Readers may be familiar with Rachel Maddow's explosive new podcast, "Ultra." It tells the incredible story of a German spy who infiltrated Congress in 1940-41, inducing two dozen congressmen and senators to spread Nazi propaganda in floor speeches, op-ed columns and constituent mailings. Simultaneously, armed extremist groups began training for a violent takeover of the country. In many ways, the eight-decades-old story is a disturbing forerunner of the Trump era.
Contrary to our nostalgic memories of unity, America was deeply divided over the war in Europe, military aid to Britain, and whether fascism was the wave of the future that we might as well submit to. While political division on the eve of entry into the war was not uniformly partisan (some prominent Democrats supported isolationism), the GOP was by far the party that stood for America First and strict noninvolvement in foreign conflict.
That members of Congress would willingly become conduits for Nazi propaganda shows that for some, sincere concern to stay out of war was not their only motivation. There was surprisingly strong domestic sympathy for Hitler and the fascist powers. Those who actively worked for Germany crossed the line into subversion and treason, but even mainstream proponents of isolationism showed a tolerant understanding for fascism that, decades later, seems either shockingly naïve or disgracefully callous.
It is easy enough to write off Father Coughlin or Charles Lindbergh for their overt antisemitism and admiration of totalitarian regimes. But there is one America Firster who to this day is almost universally celebrated by the GOP as a statesman exemplifying pure, principled conservatism: three-time aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Robert A. Taft. He was such a pillar of the GOP that he was dubbed Mr. Republican.
He has neither Lindbergh's Nazi sympathizer reputation, nor the still-lingering stench of Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting a decade later. Mainstream historians, even while deprecating his politics and calling his opposition to aiding Britain misguided, nevertheless give him points for principle and integrity. Conservative think tanks churn out mini-hagiographies of Taft; National Review recently proclaimed him as Middle America's sorely needed answer to "wokeism," whatever that may be.
Taft's Senate career spanned from 1939 to 1953. He came to Washington as America was recovering from a shattering depression, and then had to confront fascist militarism. After World War II, the country faced challenges from two former allies, the Soviet Union and Communist China, with the stakes raised by the existence of nuclear weapons. How did Taft respond to this decade of existential crisis?
From the moment he entered office, he campaigned relentlessly against the New Deal, cleaving to Herbert Hoover's futile notion that rugged individualism and private charity would end the worst depression in modern history. In 1940 Taft wrote, "There is a good deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle in Washington than there will ever be from any activities of . . . the Nazi bund."
While asserting the need for a strong military Taft nevertheless fought tooth and nail against preparing that military. He opposed both the destroyers-for-bases deal with Britain and repealing the Neutrality Act. He also voted against the Selective Service Act at a time when the German Army, fresh from a lightning conquest of Western Europe, had 4.5 million soldiers when the U.S. Army numbered only 269,000.
In early 1941, he opposed the Lend-Lease Act, saying "an invasion of the United States by the German Army is as fantastic as would be an invasion of Germany by the American Army." The German Army didn't reach America, but within a year, U-boats were prowling the eastern seaboard, sinking tankers and freighters almost at will. The rest of Taft's statement was also bunk: less than four years after his speech, the U.S. Army was advancing towards the Rhine.
In 1940, Taft suggested that "totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle" were more dangerous than the Nazis. Eight months before Pearl Harbor, he said it was "simply fantastic" to believe that Japan might attack the U.S.
Eight months prior to Pearl Harbor, Taft stated, "It is simply fantastic to suppose there is any danger of an attack on the United States by Japan." On Sept. 22, 1941, he said, "There is much less danger to this country today than there was two years ago; certainly much less than there was one year ago." At the moment he spoke, the Wehrmacht was driving towards Moscow, Rommel's Afrika Korps ruled the North African littoral, and Admiral Yamamoto was refining his Pearl Harbor attack plan.
Many of us would be embarrassed to see our predictions read back to us later. But few deserve to be embarrassed as much as Taft. The man was a walking compendium of error. Even entry into the war did not cure his penchant for being wrong: wrong in a way that tended to absolve the enemy while condemning the U.S. government.
Four months after Pearl Harbor, he stated, "We need not have become involved in the present war," and even a year later, he publicly asserted that U.S. entry into the war was "debatable," which it was not: Japan attacked U.S. territory and Hitler declared war on the United States, not the other way around. Taft, like Republicans then and now, attempted to make political hay over wartime inflation. At the same time, though, he was a relentless opponent of the Office of Price Administration, tasked with dampening price rises. That, he said, would rob the businessman or the farmer of their liberty of setting prices as high as they wanted.
Taft questioned Henry Stimson's "competence" to run the Department of the Army and voted against confirmation — even though Stimson had previously been a secretary of war under Taft's own father, President William Howard Taft, and was to prove an effective leader in World War II. Moreover, Stimson was a Republican, nominated by Roosevelt as a gesture of bipartisanship. Taft opposed him out of knee-jerk obstinacy.
In 1944, Taft opposed an administration proposal to enable voting by the millions of GIs overseas. As David Brinkley writes in "Washington Goes to War," he offered obstructionist amendments to make the plan impossible to implement, but they were voted down. Brinkley relates that the senator complained that servicemen would be marched to the polling places and ordered to vote for FDR, presaging the current GOP's obsessive psychological projection about vote fraud.
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At war's end, he criticized the Bretton Woods conference, from which emerged the financial institutions that laid the foundation for unprecedented prosperity in Europe and America. Almost 80 years later, a majority of congressional Republicans emulate Taft in opposing international organizations like the International Monetary Fund that have reinforced America's status as the world's leading financial power. Republicans are even now hinting that they might hold the country hostage over the debt ceiling increase, potentially plunging the world into financial crisis and triggering a sovereign debt default that could end the dollar's reign as the world reserve currency.
Then came Taft's most controversial stand. He attacked the Nuremberg Tribunal for unjustly applying ex post facto law (the crime of aggression), and for being victors' justice:
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 11 men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret.
In the trial, 11 defendants were indeed sentenced to hang, but seven others were given lesser sentences and three acquitted. As for the claim of ex post facto justice, Robert Jackson — the American prosecutor who believed aggression enabled all the other war crimes that followed — summed up the charge:
And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law, if it is to serve a useful purpose must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law.
While the charge of aggression was unprecedented (all precedent must begin somewhere), the convicted defendants were also found guilty of ordering or committing acts against military and civilian victims which were already proscribed by law. According to Kim Priemel's "The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence," the judges demonstrated independence from their governments, and the defendants (who were allowed counsel and able to present defenses) were seen as receiving due process. The evidence of their guilt was overwhelming.
By that point, Taft's positions were backfiring on him. His condemnation of the Nuremberg trials and opposition to military voting, in particular, may have torpedoed his chances for the Republican nomination in 1948. He may also have doomed the nominee, Tom Dewey, who was heavily favored to win the presidency. When President Harry Truman called Congress into extraordinary session in 1948, Taft blocked even innocuous bills, angering voters and inadvertently contributing to Truman's upset re-election.
As might be expected, he voted against confirmation of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, saying it was "a waste of money" that was "more likely to incite war than to deter it."
As for standing on principle, however wrongheaded, a quality that qualified him for grudging admiration even from critics, that trait was sometimes malleable. In 1950 Taft blamed the UN for not averting the Korean war, saying, "We were sucked into the Korean war, as representatives of the UN, by a delusion as to a power which has never existed under the Charter."
Yet Gen. Douglas MacArthur's reckless pursuit of the North Koreans to the Yalu River, which brought Chinese intervention and a wider war, worked a change of heart in Taft. Now he was not only for the war, but when MacArthur insubordinately attacked President Truman's policy and advocated use of nuclear weapons, Taft stated this on the Senate floor after Truman made the correct decision to fire the general:
President Truman must be impeached and convicted. His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office. The American nation has never been in greater danger. It is led by a fool who is surrounded by knaves.
That the legendary anti-interventionist Taft supported a vain martinet whose tirades included lobbying for nuclear war suggests he might have been less than a rock-solid man of principle. The fact that the 1952 presidential campaign was nearing makes us suspect that he may have sought to exploit MacArthur's popularity to get the presidential nomination. But it was not to be: His record was too blemished.
Why dredge up this ancient history? It tells us not only that some political golden age of ur-Republicanism, just like all retrospective utopias, never existed, but that the icons of those myths were flawed, sometimes badly so. It also suggests that the Republican Party, apart from intermittent post-World War II periods of bipartisanship, never really changed.
This history tells us that some political golden age of ur-Republicanism never existed. The Republican Party, apart from intermittent post-World War II bipartisanship, never really changed. Robert Taft was the larval stage of what exists today.
It is true that today's GOP has sunk to unprecedented depths, crossing the threshold from a quasi-normal political party to an authoritarian movement and leader cult. On Jan. 6, 2021, a majority of House Republicans defended violent insurrection against constitutional order. The party's reliance on reflexive negativity rather than constructive alternatives and its knee-jerk propensity to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted have been features ever since the onset of the Great Depression. Robert A. Taft is not an alternative to the current GOP; Mr. Republican was simply the larval stage of what exists today.
The negativity and obstructionism that we witness daily from the GOP is straight out of their old playbook for contesting the New Deal and crucial areas of World War II policy. The positioning on issues is also much the same: Taft decried Roosevelt and Truman as warmongers, but turned on a dime to extol MacArthur, a general so imperious he was called the American Caesar. Likewise, current GOP issue positioning largely depends on whether a Democrat or a Republican is president.
Sentimental constructs like the "Greatest Generation" paint a false picture of unity during World War II. It is often hard to distinguish where the bitter-end isolationism of the highly influential press moguls William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick ended and sympathy for fascism began. It requires no speculation about Henry Ford, one of the richest and most influential Americans of the time: he was awarded (and happily accepted) a medal from Hitler.
There also are grounds for questioning whether, beneath the posturing about liberty and the Constitution, Taft had a sneaking sympathy for fascists, albeit not as overt as Lindbergh's. Denouncing the Nuremberg Trials as a gross miscarriage of justice fairly begs for explanation, since in more recent decades the leading critics of that tribunal have been outright neo-Nazis like Harry Elmer Barnes or David Irving. This tarnishes his reputation and makes one wonder if he deserves inclusion in the Senate reception room's "famous five" collection of portraits of great senators, perhaps the Senate's greatest honor.
Likewise, did Taft really believe the New Deal was a bigger threat than Nazism, or was that a hollow rationale to camouflage a belief that Germany might as well rule Europe? We can similarly suspect that when Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine say they vote no for the absurd reason that helping Ukraine against Russia somehow means appeasing China (an ally of Russia), sympathy for an authoritarian dictatorship might be their real motivation.
That Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the keynote speaker at the recent CPAC convention only heightens the suspicion. A substantial overlap between Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine and those defending an attempted overthrow of constitutional government on Jan. 6 is hardly coincidental. Republicans have signaled the possibility of cutting off aid to Ukraine, an act which would have grave implications not only for Europe but would indicate U.S. unreliability throughout the world. If Republicans abandon Ukraine, it would sabotage the deterrent effect of any security guarantees to Taiwan against China, the country the GOP claims to take seriously as a threat.
The substantial overlap between Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine and those defending an attempted overthrow of constitutional government on Jan. 6 is hardly coincidental.
Republicans' willingness to hold hostage America's full faith and credit in 2023 is based on their alleged concern about the deficit — but only when a Democrat holds the presidency, a reflex that goes back to Taft. The goal is to force cuts in Social Security and Medicare, arguably the country's two most successful anti-poverty measures, one of which was proposed by FDR almost 90 years ago. In a sense, the GOP has never ceased running against Roosevelt and the New Deal.
As this is being written, our country is without a functioning House of Representatives. Twenty legislative terrorists from the GOP are holding their own leader, Kevin McCarthy, hostage in order to receive plenary powers to run the institution according to their whims. The overlap between these members and supporters of both the Jan. 6 insurrection and a Ukraine aid cutoff only increases fears that they would abandon Ukraine and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States from no deeper principle than the nihilistic urge to break things.
In 1940, the Wall Street Journal asserted that "our job today is not to stop Hitler," the dictator whom the editorial claimed had "already determined the broad lines of our national life at least for another generation." Note that the Journal, then as now the flagship of "respectable" conservatism, not only consigned Europe to Hitler's domination, but America as well, and for the following 30 years. The title of the editorial, "A Plea for Realism," is a reminder that in some quarters, "realism" means abandoning democracy and submitting to force.
As the Second World War passes from living memory, it is apparent that democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have forgotten its frightful lessons. Right-wing political parties in Europe and America have lurched towards racial populism, xenophobia and anti-intellectualism, and have even tried to push antisemitism back into the realm of acceptable views. It is hardly coincidental that, once again, there is a major war in Europe.
If someone who had followed the debate over aid to Britain in 1940 were magically transported to the present, he would have little difficulty getting oriented to the global situation, both in its military precariousness and in the threat of advancing dictatorship. And if he heard Josh Hawley or Rand Paul proclaiming "America First" on the floor of the Senate, he could be forgiven for hearing the voice of Robert Taft.
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