The Republican war critic

Today's GOP demonizes any dissent, but one of its most influential forebears openly criticized WWII plans -- and just 12 days after Pearl Harbor.


The Republican war critic

When Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said on Feb. 28 that Democrats would start “to ask the tough questions” about President Bush’s war strategy, Republicans reacted predictably. Trent Lott accused Daschle of “trying to divide the country.” Tom DeLay issued a one-word press release: “Disgusting.” Bill Frist, the Tennessee senator who chairs the GOP’s senatorial campaign arm, called Daschle’s words “thoughtless” and “ill-timed.” The charge amounted to something just this side of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

They’ve since calmed themselves a bit, but the intensity of their choler raises a fair question: Were Daschle’s remarks — not a formal speech or even a press release, but rather a few sentences in response to some questions toward the end of a press conference that he’d called to discuss other topics — so shockingly without precedent in American history that those blunt reproaches were deserved? More than that, what does history tell us about the appropriate parameters of loyal opposition after America has been attacked and while U.S. soldiers are at battle?

It turns out there is precedent for Daschle’s position. That precedent comes from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the most direct analogy in our history to Sept. 11. And it comes, wouldn’t you know it, from a Republican. And not just any Republican, but the icon of modern conservatism who was known during his lifetime as “Mr. Republican.”

Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft was a devoted conservative, an adversary of the New Deal, a spirited isolationist and, by 1952, the man whom the right, which harbored grave suspicions about the moderate Eisenhower’s internationalist tendencies, was backing for the presidency. While he tended to focus his legislative labors on domestic issues, Taft — his son and namesake is now Ohio’s governor — had made his isolationist views well known throughout the 1930s, and no GOP leader of the day had greater influence over his party’s right wing.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the GOP faced pressures similar to those Democrats are under now. There were admonitions not to criticize the sitting administration, and declarations, immediately after the Japanese attack, that politics had to stop at the water’s edge. But conservatives had detested Franklin Roosevelt, his New Deal and his foreign policy — the lend-lease program and the destroyer deal with Britain in particular. And the events of Dec. 7, 1941, seemed to stifle their ability to dissent.

What, then, were they to do? Taft had his answer. He gave a speech to the Executive Club of Chicago arguing that it was precisely the duty of the opposition party to ask the tough questions. He didn’t give this speech five and a half months after the attack, as Daschle did (and remember, Daschle didn’t even give a speech). He wasn’t speaking five weeks after hostilities began, which was how long it took DeLay to blast President Clinton on the war in Kosovo. Taft delivered his speech … on Dec. 19, 1941!

And quite a direct speech it was. His defense of criticism as patriotism is worth quoting at some length:

“As a matter of general principle, I believe there can be no doubt that criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government … too many people desire to suppress criticism simply because they think that it will give some comfort to the enemy to know that there is such criticism. If that comfort makes the enemy feel better for a few moments, they are welcome to it as far as I am concerned, because the maintenance of the right of criticism in the long run will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy, and will prevent mistakes which might otherwise occur.”

Taft invoked Woodrow Wilson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Francis Biddle, FDR’s attorney general, as defending this right, and argued that “the duties imposed by the Constitution on Senators and Congressmen certainly require that they exercise their own judgment on questions relating to the war.”

There was more, a lot more. Debates were raging in Congress at the time — and, remember, American territory had just been attacked, bodies and wreckage still lay in the harbor, and U.S. soldiers were already in harm’s way — over questions like the conversion of industry to support the war and the best way to expand the draft. Taft weighed in on each, specifically opposing plans the Roosevelt administration had floated (“I see no use in sending boys of nineteen or twenty to war”).

At great length Taft argued that the higher defense appropriations Roosevelt was seeking should lead to the end of both Keynesianism (New Deal economists “are confident that a people can spend itself into prosperity”) and New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration. Thus Taft was tying the war to domestic politics in a way that today’s Republicans have also carped at Democrats for sometimes doing. Finally, there were shades of renegade Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. (who, angered at the administration’s secrecy, has threatened the Bush White House with “war”), when Taft called for a congressional investigation into whether Cordell Hull, FDR’s secretary of state, had informed Secretary of the Navy Franklin Knox of the contents of his famous Nov. 26 note to the Japanese. The note contained conditions that Hull knew the Japanese would never accept, and the suspicion was rife among Republicans that Hull, and Roosevelt, actually wanted the Navy to be ambushed at Pearl Harbor to stoke war fever among the populace. “Perhaps the fault at Hawaii,” Taft said, “was not entirely on the admirals and generals.” Mr. Republican, that Dec. 19, minced few words.

And his fellow Republicans got the message. According to historian Richard Darilek in “A Loyal Opposition in Time of War” (1976), Republicans entered 1942 ready to fight the administration head-on. Wendell Wilkie, the party’s nominal leader, was an interventionist, but in a bid to placate the GOP’s isolationist wing he appointed an America Firster named Clarence Boddington Kelland head of public relations for the Republican National Committee. On Jan. 8, Kelland delivered a speech in Salt Lake City on the importance of robust partisanship. Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Flynn countered by cautioning against the election of a hostile Congress. New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, who would run against FDR in 1944, warned of the existence within the administration of “an American Cliveden set … scheming to end the war short of military victory” (“Cliveden set,” a reference to the Astor estate in Britain that served as a salon for government ministers, was synonymous with “appeasers”). By the time of the Republican Lincoln Day dinners — mid-February, just two months after Pearl Harbor — politics in Washington, Darilek writes, were more or less back to normal.

Two points need to be made about Taft’s speech. The first is that he was exactly right to make it. Who can possibly argue with Justice Holmes’ statement, the one Taft quoted, that “we do not lose our right to condemn either men or measures because the country is at war”? Well, we know who can, but certainly the vast majority of the American public understands such a right to be a nonnegotiable principle of democracy.

The second is that it’s virtually impossible to imagine a Democrat delivering a similar talk these last months without being labeled a traitor. Republicans have decreed that anything but blind support is beyond the pale, and the major media, in their coverage, have largely absorbed the idea that to criticize Bush on foreign policy is to flirt with signing the death warrants of American soldiers. This makes for a stark, and distressing, contrast with Roosevelt’s time.

Taft’s speech hardly caused a ripple. If the New York Times covered it at all, it did so in a small enough way to escape my notice as I looked through newspapers from that time. The Washington Post did mention the speech, but only at the tail end of a larger story that was mostly about Hull. In the American political system that existed then, Taft’s right to speak his mind on policy was a given, and no high-ranking Roosevelt official launched a major public attack.

But imagine the frenzied spasms of today’s Republicans and media if Tom Daschle had emulated Taft: asserting the right to dissent, hinting that Democrats might hold the administration’s domestic policy hostage to bipartisan agreement on war aims, and calling — on Sept. 23! — for an investigation into why our intelligence agencies didn’t know Sept. 11 was coming.

No historical analogy is exact, and some things were true then that aren’t now, and vice versa. But the real difference between then and now, of course, is that today’s hard right has made an art form of demonizing those who disagree with it and turning legitimate, necessary dissent into insurrectionist treachery. The next time they try that, Democrats should remind Republicans of a time when their own party, and one of their supposed heroes, thought differently.

Michael Tomasky is a political columnist for New York magazine.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>