Archive for the ‘Eisenhower’ Category

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940′s and 1950′s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930′s to the early 1950′s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]

 

The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928″ statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal - “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times - “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.

 

Great Speeches Week

JFKEisenhower, Kennedy and King

It is Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, a good day to remember Dr. King’s remarkable impact on the evolution of American notions about civil rights and to acknowledge the work that remains.

And, even though King made his most famous speech in August, no MLK Day is complete without remembering one of the great speeches ever delivered in the English language, his “I Have a Dream Speech” from 1963.

This week also marks the 50th anniversary of two other truly memorable speeches – Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell were he warned of the rise of the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex” and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural where he summoned the nation to “ask not” what the country can do for us.

Remarkably these two speeches – delivered just three days apart in January 1961 – speak to us still across half a century.

Eisenhower, the popular president and former five star general, it is now clear, labored at length over his final speech from the White House considering it, as his grandson says, a significant part of his legacy of public service. Fifty years later, with the American military engaged in two wars and the nation’s enormous power projected in every corner of the world, Eisenhower’s words speak an enduring truth and, like Kennedy, he called the country to informed, engaged citizenship.

As David Eisenhower told NPR over the weekend, his grandfather’s “farewell address, in the final analysis, is about internal threats posed by vested interests to the democratic process. But above all, it is addressed to citizens — and about citizenship.”

Kennedy’s great speech, delivered on January 20, 1961, can be read as a companion piece to the speech of his predecessor and it was also about citizenship and responsibility. Speaking in the context of the nuclear arms race with the then-Soviet Union, Kennedy said: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

Those words, in the context of our domestic politics today, certainly ring true.

In the age of Twitter and text messages some might argue that the spoken word or political rhetoric has lost its power to inform and stimulate. Three classic speeches we remember this week leave us with an entirely different message. Enduring truth, delivered with genuine conviction and deeply imbuded with knowledge, is always powerful.

As Dr. King so powerfully said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

All three great Americans spoke in their most famous speeches to “the ultimate measure of a man” and their words live on.

A Cross of Iron

IkeA Debate About Everything Except What Matters

President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office this week about the end of combat operations in Iraq. His advisers said to everyone who would listen that it was time to “turn the page” in the eighth year of the war – a longer period than U.S. involvement in World War I and II combined – and focus on the real threats to U.S. security in Afghanistan and to the need to rebuild the economy at home.

It was only the second time during his increasingly troubled presidency that Obama has used the Oval Office stage to talk directly to the nation and the world. We’ll see soon enough if the message got through. One certainty that is obvious, even given the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq, is that our military men and women are going to be deployed in the region for most of the rest of our lifetimes.

The consequences – budgetary and otherwise – of these open-ended deployments are hardly debated in the broad sweep of American politics, but make no mistake they are intimately connected to the roaring and constant debate in Washington, D.C. over budgets, deficits and tax cuts.

I’ve only been in the Oval Office once. Bill Clinton was president, but the real presence in that relatively small room was the ghost of everyone who has ever had the awesome and lonely responsibility that goes with sitting at that big desk in that historic house. During Obama’s speech this week my thoughts turned to the last general to sit there – Ike.

Dwight David Eisenhower had the good timing – or luck or whatever – to occupy “the Oval” during the 1950′s. The 1950′s, as David Halberstam wrote in his masterful study of the decade, was a time “captured in black and white, most often by still photographers…not surprisingly, in retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid.”

Eisenhower, a great general who mastered the logistics and planning of modern warfare, is often remembered for a laissez faire approach to the presidency. True enough in some respects. Eisenhower was slow off the mark on civil rights and his silence for too long on the excesses of Joe McCarthy have appropriately earned him low makes from historians. However, with respect to foreign affairs and the projection of American military power, Eisenhower was anything but slow off the mark or disengaged. The common sense the general/president applied to what he famously called “the military-industrial complex” is sorely missing today.

As Obama attempts to shift American attention and resources from what some have called the three trillion dollar war in Iraq to the challenge of mounting an effective counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the nation’s attention is fixed firmly on other concerns. Most Americans are much more concerned about the still stumbling economy and the rising deficit than the cost and consequences of never ending war. Yet those two issues – a hugely costly war and palpable worry about the economy and debt – can’t help but be related.

Perhaps because we don’t like to confront the cause and effect of ultra-expensive wars and the mountain of debt we face, we struggle with the cognitive dissonance of holding two conflicting thoughts in our political minds at the same time. We seem to think, and few in Congress seem willing to debate the truth of the thought, that we can pursue trillion dollar wars and contain the budget and growing debt at the same time.

The details of the federal budget – so often commented upon, but so seldom understood – can bring on the MEGO effect – My Eyes Glaze Over, but the numbers do matter. An excellent recent piece in Commonweal magazine lays it out in grim detail.

Ronald Osborn, a Bannerman Fellow with the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California, wrote the Commonweal piece. Here is part of the context Osborn provides on how military spending and the cost of ours wars is helping drive us into fiscal quick sand.

“The federal budget for 2010 is about $3.5 trillion,” Osborn writes. “Of this amount, $2.2 trillion consists of ‘nondiscretionary’ spending, or items that must be paid for by prior law, including Social Security ($695 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($743 billion), and interest on the national debt ($164 billion). These costs are all expected to rise exponentially in the coming years as the baby-boom generation enters retirement. The remaining $1.3 trillion of the federal budget is not mandated by prior law but disbursed according to our elected officials’ priorities. This is the government’s ‘discretionary spending.’ Of this amount, about $534 billion will be given in 2010 to the Department of Defense and another $55 billion to Veterans Affairs. Defense spending does not include, however, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counted as separate items in the budget under the category of ‘contingency operations.’ In 2010 alone, the wars are slated to cost taxpayers an additional $205 billion, including $76 billion in supplemental spending for 2009 expenses. And the 2011 budget, which increases the DOD’s base budget by $20 billion and the budget for the wars by another $30 billion, already includes a $33 billion supplemental request to cover 2010 war costs.”

Eyes glazed over yet? There is more.

“Even excluding ‘black operations,’ whose budgets are kept secret from the public but nearly doubled in the Bush years to an estimated $32 billion, as well as other programs with strong military overlays (such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, whose annual budget has grown to $43 billion), and leaving out the supplemental war spending this year that will appear only on next year’s books, military related spending in 2010 will total well over $700 billion – approximately 55 percent of all discretionary spending. The United States will spend nearly as much this year on its military as the rest of the world combined; and America together with its NATO allies will account for about 70 percent of global military spending.”

Osborn next points out the obvious, but regularly neglected fact that most of that spending is financed by debt. And it is not the debt of my parent’s generation. Mom and Dad bought war bonds. We borrow from China and Japan.

If you believe, as most rational folks do, including the co-chairs of the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that spending must be cut and revenues (make that taxes) increased if we are to begin to bring the deficit under control, then it just doesn’t compute to leave the costs of the endless wars floating out in budget never-never land, untouched and essentially ignored.

Ike, the old general, knew something about military spending. After all, he planned and executed the two most impressive – and costly – Allied initiatives of World War II – the North Africa invasion in 1942 and the Normandy landings in 1944. Yet Eisenhower would argue in the first year of his presidency, 1953, that a permanent war economy “is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” but, “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

One of Eisenhower’s better biographers, Michael Korda, has noted the irony of Ike’s famous farewell warning about America becoming a “garrison state” as a result of what he saw, even in 1960, as the growing influence of “the military-industrial complex.” After all, Eisenhower had spent the vast majority of his adult life as part of the vast complex that he had played such a pivotal role in mobilizing to win a war.

“Yet as early as 1945,” Korda writes, “when he had argued against using the atomic bomb on the Japanese, (Eisenhower) was beginning to have doubts about the immense influence of defense contracting and new weapons systems over American politics and policies…the day after his (farewell) speech he complained about the proliferation of advertisements in the pages of American magazines showing Atlas and Titan rockets, as if they were the only things Americans knew how to make.”

The next time you hear a political leader – Republican or Democrat – lament the cost of “entitlements” like Social Security or Medicare, while arguing for further or continuing tax cuts, ask yourself whether we can ever get the nation’s fiscal house in order without addressing the real elephant in the budget room, what the last general to sit in the Oval Office called America’s permanent war economy.