by an “authoritarian personality,” the isolationists were striking out blindly at a world they never made. Yet such oversimplifying sociological and psychological explanations—as this essay will show—ignore those prominent isolationists very much linked to the major political and economic institutions. Certain researchers find the key lying in Republican political partisanship, but in the process neglect the large numbers of Democrats opposed to foreign commitments. Similarly, explanations based on small-town and agrarian roots can neglect those urban masses who felt similarly.
A Shared Ideology
Obviously all such comprehensive efforts at explanation are incomplete. This essay will repeatedly stress the complex variety of the noninterventionist leaders. What isolationists shared was neither a common region nor a common political party but a common stance, that is, a common posture towards the world. To explain this stance, and the varied reasonings behind it during World War II and Cold War debates, is the subject of this essay. We know that isolationism contains quite diverse elements, and that these attitudes could be shared by anarchists, mainline Republicans, Socialists, New Dealers, and progressives. Pacifists were another group allied to isolationists on many issues, and, in the crucial years 1939–1941, both Stalinists and Trotskyists were in their ranks.
This essay concentrates upon those isolationists who feared that international commitments would end the American economic system as they knew it. War, so they believed, would inevitably bring into its wake a prohibitive national debt, massive labor monopolies, conscription of manpower and wealth, runaway inflation, unworkable price and wage controls—in short, a militarized society and a corporatist state. Not only would free enterprise, as such isolationists defined it, be destroyed beyond repair. The social order itself would break down. As the renowned aviator Charles A. Lindbergh commented, “God knows what will happen here before we finish it [World War II]—race riots, revolution, destruction.” In many ways, this brand of isolationism embodied the mainstream of the movement, since it dominated the Congress, was articulated in leading newspapers, and possessed the greatest numerical strength. It should be noted, however, that individuals of a very different domestic vision also held to an anti-interventionist stance, and some of these people too—such as Socialist leader Norman Thomas—will be considered.
The first part of this essay is expository. It identifies certain leading anti-interventionists, presents material on their background, reveals the nature of their anxieties concerning war, and often shows their alternatives to foreign conflict. In short, I seek here to place the views of such isolationists in the context of their own time and thereby hope to reveal both their dreams and their fears. The second part of this essay is more problem-oriented, and it notes certain areas and topics that can aid the researcher.
I.: Some Leading Figures
Robert A. Taft: Mr. Republican
Probably the most famous anti-interventionist, and a man whose name became synonymous with the movement, was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio (1889–1953). Thanks to a host of studies, including James T. Patterson’s definitive Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (1972), we can transcend old stereotypes. For a while, every historian, in a sense, possessed his own Taft, with Russell Kirk and James McClellan stressing the Ohio senator’s opposition to communist expansion and Henry W. Berger emphasizing Taft’s anti-imperialism. In all the newer works, however, Taft is no longer shown as the eternal curmudgeon, the Dagwood Bumstead of politics, or as one reporter quipped, the grapefruit with eyeglasses. He is portrayed as a man of extraordinary intelligence, quickness in debate, immediate recall of facts, and—for those who knew him best—genuine charm. Kirk and McClellan go so far as to claim that in a parliamentary system, Taft would undoubtedly have been prime minister.
To best understand Robert A. Taft one should look at the similarities to his father William Howard Taft, (1857–1930), a man who was both president of the United States (1909–1913) and chief justice of the United States (1921–1930). Both men attempted to curb trade union power, sought scientifically-designed tariffs, and backed the Sherman Antitrust Act. “The small businessman is the key to progress in the United States,” Robert wrote a friend in 1939. Criticizing eastern monopolists and Wall Street speculators, both found mere money-making contemptible. Both were party regulars, being ill at ease with insurgent movements. Both interpreted the Constitution strictly, seeing it as bestowing limited powers upon the government. Though they both sanctioned federal action to aid lower-income groups, this action was of a decidedly limited nature.
The two Tafts extended their trust in law to foreign policy, affirming that international law could resolve disputes among nations. Particularly needed was a world court and a clear definition of aggression; only judicial tribunals, not force or bargaining, could maintain a genuine international order. (For the most succinct statement of Robert A. Taft’s domestic philosophy, see his debates of 1939 with congressman T.V. Smith.)
Taft and the Interwar Years
At first, Robert A. Taft hoped that his nation could stay out of World War I. When, however, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, Taft approved the severing of diplomatic relations. He was appalled by the diplomatic intrigue he witnessed at the Versailles Conference, which he attended as a key member of Herbert Hoover’s Supreme Economic Council. Later he blamed the Great Depression almost exclusively upon foreigners being unable to pay their war loans. During the intervention controversy that began in 1939, Taft stressed defense of the United States and the Caribbean and asserted that air power could deter any attack. Once peace was restored, so he claimed, that the United States could trade again with both Germany and Japan. And if the war cost America European markets, it could get them elsewhere. Besides, he added, with foreign trade only producing five per cent of the nation’s income, it could well survive without it. Even during World War II, Taft claimed that military alliances led to world empire. He commented in 1943, “Our fingers will be in every pie…. Potential power over other nations, however benevolent its purpose, leads inevitably to imperialism.” Within a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Taft critized that action.
Taft and Early Cold War Intervention
During the Cold War, Taft discerned that the Truman Doctrine (1947)—pleading armed support to “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”—was a particularly irrational form of anticommunism. In 1949 he found the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization both provocative and self-defeating. When, in 1953, the first rumbling concerning intervention in Indochina began, Taft opposed any American involvement.
Taft wrote only one book, A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951), but it was one that summarized his views on the Cold War. Much of the text involved a weaving together of past speeches. On the one hand, the senator reiterated such familiar themes as the importance of containing Russia, the ideological nature of the Cold War, and the need to promote liberation movements behind the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, Taft stressed that the ultimate purpose of the nation’s foreign policy was first to protect the liberty of Americans, and second to maintain the peace. The United States had no primary interest in improving conditions elsewhere. Nor did it have any in changing other forms of government. To impose any special kind of freedom upon peoples by war, he said, denies “those very democratic principles we want to advance.” Americans, he continued, “cannot send armies to block a Communist advance in every corner of the world.” Hence the country must weigh its priorities carefully. Extensive financial burdens, even if rooted in major defense commitments, could only break the nation’s traditional fiscal and economic structure, doing so by destroying the ability of the individual American to produce. The United States could not continually be prepared for full-scale war without suffering dictatorship, runaway inflation (which Taft defined as ten per cent each year), and constant domestic turmoil. Rather than talk, as did publisher Henry R. Luce, in terms of an “American Century,” the United States should confine its activities to moral leadership, and in particular, manifest the values of liberty, law, and justice.
Patterson: A Balanced Biographer of Taft
Patterson’s biography of Taft is no blanket eulogy. The author faults Taft for rabid anti-communism, endorsement of McCarthyism, and for his support both of Chiang Kai-shek’s inept Formosan regime and of Douglas MacArthur’s risky strategy in Korea. Furthermore, Taft underestimated German power in 1941, opposed the Marshall Plan, and adhered to an “air umbrella” over Europe. Yet what strikes the reader is how often Patterson shows his respect for the Ohio senator. Patterson indicates that Taft deserved a far better reputation from his peers, and from contemporary historians as well. Taft showed courage in continually taking unpopular stands: he challenged presidential warmaking power, opposed the wartime sedition trials (“a lonely voice for justice”), and recognized that the Nuremberg tribunal to try Nazi war criminals was “victor’s justice.” In his claims that NATO was hardly a credible deterrent and that the Soviets posed no military threat in 1949, Taft showed genuine perception. Patterson even suggests that Taft’s defense strategy in 1941 was not without wisdom. Once Hitler invaded Russia, England could well have survived without American intervention.
Herbert Hoover: Our Unknown Ex-president
If Robert A. Taft had any political mentor, it was undoubtedly Herbert Hoover (1874–1964). From the time that Taft served on Hoover’s Food Administration in World War I, he was extremely close to the Great Engineer. Taft backed Hoover three times for the presidency and often drew upon his advice in fighting the New Deal. Taft stressed regional defense agreements, gave priority to underlying territorial and economic rivalries, and wanted any world organization to rest upon law, not force. In all these policies, Taft was advancing views originally fostered by Hoover.
As far as Hoover himself goes, few presidents were in such disrepute among intellectuals, as the thirty-first president (1929–1933), and for few presidents has the rehabilitation been so slow. For several decades, many historians have written as they have voted. As a result, Hoover has been presented as a dour incompetent, a man so victimized by his rigid ideology that his effort to end the Great Depression could not even be called stopgap measures. Fortunately, we now have two works  that cut through conventional stereotypes: Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975) and David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979). Wilson’s biography in particular offers strong praise. Indeed, she goes so far as to claim that “no other twentieth-century American statesman has had his range of interest and breadth of understanding of domestic and foreign economic problems.” Wilson finds Hoover wisely calling upon his nation to “abandon the role of self-appointed policeman for the world.” Hoover’s policies, she writes, did not center on “unlimited suppression of revolution based on communist ideology, but rather on disarmament and peaceful coexistence.”
In her rich account, Wilson offers many correctives to our traditional picture of insensitive and narrow leadership. She notes that Hoover opposed the Red Scare and military intervention in the Russian Civil War. As far back as 1919, Hoover predicted that American military intervention could not stabilize nations suffering from economic strain, much less protect them from communism. Hoover favored United States entry into the League of Nations, but he wanted some reservation on Article X of the League Covenant, an article that had appeared to guarantee the use of force to maintain the status quo. Emphasis, he said, should be on marshalling public opinion, then upon levying of moral and economic sanctions upon aggressor states. At no point should the United States take part in an armed alliance to preserve the rigid territorial boundaries established by the Versailles Treaty. As president, he remained aloof from the Machado regime in Cuba and backed the World Court, the Kellogg Pact, and various disarmament proposals. As Wilson continues her description of Hoover’s anti-interventionism, she notes that as president, Hoover opposed challenging the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931), for he found few American interests at stake in that region.
Hoover: The Post-presidential Years
Wilson devotes much attention to Hoover’s post-presidential foreign policy. Hoover saw little merit in the neutrality acts of the 1930s, finding them lacking a needed flexibility. He criticized diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, and after Russia invaded Finland late in 1939, he wanted the United States to withdraw its ambassador. America, he said late in 1938, should limit its aims to repelling aggression in its own hemisphere, and a year later he called for an international economic conference to restore global prosperity. In 1940, he headed the National Committee on Food for the Small Democracies, which advanced a plan to feed occupied Europe that was fought by the Roosevelt administration. He attacked any strident stance towards Japan, claiming that it was impregnable in China. Within several years, he was promoting Pearl Harbor revisionism, and he suggested witnesses and provided documents to the congressional investigating committee. After the war, Hoover made several relief trips at the request of President Truman, sought modification of the Marshall Plan, and called for the rehabilitation of Germany and Japan.
Wilson is at her strongest when she relates Hoover’s anti-interventionism to his domestic vision. She notes Hoover’s dream of a decentralized corporatist society, one that involved an informal and delicate balance between labor, business, agriculture, and government. Such a society, the Quaker president believed, would lack oppressive concentrations of power, eliminate waste, and democratize capitalism. The chief, as his proteges called him, sought the same type of informal and cooperative economic relationship overseas, for he believed that no genuine world community could ever be created by force. Wilson warns against exaggerating the Quaker influence on Hoover’s thought, and she stresses that Hoover was not a pacifist. Yet Hoover had a predisposition to peaceful settlement of all international disputes, as he maintained that military action usually created more problems than it solved. No genuine world community, either economic or military, could ever be created by force.
Burner: Hoover’s Isolationism in Context
Four years after Wilson contributed her study, Burner’s life was published. Less presentist in its approach, the book puts Hoover’s isolationist reputation in a broader context. In 1912, Hoover wanted an Anglo-American alliance. By the time of the Lusitania incident of 1915, he despised Imperial Germany and found war inevitable. Had the United States not entered the conflict, Hoover said in 1919, German autocracy would have smothered Europe. He ardently believed that the League of Nations could remedy the wrongs of Europe, perhaps even more so than did Woodrow Wilson. At the Peace Conference, Hoover was so important that all Americans who sought to communicate with European leaders had to do so through him. Europeans too had to defer, and it was Hoover who forced pianist Ignace Paderewski upon Poland as premier.
In discussing Hoover’s foreign policy, Burner challenges many myths. It is true that, at Versailles, Hoover used food as a political weapon, but it was utilized far more against Archduke Joseph of Hungary than against Bela Kun or V.I. Lenin. Hoover, in fact, sought to raise the food blockade on Russia, although like George F. Kennan a generation later, he believed that the Soviet Union contained the seeds of its own decay. In 1921, he directed Russian relief, and did so not to unload American surpluses, but out of a genuine sense of compassion. He opposed much dollar diplomacy and always hoped to limit United States exports to ten per cent of the Gross National Product.
If both Wilson and Burner present invaluable information, there is at times a lack of subtlety that hopefully George H. Nash, now writing a multivolume life of Hoover, will supply. Hoover, for example, informally backed the American First Committee, endorsed MacArthur’s victory schemes in the Korean War, and pushed a highly dubious air-sea strategy during the Great Debate of 1950, facts that no biographer has brought out.
The Prolific Mr. Hoover
Hoover can best be understood through his own works. After leaving the presidency, Hoover wrote several books. In The Challenge to Liberty (1934), Hoover attacked the New Deal, finding it based upon the “old, very, very old, idea that the good of men arises from the direction of centralized executive power, whether it be exercised through bureaucracies, mild dictatorship or despotism, monarchies or autocracies.” Liberty, on the other hand, guaranteed that men “were not the pawns but the masters of the state.” His America’s First Crusade (1942) criticized the Versailles conference, but The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (1958) defended much diplomacy of the former president, doing so to such a degree that Hoover showed himself to be a strong Wilsonian. The Problems of Lasting Peace (1942), written with diplomat Hugh Gibson, included his plans for a postwar world, plans that involved disarmament of all belligerents, a ban on military alliances, protection of oppressed minorities and small states, regional organization, and elimination of trade barriers. Given such goals, it is hardly surprising that Hoover was so critical of the Dumbarton Oaks plan for organizing the United Nations, and his critique was presented in his The Basis of Lasting Peace (1945). His memoirs, published in three volumes, looked at his career from the vantage point of the 1950s. They are inaccurate on significant aspects of his life and should be used with care.
In addition to his books, post-presidential speeches and articles have been published under the titleAddresses upon the American Road, and in some ways they are the best source of Hoover’s thinking. In the volume for 1940–1941, for example, Hoover downplayed anxieties concerning the Axis economic threat. The United States, he said on June 29, 1941, was 93 percent self-sufficient. “And the cost of it,” he said, “would be less over twenty years than one year of war.” In another volume of hisAddresses, Hoover warned against Cold War commitments. In 1952, he claimed that the continual diversion of civilian production to war materials created scarcity in civilian goods while expanding paper money. Eventually the wealth of the United States would be socialized: “we may be permitted to hold the paper title to property, while bureaucracy spends our income.”
The Lindberghs: Victims of Stereotype
For many Americans, non-interventionism was symbolized less by Taft and Hoover than by Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. (1902–1974). The only isolationist leader whose wide-ranging appeal could match that of President Roosevelt, Lindbergh entered the controversy in 1939, when he began opposing aid to the allies. He remained active until Pearl Harbor, at which point he withdrew from all political activity. There was no major anti-interventionist figure so controversial, for Lindbergh’s enemies often branded him as pro-Nazi, anti-British, anti-Semitic, and an advocate of an immoral realpolitik.
His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, also received abuse, with the argument given in her The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith (1940) misinterpreted as an apology for fascism. In this book, she stressed that the United States must face the new world of dictatorships not by promoting a destructive war, but by fostering domestic reform. Contrary to myth, she did not claim that the wave of the future was totalitarianism; rather it was a scientific, mechanized, and material era of civilization.
In 1948, in a small book entitled Of Flight and Life (1948), Charles expanded upon this theme. He called for a renunciation of scientific materialism and a return to “the forgotten virtues” of simplicity, humility, contemplation, and prayer. Lindbergh was critical of the newly formed United Nations, warning against sheer majoritarianism, particularly as he believed that leadership would pass to the great masses of Asia. No longer the strict isolationist of prewar days, he found the Soviet Union a greater menace than Nazi Germany. Indeed he saw behind the Iron Curtain an unprecedented oppression. Yet, although Lindbergh perceived the fate of Western civilization now lying on American shoulders, he called upon the nation to serve primarily as a model for others. If the United States succeeds, he continued, it would be less by forcing its system of democracy upon others than by setting an example others wished to follow, less by using arms than by avoiding their use, less by pointing out the mote in another’s eye than by removing the beam in its own.
New Works on the Lindberghs
Only within the past decade do we have significant primary sources presenting Charles A. Lindbergh’s own perspective. In addition, one leading historian, Wayne S. Cole, has written a masterful study,Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II (1974). Cole begins by noting that Lindbergh did not share the agrarian radicalism of his father, Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1859–1924), a populistminded Minnesota congressman vocal in his opposition to World War I. Nor did he possess the same hostility towards “the money trust” and in fact married the daughter of a Morgan partner, Dwight W. Morrow. Cole then moves quickly to Lindbergh’s several trips to Germany, made in the later 1930s. At this time the aviator, then a colonel in the United States Air Corps Reserve, repeatedly compared German air strength to British and French weakness.
Although it has long been noted that Lindbergh feared any conflict that would result in the spread of communism, an anxiety that led him to endorse the Munich agreement, other facts have been far less publicized. Cole points out that Lindbergh made his trips to Germany at the request of the United States military attache in Berlin, Colonel Truman Smith, and that these trips greatly enhanced Washington’s knowledge of Germany’s war potential. Lindbergh genuinely disliked Nazi fanaticism and cancelled plans to spend a winter in Berlin so as not to appear to endorse persecution of the Jews. He urged the Western powers to accelerate military preparations and even promoted the French purchase of German airplane engines. Cole notes Lindbergh’s acceptance of the Order of the German Eagle, bestowed upon him by Hermann Goering at a dinner arranged by the American ambassador Hugh R. Wilson. To have refused the award—says Cole—would have embarrassed Wilson, offended Goering, and worsened German-American relations at a time when closer ties seemed possible.
The biographer calls Lindbergh’s willingness to speak out against American intervention an act of rare courage, particularly in light of the colonel’s penchant for privacy. Administration efforts to purchase Lindbergh’s silence with the post of secretary for air failed. Cole finds that despite the surprising effectiveness of Royal Air Force fighters in the Battle of Britain, Lindbergh’s evaluation of German power possessed much validity. Hitler’s attack on Russia might well have kept his more gloomy estimates concerning American casualties (one million men, the colonel estimated) from being fulfilled.
The last section of Cole’s book notes Lindbergh’s anxieties over impending war with Japan, the significance of his frequently attacked Des Moines speech, his continual fears of a Europe dominated by Russia, and his role as a civilian test pilot in the Pacific under combat conditions. At the end of his account, Cole raises a series of general issues concerning American intervention. As these questions range from the wisdom of the Versailles conference to that of lend-lease, one finds that—for Professor Cole at least—issues raised by Lindbergh still cannot be taken lightly.
Inside Mrs. Lindbergh’s Diaries
In one volume of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s published diaries, The Flower and the Nettle (1976), Mrs. Lindbergh elaborates certain points made by Cole, among them the hope of Ambassador Hugh Wilson to rescue German Jews, her own constant fear of Soviet expansion, and her opposition to Nazi persecutions. Her diary entry for August 18, 1938 reads: “The Nuremberg Madonnas in Nuremberg look down on a lot of un-Christian things.” In War Within and Without (1980), she challenges the stereotypes associated with her phrase “the wave of the future.” Seeing how the term was misinterpreted, she wrote, “Will I have to bear this lie throughout life?” Far from being an Axis apologist, she called Hitler “that terrible scourage of humanity” and continually expressed horror over German atrocities. At one point, she said that she would rather have the United States enter the war than to see a wave of anti-Semitism sweep the nation.
William E. Borah: Senatorial Powerhouse
If the rise of the Lindberghs to prominence in the anti-interventionist movement was meteoric and transient, the public career of Idaho5 Senator William E. Borah (1865–1940) lasted over thirty years. Now, four decades after Borah’s death, few remember that in the 1920s, he was one of the most powerful of Americans. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1924–1933), he could exert more influence than the secretary of state. To liberals, he appeared living proof that the Republican party embodied more than the forces of vested privilege. To intellectuals, he appeared as a voice of conscience in a political world governed by expediency. He was also considered the most outstanding speaker the Congress possessed, being as adroit in argument as he was courteous in manner. No one in fact could get the ear of the nation better than he.
Conventional stereotypes feature Borah as a mindless obstructionist or “the great opposer.” Often quoted is Calvin Coolidge’s expression of surprise, on seeing the senator horseback riding in Rock Creek Park, that Borah and the horse were going in the same direction. Yet we now have a series of studies that present a far more complex man, and a man whose foreign policy was in some ways ahead of his time. Claudius O. Johnson’s Borah of Idaho (1936) tends to portray things from Borah’s own standpoint, but is still valuable. Marian C. McKenna’s Borah (1961) is stronger on his last ten years, although it needs to be supplemented by Robert James Maddox’s William E. Borah and American Foreign Policy (1969). It is still, however, the favorable comments of the prominent revisionist historian William Appleman Williams that have done the most to create a more favorable reception.
Borah began his career as a vigorous expansionist, and he backed American participation in the Spanish-American War, annexation of the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, a tough posture towards Mexico in 1915 and 1916, and entry into World War I. The First World War jarred him into challenging his imperialistic assumptions, and after it ended Borah was an “irreconcilable” who adamantly opposed American participation in the League of Nations. Borah called for the convening of the Washington naval conference of 1921–1922, but he did not expect to see it work. Once it assembled, he denounced it as a conspiracy to divide the spoils of China and entrench an aggressive Japan on the Asian mainland. He was a major supporter of the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), but at first only with reluctance and only when he was assured there would be no provisions for enforcement. He fought American entry into the World Court and collective security measures of the 1930s with the same passion that he exhibited in fighting banking and railroad “interests” in his native Idaho.
How to Understand Borah
To understand Borah, however, one must note his continual faith in international law. Borah’s endorsement of Wilson’s declaration of war was not rooted in any desire to “make the world safe for democracy,” but to protect American neutral rights. During World War I, he opposed conscription, the Espionage Act of 1917, and the raids of the Department of Justice. The League of Nations, he believed, would commit the United States to a status quo that was both unjust and impossible to preserve. The nation would be obligated to oppose colonial independence movements; in addition, it would have to impose peacetime conscription and build the largest navy in the world. (Personally Wilson bore him no animus and had favored his reelection in 1918; Borah too held Wilson in great esteem, seeing him as a misguided idealist). In the 1930s, under the influence of Yale law professor Edwin M. Borchard, Borah denounced the neutrality acts. Not only did they cravenly surrender America’s neutral rights; the nation’s sagging economy needed all the non-military trade it could get.
In a sense, Borah was far from being the isolationist of stereotype. McKenna writes, “The question with him was not withdrawal from world affairs, but when and where and how much to use the country’s influence.” Borah did not think that the United States could remain isolated from the mainstream of world commerce. Nor did he think it would become self-sufficient economically or possess impregnable strength. The question never centered on complete detachment, but on his continual refusal to make any commitments that would compromise the nation’s freedom of action. Little wonder that Borah favored easing the pressure on war debts and reparations, continually pushed for international economic conferences, sought independence for China, and opposed American action in such Latin American nations as Nicaragua. With Hiram Johnson, whom he wanted for president in 1920, he opposed America’s Siberian intervention and was a leader in the movement to recognize the Soviet Union. One cannot, he always maintained, outlaw 140 million people and expect peace in Europe. Furthermore, Russia could supply a valuable market and check the growing power of Germany and Japan.
In the years before his death in 1940, Borah opposed Nazi persecution of the Jews, backed Roosevelt on the Ethiopian issue and the Quarantine speech, and accused the French of betraying the Czechs at Munich. Although always a critic of Japanese expansion, he feared war on Japan. Once the European war broke out, he opposed cash-and-carry. He suspected that once face-saving gestures were made with Poland, the allies would end what was basically an imperialist war by negotiating a peace with Hitler. His phrase, “the phony war,” was widely used.
In many ways, Borah was one of the “old progressives” so ably described in Otis L. Graham, Jr.’s bookAn Encore to Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (1967). His domestic policies in some ways had quite a different thrust than either Hoover or Taft, though all were suspicious of Wall Street bankers. Borah favored free silver, prohibition, and oldage pensions. In 1937, a year after seeking the presidency, he wanted federal licensing of all interstate corporations. Accompanying requirements included profit sharing and the outlawing of child labor and wage discrimination against women. He found Franklin D. Roosevelt a genuine liberal and was undoubtedly more friendly to him than to any president since Theodore Roosevelt. He supported such New Deal measures as social security while opposing the corporatism he saw in the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Ever the defender of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Borah believed strongly in free market competition and widely-distributed private property. In fact, he was suspicious of all concentrations of power, be they political or economic. An anti-interventionist foreign policy, so he reasoned, would obviously protect these values. The greatest service America could perform in the world was to preserve its private property institutions in full vigor. Engagements overseas would only compromise the nation’s mission.
Hiram Johnson: California Absolutist
Of all the leading anti-interventionists in the Congress, California Senator Hiram Johnson (1866–1945) was the most absolutist. Unfortunately, we have no published biography, and our material on him is limited to articles and doctoral theses. In 1912, during his term as governor of California, Johnson was Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate on the Bull Moose party ticket. Elected to the Senate in 1917, Johnson supported American entry into World War I, but he was soon vocal in opposing violations of civil liberties and government censorship. The war, he maintained, destroyed the very reform sentiment he had helped to build. He saw the League as a new repressive Holy Alliance, and he pointed to America’s Siberian military venture as exactly the kind of destructive commitment such League affiliation would foster. Although he had little sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution, he found it the inevitable result of popular dissatisfaction. It could not, he claimed, be subdued by force of arms, for no status quo could be frozen forever. To Johnson, open diplomacy would free statesmen from the tentacles of J.P. Morgan and British imperialists, indeed, just as the initiative, referendum, and recall would end the hold of railroad interests on government at home.
During the twenties and thirties, Johnson opposed all American commitments, ranging from the Dawes Plan (1924) to the Washington conference that produced the Nine Power Pact. At the same time, he sought increased naval building, and he must have realized that only such armament could enforce the commercial rights that he insisted upon. He reached the height of his power with the Johnson Act of 1934, which prohibited private loans to all governments that were defaulting on their debts. President Roosevelt, whom he had backed in 1932, thought enough of him to offer him the post of secretary of the interior (Johnson declined), but after 1936 the two split over Supreme Court packing, sitdown strikes, and, above all, foreign policy. His opposition to American entry into World War II was rooted in bitter memories of the previous crusade: violations of civil liberties, abuse of executive power, prohibitive government spending, and a high toll in American lives. An isolationist until the day he died, Johnson opposed United States membership in the newly-formed United Nations.
Gerald P. Nye: Munitions Investigator
Probably the most publicized anti-interventionist of the 1930s was Senator Gerald P. Nye (1892–1971), the leader of the Senate munitions inquiry of 1934–1936, and a legislator far more willing than Johnson to forego America’s commercial rights. Wayne S. Cole’s biography places the North Dakota Republican senator (1925–1945) in the context of agrarian protest. Speaking for a region that included Chicago manufacturing as well as Oklahoma dirt farmers, Nye believed that urban financial and industrial powers were bleeding the agrarian sector in order to finance ruinous wars. Like many anti-interventionists of the 1930s, Nye had earlier supported President Wilson’s domestic program, American entry into World War I, and the League of Nations. Strongly critical of big business, and Wall Street in particular, he fought with President Hoover and was often friendly to the New Deal.
However, by 1938, when he was at the height of his career, Nye was becoming more fearful of Franklin D. Roosevelt than he was of J.P. Morgan; the president, he suspected, was becoming too pro-labor, creating an artificial agricultural scarcity, seeking reciprocal trade agreements that involved foreign competition of American farm products, and—most important of all—desiring to cripple neutrality legislation in order to punish “aggressors.” With the relative decline of the family farm, Cole finds it surprising that Nye’s populist brand of isolationism remained so strong during the thirties.
The Nye Committee, which during 1934–1936 investigated the role played by U.S. businessmen in America’s entry into the First World War, has itself undergone some revisionism. John E. Wiltz’s In Search of Peace: The Senate Munitions Inquiry, 1934–1936 (1963) finds far more to the committee than simplistic denunciations of Woodrow Wilson and the Du Ponts. The committee made a strong contribution in promoting honesty and efficiency in munitions control, thereby aiding the mobilization efforts of World War II.
Arthur H. Vandenberg: Party Leader
If the Senate Republicans had a leader in the late 1930s and early 1940s, it was Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan (1884–1951), who himself served on the Nye Committee. Vandenberg’s later role in advancing bipartisan foreign policy should not belie his earlier strong opposition to American intervention. In fact, after Borah’s death early in 1940, Vandenberg headed the Republican isolationists. His voting was more anti-interventionist than Taft, for Taft supported cash-and-carry in 1939. It was Vandenberg, not Taft, who was a strong presidential choice of Borah in 1936 and 1940, Hoover in 1936 and 1940, Nye in 1940, and John T. Flynn in 1940. True, Vandenberg had more than his share of pomposity, and a critic noted that he was the only senator who could strut sitting down. But he came across to admirers as a beloved and thoughtful figure, a “reasonable” man whose criticism of New Deal leadership was all the more effective because he was selective in his targets.
Fortunately we have two excellent books on the senator: C. David Tompkins, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg: The Evolution of a Modern Republican, 1884–1945 (1970) and Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr. and Joe Alex Morris, eds., The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg (1952). As editor of theGrand Rapids Herald, Vandenberg had endorsed American possession of the Philippines, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and the Open Door policy. During World War I, he made eight hundred speeches for Liberty Loans while branding all isolationists and pacifists as traitors. Once the war was over, he insisted upon American entry into the League of Nations and endorsed Attorney General Palmer’s “Red Scare” raids. Elected senator in 1928, he was one of the few in Congress who worked closely with President Hoover. Yet Vandenberg only turned against Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Second New Deal, when he saw the president abandoning his stress upon national recovery in order to move in the direction of overt relief measures to special interest groups. In particular, the Wagner Act, wages and hours laws, an increasing federal bureaucracy, deficit spending, and Roosevelt’s battle against the Supreme Court aroused his ire.
Vandenberg: The Model of the Old Progressive
In a sense, Vandenberg is almost a classic example of the old-progressive-become-New Deal-critic, and he meets Otis L. Graham, Jr.’s model of a reform journalist and small city Republican progressive who sees Roosevelt creating a destructive broker state. As Tompkins notes, Vandenberg “firmly believed that America was an open society of unlimited opportunity in which each person had an equal chance for wealth and social status.” One cannot, Vandenberg said, “lift the lower one-third” up by pulling “the upper two-thirds down.”
Vandenberg’s service on the Nye Committee turned him into a strong isolationist. True, he dissented from the committee’s recommendation that armament factories be nationalized. But he now claimed that entry into World War I had been such a tragic error that the United States should sacrifice all trade with belligerents. War, he said in 1939, would result in the complete regimentation of American life, the imposition of a dictatorship, ruinous deficit spending, and more radical domestic change. He opposed an anti-Japanese policy since the days of the Mukden incident, acting in the belief that no American interests in the Far East were worth a war. In proposing in July 1939 to abrogate the 1911 commercial treaty with Japan, Vandenberg was not seeking confrontation. Rather he wanted a new agreement based upon détente. A careful reading of Vandenberg’s Private Papers (1952) reveals his continued critique of Roosevelt’s pre-Pearl Harbor diplomacy with Japan, his endorsement of General Douglas MacArthur for president in 1944, and his efforts to preserve congressional war-making powers. In fact, one could well argue that as the United States entered the Cold War years, Vandenberg was no penitent isolationist at all. He remained an ardent nationalist who found himself suddenly involved in a world arena.
The La Follette Brothers: Idealism or Toughness?
If there was ever an apostolic succession between older and younger progressives, it was found in the sons of Senator Robert M. La Follette (1855–1925), one of the major opponents of American participation in World War I. As a Wisconsin senator (1906–1925), “Battling Bob” combined the idealism of an ardent reformer with the toughness of an old-time political boss. One son, Robert, Jr. (1895–1953), embodied the father’s idealism, another son, Philip (1897–1965), the father’s toughness. As Patrick J. Maney notes in his biography of “Young Bob,” the short, diffident, personable reformer entered the Senate in 1925 upon his father’s death. Like “Old Bob,” Robert possessed a critical intelligence and a studious mind; unlike “Old Bob,” he avoided barbed polemics. A strong defender of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he endorsed for three terms, “Young Bob” could be more radical than the New Deal.
War, Robert believed, was caused by imperialism and power politics, and no peace that perpetuated an unjust status quo, or that violated principles of self-determination, could last. Maney stresses La Follette’s bitterness concerning World War I—a “mad adventure,” La Follette called it. The man who saw his father burned in effigy on the University of Wisconsin campus predicted that if the United States ever again became involved in conflict, “tolerance will die. Hate will be mobilized by the Government itself. Neighbor will be set up to spy upon neighbor; bigotry will stalk the land; labor, industry, agriculture, and finance will be regimented, if not taken over, by the Central Government.” During the thirties, he backed the neutrality acts while calling for a war referendum and heavy taxation on war profits. In President Wilson’s time, his father had stressed the evils of bankers and munitions makers; twenty years later, “Young Bob” maintained that it was the weakening of the reform impulse that was causing Roosevelt to intervene abroad.
Although we still need a biography of Wisconsin’s Governor Philip La Follette, we do have some autobiographical fragments. Here Philip attempts to justify his short-lived third party movement, initiated in 1938, on the grounds that the New Deal was creating artificial scarcity: “The essential difference between the New and Fair deals and middle western progressivism was progressive determination to make America’s great productive power available to all our people instead of killing pigs and plowing under cotton.” He noted that in 1917, his father had predicted “one of the worst economic collapses in history,” followed by another war. Yet, despite such occasional remarks, far more is needed on a most provocative career.
Colonel Robert R. McCormick: Chicago Publisher
Colonel Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955) might have had little in common with the La Follettes, but he was one of the most colorful opponents of overseas alliances. As publisher of the Chicago Tribune,he built his newspaper into the most widely circulated standard sized paper of his day, a period that lasted from 1910 until his death in 1955. McCormick was in his prime during the 1930s. At the very time that the empire of William Randolph Hearst was in decline, McCormick was emerging as the largest practitioner of personal journalism.
Although long considered anti-British, the colonel physically resembled nothing so much as a tall, handsome British gentleman, an image which he enhanced by engaging in polo, shooting, and riding to hounds, and speaking with a slight English accent. In fact, McCormick was educated at a British preparatory school named Ludgrove, and then attended Groton and Yale. Assuming control of theChicago Tribune in 1910, the Bull Mooser and Chicago alderman soon turned the editorial page into a forum for his personal crusades. He attacked the greater part of New Deal legislation, but made an exception for the Securities and Exchange Commission, which he saw as a vehicle to police a predatory Wall Street.
Among interventionists, McCormick met with much hostility and ridicule. Critics pointed to his impassioned invective, as when he called President Hoover “the greatest state socialist in the world” or compared Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture, to Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler. They noted his claim that Rhodes scholars were little better than Benedict Arnold, his headline of 1948 (DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN), and his suggestion that the British Commonwealth nations join the American Union as additional states. When he boasted of being a great military strategist (“You do not know it, but the fact is that I introduced the R.O.T.C. into the schools; that I introduced machine guns into the army; that I introduced mechanization; that I introduced automatic rifles; that I…), a pundit replied that on the seventh day he undoubtedly rested. Supporters of the Roosevelt administration accused McCormick of betraying national security, first by publishing a secret army mobilization plan four days before Pearl Harbor and second by divulging the news of the Battle of Midway, and hence revealing that the United States had cracked the Japanese code. He faced severe government harassment, with threats being made to close down his paper and with Tribune phones being tapped.
McCormick: Efforts at Fairness
Only recently have we a fairer picture, and this because of a fresh series of biographies and memoirs. In several ways, they modify the older and more negative portraits. First, they note that—far from being a journalistic simpleton—McCormick was an extremely able newspaperman. He possessed a fine staff of foreign correspondents, pioneered in photography and color, offered superb sports and comic strips, and realized the potential of radio and television. Second, these authors note that the colonel’s isolationism bore no pro-fascist taint. The Tribune pointed with alarm to the rise of Hitler, with correspondent Sigrid Schultz in particular giving accounts of Nazi persecution. Similarly Tribunecorrespondents attacked Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, sided with the Spanish Loyalists, and opposed Japan’s conduct in China. The reporting did little to modify McCormick’s own anti-interventionism, for the Chicago colonel saw some justice in many of Hitler demands and opposed all aid to the British in 1940. However, as Joseph Gies notes, McCormick gave so much space to the rise of the dictators that “no Tribune reader could fail to be concerned about fascist aggression.”
Third, there is far more to McCormick’s foreign policy than mere aloofness. In 1916 he warned—admittedly using foolish logic—of a German invasion. He fought bravely in World War I, and in fact feared that he might have ended up a little too much in love with war. He was offered a commission as brigadier general just before leaving the army. Never harboring pacifist leanings, McCormick long supported extraterritorial rights in China, conscription, and a strong navy, only switching his position when he believed that Roosevelt was leading the nation into a destructive war. To avoid war with Japan, he desired American withdrawal from the Philippines and Guam and termination of China privileges. He defended United States intervention in any Latin American nation that, in his eyes, was incapable of self-rule. Indeed, as Jerome E. Edwards notes, the colonel sought “an active foreign policy from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra Del Fuego.” Though usually a critic of New Deal diplomacy, McCormick did not object to either Roosevelt’s occupation of Iceland or the destroyer-bases deal.
McCormick’s stance was rooted in a fear of state power. As Frank C. Waldrop writes, “The kings did go. The state power did pass through the hands of shoemakers’ apprentices, as the great wind shook the world. But in the end, the state, as such, was still there and stronger than ever. The guard had changed its uniform but not its assignment, a fact which grew to be the frustration of McCormick’s life.” Hence the same man who opposed prohibition said that the president had no right to involve the United States in the Korean War. “Only Congress can do that,” asserted the Tribune, “and Congress has not been consulted.”
John T. Flynn: A Prolific Critic
One of the authors most lauded by McCormick’s Tribune was John T. Flynn (1882–1964), and, among the anti-interventionists, probably no one contributed more books and articles than he. Flynn had become well-known among intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s for his attacks on Wall Street manipulation, and he contributed a weekly column, “Other People’s Money,” to the New Republic. He backed Roosevelt in 1932 and helped staff Judge Ferdinand Pecora’s investigation of high finance. He soon broke with the New Deal, claiming that such depression agencies as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) were simply way stations on the road to fascism. Flynn’s economic thought and suspicion of business monopolies were rooted in the doctrines of Louis D. Brandeis, the major architect of Woodrow Wilson’s economic doctrine of the New Freedom and a believer in “pure” competition.
Thanks to the research of several historians—Richard C. Frey, Jr., Michele Flynn Stenehjem, and Ronald Radosh—we now have a good understanding of Flynn’s isolationism, a position that grew out of his general economic perspective. As one of a three-man advisory council to the Nye Committee, Flynn proposed severe and rigorous limitations on war profits. In 1939, Flynn suspected that Roosevelt would attempt to bolster the nation’s impoverished economy by seeking martial adventures abroad, and in 1940 he headed the New York chapter of the America First Committee. In this capacity, he took a more militant posture than the national organization, opposing draft extension and blaming the president for the breakdown of relations with Japan.
Flynn’s thought in the 1930s can best be found in his columns for the New Republic and the Scripps-Howard press. In addition, he wrote a good many books, some of which were widely circulated.Country Squire in the White House, timed for the 1940 presidential race, accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of becoming “the recognized leader of the war party” in order to “take the minds of our people off the failure to solve our own problems”—problems that included some eleven million unemployed, a mounting public debt, and the paralysis of private investment.
As We Go Marching: Flynn Defines American Fascism
In 1944, Flynn wrote As We Go Marching, in which he claimed that national socialism already existed in the United States. What fascists really seek, he said, was to preserve a degenerate form of capitalism and to alleviate unemployment by turning to deficit spending. At first collaborating with businessmen, the fascists soon dominate them, with this domination becoming increasingly pronounced as the nation became more militaristic and imperialistic. Flynn wrote, “When you can put your finger on the men or the groups that urge for America the debt-supported state, the autarchical corporative state, the state bent on the socialization of investment and the bureaucratic government of industry and society, the establishment of the institution of militarism as the great glamorous public-works project of the nation and the institution of imperialism under which it proposes to regulate and rule the world and, along with this, proposes to alter the forms of our government to approach as closely as possible the unrestrained, absolute government—then you have located the authentic fascist.” One scholar, Richard J. Frey, Jr., finds Flynn’s book “a thoughtful, forceful, well-written book,” and the Socialist weekly New Leader considered it significant enough to have several contributors debate its contents.
In the last twenty years of his life, Flynn portrayed Congress as the one major restraint upon presidential power, offered an impassioned critique of the Roosevelt presidency, and warned against a socialistic America. He also claimed that American bungling and a pro-Soviet State Department had created Communist domination of China and the Korean War. In his effort to find individual villains, Flynn often neglected the wider economic analyses that he had given earlier in his career.
Felix Morley: The Scholar as Anti-Interventionist
A different vantage point came from Felix Morley, undisputed elder statesman of the classic form of American liberalism, or what Morley himself refers to as “libertarianism.” A man of rich experience, Morley has been a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, director of the Geneva office of the League of Nations Association, staff member of the Brookings Institution (which awarded him an earned doctorate), and chief editorial writer of the Washington Post, in which capacity he earned a Pulitzer Prize. During World War II, he was president of Haverford College, and after the war, he helped foundHuman Events, was radio commentator for Three Star Extra, and wrote voluminously for Barron’s andNation’s Business.
In Morley’s autobiography For The Record (1979), he notes that in 1939 he was a moderate interventionist. During that year, Roosevelt himself praised Morley’s editorial pledging the United States to halt fascist aggression. Morley goes so far as to say that Roosevelt, when sending personal messages to Hitler and Mussolini, was acting in part on his editorial. Yet America’s participation in a European war, Morley believed, would lead to confiscation of property, brutalize the populace, centralize power, and thereby alter “the structure of a federal republic constitutionally dedicated to the dispersion, division and localization of power.” He saw “more than a chance that such pressures would undermine the basic institutions of the United States, no matter who won or lost on fields of battle.”
Morley as Cold War Skeptic
Even during the Cold War, Morley has remained suspicious of foreign involvement. “National security,” Morley notes with regret, “was defined in terms that meant the loss of individual freedom.” The strains of total war, he argues, would make the survival of capitalism difficult. Preparing for nuclear conflict with Russia “is close to madness,” while the Vietnam conflict was simply the most recent evidence that communism thrives on war. In Morley’s eyes, the Republicans favor almost unrestrained military expenditures and have swung towards imperialism; the Democrats “demand that every sort of social need be sponsored, liberally financed and supervised from Washington.” Either way, the nation loses its federalist moorings, becoming a centralized and socialized power.
Morley’s books remain the best guide to his views on foreign policy and constitutional government. In his massive volume The Society of Nations (1932), Morley drew upon his own experiences at Geneva first to describe how the League of Nations evolved, then to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. His pamphlet “Humanity Tries Again” (1946) finds the United Nations Charter falling short of the League Covenant. Like his close friends Hoover and Taft, Morley’s plan of world organization centered on regional groups linked together by a common council and secretariat. Japan would remain an Asian leader, while a Western European federation could, he hoped, offset Russian and American power. Hoover endorsed Morley’s proposals, claiming that decentralization would lessen the need for military alliances and therefore “greatly relieve American anxiety lest we be constantly involved in secondary problems all over the earth.”
In the Cold War years, Morley continued his writing. The Power in the People (1949) and Freedom and Federalism (1953) offered his interpretation of the American political tradition. Here he stressed the principles of federalism, decentralized power, states rights, constitutionalism, and antimajoritarianism. His series of lectures delivered at Wesleyan University, entitled The Foreign Policy of the United States(1951), showed his allegiance to the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door policy, both of which he found betrayed by Roosevelt and Truman.
Edwin M. Borchard: Advocate of Traditional Neutrality
Much of the anti-interventionist position stemmed from a belief in traditional concepts of international law, and here the most vocal figure of the 1930s was Edwin M. Borchard (1884–1951), professor at Yale University Law School from 1917 to 1950. A disciple of John Bassett Moore, Borchard considered international law a science. He maintained that before World War I, carefully defined international legislation protected nations from purposeless involvement, permitted commercial prosperity, limited the scope of the fighting, and allowed for neutral mediation. After the war, however, efforts to freeze the status quo and check “aggressors” only insured endless conflict for all. Borchard claimed that the League had degenerated into an armed alliance, while the Kellogg Pact really involved hearty support of war. Rigid Western opposition to Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia, and Germany on the European continent was comparable to sitting on a safety valve.
Despite his own belief in world jurisprudence, however, Borchard often warned against over-reliance upon international courts and law. Nations, he said, would never submit questions of vital interest to any international authority. The underlying roots of national interest were economic, not legal. Industrial nations fought in order to sustain a prosperity based upon foreign markets, raw materials, and investment of surplus capital. To resolve such conflicts, Borchard in 1930 suggested tariff reduction, international coordination of the world’s raw materials, regulation of competition, and organs of “conciliation and appeasement” empowered to remove grievances.
In 1937, he wrote, with the aid of attorney William Potter Lage, a noninterventionist manifesto,Neutrality for the United States (rev. ed., 1940). Here Borchard combined traditional arguments with accusations that President Wilson and his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, made war inevitable, doing so by refusing to press for neutral rights. A supporter of the America First Committee, Borchard continued to oppose United States diplomacy during World War II and the Cold War. He found the United Nations an instrument for great power domination, the Nuremberg trials and the Potsdam agreement acts of vengeance, and the Truman Doctrine a commitment to unlimited intervention.
John Bassett Moore and Philip Jessup:
A Bridge Spanning Generations
Borchard’s intellectual mentor was no longer in his prime when World War II came. Indeed, John Bassett Moore (1860–1947) had long retired from the World Court, where he had served as the first American judge (1921–1928), and from the faculty of Columbia University (1891–1924). Yet, until his death in 1947, Moore strongly opposed the expansion of executive prerogatives and fought what he considered capricious alterations of American neutrality. Never considering himself a genuine isolationist, Moore urged United States participation in a variety of world legal, economic, and cultural organizations. He was, however, as critical of international moralism as he was of imperialism, and he thought that such traditional devices as international association, arbitration, and conciliation could best serve humanity.
One of Moore’s collegues on the Columbia faculty was Philip C. Jessup, and Moore, the senior scholar, exerted an occasional influence on the junior one. Although Jessup is most widely known for his diplomatic work with the United Nations, he was long a strong proponent of traditional international law. In 1939, he defended the arms embargo, declaring that its repeal both violated international law and would lead to war. With Francis Deak, Jessup was coauthor of the first volume of Neutrality: Its History, Economics and Law (1935), entitled The Origins. He also wrote the fourth volume, Today and Tomorrow (1936). In both books, he presented the fundamentals upon which international law and duties had been based. Furthermore, he stressed the factors, particularly economic ones, that contributed to its development.
Joseph P. Kennedy: The Founding Father
The background of businessmen is usually quite different than that of international lawyers, and few businessmen were as prominent as Joseph P. Kennedy (1888–1969). We now have several biographies of the senior Kennedy (1888–1969), including those by Richard J. Whalen, David E. Koskoff, and most recently Michael R. Beschloss. Whalen’s book is the most sympathetic, Koskoff’s the most hostile. Beschloss has the advantage of drawing upon Kennedy’s still unopened papers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston as well as upon a diplomatic manuscript that Kennedy never published. Kennedy was one of the world’s wealthiest men, almost a legendary figure. He made his millions in banking, liquor, films—and Wall Street speculation—and in the process served, in the words of one magazine writer, to be “at once the hero of a Frank Merriwell captain-of-the-nine adventure, a Horatio Alger success story, an E. Phillips Oppenheim tale of intrigue, and a John Dos Passos disillusioning report on the search for the big money.” A major contributor to Roosevelt’s campaigns, he was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“Set a thief to catch a thief,” Roosevelt said), then ambassador to Great Britain.
As ambassador he supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s overtures to Germany, and, from September 1, 1939, to Pearl Harbor day on December 7, 1941, he opposed American entry into the war. The conflict, he believed, would so ruin the centers of world capitalism that communism was bound to spread. Even in England and the United States, the steps necessary for mobilization would necessitate a socialized dictatorship. Kennedy found the Nazi regime reprehensible, but he did not see it as involving basic threats to the social and economic order.
Kennedy was equally opposed to Cold War involvements. In December 1950, he called upon his nation to withdraw from “the freezing hills of Korea” and “the battlescarred plains of Western Germany.” “What business is it of ours,” he asked, “to support the French colonial policy in Indo-China or to achieve Mr. Syngman Rhee’s concepts of democracy in Korea?” Rather than attempt to hold frontiers on the Elbe, the Rhine, or Berlin, the United States, he declared, should build up its own hemispheric defenses.
General Robert E. Wood and America’s Economic Mission
A man somewhat lesser known, but probably held by businessmen in greater respect, was General Robert E. Wood (1879–1969). In an essay written in 1978, I note that Wood—from the time that he earned his bars at West Point—was a strong nationalist. He could boast of a military career that included the Philippine insurrection (1900–1902), the building of the Panama Canal (1905–1915), and the famous Rainbow Division of World War I. Wood, however, fought United States entry into the Second World War, and while chairman of the America First Committee, he argued that intervention would ruin the nation’s capitalist economic system. As board chairman of Sears Roebuck and a director of the United Fruit Company, he claimed that “Our true mission is in North and South America. We stand today in an unrivaled position. With our resources and organizing ability we can develop…a virgin continent like South America. The reorganization and proper development of Mexico alone would afford an outlet for our capital and energies for some time to come.” The products of the tropical belt of Latin America complemented the manufactured goods of the United States. Mexican metals, Venezuelan oil, Brazilian coffee, and Central American bananas were sure to find plenty of buyers in the North. Even in confronting the products of the temperate zone—Brazil’s cotton, for example, or Argentina’s meat—the United States could set up export cartels and get its “full share of the trade.”
Oswald Garrison Villard: Pacifist at War
No coverage of anti-interventionism is complete without reference to prominent pacifists who opposed American involvements, and in this tradition Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949) played a particularly significant role. Thanks to his own autobiography and to a series of biographers, we have able treatments of his career. From 1897 to 1918, Villard was editorial director of the New York Evening Post, a paper that  boasted, with much justice, that its readership was composed of “gentlemen and scholars.” Then in 1918, he became editor of the Nation, and in this capacity he transferred a sedate literary review into a leading political weekly, one that combined crusading tone with the best in English prose. He dropped the editorship in 1933, but remained as publisher for two more years and kept a biweekly column until 1940. Until his death in 1949, he wrote frequently for theProgressive and the Christian Century.
Biographer Michael Wreszin calls Villard “the liberal’s liberal,” and the phrase is most accurate. Grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the Harvard-educated Brahmin Villard was nurtured on the doctrines of Richard Cobden and John Bright, and he found in Grover Cleveland one president whose integrity, so he believed, matched his own. Villard embraced a variety of reform causes—Negro rights, women’s suffrage, low tariffs, and clean government. To Villard, government existed to protect private property and preserve law and order, thereby permitting individuals to pursue their own self-interest in the market place. He said in 1919, “Free trade, no government ownership of ships or railroads, no Socialism, no special privilege, these seem to me the basis for a pretty sound economic policy.” By the time of the Great Depression, he had abandoned his faith in laissez faire. Villard called for nationalization of basic industries as well as for welfare measures. He found the New Deal lacking the “comprehensive far reaching program” he desired, but he really split with Roosevelt over court-packing and foreign policy.
Villard and the Wilsonian Tradition
A pacifist above all, Villard fought against American entry into the war with Spain as well as the two wars with Germany. War itself, he believed as a military affairs commentator, was caused by tariff barriers and spheres of influence; it would invariably destroy the liberalism for which he had long fought. To Villard, the annexation of Puerto Rico and undisclosed Pacific islands betrayed the nation’s heritage of self-determination. He greatly admired the European diplomacy of Woodrow Wilson until the president endorsed the preparedness crusade, at which point Villard’s ready access to the White House was cut off. When war came, Villard’s opposition was so adamant that a journalist jocularly reported that the government was preparing a special concentration camp just for him.
By the end of World War I, congressional committees accused Villard of Bolshevism and treason, in part because of his pleas for civil liberties, in part because of his publication of secret allied treaties. In 1918 the Nation’s mailing privileges were temporarily revoked due to Albert Jay Nock’s critique of the wartime activities of the American Federation of Labor. In a sense, Villard was more Wilsonian than Woodrow Wilson himself, since he called for total and immediate disarmament, free trade, self-determination, and an international court and parliament. He endorsed such radical regimes as Kurt Eisner’s in Bavaria and long believed that if there were no foreign military intervention, Bolshevik Russia would evolve from a society of chaos and violence to one of orderly and democratic socialism. Villard saw the Versailles Treaty as a palpable fraud upon the world and opposed it bitterly. He opened the Nation’s pages to historical revisionism, saw the outlawry of war as an alternative to the League, and pressed support for the Weimar Republic. Once Hitler assumed power, there were few prominent Americans who gave so many warnings, but his pacifism remained strong. In fact, even his insistance upon domestic reform took second place to his desire to curb presidential power in foreign affairs. After World War II, Villard backed the Open Door policy of State Department official Will Clayton and, in a book entitled Free Trade, Free World (1947), wrote that “to free the world we must first free trade.” Ever the maverick, he voted Prohibitionist in 1908 and 1916, Democrat in 1912 and 1928, Progressive in 1924, and Socialist in 1920, 1932, and 1936.
Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist
Of all the prominent Americans of the twentieth century, it was Norman Thomas (1884–1968) who received Villard’s greatest admiration. Thomas is the subject of several biographies, the most comprehensive being W.A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (1976). Thomas began life as a Presbyterian minister. Pastorates in Italian and Jewish Harlem made him a Socialist, while World War I turned him into a pacifist. Even, however, when he joined the Socialist party in 1918, he confessed “a profound fear of the undue exhaltation of the State,” voiced opposition to “any sort of coercion whatever,” and said that a party’s only justification lay in “winning liberty for men and women.”
Although a candidate for many public offices, including the presidency, Thomas’s major work lay in reform. He was never a doctrinaire Marxist, for he rejected both economic determinism and dialectical materialism. Rather he stressed his belief in egalitarianism, doing so in such a way that, as one Socialist quipped, “any Rotarian can understand him.” In a sense, Thomas was an oldtime progressive, downplaying immediate nationalization of basic resources in an effort to tap the support of middle class liberals.
Thomas: From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam
Thomas was always a strong anti-interventionist, and in 1938 he helped organize the Keep America Out of War Congress. Realizing that this group was impoverished, in 1941 he gladly cooperated with the far wealthier America First Committee. Thomas opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; he was furious when the American Civil Liberties Union refused to fight vigorously on their behalf. He favored feeding children living under German occupation, fought anti-Japanese propaganda in the media, found “obliteration” bombing utterly unnecessary, leaned towards the belief that Roosevelt had deliberately goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, and was outraged by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In his later years, Thomas became increasingly anti-Soviet, and favored the Marshall Plan, Atlantic Pact, and American participation in the Korean War. He criticized, however, the Truman Doctrine, fearing that “American intervention in Turkey [will] become more and more imperialistic, more and more tied to the politics of petroleum.” When Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, endorsed the Vietnam conflict, Thomas wrote him, “President Johnson and perhaps the Chamber of Commerce must be glad to know that they can always trust labor when it comes time to policing the world with bombs.”
Other Biographical Projects: Work Done and Work Needed
Given its brevity, this bibliographical essay cannot do justice to the wide and rich range of anti-interventionist spokesmen. On the libertarian right, we have several studies of critic Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) and journalist H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). Although we have autobiographies of economist Frank Chodorov (1887–1966) and essayist Francis Neilson, we need full-scale studies of both.
There is much material on various figures of the collectivist and authoritarian right. Corporatist elitist Lawrence Dennis continues to facinate students, though here again we need a full biography. We have thorough studies of two isolationists associated respectively with pro-German and pro-Italian views-George Sylvester Viereck and Ezra Pound.
One should not neglect a whole host of liberals who opposed intervention. During World War II, some of the most biting essays came from Dwight Macdonald, anarchist editor of Politics (monthly 1944–1947, quarterly 1947–1949), and from Milton Mayer, a pacifist who had a weekly column in the Progressive. While we have plenty of material on Norman Thomas, we still miss studies of other Socialist isolationists. Far more work needs to be done on pacifist leaders. The same holds true for prominent clergy who took a strong antiwar position. The galaxy of intellectuals is surprising to those not familiar with the range of opposition to war. Prominent revisionist historians —Charles A. Beard (1874–1948), Harry Elmer Barnes (1889–1968), Charles Callan Tansill (1896–1964) among them—have also found their biographers.
The world of the press is mixed. We have material on such noninterventionist correspondents and editors as Garet Garrett, William Henry Chamberlin, and Freda Utley. Despite W.A. Swanberg’s breezy account, there is as yet no serious study of William Randolph Hearst. The same holds true for Captain Joseph Patterson and Eleanor Medill (“Cissy”) Patterson, cousins of Colonel McCormick and allied to the Chicago Tribune newspaper empire. Publishers Roy W. Howard and Frank Gannett still await their biographer. Noninterventionist radio broadcasters Boake Carter and Fulton Lewis, Jr. are just now coming under scholarly scrutiny. In George T. Eggleston’s autobiography, the former editor-in-chief of Scribner’s Commentator gives his side of the controversial isolationist digest and his prosecution by the Roosevelt administration. With the memoirs of Henry Regnery, we have a first-hand account of one revisionist publishing effort, but more extensive history is needed.
Work on the Congress is uneven. We have memoirs of such crucial figures as Burton K. Wheeler (1882–1975) and Joe Martin, Jr., but these are surprisingly thin. We also have scholarly treatments of Kenneth Wherry and Arthur Capper. Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973), the Montana pacifist and congresswoman who voted against American entry into both world wars, is the subject of several studies. Much of our material, however, remains in the form of doctoral theses and sketches in theDictionary of American Biography. Similarly, it is only a prominent governor or party leader whose thought is treated to date in any depth.
We do have some biographies devoted to isolationist business and labor leaders, but not nearly enough. Figures such as Henry Ford and John L. Lewis are the subjects of a host of books, but such businessmen as Robert Young of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and Ernest Weir of National Steel are usually neglected, at least so far as their anti-interventionism is concerned. There is some work on military figures sympathetic to isolationism, but this aspect of their thinking is usually ignored. Of the various farm spokesmen, only George N. Peek is covered.
It is hardly surprising to see a host of biographies of John Foster Dulles (1888–1959), with the one by Michael Guhin dealing the most with his isolationism of the 1930s. No study, however, reveals the subtlety that comes through first-hand examination of the Dulles Papers at Princeton. Dulles’s first major book, War, Peace and Change (1939), argued for recognizing the needs of “have-not” nations. No provision against war would work, Dulles maintained, that did not permit alteration of the status quo. Studies are needed of such anti-interventionist diplomats as William R. Castle, J. Reuben Clark, and John Cudahy as well as such international law experts as Charles Cheney Hyde.
There is also work done on domestic demagogues. Father Charles E. Coughlin (1891–1979), the populist Michigan radio priest, is the subject of many studies. Now we also have material on such nativists of the right as Gerald L.K. Smith, Gerald Winrod, and William Dudley Pelley.
II.: Topics for Examination
If bibliography is a relatively painless way of examining such a phenomena as anti-intervention, it is far from sufficient. Certain elements are best treated topically. Thanks to a series of bibliographical essays, we now have guides to these various aspects of antiwar activity. In addition, there are bibliographical essays on wider issues concerning United States entry into World War II.
The first comprehensive scholarly treatment of anti-interventionism was Selig Adler, The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth-Century Reaction (1957). While strongly hostile to the movement, Adler supplies some particularly helpful material on the 1920s. Several works show how foes of World War I advanced arguments that would be used by their successors down to Pearl Harbor. By reading Ralph Stone, The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations (1970), one learns that certain senators made perceptive comments concerning ambiguities, inconsistencies, and structural weaknesses of the League’s organization. As far as individual opponents of Wilson’s League is concerned, one should note two fresh studies: William C. Widenor’s biography of Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) portrays the Massachusetts Brahmin as an international “realist,” motivated by considerations  that ran far deeper than hatred of Wilson and intense partisanship; David P. Thelin’s life of Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (1855–1925), links insurgency in domestic and foreign policy.
The most able published work on the anti-interventionists in the years immediately before Pearl Harbor remains Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America, 1935–1941 (1966). Jonas makes a careful distinction between the more aggressive isolationists, who called for full neutral rights, and those willing to forego such traditional privileges. He further points out that many congressional isolationists sympathized with the Ethiopians in 1935, the Spanish Loyalists in 1936, the Chinese in 1937, and the British in 1940.
Isolationist behavior in Congress is the subject of several studies. Robert A. Divine has thoroughly traced the neutrality acts, and Warren I. Cohen has explored the historical revisionism that explains much of the popular sentiment behind this legislation. Several studies have been made on the war referendum movement and the fight against the World Court. Only preliminary work has been done on anti-interventionist efforts to seek a negotiated peace in the years 1939–1941. No student can neglect the host of contemporary books that challenged American intervention, including those by Charles A. Beard, Norman Thomas, and Stuart Chase.
There have been studies of the major anti-interventionist organizations that have participated in the debate of 1939–1941, including the America First Committee, the Keep America Out of War Congress, and the No Foreign War Committee. A postwar anti-interventionist group, the Foundation of Foreign Affairs, has also received brief treatment. Specialized work on German activities in the United States now frees us from wartime polemics, with research finding the influence of the German-American Bund greatly overrated.
Thoroughgoing treatment of administration attempts to intimidate isolationists is much needed. Important material is found in Wayne S. Cole’s work on America First and Lindbergh. In Richard Polenberg’s War and Society: The United States, 1941–1945 (1972), the author notes that the administration was always prepared to curb the freedom of speech of right-wingers. Similarly, Richard W. Steele finds continued attempts to silence or discredit the president’s critics.
Still needed is work on anti-interventionist perceptions of the great powers. Before Pearl Harbor, a good many anti-British books were published. Similarly, France—before and after the Popular Front—came in for some criticism. British journalist Freda Utley combined her anti-interventionism concerning Europe with a hatred of Russia and hostility towards Japan. Only a few anti-interventionists wrote on Germany per se. Secondary works can be found on American public opinion and such topics as Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, the Spanish Civil War, the Manchurian crisis, and debates among liberals of the 1930s. A start has been made on university and college opinion, but far more needs to be done. War propaganda is another topic needing study. American pacifism is being covered systematically. Roman Catholicism constitutes the subject of several able works as does Protestantism.
The Early Cold War Era
Much work has been done on Cold War anti-interventionism. In my book Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (1979), I find the isolationists leaving an ambivalent legacy, but not one without wisdom or insight. If many of them opposed economic and military aid to Europe on the narrow grounds of a balanced budget and “anti-socialism,” they wisely cautioned against overcommitment. If they propounded a conspiratorial form of revisionism, they levied needed and occasionally thoughtful challenges to “official” history. If their proposals could weaken presidential action in an emergency, they often betrayed a healthy distrust of executive power and administration rhetoric. If their political base, lying in rural and small-town areas, might be isolating them from the dominant American culture, it is doubtful whether they could have been more ignorant of social change than those “best and brightest” who led the country into the Vietnam War. And if some of them stubbornly believe in a pastoral Eden forever lost to reality, they could—at least until 1950—claim that they opposed extending this Eden by force.
Some studies concentrate upon congressional opponents of intervention. Others focus upon the Korean War and efforts to secure the presidency of General Douglas MacArthur. The attempts of Senator John W. Bricker to limit the treaty-making power of the executive is the topic of several works. George H. Nash, in his learned and thorough examination of the conservative movement, shows how such libertarians as Murray N. Rothbard, Felix Morley, and Leonard Read opposed Cold War involvement. As in the case of the thirties, there is material on pacifism.
We Testify: Anti-Interventionism Anthologized
It is not enough to note the extensive research concerning anti-interventionism. To understand salient military and economic perspectives, raised in their most acute form from 1939 to 1941, one must turn to the primary literature. The greatest variety of arguments can best be seen in the anthology We Testify(1941), edited by Nancy Schoonmaker and Doris Fielding Reid. In the pages of this anthology, Herbert Hoover warned against postwar bankruptcy and unemployment, columnist Hugh S. Johnson denied that Britain was fighting America’s war, and Frances Gunther (a journalist like her husband John) pleaded the cause of independence for India. In addition, helicopter manufacturer Igor Sigorsky opposed the expansion of Soviet power, reformers Norman Thomas and Oswald Garrison Villard saw imperialism implicit in Roosevelt’s policies, and Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, warned that only a world-wide American empire could guarantee Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.
Several contributors to We Testify are of special significance. Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that Germany could not conquer North America. Most of the Atlantic was too wide to permit air transport of troops; Greenland and Alaska were too cold and fog-ridden to serve as invasion routes; Africa and South America contained too many logistical problems, not to mention problems of supply. Montana’s Senator Burton K. Wheeler (1882–1975), in 1941 the leader of the Senate anti-interventionists, concurred. Even if Hitler seized the British fleet, he could not invade the United States, for his forces lacked the technical skill and would be easy prey to American submarines. To General Robert E. Wood, Hitler sought German expansion in Europe, not world conquest. If the Roosevelt administration, said Wood, sought to maximize its influence in the world, it should not freeze French money needed for food purchases, nor oppose the Hoover food plan for occupied Europe, nor dictate Japan’s conduct in Asia, nor freeze the funds of Finland. John T. Flynn opposed military Keynesianism, warning that if the nation continued to paralyze the domestic economy, it would end up blundering into war and suppressing individual liberty. Senator Robert A. Taft saw the sending of American troops to Iceland as a usurpation of presidential power; the president, Taft remarked, had no legal, moral, or constitutional right to begin war without the authority of Congress.
Air Power: The Isolationist Shield
Also needing investigation are aspects of isolationist military policy. Until Pearl Harbor, few anti-interventionists saw the need for a mass army. A new Allied Expeditionary Force—they claimed—would simply prolong the struggle overseas, work against needed negotiation between Germany and Britain, and ensure Russian domination of Europe. Isolationists usually stressed small, highly-trained, and mechanized forces as well as fighter planes and sometimes a two-ocean navy. True, they used the fall of France as an argument for a crash defense program, but for them genuine defense involved the strengthening of hemisphere deterrents, not the “dissipating” of armaments by sending them overseas.
For some anti-interventionists, a strong air force was the crucial factor. In Major Al Williams’s book Air Power (1940), the air columnist of the Scripps-Howard newspapers said that “The nation that rules by air will rule the world.” Williams was not alone, for the doctrine of victory through air power was often used by those favoring unilateral action in foreign policy. When General Bonner Fellers, an intelligence specialist close to conservative Republicans, wrote his Wings for Peace (1953), he was merely updating the message of air supremacy.
A Hemispheric Strategy
In 1941, Fleming MacLiesh and Cushman Reynolds contributed Strategy for the Americas. Here a political commentator collaborated with the editor of the anti-interventionist newsletter Uncensored to argue that a hemisphere containing 300 million people could defend itself against all likely invaders. As far as raw materials went, the United States was the most secure of nations, so secure that it could even survive if it were cut off from Canada and Mexico. Raw materials obtained from Southeast Asia, such as rubber and tin, could be produced respectively in Brazil and Bolivia. Defense of the entire hemisphere, so the authors claimed, was neither militarily practicable nor necessary; rather effective control of strategic points was all that was needed. In this connection, the authors mention Pernambuco in Brazil, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, various Caribbean islands, British Guinea, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Galapagos islands. The nation’s primary weapons, a fleet and air force, could repulse any invasion, as no enemy could seize control of the seas, establish bases in the hemisphere, and supply these bases with overseas transport. Nor could it send a large expeditionary force across the seas without opening itself to devastating attack.
Hanson W. Baldwin: A Detailed Schema
Hanson W. Baldwin, military columnist for the New York Times, offered a more detailed picture. In hisUnited We Stand!: Defense of the Western Hemisphere (1941), Baldwin denied that the nation was threatened by direct invasion or massive bombing raids. Supply problems alone would be insuperable. United States domination of hemispheric bases ranging from Labrador to the shoulder of Brazil could turn any German landing into a slaughter far worse than Gallipoli. Even if Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan were all massed against the United States, it could survive, since the western hemisphere still possessed enough combat planes, greater steel production, and an adequate defense fleet. Baldwin opposed mass armies, drawing upon Hoffman Nickerson’s The Armed Horde, 1793–1939(1940), in support of his argument that tanks and planes made huge conscript armies obsolete.
Baldwin denied that American prosperity depended upon Asian markets, though he claimed that “we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face were we to interrupt our trade with Japan, our best Oriental customer, by going to war with Japan in order to preserve our trade in the Orient.” The United States could probably win a war with Japan, but it would be “a long, hard, grueling war of attrition,” leaving a “trail of blood across the Pacific.” Invasion of Japan would require a million men. At the same time that he feared war, however, Baldwin called for strengthening the American garrison in the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa; withdrawal of American marines from Shanghai, Tientsin, and Peking; a slow increase in the China trade; and a gradual restricting of vital raw materials from the Japan trade.
Carleton Beals: Looking Southward
Latin America, too, was discussed, with one expert, Carleton Beals (1893–1979), was quick to warn against incipient imperialism. In his book Pan America (1940), he asserted that an effective hemispheric policy needed far more than denunciation of international aggression and defense of an exploitative status quo. Beals recommended such policies as inter-American control of the Panama Canal, preparation for political independence or statehood for Puerto Rico, plebiscites for the people of the Virgin Islands, and cancellation of British and French debts whenever those countries set their New World populations free. In addition, he wanted return of the Falkland Islands to Argentina and of British Honduras to Guatemala and Mexico. There should, Beals went on, be no change in the economic or political status quo of the New World without joint Pan-American agreement. While continually calling for hemispheric self-sufficiency, he warned that Latin American nations could no longer be seen as “our oyster to be devoured, or as shock troops for our safety, or as pawns in the game of world power.”
Wheat and Steel, With Wall Street Bypassed
In an essay published in 1976, I note how several anti-interventionists spoke in terms of economic independence. The American interior, so such people believed, contained such an abundance of resources that the country could avoid European commitments. An economic axis of agriculture and industry—the linking, so to speak, of Duluth grain elevators and Pittsburgh steel mills—would insure national self-sufficiency. The Chicago Tribune spoke for many midwestern businesses when it said in 1929, “The other sections of the country, and particularly the eastern seaboard, can prosper only as we prosper. We, and we alone, are central to the life of the nation.”
The research division of the America First Committee drew upon a Brookings Institution study to advance the claim that a Nazi-occupied Europe would be extremely vulnerable to United States pressure. The ravaged continent, it said, would need so much food that Germany simply would be unable to exclude American trade. Europe’s exports, on the other hand, were not indispensable to the American economy. Given this inequality, bargaining power would naturally lie with the western hemisphere.
Hugh Johnson and John Chamberlain:
An End to Gin and Beads
Various anti-interventionists wrote books outlining their plans for economic survival. General Hugh Johnson (1892–1942), director of conscription during World War I and former NRA administrator, offered Hell Bent for War (1941), in which he found little danger from nations with lower living standards. Even if threatened by cartel and barter agreements, the United States possessed an unmatched industrial plant, raw materials, and a gold supply. Those Latin Americans who traded with Hitler’s Reich would soon possess an over-abundance of aspirin, bicycles, and cameras. “Ignorant nations,” the Scripps-Howard columnist went on, “will no longer trade tusks of ivory and wedges of gold for calico, squarefaced gin and strings of beads.”
The prominent editor and critic John Chamberlain claimed that the United States was the only great power that unquestionably could survive alone. To Chamberlain, in 1940 an editor of Fortune, the United States was still in a seller’s market, being the only country that could specify its own commercial conditions without having to fight for them. Even if Japan dominated the East Indies, it would have to sell in Akron or Pittsburgh or face depression. And if the current war ended in high tariffs, autarchy, and bilateral barter throughout the world, the United States could lend Europe sufficient gold to enable that continent to reorganize on lines of free commerce. As Chamberlain noted in The American Stakes(1940), “We do not need to fight and demobilize our own economy in order to put our weight behind sound moves toward a Manchesterian world.”
Graeme Howard: Spheres of Influence
In 1940, Graeme Howard (1896–1962), vice president in charge of overseas operations for General Motors, wrote a commercial manifesto entitled America and a New World Order. Here Howard declared, “The slowing up of market growth has a great deal to do with growing tensions between nations. Empty bellies and idle machines are certain to cause unrest. When exports and imports cannot cross manmade barriers, man will be tempted to cross political frontiers with guns, tanks, and airplanes.” To solve this problem, while still meeting the survival needs of the “have-not” nations, Howard proposed the division of the world into recognizable economic blocs. Such spheres might include continental Europe, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, Latin America, North America, and Japan’s “new order” for Asia. Cooperative regionalism, he maintained, could substitute mutual interdependence for international economic chaos, revolution, and war. True, the United States would find keen competition from other great powers, all of whom had to export or die. However, it could still sell cotton, lard, tobacco, and wheat surpluses, as well as make loans for productive projects. In addition, it could mediate the world’s conflicts, thereby keeping such nations as Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, and Spain out of the “international doghouse.”
For Fear of M-Day
A host of contemporary books dealt with the economic consequences of war. Rose M. Stein, M-Day: The First Day of War (1936), described the War Department plans for Mobilization Day. Using the findings of the Nye Committee, she claimed that a future war would offer the opportunity for military leaders and industrialists to impose authoritarian controls upon all phases of the nation’s life. Larry Nixon’s anthology, When War Comes: What Will Happen and What to Do (1939), predicted gas attacks on civilians, conscription of labor, and war dictatorship. Harold J. Tobin and Percy Bidwell wroteMobilizing Civilian America (1940), in which they offered a documented blueprint of economic and military dictatorship. The nation, so the authors claimed, should seek ever to preserve the maximum amount of private industry and profit. Despite its White Paper format, Leo M. Cherne’s M-Day and What It Means (1940) offered a popularized account, although not using fictionalized incidents as did Don Keyhoe, M-Day—What Your Government Plans for You (1940).
Even today, many Americans have an impression of the anti-interventionists as an unsavory lot. In part, this attitude is rooted in sympathy for the victims of totalitarianism. In part, it stems from the belief that opponents of intervention were narrow and shortsighted, unaware that the world had become increasingly interdependent. Yet when we examine the rich variety of personalities advocating nonintervention, and when we note the wide range of research dealing with this topic, we are far less apt to make simplistic and patronizing comments. The anti-interventionist responses are simply too varied, the individuals too diffuse, and their motives too complex.
The debates concerning World War II and the early Cold War have seldom been equalled in intensity. The reason is obvious: they centered on nothing less than the survival of the United States amid a changing international system. To the interventionists, this survival depended upon Europe, perhaps a world, cleared as much as possible of totalitarian rule. To the isolationists, the nation could best survive by looking towards its own ramparts. Either option was unenviable. Now, thanks to a galaxy of historians, one can see that the debate was far from one-sided, and that many opponents of American globalism did not flinch from asking hard questions concerning their country’s fate.
Here one point should be stressed above all. Certain anti-interventionists, such as Edwin M. Borchard and Felix Morley, were not simply reacting in ad hoc fashion to immediate crises. Nor were they only advocating a Fortress America. They were presenting a competing world vision, in many ways more Wilsonian than those who claimed to inherit President Wilson’s mantle. If such anti-interventionists as William E. Borah opposed any existing association of nations, it was in part because they believed that force, separated from abstract principles of international law and self-determination of nations, merely institutionalized chaotic and destructive power politics. To such people, Woodrow Wilson himself had compromised his principles beyond repair when he sought to tie America’s destiny to a League Covenant that embodied an inherently unstable peace. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime vision of Four Policemen, so some of Borah’s successors believed, only assured that the strong would continue to tyrannize the weak.
Of course, anti-interventionism possessed many diverse strains, ranging from individualist anarchism to democratic socialism. Obviously, on a variety of matters, there was little consensus: economic protectionism, the most desirable defense policy, relations with revolutionary regimes, involvement in Latin America, economic and strategic holdings overseas, the nature and degree of state intervention in the economy, and, at times, the very vision of the good society.
There was, however, one thing that anti-interventionists had in common: the belief that lengthy foreign conflicts would only weaken a nation, limiting the freedom and opportunities of Americans in ways that they thought crucial. In short, real dangers were internal, centering on the nature of the American republic as they had understood and experienced it. These dangers, so such figures as Herbert Hoover stressed, included the militarization of the nation’s productive facilities and the linkage of American security to overseas commitments.
Hoover’s story in particular shows a problem faced by anti-interventionists during the debates over World War II and the early Cold War. Unlike many opponents of intervention, Hoover usually had access to the American media. After World War II he seldom met with the type of personal abuse faced even by such a moderate anti-interventionist as Robert A. Taft. If Hoover did not dominate the Republican party, he was a respected figure within it.
Yet Hoover, as close as any anti-interventionist to the nation’s policy and opinion elite, found himself, like all the rest, losing one battle after another. Interventionism was entrenched in one major political party, the Democrats, and was extremely strong among Republicans. It had far greater influence in the media and among intellectuals than its opponents. It possessed powerful geographical bases in eastern industrial states and, until the 1950s, the South. Wall Street finance had long tended to be interventionist. By 1941, much of organized labor had joined interventionist ranks, and by 1948 large manufacturing associations were enlisted in such causes as the Marshall Plan. Interventionist action groups, which played such a crucial role in the debates of 1939–1941, were better organized and in the field longer than their isolationist counterparts.
The presidents assumed more and more direct control of foreign policy, partially by fiat, partially by manipulating the framework of debates. In his speeches and legislation, Roosevelt never presented an issue of war-or-peace, and hence he was able to maneuver most skillfully. If President Truman did not always possess Roosevelt’s finesse, he commanded congressional support for much of his foreign policy. Even when he ordered troops into Korea without the approval of Congress, he received relatively little criticism.
To turn again to Hoover, his struggle is a most telling one. Much of the press held Hoover personally, and his wing of the party as well, responsible for the Great Depression. In the 1940s, Taft and his followers suffered badly from a negative Republican party image projected by political foes many years earlier. In addition, Hoover and Taft showed that they possessed their own brand of interventionism, centering on Asia during the years 1949–1951. They therefore exposed them-selves to charges of inconsistency, and to a dangerous one at that. When such old isolationists harped on domestic subversion, as they did early in the Cold War, they merely side-tracked fundamental debate over the direction of American foreign policy. Then, to a nation undergoing a wide range of crises—Turkey and Greece in 1947, Berlin in 1948, Korea in 1950, Hungary and Suez in 1956—Hoover’s long-range predictions that communism bore within it the seeds of its own decay offered little immediate comfort.
In some ways, the anti-interventionism of the future will take a quite different form. The traditional geographical bases of isolationism, rooted especially in small town rural areas of the Middle West and the Great Plains, have long since vanished. The weapons revolution, manifested in nuclear arms and intercontinental missiles, have made obsolete the argument based on continental security. There will undoubtedly be less suspicion of international organization and of such Western powers as Great Britain and France. One must be careful however, not to dismiss traditional anti-interventionism, as inherited, so quickly. Until nation states lose their essential sovereignty, the question that the old anti-interventionists raised concerning the possibilities of American autonomy, the dangers of overseas alliances, and the impact of war and massive defense spending upon individual freedom will remain with us.