[Tomorrow night, Saturday, November 12, the Republican presidential candidates come to Spartanburg, SC, to the campus of my college, Wofford, for the latest of the Republican debates. The debate will be broadcast on CBS at 8 pm eastern time. I will be attending the debate, and if possible may try to live tweet from the audience (@byrnesms).
As part of a series of events leading up to the debate, I've been invited to participate in a faculty forum this afternoon and make some comments on presidential campaigns and foreign policy. Below are the remarks I will deliver.]
Since I am a historian first and a debate watcher second, I thought I’d spend my time this afternoon giving you some idea of what a historian looks for when he becomes a debate watcher.
This particular debate is supposed to focus on national security and foreign policy, and my primary area of interest is American diplomatic history, so I’d like to talk first about how foreign policy has figured in the presidential politics of the last century.
My first point is that the rhetoric of political campaigns has often been a poor indication of how a candidate will act once elected. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” At the convention that re-nominated him, the keynote speaker listed the many instances in which Wilson had resisted pressure to intervene in the Great War, and led the crowd in a chant: “What did we do? What did we do? We didn’t go to war! We didn’t go to war!” Campaigning that fall, Wilson said: “I am not expecting this country to get into war.” But when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, circumstances changed. Less than a month after being inaugurated for his second term, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war.
A second, and related point, is that candidates for the presidency often seem to forget they are not speaking only to American voters. At least since the United States achieved superpower status, it is undeniably true that the whole world is listening. And that can have real and serious consequences.
In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower was running as a Republican trying to end 20 years of Democratic control of the White House. The unsatisfactory state of the cold war, in particular the inherently defensive policy of containment as it was then being practiced in the Korean War, made foreign policy a tempting issue. The GOP platform repudiated the “negative, futile and immoral policy of containment which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism” and pledged to achieve “genuine independence of those captive peoples” behind the iron curtain. The New Republic warned at the time of the dangers of such rhetoric: “Promises to help enslaved peoples [either] mean nothing and risk terrible misunderstandings or they mean something and risk war.”
In 1955, in a speech broadcast by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, Eisenhower said: “If any East European nation shows a visible opposition to Soviet oppression, it can count on our help.” But when unrest arose in Hungary in 1956, the Eisenhower administration did not help. “The Russians were scared and furious,” Eisenhower explained privately, “and nothing is more dangerous than a dictatorship in that frame of mind.” In other words, the New Republic was right: aid would have meant war, and that, Ike said, “is no way to help Hungary.” But Hungarians had been led to believe otherwise. A Radio Free Europe survey of Hungarian refugees later found that 87% of those surveyed had expected American aid and more than half of that group expected military aid.
This tendency to use foreign policy issues for political gain sometimes produces a rather cavalier attitude toward those issues. In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy hammered his opponent, vice-president Richard Nixon, for being part of an administration that had allowed the establishment in Cuba of “a Communist satellite 90 miles off the coast of the United States.” How, he asked, could Republicans stand up to Khrushchev when they “have demonstrated no ability to stand up to Mr. Castro.” Privately, Kennedy admitted that he could not say what he would have done to prevent Castro’s rise to power. “What the hell, they never told us how they would have saved China,” he said, referring to Republican use of the China issue against Democrats eight years earlier.
There are many more examples I could cite: LBJ’s 1964 criticism of Barry Goldwater as a warmonger mere months before he himself would dramatically escalate the Vietnam war; Richard Nixon’s promise of “peace with honor” in 1968 followed by four more years of war; Bill Clinton’s 1992 criticism of George H. W. Bush’s “coddling of dictators” in China, followed a mere 10 months into his presidency by a meeting with the Chinese president that led the New York Times to conclude that Clinton “seems to have embraced much of the Bush approach”; George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign promise that he would “stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions,” followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. But you get the drift.
Lest I leave you thinking that there is nothing to be learned from tomorrow’s debate, I'd like to make one final point. Over the last century, Republicans have often found themselves divided between internationalist and isolationist factions. In the 1919 debate over Wilson's League of Nations, GOP opposition split into two groups: internationalist reservationists led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and isolationists led by Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who argued that to join the League would be to “to abandon the creed under which [the U.S.] has grown to power and accept the creed of autocracy, the creed of repression and force.”
Twenty years later, the United States was debating involvement in World War II, and once again, stark divisions arose within the Republican party. Henry Stimson, who had served as Secretary of State for Herbert Hoover, favored aid to Great Britain and joined the Roosevelt administration as Secretary of War, while Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was dead set against any involvement in the war and said in June 1941: “the forcing of freedom and democracy on a people by brute force of war is a denial of those very democratic principles which we are trying to advance.”
Eleven years later, that same Robert Taft was one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. That prospect motivated Eisenhower, who bluntly told reporters: “I’ll tell you why I’m running for president. I’m running because Taft is an isolationist. His election would be a disaster.”
From Eisenhower through the first president Bush, internationalism dominated Republican presidential politics. The combination of World War II and the cold war seemingly vanquished traditional isolationism.
But the end of the cold war created cracks in forty years of foreign policy unity. In 1992, Pat Buchanan launched a primary challenge to that preeminent internationalist president, George H. W. Bush. Announcing his candidacy, Buchanan said: “All the institutions of the Cold War, from vast permanent U.S. armies on foreign soil, … to billions in foreign aid, must be re-examined…. we call for a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”
Buchanan is enough of a student of history to know that “America First” was the name of the leading isolationist group before World War II, and that his sentiments were harkening back to that dormant Republican tradition.
Today, with America's financial resources strained, the temptation to reduce America’s role in the world is once again present. Ron Paul forthrightly says we have “a foreign policy we can't afford” and has denounced “aggressive wars … promoted by powerful special interests that benefit from war.” By contrast, Mitt Romney harkens back to World War II-era internationalism in his call for a “new American Century,” where “America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.” In the middle is Jon Huntsman, who says we "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home." Huntsman says “fixing America first"—there’s that phrase again—“will be my most urgent priority…. right now we should focus on America saving America.”
So rather than focusing on catchy one-liners, I’ll be looking for signs that this old debate within the Republican party may be re-emerging in the 21st century, and I encourage you to think about where you stand on that very important question.