Rand Paul and Isolationist Ghosts in the Republican Party

Allies in Asia have commented on background that they prefer Republican to Democratic administrations for national security reasons.  Certainly the tepid foreign policy of the Obama Administration has done little to mitigate these views. Given these expectations, the 2016 election could provide quite a shock. For there is the distinct possibility that the Democratic candidate could have more extensive national security credentials than the Republican. A contest, for example, between Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton would turn these presumptions upside down.

Calamitous global events of the past year, from Ukraine to the South China Sea to Syria, culminating in the beheading by ISIS of U.S. hostages, have led some to rethink emerging isolationist views. Can a Fortress America afford, as George Washington advised in his Farewell Address, "to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world?" This seemed to be the position of Senator Rand Paul as he took the national stage. As a new senator in 2011, Paul proposed a $500 billion dollar cut to the federal budget, including slashing financial grants to Israel. Paul told ABC News that “I’m not singling out Israel. I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have.”  In June 2014, Senator Paul, in discussing air strikes against ISIS, told NBCs "Meet the Press": “I’m not so sure where the clear-cut American interest is.” He noted that the Iraqi military had folded in the face of the group’s attacks: Why should the U.S. military have to intervene? Noting this record, the Washington Post pointed out September 14th that Senator Paul “was shifting his views” after the American beheadings.

For those aware of his father Ron Paul’s record on the House Committee of Foreign Affairs all of this should come as no surprise. The elder Paul’s voting record demonstrated little concern for the security of America’s Asian friends. In March 2005, China’s National People’s Congress passed the anti-secession law, formalizing the use of “non-peaceful means” by the Chinese military for certain potential contingencies on Taiwan. Quickly responding to this provocation, Committee Chairman Hyde introduced H. Con.Res. 98, expressing Congressional concern about the anti-secession law. The House voted 424-4 to support Taiwan. Among the four nays was one Republican -- Ron Paul. Hyde then responded to another priority of allies Japan and South Korea by introducing H. Con.Res. 168, condemning North Korean abductions of South Korean and Japanese citizens. The House vote was 362-1. The one negative vote cast was Ron Paul’s. Chairman Hyde would shrug his shoulders at the anomaly of a Republican colleague casting these isolationist votes.

The Pauls, however, were simply advancing the views of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party -- a wing whose views often dominated before 1952. The GOP’s national security showdown came that year in Chicago. A last-minute delegate surge at the party convention of “I like Ike” in favor of the D-Day hero Dwight Eisenhower derailed the presidential ambitions of isolationist Senator Robert Taft, the earlier favorite. Taft had opposed the NATO military alliance, a cause of concern for NATO Supreme Commander Eisenhower. Young Republican congressmen, led by war veteran Gerald Ford -- who had himself defeated a well-known Republican isolationist in a 1948 primary -- wrote to Eisenhower in Europe in February 1952 urging him to run for president. Eisenhower responded affirmatively and the Republican Party as the party of national security was born. What followed was Ike’s famous “I shall go to Korea” pledge to end a stalemated war. Later Republican presidents opened Mao’s China, ended the Cold War, and overturned Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

But such Republican robustness was not always the case. At the end of the First World War, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed the postwar world order proposed by President Woodrow Wilson. Lodge led the Senate attack on the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Lodge put forward an isolationist view for the postwar world, declaring: “The United States is the world's best hope, but if you fetter her in the interests and quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her power for good and endanger her very existence. Leave her to march freely through the centuries to come.” Unfortunately for Lodge’s vision, the world did not leave America alone “to march freely.” Washington’s absence from the League of Nations contributed to its failure to deal with crises which would impact the United States.

The Imperial Japanese Army, in the so-called Manchurian Incident of 1931, launched an invasion of northeast China. The Republic of China appealed to the League but Tokyo ignored this and moved instead to establish the puppet state of Manchukuo. The frustrated League sent a commission on a fact-finding mission to Manchuria in the spring of 1932. The resulting Lytton Report called for the “withdrawal of Japanese troops within the South Manchuria Railway Zone.” Tokyo responded by walking out in Geneva in February 1933, followed by its formal withdrawal from the League. Americans saw these events as taking place in an obscure place half the globe away, not realizing that Tokyo had embarked upon a military adventurism which would end a decade later at Pearl Harbor. A second crisis for the League involved Mussolini’s dream of a “New Roman Empire.” Fascist Italy launched a brutal invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Ethiopia appealed to the League. Speaking in Geneva in June 1936, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie issued a prophetic warning: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

As the winds of war emerged, isolationist Republicans, joined by some Democrats, advocated nonintervention to meet rising threats. A group of Yale Law students, including Gerald Ford, founded the “America First Committee” in 1940. Reaching a peak of over 800,000 dues-paying members, the Committee made famed aviator Charles Lindbergh its chief poster boy. Lindbergh followed in the footsteps of his father, isolationist Republican Congressman Charles August Lindbergh, who had opposed entry into World War I. Lindbergh claimed at America First Committee rallies that “Hitler’s destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces.” Within days of Pearl Harbor, however, the America First Committee disbanded.

One Republican transformed by Pearl Harbor was Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg. He convened the “Mackinac Conference” on September 6, 1943 to draw up a foreign policy plank for the 1944 Republican convention which would ensure GOP support for the Roosevelt administration’s postwar world order. Vandenberg wanted no repeat of the last war’s partisan foreign policy fight.   

The newly internationalist senator assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee following the 1946 elections. Asserting that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge”. Vandenberg used his position to curtail Republican isolationists and to work with President Truman to craft the postwar international order which included the United Nations (a source of continued controversy for many Republicans), NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Truman Doctrine to block communism in Greece and Turkey. Vandenberg passed away in 1951, not living to see Eisenhower’s triumph over the isolationist Robert Taft. Yet it seemed that the 1952 convention had settled matters permanently, making the Republican Party the unchallengeable party of national security.

The 2010 Republican election wave included a group of fiscal hawks and isolationists whose views reflected Ron Paul rather than Vandenberg. With a balanced budget a priority, they joined antiwar Democrats in seeking to reduce the defense budget to pre-Pearl Harbor preparedness levels. They used the axe of sequestration to slash further, ignoring rising crises just like the pre-World War II isolationists. They expressed the view that America’s front-line friends were “rich enough” to defend themselves or “needed to take care of their own problems.”

Eisenhower, it turns out, did not bury forever the Republican isolationists at that long-ago convention. Their ghosts have recently risen again, just as increasing global chaos makes national security again a key issue. The large field of potential Republican presidential candidates includes both veterans from the national security wing as well as foreign policy novices and some isolationists. The question is: will the isolationist ghosts prevail at the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016?