Our Foreign Policy


By ROBERT A. TAFT, U. S. Senator from Ohio Delivered before the Saturday Discussions

Committee of the National Republican Club, New York City,March 2, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 345-348.

FRIENDS of the National Republican Club and of the radio audience:

I hope to discuss today the extent to which foreign Policy is likely to enter into the elections of 1940, and how far it is an issue today. I do not think that the details of foreign policy should enter into political campaigns or political debate. Foreign policy in the first instance is the function of the Executive.

Although the express powers given by the Constitution of the United States to the President in respect to foreign relations are quite limited, there is no doubt that from the beginning of the government, because of the nature of such relations, the courts have held that the President's power ispredominant in that field. The nation cannot speak with a multitude of voices. The Supreme Court said:

"In this vast external realm, with its important, complicated, delicate and manifold problems, the President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude; and Congress itself is powerless to invade it."

Unless some great principle is involved, therefore, I have never felt disposed to criticize the President on incidental matters, such, for instance, as withdrawing an Ambassador from Germany, not withdrawing an Ambassador from Russia, or sending Mr. Welles to sound out the foreign nations on the subject of peace.

The President has necessarily more knowledge of facts than any one else can have, and each problem is a practical one, depending largely on the facts of the particular case.

On the other hand, Congress, and particularly the Senate, is given extensive powers and duties with reference to any government action other than negotiation in the foreign field. Only Congress may regulate commerce with foreign nations. Only Congress may declare war. Only Congress may raise and support armies, and provide and maintain a navy, although the President is Commander-in-Chief when they are raised or provided. Only Congress has power to act in the field covered by the Neutrality Act involving the embargo of shipments abroad, restraint on American ships, restraint on the loaning of money or credit to foreign nations.

The President is responsible for what this nation says to foreign nations, but he must be very careful in his statements as to what this nation will or will not do, because, unlike executives in European countries, he has not the final power to put his foreign policy into effect.

With regard to fundamental questions of foreign policy, I do not at all agree that they may not enter into partisan debate and campaigns. Of course no man's position should be guided by a selfish partisanship, but then neither should selfish partisanship enter into the discussion of domestic policies. But if the President, for instance pursues a policy likely to lead us into war, I believe it is the duty of every American who disagrees with that policy to say so frankly and in as loud a voice as possible. No question of foreign or domestic policy concerns the people of this country, for instance, so much as the possibility of becoming involved in war. The democratic process demands that they have a voice in that policy, but the discussion of foreign policy should certainly take place without rancor or personal recrimination. In that spirit I wish to discuss the position of this country in the world today.

Outside of North and South America today, we see a world at war. Implements of destruction predominate in Europe and in Asia. Cities and helpless civilians are bombed. Ships of belligerents and neutrals alike are sent to the bottom, often without warning, by mines, submarines and bombs. It is inevitable that our people are intensely interested in these contests, and intensely interested in the question of the extent to which they may affect their daily lives and the future of their children. There is real danger that the entire civilization of Europe, built up through thousands of years, with its historical landmarks and all its tremendous humanitarian accomplishments, may be utterly obliterated.

At the special session of Congress in October, we considered only questions of foreign policy. According to the peculiar rules of the Senate, debate was prolonged for six weeks on the amendments to the Neutrality Act, although everything that could be said was probably said in the first two weeks. But the delay served one great purpose—it encouraged and developed an intense debate throughout the nation on the question of American policy abroad. Serious differences of opinion developed as to the proper course which might tend to keep the United States out of the European war. Hardly two Senators took exactly the same viewpoint on all the amendments. But before the session ended it became apparent that the American people, above everything, were determined to keep out of war, and differed only as to the best methods.

There was a serious difference of opinion on the question whether the repeal of the arms embargo would involve us in war. I voted for that repeal and the establishment of the cash-and-carry principle for several reasons. In the first place, I believed that the cash-and-carry principle was more likely to avoid incidents which might lead to a serious dispute between ourselves and one of the belligerents. Unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships and American lives was the cause of our entrance into the World War. I think that reason has justified itself. No American ships have been sunk and no incidents have arisen likely to lead toward war, whereas practically every other important neutral nation has lost both ships and lives.

I believed that the policy of arms embargo was more likely to promote war than prevent it. As a matter of fact, I proposed the repeal of the arms embargo as long ago as April 25, 1939, before the President recommended it. It favored large nations with all the facilities for the manufacture of arms against small nations which do not have those facilities. It favored continental powers with access to resources over the land against sea powers which have always traded with us and relied upon their trade with us. It favored warlike nations which build up their armaments in times of peace against those nations which, hoping for peace and relying on treaties, fail to pour vast sums into armament. In short, it favored the aggressor against the peaceful nation. The attack of Russia on Finland has brought home to the people of this country how much a general policy of arms embargo would assist aggressor nations to wipe out all the smaller neutral nations in the world.

In any event, more than three months have gone by, and there seems to be no threat of our becoming involved in the war today. Today the President is for peace and keeping out of European affairs, but it is not unfair to point out I that public opinion in behalf of peace seems to have changed the President's own attitude toward involvement in Europe. On November 16, 1937, in Chicago, he declared his belief that we should "quarantine" the aggressor nations. In his message to Congress on January 4, 1939, he went even further and said:

"The defense of religion, of democracy, and of good faith among nations is all the same fight. To save one we must now make up our minds to save all. . . . We have learned that God-fearing democracies of the world which observe the sanctity of treaties and good faith in their dealings with other nations cannot safely be indifferent to international lawlessness anywhere. They cannot forever let pass, without effective protest, acts of aggression against sister nations. . . . The mere fact we rightly decline to intervene with arms to prevent acts of aggression does not mean that we must act as if there were no aggression at all. . . . There are many methods short of war, but stronger and more effective than mere words, of bringing home to aggressor governments the aggregate sentiments of our own people."

It is somewhat difficult to see how we can defend religion, democracy and good faith in other nations by any policy of mere defense of the United States. It is difficult to see how we can protest against international lawlessness effectively by mere defense of the United States. The President can only have intended to propose that this country employ economic sanctions or embargoes against a nation that it does not like, while at the same time assisting those that it does like by loans and other material assistance.

The President has done nothing up to this time to returnto his earlier policy, but it is somewhat disturbing that in his address to Congress on January 3 of this year he said nothing with regard to maintaining neutrality, and emphasized the fact that he was opposed only to becoming involved in military participation in the war. He implies that we still have some duty to interfere abroad when he says: "Of course the peoples of other nations have the right to choose their own form of government. But we in this nation still believe that such choice should be predicated on certain freedoms which we think are essential everywhere. We know that we ourselves will never be wholly safe at home unless other governments recognize such freedoms." This language seems to imply a right and duty to interfere in foreign wars because of the character of government adopted by some of the belligerents.

I do not feel, therefore, that the President has wholeheartedly accepted the declared view of the people of this country that we must stay out of war except in defense of our own land. It is right, therefore, to discuss the reasons which lie behind our present determination to stay at peace. I believe those reasons are not based on sentiment or on any ostrich isolationism. They are based on precedent and sound logic.

War Glamour Destroyed War is so horrible today that the reasons against it, unless forced by direct national interest are obvious to all. The glamour and romance of an earlier day, always largely imaginary, have been completely destroyed by the modern methods developed in the World War and since. No man wants to spend months or years himself in the trenches. Every parent dreads the day his or her sons might sail away to war.

But it is said that we cannot stay out, and maybe people still seem to feel that because we chose to participate in the World War we must inevitably be drawn into this war. Certainly we can stay out if we are determined and remain determined to do so. We have stayed out of many European wars. If we admit that we cannot stay out, we will be perpetually involved in war, for Europe's quarrels are everlasting. There is a welter of races there so confused that boundaries cannot be drawn without leaving minorities which are a perpetual source of friction. National animosities are traditional and bitter. Only in this country have they been laid aside and have the different races learned to live together in peace. In George Washington's Farewell Address there is one statement which is as true today as it was then. He said:

"Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns."

It is difficult for us to know what is really going on in Europe, or the reasons which underlie the decisions of European governments. I have little sympathy with those who assume to judge all European statesmen, to criticize so-called power politics in Europe, who say in fact: "A plague on both your houses." There is just as much right and wrong in European quarrels as in any other quarrels.

When I see the freedom of independent nations like Czecho-Slovakia, Poland and Finland destroyed, my deepest sympathies are aroused in their behalf. It is contrary to human nature to have no sympathies between contesting European nations, but because we sympathize with one side is no reason why we should run onto the field and try to play in the game.

Of course we can stay out if we wish to do so. Holland and Switzerland stayed out of the World War, althoughthey were in the very midst of it. We have an isolated position, and it is still isolated in spite of all the improvements on sea and in the air. In fact, developments in this war seem to show that effective aerial attack cannot be made over any considerable distance. I find that many people who say that we cannot stay out, at the bottom of their hearts do not wish to stay out. Certainly this argument presents no reason for not trying to stay out.

It has been widely argued that we should enter the war to defend democracies against dictatorships. The President's own expressions even this year have indicated a leaning to this belief. No one can sympathize more than I do with the success of democratic governments against dictatorships. No one desires more strongly than I the end of communism and Nazism, but I question whether war is the effective method of destroying them. Our experience in the World War did not indicate that we could interfere in European quarrels and work out any permanent or satisfactory solution. The World War did not even save democracy, but resulted in the creation of more dictatorships than the world has seen for many years. Nothing is so destructive of forms of government, particularly forms of democratic government, as war.

Our going to war would be more likely to destroy American democracy than to destroy German dictatorship. There are pending in Congress measures designed to have the government take over all business and property, fix prices and wages, and regulate every detail of private employment and commercial life. The President already has statutory power to take over the railroads and manufacturing plants in case of war, and the radios and public utilities in case of threatened war. I have little doubt that he would exercise most of these powers. Mr. Edison, the Secretary of the Navy, demands that additional arbitrary powers be granted at once, and we have been warned by Mr. Johnson, the Assistant Secretary of War, that private business would be regulated in every detail by the government.

In the World War we granted extensive powers, but actually accomplished results largely through cooperation of industry. The so-called mobilization of wealth, however, carried out in a New Deal spirit, might well result in the complete socialization of all property. I doubt whether we would ever see again real operation of private enterprise or real local self-government in the United States. We might retain the forms of democracy, but we would be likely to find ourselves with an absolutely arbitrary government in Washington, and a plebiscite every four years to determine who should control it. A government by plebiscite will not long remain a democratic form of government.

I believe we will do the cause of democracy much more good if we maintain our neutrality, and show that a great nation can get through a crisis of this kind without abandoning democratic principles. There is only one way to spread democracy throughout the world—that is by snowing the people that under democratic government they are more likely to have peace and happiness than under any other form. Democracy spread through the world in the nineteenth century from our example, and it can do so again.

The horrors of a modern war are so great, its futility is so evident, its effect on prosperity and happiness, and democratic government itself, so destructive, that any alternative seems to be preferable except the subjection of this country to physical attack or the loss of its freedom.

Foreign Policy Not Issue Now The people's determination to stay out of war is so strong that I have little fear of any involvement before the electionof 1940, and therefore I hope that there will be no major issue of foreign policy in that election. But if it becomes apparent that the President has reverted to his former views, and moves to involve us in any European quarrels, and if the nominee of the Democratic party sympathizes with that policy, then foreign policy will be an issue in the 1940 election. I feel confident that the Republican party will not sympathize with that view, and that the nominee of the Republican party, if elected, will keep us out of war during the next four years if it is humanly possible to do so. The Republican party is a peace party; the Democratic party may or may not be a peace party.

Congress has before it today two or three other questions of foreign policy. A bill has been prepared authorizing loans to be made to Finland for non-military supplies, so that the Export-Import Bank may loan Finland a total of $30,000,000. In general, I do not approve of giving the Executive power to lend money to foreign nations, which our experience shows is unlikely to be paid. Nor do I generally favor the idea of loans to countries engaged in actual warfare. But foreign policy is largely a practical question. Every situation is different, and we may even desire to adopt in one part of the world a policy entirely different from that followed in another. Our guide should be the peace and welfare of the American people.

It seems to me that Finland presents a special case. There is no possible issue involved in the present war except the freedom of a small, independent and democratic people. With such nations we have always sympathized. We assisted the South American republics struggling for their freedom. We actually went to war because of the oppression of the Cuban people.

Certainly we do not wish to be drawn into a war as distant as the Arctic and Baltic Oceans, but such a loan as has been authorized will certainly not involve us in war. The only nation which can object is Russia, and Russia is estopped because it denies that there is a war. I do not even see how a reasonable objection can be made to the sale of arms to Finland, or the contribution of money for that purpose. Finland alone among the European nations paid its debts to the United States, and we have taken more than $5,000,000 of Finnish money, whereas Russia, which should have paid a much larger sum, has completely defaulted. We certainly owe something to the Finnish people.

The Far Eastern situation presents an even more difficult problem. There is urged on Congress today an embargo on all trade with Japan, with the claim that our trade alone makes possible the continuation of Japan's attack on China.

In the first place, I believe that a change of such importance in normal foreign policy should be initiated by the President and the Secretary of State. Unless with their knowledge of the facts they recommend a policy of embargo against Japan, I certainly do not think that Congress should adopt it. Many considerations are involved, such as the real condition of public opinion in Japan, the possible success of a Japanese attack on the Philippine Islands, the question of whether an embargo by the United States would really deprive Japan of any materials which could not be obtained elsewhere. A Congressional policy of embargo, without the sympathy of the State Department, would be much more likely to lead to war. I certainly would not be disposed to force any policy of embargo except on the recommendation of the Executive.

While it is not nearly so dangerous to become involved in a war in the Pacific as in the European war, I believe our people desire to avoid any such probability. Frankly, I have not been able to make up my own mind how far the United States can go in assisting China against an unwarranted attack without becoming involved in war itself. A war in the Pacific is even more to be avoided while war exists in Europe, for the two are not likely to remain completely separate and apart. In any event, I feel convinced that the Japanese question should not be an issue in the 1940 election, and I sincerely hope that it will not be.

Another important policy having a bearing on the foreign relations of the United States is that of the reciprocal trade treaties which are now under consideration in Congress. There is no doubt that these treaties may be made a means of establishing more friendly relations with some foreign nations. On the other hand, as administered they have at times sacrificed the interests of American producers, farmers and working men. I believe that the old method of making treaties in Congress led to almost prohibitive tariff walls. I believe that Executive tariff-making under definite standards is a better method. If tariff-making is delegated to the Executive under a proper standard, it is desirable to do it through trade agreements so that we have some return for concessions that we make.

On the other hand, the present trade agreements have been administered by Secretary Hull, who is a pronounced freetrader, and Congress has imposed no standard to guide his action. Last year I introduced a bill to provide that no treaty should go into effect until it was published and until the Tariff Commission certified that the new rates were not in excess of the difference in cost of production here and abroad. Before such certification, all those concerned should be given a full hearing before the Tariff Commission which is to make this determination. Some of the violent protests now made may not be justified; others I know are justified. No real opportunity to be heard has been given. In short, I believe in the protective principle, particularly under conditions such as exist in the world today. I see no reason why our farmers, manufacturers, workmen and minerals should not be protected against depreciated currencies, starvation wages and foreign subsidy. If there is to be any science regarding the making of tariffs, it must follow a definite standard.

I have tried to outline for you the present situation. I may well emphasize again that each question of foreign policy depends upon practical conditions which surround it We may appear to be entirely inconsistent in adopting policies regarding Europe, regarding South America, regarding the Far East, but there is certainly a consistency—that policy is the welfare of America and the American people. Unless our territory is attacked, that happiness is best secured by peace and neutrality. But we all feel some obligation to prevent hardship and suffering throughout the world. We are spending billions to assist Americans in distress, and a few millions for relief and foodstuffs for the foreign populations will meet the approval, I believe, of the American taxpayers no matter how heavily burdened they may already be.

The Republican party believes that partisanship should not enter into the discussion of foreign affairs, but it is determined that the policies of the government shall be guided by the wishes of the people and not by the doctrinaire theories which have so often dominated the Democratic party.