How the 1952 Republican Primary Killed Offshore Balancing

April 24, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: PoliticsRepublicansRussiaSoviet UnionEisenhower

How the 1952 Republican Primary Killed Offshore Balancing

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory in the 1952 Republican primary ended offshore balancing as an alternative to the bipartisan containment strategy and a more interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

In addition, rather than relying solely on NATO, the United States would focus on building “centers of strength”—key allied nations around the periphery of the Eurasian landmass, centered on three strategic regions: Great Britain and France in Europe; Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Japan and Taiwan in East Asia. These centers of strengths would prevent the Soviet Union or China from ever achieving regional hegemony over Europe or Asia and would receive both U.S. economic assistance and arms shipments. However, he envisioned the relationships with these countries not be based on long-term defense pacts, but rather ad hoc alliances as they existed in nineteenth-century Europe. Notably, Taft also thought the military defense of Germany and the entire Middle East region as practically impossible for the United States and fiscally wasteful. Yet, fueled by a militant anti-communism, Taft suggested any nation that needed “to resist aggression from without” or battle “armed Communist forces within” would be eligible for direct military aid. Moreover, Taft thought that superior air and naval forces would enable the U.S. to bring all of the world’s island nations under the U.S. air-naval-nuclear umbrella: “A superiority in air and sea forces throughout the world can achieve other purposes than mere defense. It can protect all island countries, Africa and South America.” 

Taft decidedly did not rule out the deployment of U.S. ground troops around the globe, but foreseeing a more limited role: “A land army is necessary for the defense of air bases, further defense of islands near the continental shores and for such occasional extensions of action into Europe, Asia, or Africa as promised success in selected areas.” In congressional debates in early 1951, Taft also called for a U.S. Army size of 1.6 million men (the size of the U.S. Army in 1950 was just under 600,000 men). However, he was adamant about the avoidance of land war against the Soviet Union and Red China. Rather, the United States would act as a balancer around the periphery of Eurasia, deploying its military ground forces selectively and only in conjunction with strong allied forces rather than shouldering the principle burden in ground campaigns, as had been the case in the Korean War. In essence, this was an asymmetric approach to offset the Soviet Union’s principal strength as a land power underpinned by Taft’s fundamental belief that the United States should be “maintaining a free hand to fight a war (…) in such a manner and in such conditions which are changing so rapidly in the modern world.” 

When it was published, A Foreign Policy for Americans received a number of favorable reviews. General Douglas MacArthur, for example, called the book “masterful.” Yet, it overall failed to impress. While Time Magazine noted in a review that Taft could no longer be called an isolationist, it added that he “lacks any dynamic sense that United States efforts can help make the world situation less unsatisfactory.” A review in the Dayton News noted that the book revealed Taft had only reached “an intellectual acceptance of limited internationalism. On the surface is a layer of reasoned thought which is genuine, but which is extremely thin. Scratch it every so lightly, and Taft’s emotions are laid bare.” 

One problem was that the book was fiercely partisan, which resulted in numerous contradictions. For example, despite advocating an offshore balancing strategy and the avoidance of land war in Asia, Taft criticized the Truman administration’s limited military support to South Korea. He also repeatedly criticized NATO, the United Nations and other institutions, while still professing his support, albeit reluctantly, for them. The Dayton News review called this Taft’s old predilection of “yes, but.” Another problem was that the senator was a fierce ideologue and attacked those who saw the Soviet Union as constituting a “purely military threat” insisting that the Soviets, once militarily deterred, would turn to “propaganda and infiltration” with “the final battle between liberty and communism (…) fought in the minds of men.” It is thus not unsurprising that Taft was not only a strong supporter of McCarthyism and advocated purging the federal bureaucracy of communists, but also advocated sabotage and infiltration of communist countries. 

Looking at his offshore balancing strategy, Taft’s book also revealed various inconsistencies.

First, the United States was already committed to the defense of Western Germany and was an occupying power. Taft wrote that NATO essentially meant the “extension of the Monroe Doctrine to Europe” and acknowledged that withdrawing from Germany would practically be inviting the “communization” of the entire country. “We have several divisions of troops in Germany, and if a war arose we would inevitably be involved in that war.” Second, his offshore balancing strategy would still depend on the maintenance of a host of foreign U.S. military bases, which hardly limited the U.S. military footprint around the world. Third, Taft’s de-facto advocacy for unilateralism and his suggestion that the U.S. become a global balancer while avoiding long-term defense commitments would have meant the end of NATO.

Unsurprisingly, it was this fear that cemented Eisenhower’s decision to contest Taft’s nomination in 1952. As James T. Patterson writes in Mr. Republican, Taft’s book could have spurred a serious debate about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, especially his belief that the United States’ role in the world had its limits: “Thus he doggedly insisted on holding military spending, on giving greater attention to domestic needs, on controlling presidential discretion in dispatching troops, and on questioning the wisdom of long-term defense pacts.” Yet as Patterson laments: “The trouble was that he did not stop there. Instead, he called for a militant pose in Asia and demanded worldwide propaganda, including infiltration of communist lands. He persisted in adopting a moralistic stance about communism, especially in Asia. (…) Had he avoided these inconsistencies—which had co-existed in his thought for many years—he might have stimulated the real debate over foreign policy that the nation needed in 1951.” 

In that sense, even prior to the 1952 primary, Taft’s offshore balancing strategy stood a very small chance of being adopted by the United States given the multiple inconsistencies and contradictions in Taft’s outline of this new strategy. Nonetheless, the publication of the book itself, the only book that Taft ever wrote, should be seen as evidence of the systematic approach the senator intended to take when considering the future direction of U.S. foreign policy.

The 1952 Primary 

Taft wrote A Foreign Policy for Americans to tout his foreign policy credentials as he had clear plans of entering the 1952 presidential contest. The book was published in November 1952, barely a month after Taft announced his candidacy for the presidency on October 16. Taft pledged to “bring liberty rather than socialism” to the White House, yet he reserved his biggest criticism of the Truman administration when it came to foreign policy, vowing not to repeat the Democrats’ “fatal mistakes” that led to the “buildup of Russia and the Korean war and other disastrous occurrences.” Political pundits knew that the Republican primary would boil down to a showdown between Eisenhower and Taft.

Throughout most of 1951, Taft had dismissed Eisenhower’s candidacy—Ike only officially entered the race in June 1952—but once it became clear that Eisenhower was committed, he attempted to dissuade the General by downplaying the differences between them in matters of foreign and defense policy. In October 1951, he notably publicly stated that he would support the stationing of six U.S. Army divisions to Europe or “even some reasonable addition.” In January 1952, he announced: “I have written a letter which has been shown to the General assuring him that I am anxious that the European Project be carried through completion . . . I can see no difference between us on the subject.” The latter statement infuriated many Taft supporters within the Old Right.

Eisenhower’s broad appeal among Republican primary voters quickly became evident. Despite not officially running, the General was on the ballot in the March 1952 New Hampshire primary, and without personally campaigning achieved a crushing victory over Taft. “I probably will lose the presidential preference primary,” Taft confided in private. Yet GOP party bosses and other supporters encouraged him to stay in the race. He was still considered to be the frontrunner for the nomination. By May of that year, following a number of primary victories including Wisconsin and his home state of Ohio, Taft had accumulated a lead in delegates over Eisenhower.

In his primary campaign, Taft focused on the future direction of U.S. foreign policy, liberally citing his book during campaign events. He was at pains to distance himself from his mentor and standard-bearer of the Old Right, former President Herbert Hoover, who in December 1950 in a widely heard radio broadcast criticized the Truman doctrine and the country’s interventionist foreign policy. Hoover declaimed that the United States should become the “Gibraltar of Western Civilization” in the Western Hemisphere, protected by superior air and naval power, and abandon collective security in Asia and Europe. “I don’t believe that anyone who is actually responsible for foreign policy in early 1953 could at the time take as drastic action as you propose,” Taft told Hoover in early 1952. While Taft continued to express his willingness to dispatch U.S. troops abroad, he was also adamant about not committing ground troops to Vietnam, where the French were battling an insurgency. “No United States troops should be sent to that strife-torn region,” he said in January of 1952. Rather than solely advocating a foreign policy of restraint, however, his anti-communist fervor often got the better of him, and he time and again appealed for a “crusade of propaganda for liberty throughout the world,” seemingly contradicting his own offshore balancing strategy.