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A Profile in Courage

When National Review debuted in 1955, the liberal columnist Dwight MacDonald lamented that the thrust of the new magazine was not conservative. In MacDonald’s lexicon, a true conservative was one who “sticks to his principles even when the results go against his prejudices,” for conservatives do not “appeal to the hearts of men” but to the “laws and traditions of a country.”

To all but the most blinded by rage—rage against a vaguely defined “establishment” that eschews “change” (another ill-defined term)—it is apparent that Donald Trump is not a conservative by MacDonald’s lights. Instead, he appeals to the rage in the hearts of men. He attacks NATO not from the Right or from the Left, but with a green eyeshade on and with a view to tapping into Yankee distaste for anything smacking of funding Europe.

Once upon a time, well before the oft-invoked Ronald Reagan, there was a Republican presidential candidate who did not champion emotional satisfaction over sober principle—who stuck to his principles even when they led him to a misguided decision.

Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio), who died 63 years ago this week, was such a figure. During his time in the U.S. Senate (1938-1953), this son of President William Howard Taft coolly bucked the tide even when his views were dismissed as marginal. To be a Republican in the New Deal era, in which FDR won an unprecedented four elections, was to court unpopularity. To be a libertarian in the 1930s and later, in the Cold War, was to commit political suicide.

As Republicans in the New Deal era frequently remade themselves into New Deal Republicans (the Wendell Willkie who ran against Roosevelt in 1940 later became virtually indistinguishable from him), Taft stuck to his guns, often being the only dissenting voice against increased governmental power, at home and abroad. Three times he sought the GOP nomination for the job held by his father, running on his libertarian views, and three times he failed.

Before coming to the Senate, Taft served in the Ohio House of Representatives, where he opposed Prohibition as unconstitutional. He also rejected (and here it coincided with his partisan affiliation) a movement so popular in Ohio that many of the state’s legislators were members. Which movement was that? Why, the Ku Klux Klan, of course, which, as we have been learning, was at one time a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Taft fought against a Klan-endorsed bill that would have required all Ohio public school teachers to read 10 Bible verses to their classes during every school day. He denounced the legislation, asserting that religion should be taught in churches not schools—a position long championed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Taft was sent to Washington by Ohioans on the heels of FDR’s controversial attempt to retire Supreme Court justices who overruled his New Deal measures and replace them with more pliable ones. Many feared that Roosevelt was trying to emulate Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler by amassing great power. The freshman senator masterminded a “conservative coalition” of Republicans and conservative Democrats to block further New Deal measures.

The New Deal, at least legislatively speaking, was finished. But Senator Taft was not satisfied. He not only wanted to halt the New Deal but to undo many of its programs. To him, it bore the key failings of socialism: not only individual-obliterating, but also wasteful and inefficient. He advocated letting private enterprise heal the nation’s economy.

Taft favored a strong defense but like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and many libertarians today, he opposed the military draft as a draconian measure—an unpopular stance at that time, with Hitler’s Wehrmacht overrunning Europe and the United States hastily trying to shore up its defenses.

More popular was his opposition (in the pre-Pearl Harbor days) to U.S. involvement in the war taking shape Over There. He argued that the U.S. military should be built up to provide protection for citizens if Hitler conquered all of Europe. In the face of his fellow Republicans’ ire, Taft opposed any attempts by the government to bolster countries fighting the Nazis. On board after Pearl Harbor, Taft nevertheless took the then-highly unpopular stand of speaking out against the internment and relocation of Japanese Americans.

In the postwar period, Taft continued to brave public opinion on the issues that mattered to him most. He opposed the Nuremberg Trials as a politicized court more interested in vengeance than following principles of American jurisprudence. In a statement that may have forever barred him from the presidency, he declared:

“I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret.”

After the war, he took on big labor, an even more powerful arm of the Democratic Party than the Ku Klux Klan, and one often courted by liberal Republicans. In a Congress now controlled by Republicans, Taft and Representative Fred Hartley (R-N.J.) wrote the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended to unions the ban on “unfair labor practices” that had previously applied only to employers, and gave the President the power to impose an 80-day “cooling off period” if a strike went against the national interest. President Truman vetoed it but Congress overrode the veto.

As a bipartisan block assembled in response to the communist takeover of Central and Eastern European countries by the Kremlin, Taft did not regard Stalin as a major threat. As such, he opposed NATO as a provocation of the Soviets. (Senator Goldwater charted a different course, internationalizing the Republican Party by favoring U.S. participation in the alliance.) Taft was a dogged critic of Truman’s Korean War policies. True to form, he used the U.S. Constitution as the yardstick:

“My conclusion, therefore, is that in the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained.”

Taft was also prescient on the dangers of the United States’ involving itself in a land war in Asia:

“I have never felt that we should send American soldiers to the Continent of Asia, which, of course, included China proper and Indo-China, simply because we are so outnumbered in fighting a land war on the Continent of Asia that it would bring about complete exhaustion even if we were able to win.”

For him, the real danger to the republic was not territorial gains by the Russians but the big government programs of Democrats and liberal Republicans at home.

Taft was not so reactionary as never to have second thoughts. Learning about inadequate housing in the United States, he switched to supporting the part of the New Deal that concerned public housing programs. (And his conversion on that subject made the Old Right never trust him again.) He supported Truman’s bill to fund slum clearance in 1949. Moreover, even on foreign policy he made judgments on a case-by-case basis. He did not shrink from upsetting his non-interventionist base when he thought it was right, supporting the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Pro-Israel, Taft also supported sending arms shipments to the new state.

But Taft did not make the right call in every case. When it came to the anticommunist crusade of his sloppy and demagogic colleague from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), his libertarian scruples against government involving itself in the thoughts and activities of ordinary citizens took second place to his partisan belief that the Democrats deserved to be embarrassed on the communist question. As McCarthy bullied witnesses and embellished unsubstantiated charges, Taft reportedly egged him on: “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another,” he was overheard saying in the Senate. “Keep it up, Joe.”

By 1951, Taft did air his disagreements with McCarthy, specifically the latter’s labeling of General George Marshall as a communist agent: “I don’t think one who overstates his case helps his own case,” he said. “There are certain points on which I wouldn’t agree with McCarthy. His extreme attack against General Marshall is one of the things on which I cannot agree.” By this time, a popular outcry from his constituents—which would not have fazed the younger Taft—caused him to recant his reservations: “Broadly speaking, I approve of Senator McCarthy’s program.”

This honorable if flawed record is obviously worlds away from Trump. Whereas Trump represents rage, Taft usually counseled principled opposition. Whereas Trump often alters or even reverses positions taken in anger, Taft could entertain the possibility—evident in his switch to favoring public housing programs—that he was mistaken. Wrong in the case of NATO, whose theoretical base was that hemming the Soviet Union in would eventually cause an economic implosion, he at least based his position on libertarian principles rather than on simple nativism against all things European. Trump’s crass insistence that U.S. defense of embattled allies would depend on our being paid by them for our assistance would have horrified Taft, who opposed NATO as provocative to the Soviets, not as a bad financial investment.

Taft was one of John F. Kennedy’s “profiles in courage” for a reason.

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Introducing Myself

As an academic, I have worked in various fields, but my dominant passion has been the libertarian pursuit of free markets and freedom under the law. In recent years, I have focused mainly on constitutional originalism. At the University of San Diego, I am the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutionalism and have a book coming out next year from Harvard, Originalism and the Good Constitution (co-authored with John McGinnis), which presents a new defense of originalism.