"Is Isolation Dead?"


By Dr. D. F. FLEMING, Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

Broadcast Over Radio Station WSM, Nashville, Tennessee, November 22, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 110-111.

IT is generally agreed that the most pronounced verdict of the recent election was in the field of foreign relations. A majority of the voters wanted the present Administration both to finish the war and organize the peace.

This conclusion is supported not only by the re-election of the President but by the results of the Congressional elections. In the House of Representatives a number of outstanding isolationists were defeated. Representative Hamilton Fish of New York was at last retired. In Minnesota Representative Maas, who specialized in laying the war with Japan at the door of the Administration, failed of re-election. In Illinois, Stephen A. Day, who like Fish was publicized by pro-Nazi organizations, was beaten by Mrs. Emily Taft Douglas, a leader of the Illinois League of Women Voters. Mrs. Douglas defeated Day by a substantial majority in a state-wide vote for Representative-at-large, while Senator Scott Lucas of Illinois won against an isolationist backed by the Chicago Tribune.

Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who at one time largely convinced us that our part in the last war was a mistake, failed to be re-elected, along with Senator Danaher, of Connecticut, one of the most rock-ribbed isolationists. Both Nye and Danaher voted against the lend-lease law, as did Senator Gillette, of Iowa, who was defeated on November 7. Other Senators with isolationist records who will not be in the new Senate include Reynolds of North Carolina and Bone of Washington, who did not stand for re-election; Holman of Oregon, Clark of Missouri and Clark of Idaho, who were defeated in the primaries; and probably Senator Davis of Pennsylvania, when the soldier vote is counted.

The absence of these men from the Senate will make a very distant difference when the peace treaties come before that body. Other Senators who voted against many measures directed against the aggressors, such as Senator Taft of Ohio, were barely re-elected, with very small pluralities. Perhaps their opposition to the post-war treaties will be milder than it would have been without the emphatic trend away from isolationism in the election.

It would have been a contradiction indeed had the voters re-elected the President and failed to weed out some of the leading isolationists. Such a result would have cast doubt on the validity of our democratic processes. But the voters did discriminate. They retired isolationists who would have obstructed the peace settlements and sent new men to the Senate who will support international collaboration. Outstanding among these is Governor Saltonstall of Massachusetts, who will reverse the role of Henry Cabot Lodge after the last war. President Roosevelt carried Massachusetts, but Saltonstall went to the Senate by a huge majority, winning national notice for himself as a future Republican leader.

Other new Senators who may be depended on to back constructive peace settlements include Moses of North Dakota, McMahon of Connecticut, Hoey of North Carolina, Johnson of South Carolina, Morse of Oregon and Donnell of Missouri. It makes a big difference when several determined voices in opposition to a treaty are replaced by supporters of the treaty.

Unquestionably the voters gave a mandate to the President and the Congress to place us in a new League of Nations, in a position of leadership. The fatal mistake of 1918 when we gave President Wilson a hostile Senate has not been repeated. This time the President's friends and supporters will control the Senate. It will not be possible for the opposition to pack the Foreign Relations Committee and hold up the treaties for many months, as in 1919, while opposition to them is mobilized from every quarter of the nation.

Basically our chances of making a constructive peace this time have been very much improved by the election. On the other hand, it is well to remember that the Constitution still requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate for the approval of treaties. This means that one objector can kill the votes of two supporters of a treaty. The opposition to a new League of Nations does not need to get a majority of the Senate; it only needs to vote one-third of the Senators present plus one. If all Senators should be present, or paired, 33 votes are required to defeat a treaty. A majority of the Senate can be for it and an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives, as in the case of the World Court, but a third of the Senate can nevertheless prevail. We elect 531 members of the House of Representatives and Senate, but 33 Senators can defy all the others. In other words, one-sixteenth of the entire Congress can defeat any treaty.

This is bad enough but the actual situation is still worse, because of the Senate's extreme reluctance to limit debate. There is a way of bringing an interminable debate to a close, but the process requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate and nearly all Senators are very chary about forcing the end of any debate for fear that they themselves might want to talk interminably against something in the future. That is why any determined band of objectors to a treaty can postpone a decision for a long time, even when the Administration party controls the Seriate.

Any peace treaty that comes before the Senate will also have to surmount another very high hurdle, I refer to the Senate's custom of making amendments and "reservations" to the treaties. This is an old and deep-seated habit. It goes back to the beginning of our government. When treaties came before the Senate in the early days they looked exactly like proposed laws to the Senators, and were treated as such. Other governments protested when the Senate changed the terms of a signed treaty, but usually gave in eventually. They could do so when treaties were not a matter of life and death to nations, and when they were signed merely between two governments.

When great multilateral treaties, like the League of Nations Covenant, came along, signed by dozens of governments, the case was manifestly different. Yet the Senate calmly proceeded to change the League Covenant by a long list of "reservations," exactly as if it had been a post-office appropriation bill.

This business of making amendments and reservations is the real fortress from which the isolationists can still imperil the passage of any treaty. They can profess to be for the new League of Nations in general, but against this detail and that. All they ask is just a few little reservations to clear up the points which trouble them. This is an old, old methodof killing a treaty. We may be sure that its use will be attempted by the unregenerate isolationists who are still in the Senate.

There are always some real friends of the treaty, also, who become troubled about one point or another, honest men who earnestly desire to make the treaty perfect for Uncle Sam, whereas a treaty signed by many nations cannot be perfect for any one of them. It can only be acceptable, on the whole.

It is the presence in the Senate of well-intentioned Senators who become perfectionists which makes it easy for any group of men who want to kill a treaty to gather recruits for reservations and amendments. Here, too, the two-thirds vote plays into their hands. The opposition does not have to muster 33 votes in the Senate to terrorize the Administration; it only needs to begin to gain a little strength from the honest reservationists. When a dozen determined objectors support the well-meant reservations of other Senators, those in charge of the treaty become alarmed for fear that the fatal 33 votes will be amassed by the opposition and begin to concede reservations.

This is the process that will need to be watched closely when the treaties come before the Senate. For this reason it is important for everybody to scrutinize the list of hold-over Senators. How many Senators of isolationist bent still remain in the Senate? I have before me two lists of Senators who generally voted isolationist before Pearl Harbor. One list contains the names of thirty Senators who will still be in the new Senate. That is only three short of the 33 Senators necessary to defeat any treaty. It may be that some of these men with isolationist records will take note of the election returns and fail to offer their reservations to the peace treaties.

I have, however, another compilation of the voting records of 26 Senators who voted against all, or nearly all, of eleven vital "stop-Hitler" measures before Pearl Harbor. Of these 26 Senators 17 will be in the Senate during the next two years. The famous "bitter-enders" who ensured the death of the League Covenant in the Senate is big enough to imperil the life of the new League of Nations charter, under the two-thirds rule. If the 17 Senators who were always isolationist until Pearl Harbor struck them wish to do so, they can stage a campaign for reservations which will gather support and begin the process of whittling away the new League charter.

In this event only an alert public can defend the verdict registered at the polls in November. The surviving isolationists in the Senate are numerous enough to endanger the new League of Nations, if they can sense any winds of reaction blowing back in the direction of the isolationist position which they defended so long.