Saturday, March 25, 2006

Saturday mailbag: More on Robert A. Taft

I'm going to inaugurate something new: the Saturday mailbag.
Every weekend, I'll try to respond to comments and queries that I receive in emails or in posts on this blog. I reserve the right to be highly selective, for two reasons: (1) My aim is only to advance the conversation, not engage in ripostes, and (2) I don't want to detract from the usual Saturday priorities, most of which involve doing as little as possible.
Having said that, let's talk some more about Robert A. Taft. A goodly number of emailers, and a University of Virginia professsor, have asked for more information about the Taft quote that I posted here a few days ago, on March 22, about the importance (and patriotism) of questioning a commander-in-chief in wartime.
His words matter, because there has always been an intrinsic tension in the American experiment: between minority rights and majority rule; between diversity and conformity; between respect for the straight-shooting loner and the desire for a shared identity. And these tensions are generally more acute in wartime.
So here's the full context:
At the time of Pearl Habor, Senator Taft of Ohio was the undisputed leader 0f the Republican right, the most anti-FDR faction in politics. He and his followers detested the New Deal and were concerned that the new war would stifle their right to dissent. So Taft decided to confront the issue.
His remarks, as previously quoted here, were delivered in a speech to the Executive Club of Chicago on Dec. 19, 1941 (full disclosure: I previously said that he spoke a week after Pearl Harbor; actually, it was 12 days).
As far as I can determine, a complete transcript is not available anywhere on the Internet. I first stumbled across an excerpt in the spring of 2003, when historian Arthur Schlesinger used it during a commencement address in Indiana. (Schlesinger repeated the excerpt here, last November.)
After my initial find in 2003, I spied other chunks of the Taft speech in other places. For instance: "The duties imposed by the Constitution on senators and congressmen certainly require that they exercise their own judgement on questions relating to war." And here's another, questioning FDR's Pearl Harbor preparedness - all this, at a time when bodies were still in the water: "Perhaps the fault in Hawaii was not entirely on the admirals and generals."
From what I can tell, from checking my own history books and FDR biographies, it doesn't appear that Taft was ever told by the governing party to "shut up" (as John McCain said to Jimmy Carter in March 2003, when the latter tried to question the new Iraq war) or that Taft was ever treated like the Dixie Chicks.
Indeed, Taft was behaving just like the backwoods freshman congressman who opposed the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846-8, who assailed the U.S. troops even as they fought, charging that the troops had "marched into peaceful Mexican settlements and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes." He charged that President Polk was waging war to win votes, and some critics did think he was being treasonous. But today the face of that backwoodsman, Abraham Lincoln, is on the coins in your pocket.
So that's the Taft story, though I doubt that every American would find his arguments persuasive. Pat Boone, for example, probably wouldn't.