A relentless theme in the commentary on Ron Paul is that he is not really a Republican, mainly because he dissents from the party on foreign policy. People now associate the Republican Party with crazed war-mongering, massive military spending, and relentless conflict-seeking, to the point even of a messianic global crusade on behalf of American imperial control.
This is madness, and Ron Paul does dissent. But is he really departing from Republican tradition? In the 1990s, the GOP opposed Clinton’s wars in Somalia and Serbia. It denounced nation building as an extension of the domestic planning state. But those were short-lived moments. The party reverted to its war-mongering self after Bush came to power.
So for a genuinely non-interventionist policy within the Republican Party we need to go back further to the last of the great statesmen of mid-20th century America: Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, also known as Mr. Republican. His 1951 book A Foreign Policy for Americans was a huge seller and exercised vast influence.
These were highly confusing times when Republicans were sure that FDR’s wartime alliance with Russia, and especially Yalta’s empowerment of Stalin in Europe, were grave errors. So on one hand, they wanted to show that Russia was not a force for good in the world, and, in fact, represented a threat to liberty as grave as that of Nazi Germany. On the other hand, they strongly suspected that Truman was “triangulating” the issue of the Russian threat to Europe as a way of stealing a Republican issue for Democratic policy advantage. They were aghast at the flip-flop on the issue and feared playing into the hands of a new form of Democratic nationalism.
So Taft, in this book, is walking a fine line: warning against the Russian threat as a way of scoring anti-FDR points but also being careful not to exaggerate it in a way that would bolster the Truman plot to use the fear of Communism to extend the American empire. More on the complexities here can be found in Rothbard’s seminal work, Betrayal of the American Right, which everyone who seeks to understand this period in American political history must certainly read.
Hence, what is striking about this Taft book is not so much the specific policy recommendations but the principles that underlie what Taft considered to be the true Republican foreign policy.
I offer, then, words from the first Mr. Republican on the true principles of a Republican foreign policy:
The truth is that no nation can be constantly prepared to undertake a full-scale war at any moment and still hope to maintain any of the other purposes in which people are interested and for which nations are founded.
In the first place, it requires a complete surrender of liberty and the turning over to the central government of power to control in detail the lives of the people and all of their activities.
While in time of war people are willing to surrender those liberties in order to protect the ultimate liberty of the entire country, they do so on the theory that it is a limited surrender and one which they hope will soon be over, perhaps within a few months, certainly within a few years. But an indefinite surrender of liberty such as would be required by an all-out war program in time of peace might mean the final and complete destruction of those liberties which it is the very purpose of the preparation to protect.
Furthermore, the destruction of that liberty in the long run will put an end to the constant progress which has characterized this country during its 160 years of life, a progress due more than anything else to the freedom of men to think their own thoughts, live their own lives, and run their own affairs.
It would require a complete surrender of all of our material and humanitarian aims to increase the standard of living of our people and of the people of our allies. All of those standards of living would have to be reduced, because even the most optimistic do not feel that we can have all the guns we want and all the butter we want at the same time.
It would be impossible to conduct any such all-out program without inflation. In World War II, in spite of complete controls, we saw an increase in prices, apparently permanent, of about 70 per cent, a depreciation of the dollar to sixty cents. I doubt if any government spending program calling for half the national income could be undertaken which would not involve an increase in prices of at least 10 per cent every year and a corresponding depreciation in the value of the dollar.
This would mean the destruction of savings and life insurance policies. It would mean a constant race between prices and wages. It would mean hardship for millions, and doubt and uncertainty for many millions more. It would mean constant domestic turmoil and disagreement.
Finally, it would interfere with the very production which is the great basis of the strength of the United States and to which not only our own people but all of our allies look for ultimate victory if there should be a war with Russia.
The truth is, also, that the most foresighted person could not set up a preparation that would protect us against every conceivable contingency. One or two Pearl Harbors might lay us open to a dangerous attack. We have to choose those measures which will give us the most complete protection within our reasonable economic capacity.
In short, there is a definite limit to what a government can spend in time of peace and still maintain a free economy, without inflation and with at least some elements of progress in standards of living and in education, welfare, housing, health, and other activities in which the people are vitally interested.
The question which we have to determine, and which apparently nobody in the Administration has really thought through, is the point at which we reach the economic limitation in time of peace on government expenditures and a military program. After that we must choose between the various measures contributing to our defense, to determine which are of first importance and which can be ignored without serious danger. (pp. 69—70)
An unwise and overambitious foreign policy, and particularly the effort to do more than we are able to do, is the one thing which might in the end destroy our armies and prove a real threat to the liberty of the people of the United States….
And when I say liberty I do not simply mean what is referred to as “free enterprise.” I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and to live; the liberty of the family to decide how they wish to live, what they want to eat for breakfast and for dinner, and how they wish to spend their time; liberty of a man to develop his ideas and get other people to teach those ideas, if he can convince them that they have some value to the world; liberty of every local community to decide how its children shall be educated, how its local services shall be run, and who its local leaders shall be; liberty of a man to choose his own occupation; and liberty of a man to run his own business as he thinks it ought to be run, as long as he does not interfere with the right of other people to do the same thing.
We cannot overestimate the value of this liberty of ideas and liberty of action. It is not that you or I or some industrial genius is free; it is that millions of people are free to work out their own ideas and the country is free to choose between them and adopt those which offer the most progress. I have been through hundreds of industrial plants in the last two or three years, and in every plant I find that the people running that plant feel that they have something in the way of methods or ideas or machinery that no other plant has. I have met men said to be the best machinists in the industry who have built special machines for a particular purpose in which that company is interested.
Thousands of wholly free and independent thinkers are working out these ideas and have the right and ability to try them out without getting the approval of some government bureau. You can imagine the difference between the progress under such a system and one in which the government ran every plant in the country as it runs the post offices today. There would be one idea for a hundred that are now developed. If any plant employee had an idea for progress and wrote to Washington, he probably would get back a letter referring him to Regulation No. 5201 (c), which tells him exactly how this particular thing should be done, and has been done for the past fifty years.
It is clear to me that the great progress made in this country, the tremendous production of our people, the productivity per man of our workmen have grown out of this liberty and the freedom to develop ideas. We have the highest standard of living, because we produce more per person than any other country in the world.
After the American Revolution and the French Revolution the whole world became convinced that liberty was the key to progress and happiness for the peoples of the world, and this theory was accepted, even in those countries where there was, in fact, no liberty. People left Europe and came to this country, not so much because of the economic conditions as because they sought a liberty which they could not find at home. But gradually this philosophy has been replaced by the idea that happiness can only be conferred upon the people by the grace of an efficient government. Only the government, it is said, has the expert knowledge necessary for the people’s welfare; only the government has the power to carry out the grandiose plans so necessary in a complicated world.
Those who accept the principle of socialism, of government direction, and of government bureaucracy have a hard time battling against the ideology of communism. Our labor union leaders cannot effectively fight communism, as such, because they favor a socialist control that comes very close to communism in the actual measures which are to be undertaken. Even our statesmen seem to be handicapped in the same way.
Thus, Secretary Acheson only a year ago stated: “To say that the main motive of American foreign policy was to halt the spread of communism was putting the cart before the horse. The United States was interested in stopping communism chiefly because it had become a subtle instrument of Soviet imperialism.”
With this point of view I emphatically disagree. I believe that we should battle the principles of communism and socialism and convince the world that true happiness lies in the establishment of a system of liberty, that communism and socialism are the very antithesis of liberalism, and that only a nation conceived in liberty can hope to bring real happiness to its people or to the world. (pp. 155—117)
Robert Taft understood that freedom at home was tied to seeking peace abroad and avoiding entangling alliances that lead to war. Would that today’s Republicans would listen to him — and to Ron Paul.