How the 1952 Republican Primary Killed Offshore Balancing

Reuters
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 the end, foreign policy proved to be his undoing. In the April 1952 issue of The Atlantic, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. identified Taft as a member of a group of “new isolationists” and as a “man of transition trying hard to come to terms with the modern world.” Taft’s foreign policy constituted the “last convulsive outbreak of an old nostalgia.” Taft found it impossible to shake off the label of isolationist, which was effectively applied by his political opponents to discredit his foreign policy ideas. His support of McCarthyism also sowed deep concern. Harper wrote that his pro-McCarthy stance, along with his foreign policy, showed that “he was capable of taking to demagogy and doing it with breathtaking abandon.” By the time of the Republican Convention in Chicago in July 1952, Taft had accumulated 530 candidates to Eisenhower’s 427. The convention was hotly contested. Taft supporters controlled the Republican leadership including the Republican National Committee. Republican leaders engaged in chicanery that became known as the “Texas Steal” to seat pro-Taft delegations from Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana despite the overwhelming public support for Eisenhower in those states. Following the adaptation of a so-called Fair Play Amendment to convention rules, made possible by Eisenhower supporters striking a deal with Senator Richard Nixon for California’s votes, the delegates from the three states were awarded to Eisenhower enabling the General to win the nomination.

 

In September 1952, Taft officially endorsed Eisenhower for the presidency, noting in the statement that he could not “agree with all of General Eisenhower’s views on the foreign policy to be pursued in Europe and the rest of the world,” but qualifying that these differences were only ones “of degree.” Notably, Taft also expressed his skepticism regarding Eisenhower’s announcement that he “would lead a great crusade for freedom in America and freedom in the world,” and his call for the “liberation” of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Taft cautioned: “I agree that liberation should be our goal, but I can’t see us starting a war for that purpose.” Taft in all likelihood would have lost to either one of the Democratic candidates. In a June 1952 Gallup poll, “Eisenhower was favored over Stevenson in a trial heat by 59 to 31 percent, and over Kefauver by 55 to 35 percent. Both Democrats led Taft, Kefauver by 50 to 41 percent, Stevenson by 45 to 44 percent.” Consequently, it goes without saying that even with a Taft primary victory, offshore balancing would likely not have been adopted as a national security strategy.

Once Eisenhower was installed in the White House, Taft was at loggerheads with the administration over its refusal to cut defense spending and its endorsement of Truman’s containment strategy and internationalist outlook. He consequently urged a “complete reconsideration” of the United States foreign and defense policies, yet to no avail: The Eisenhower White House continued the Truman administration’s containment strategy and its commitment to collective defense in Europe and continuing the buildup of the U.S. 7th Army there. Even the 1953 “New Look” emphasizing nuclear weapons over conventional capabilities did not impact the increase of American troop levels in Europe. Taft’s only token victory was his push for the installment of “air and sea power champions as new chiefs of staff,” as Patterson notes. Yet, as Colin Dueck notes, Taft and Eisenhower had a much more common vision of foreign policy than was appreciated at the time: “They agreed, for example, on the need to keep a tight lid on foreign aid, defense spending, and expensive new commitments abroad, while pursuing a vigorously anti-Communist foreign policy. Both were attracted to the strategic uses of atomic airpower, in order to keep costs down (…).” 

In early 1953, Taft restated one of the core tenets of his offshore balancing strategy: instead of relying on NATO, it might be more advisable to focus on “arming the British and French to create centers of strength against the Russians.” Taft was diagnosed with cancer in May of the same year. That same month, his son Robert Jr., on his behalf, delivered Taft’s last major public address at a conference. In it, Taft restated the central tenets outlined in A Foreign Policy for Americans. First and foremost, he outlined his opposition to committing U.S. land forces to a war in Asia and Europe. He also reiterated his doubts about NATO. “I have always been sceptic of the military practicability of NATO,” Taft said, adding that he harbored doubts how “United States ground forces could effectively defend Europe.” Instead, he emphasized that the responsibility for the defense of Europe should rest with the Europeans. Recognizing a perceived global threat, however, he granted the imperative to stop international communism “where it occurs and where it is within our means to stop it” (emphasis added). In this regard, he would differ markedly from the New Right Republican 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who not only advocated for substantial increases in defense spending but also wanted to roll back communism and did not shrink from threatening a (nuclear) war to do so. In the end, Taft wanted to preserve for the United States “a completely free hand” in foreign policy in line with his idea of the United States acting as a balancer underpinned by air and naval superiority and nuclear weapons. 

Conclusion 

The 1952 Republican Primary was the last time that a leading GOP presidential candidate offered a serious alternative vision to the bipartisan containment policy, principally centered around NATO in Europe and liberal interventionism, until the end of the Cold War in 1989. That alternative, outlined by Sen. Robert A. Taft, and identified in this article as offshore balancing, aimed to offer the United States more flexibility in dealing with the perceived growing geostrategic threat emerging from the Communist states of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Taft, in his book A Foreign Policy for Americans, called for a selective containment strategy, built on regional centers of strength on the periphery of the Eurasian landmass, protected by superior U.S. nuclear-capable air and naval power. These centers of strengths would prevent the Soviet Union or China from ever achieving regional hegemony over Europe or Asia. U.S. ground forces would only be committed as a last resort. In the end, Taft’s idea would have been politically unfeasible and militarily perhaps even ill-advised. “The senator never recognized the value of NATO’s American divisions and never understood the necessity of a balanced force deterrent to Soviet aggression,” Clarence E. Wunderlin concludes in his biography of Taft. As we now know, however, the Soviet Union never had any intention of starting a military conflict with the West in Central Europe. 

Despite his track record in the 1940s, Taft decidedly was no isolationist by the time he ran for president in 1952. Eisenhower and his supporters used the term out of political expediency and to discredit him. To this day, the isolationist label has largely stuck with the senator. For example, in his 2018 book, The Age of Eisenhower, the historian William I. Hitchcock introduces Taft as the “recognized leader of the isolationist faction” in January 1951. (Taft has also been cast as “quasi-isolationist.”) This was partially the result of his own historical record, his inconsistencies in pronouncing his policy positions, but also the result of a quickly growing consensus that emerged among the post-war foreign policy elite in the United States equating doubts about the NATO alliance and the stationing of a substantial number of ground troops to Europe and Asia as tantamount to isolationism and appeasement.

Taft was thus an imperfect messenger for a new U.S. global strategy. Fatally, he had fallen out of step with his times. As Patterson notes: “Fearful of commitments abroad, he reflected broad currents of thought about foreign policy more suited to the 1920s—or even the late 1960s than to the frightening years spanned by Hitler and Stalin.” Colin Dueck adds: “Perhaps the best one can say is that Taft represented with genuine conviction an older tradition of small-town, midwestern, conservative non-intervention whose passing was not altogether beneficial for the United States. Taft was a useful corrective. He never stopped warning of the dangers of overextension abroad, or concomitant risks to limited government at home.” 

A more nuanced interaction with Taft’s case for offshore balancing would perhaps have been of benefit to Washington back then as now as many of the problems that Taft foresaw with a more interventionist U.S. foreign policy, notably allied burden-sharing and excessive defense spending, exist to this day. As we enter a new decade and debate the future direction of U.S. foreign policy, it is then perhaps useful, if not urgent, to revisit Taft’s world vision, despite his failure to trigger the foreign policy debate that the country needed in 1951. As the 34th president of the United States once stated, remember to “never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”

Franz-Stefan Gady is a research fellow focused on future conflict and the future of war at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Twitter.