The Lion of Idaho

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William E. Borah and the Progressives

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The latest fad among leftist historians, according to the New York Times, is the study of the conservative movement. "By marrying social and political history," the Times announced, "this new wave of scholarship is revising the history of Americans on the right"—a prospect that is at once depressing and potentially rather promising.

 

The depressing part is that the title of the Times piece, "Leftist Scholars Look Right At Last, And Find A History," is the exact opposite of the truth. For the sad fact is that, with a very few outstanding exceptions, these are the only people who have ever shown the slightest interest in this subject.

Leftist interest in the history of the right dates back to the post-war fulminations of Theodor Adorno, the Marxist sociologist whose book, The Authoritarian Personality, "scientifically" proved that all opposition to Roosevelt II was not just wrong but pathological. This theme was readily taken up by the liberals of the I950's. Daniel Bell, in his anthology The Radical Right, and Richard Hofstadter, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, added their own twist to Adorno's psycho-smear by characterizing rightist dissent as evidence of "status resentment" on the part of the hoi polloi against the rising managerial class. During the late 50's and throughout the 60's, the tireless team of Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein, and a host of others, churned out dozens of "Fright on the Right" books, and a genre was born, thick with such lurid titles as Apostles of Discord, Prophets of Deceit, Danger on the Right, The Troublemakers, The Yahoos, The Strange Tactics of Extremism—you get the idea.

Of the standard works in the field of "conservative studies," few venture further back than 1945. Clinton Rossiter's Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion does not even mention the America First Committee, organized by conservative opponents of FDR's drive to war and the biggest right-wing movement in American history. George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 is similarly silent on the subject. The hidden history of the Old Right has so far been recognized by only a handful of historians, notably Wayne S. Cole, Justus Doenecke, and Paul Gottfried.

The Times finds it "puzzling" that "more conservative scholars themselves haven't mined this history." Yet it is not at all puzzling. John Judis (William F. Buckley Jr.'s biographer) and Bill Rusher (in The Rise of the Right) would have us believe that before the advent of National Review there was only Darkness and Old Night. Constrained by ideology from acknowledging that the right was once solidly anti-imperialist, the conservative establishment and its right-wing social democratic allies are deeply invested in maintaining this myth.

Today's academic leftists are bound by no such constraints. These young scholars are eager, says the Times, to write a "pots and pans history" of the American right, "which looks at the everyday lives of ordinary people, from young organizers to activist housewives, from religious-minded business entrepreneurs to isolationists." Any inquiry into isolationism, properly understood, will break the embargo on research into the pre-war right, and uncover its populist and progressive Republican roots. As Cole has shown, particularly in Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-45, looking for the roots of the Old Right means digging in the rich soil of the populist-progressive movement. In doing so, historians will discover how these critics of capitalism, industrialism, and the market evolved into a populist libertarian opposition to the New Deal.

The progressive Republicans in Congress were a diverse lot who nonetheless shared a regionalist, ruralist outlook, in contrast to the cosmopolitan internationalism of the cities. They championed the small businessman and the farmer against the depredations of the railroads and Eastern bankers; stood for the democracy embodied in popular referenda, party primaries, and the direct election of senators against the inherent elitism of party politics; jealously guarded the constitutional legacy of the Founders; and fought against forging entangling alliances abroad. They were the last Jeffersonians, whose insight into the workings of the new "planned capitalism" was perceptively expressed by the man Cole describes as "one of the most impressive, scholarly, and powerful of the Western progressives," Senator William E. Borah of Idaho: "The concentration of wealth always leads, and has always led, to the concentration of political power. Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel."

Borah was the kind of senator that Jesse Helms pretends to be. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee starting in 1907, and until the ascension of FDR, he was the ever-vigilant guardian of American sovereignty, the intractable nationalist whose stentorian voice and oratorical eloquence were mighty weapons wielded to great effect against every scheme to drag us into the intrigues of Europe, from the League of Nations to the Lend-Lease Act. The "Lion of Idaho"—so-called by the Kansas City Star because "when Borah starts, it's just like a lion getting out on a circus ground, everybody hunts a high pole and holds their breath until they hear they got him back again"—was the exemplar of the Midwestern populist-progressive spirit in its purest and fiercest form.

Borah was a farm boy from Illinois who went West, took up the law, and, in 1887, wound up in Idaho, where he gained fame for prosecuting syndicalist labor leader "Big Bill" Haywood for the murder of the state's former governor. The trial, and the fact that it was a fair one, devoid of red-baiting, gave him a national stage. Active in Republican politics, he was an insurgent from the beginning, allying himself with the "Free Silver" wing of the GOP. He soon returned to the regular Republican fold, "free silver" having died as a campaign issue, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1906 on a platform of direct election of senators, government ownership of railroads, restrictions on the trusts, tariff protection for agricultural products, and free trade in manufactured goods. Inveighing against the marriage of capital and state, Borah and his fellow progressive Republicans formed a regional bloc that continually attacked the predatory monopolism of the Eastern "interests." This placed him in direct opposition to the powerful head of the Senate Finance Committee, Nelson W. Aldrich, leader of the Old Guard Republicans and father-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Aldrich did not immediately realize this. When Old Guard Republicans questioned the choice committee assignments of the freshman senator from Idaho, Aldrich is said to have remarked, "Oh, he's all right," and pointed out that "he is the attorney for seven different corporations." But when the Senate Committee on Education and Labor began introducing legislation to improve working conditions for railroad workers and investigating the 12-hour day and seven-day workweek in the iron and steel industries, Aldrich contacted Borah's Idaho clients. Borah confronted Aldrich in the Senate corridor: "Why didn't you come to me direct?"

"I thought my plan was the better one," Aldrich replied.

"To save you the trouble hereafter," Borah said, "I will tell you that I severed all relations with corporation law practice when I was elected to the Senate."

"That was a pity," observed Aldrich.

As financial titans fought an economic war that pitted the rising Rockefeller interests against the House of Morgan, Borah and the progressives responded by launching a "fight for the preservation of the little man, of the small, independent producer and manufacturer, as a fight for a sound, wholesome, economic national life," as Borah put it. The progressive cause, he averred, is "a fight for clean politics and for free government."

When that old bugaboo of the prairie populists, the Money Trust, unleashed its drive to establish a banking cartel, and the first legislation creating the Federal Reserve was introduced by Aldrich and his allies in the guise of banking "reform," Borah denounced the scheme: "Not satisfied with giving over to private interest... monopoly of currency and credits, it gives them the astonishing privilege to say how much [currency] we shall have or not have." Borah realized that the whole panoply of "reforms" pushed through Congress—antitrust legislation, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, etc.—were just fig leafs for the continuation of monopolism. "Enacting a law which says that unfair competition is unlawful" while leaving vague "just what does constitute unfair competition" aroused his suspicions. "This strait-jacket" of regulation, he warned, "will be far more embarrassing to small competitive firms" than to "great combinations." In a trenchant analysis that sums up the aims and origin of business regulation in this era, Borah remarked that "most of the fellows who should have been jailed" under the Sherman Antitrust Act "turned reformers and went into politics."

Borah's initial clashes with President Wilson were over the possibility of southward expansion. Mexican democratic reformer Francisco Madero was overthrown and assassinated by the caudillo Victoriano Huerta. Wilson demanded that Huerta hold democratic elections and absent himself from the running. The President, averred Borah, had "announced a policy the inevitable logic of which was war with Mexico." Borah's own ingrained nationalism led him to understand how Mexicans could only resent such meddling: Mexico must be left to work out its own salvation. Wilson had denied that the United States was embarked on a policy of continental domination, but "that is what we said while taking New Mexico, California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines." If the American flag "ever went up in Mexico it would never come down." Not only that, he prophesied, the United States would not stop until it had absorbed everything north of the Panama Canal. As American troops intervened in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Santo Domingo, and made good on the investments of New York banks, Borah lamented that the Monroe Doctrine had become an "instrumentality of imperial aggression." In taking on the burden of empire, we would cast aside forever the cultural homogeneity that was the bedrock of our republican institutions. If we took foreign peoples under our wing, it would be impermissible to treat them as subjects—and dangerous to admit them to the Union. The Mexicans, Borah observed, had no more idea of representative government "than I have of the technical value of Beethoven's music."

While turmoil across the Rio Grande claimed Borah's attention, war clouds were gathering on the other side of the Atlantic. When the Lusitania went down, he declared that this in no way compared with "the act of hunting out, robbing, assaulting and murdering American citizens," which had become commonplace in Mexico. American citizens who insisted on the "right" to travel on the armed ships of belligerents should proceed at their own risk; and yet, the rights of neutrals must be protected. Although Robert LaFollette, Sr., his fellow progressive, fought against Wilson's request for a declaration of war and delivered a four-hour peroration against the President on the Senate floor, Borah voted a reluctant yes, filled with foreboding: "I join no crusade; I seek or accept no alliance; I obligate this Government to no other power." He often said that of all the votes he ever cast in the Senate, this is the one he regretted most. He fought Wilson's war-time suspension of civil liberties, the anti-German witch hunt, the infamous Espionage Act, the closing down of newspapers, police raids against suspected "subversives," and vocally abhorred conscription: "I am unwilling to Prussianize this country in order to de-Prussianize Germany."

The war transformed Borah—or completed a metamorphosis already in progress—just as it transfigured an entire generation of American liberals from witless internationalists to embittered critics of the "merchants of death." Borah denounced the Treaty of Versailles because it meant that the United States would be pledged to defend the status quo in Europe and around the world. The secret treaties of the victorious Allies turned what had been sold as the emancipation of Europe into a reenactment of the Congress of Vienna. Once again, the map was carved up by the imperial powers. The dream of our youth had been sacrificed on the altar of European intrigues.

To Borah, American imperialism was the policy of various "interests." He exposed the role of these "interests" in planning gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, fought to end America's intervention in Russia, and excoriated our European allies for defaulting on their war debts. Franco-American friendship would endure, he thought, but the French "had spent too much time in contemplating that part of the Lord's prayer which read forgive us our debts." This did not endear him to the French, whose sobriquet for the Idaho isolationist was "Dog Borah." When Clemenceau visited America in November 1922, Borah refused to serve on the greeting committee; in a Senate speech, he charged that the sole theme of Clemenceau's speech to his American hosts was one of "punishment, of vengeance, of anticipated war. We are invited back to the Old Europe, with its secret treaties, its secret diplomacy, its militarism, its imperialism, and it is that policy the American people are asked to furnish their money, their means, and their men to enforce."

As the European vultures feasted amid the ruins of a continent, Borah gave eloquent expression to the disillusion and revulsion of the American people. He was in fine form on the Senate floor, leading the so-called Irreconcilables in their unyielding opposition to Wilson's League of Nations: "If the Savior of mankind would revisit the earth and declare for a League, I would be opposed to it." Borah's great fear was that the "interests," financially and socially linked to British banks and French financiers, sought to yoke us to our faithless Allies by means of a transnational power that would enforce "peace" at gunpoint. These European ingrates would "plunge us into the storm center" of European politics. In Borah's view, the Covenant represented the triumph of British imperial diplomacy: without having to fire a shot, the British would maintain control of their vast empire. Not only that, but the League would in effect reverse the results of the American Revolution: what the colonists had taken from George III, they would relinquish to George V.

As Wilson toured the country in support of the League, Borah dogged his every step, rallying the country against the sellout of American sovereignty. At the Chicago Coliseum, he strode up and down the stage, thumbs hitched in his armpits, and engaged in a spirited dialogue with the audience: "Do you want a League you can't get out of?"

"No, no," shouted the crowd.

"Is there an American who wants a foreign nation to say when and where the Monroe Doctrine should apply?" Borah asked.

The audience yelled: "Never!"

"England has suggested (all England has to do now is to suggest) that we send 100,000 men to Constantinople," he told them.

"Don't let them go," they yelled.

"Yes, they will go," Borah said, "but without the consent of the American people."

Barely two years after the armistice, a three-sided arms race had begun involving Japan, Great Britain, and the United States. The stern nationalist who had once gone along with Wilson's "preparedness" campaign was now the Senate's most active disarmament advocate; the arms race was "a crime against humanity," said Borah. War with Japan within a quarter-century was inevitable unless the military build-up was shelved and reversed. We must focus, he insisted, on the defense of the continental United States.

As Europe trembled with the seizures of the coming madness, Borah feared the political and economic impact of a flood of refugees, which would only draw us into the maelstrom of foreign intrigues. At the height of the Depression, with 12 million unemployed, the idea of admitting more immigrants aroused Borah's indignation; it could not be justified "by any theory of patriotism or humanity."

The Crash of 1929 saw Borah arguing fiercely for unemployment relief. Hoover and the Old Guard were appalled: Senator Simeon B. Fess, Republican of Ohio, was so emphatic in his attack on the federal relief bill that his knuckles bled as he pounded home his point that relief would make its recipients dependent on the dole forever. Borah replied that Fess and the Old Guard did not hesitate to vote for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which put big business on the dole, and yet none worried about the effect that this might have on the moral character of millionaires.

Borah and his fellow progressives had fought for many "leftwing" causes: unemployment insurance, better working conditions, the income tax, antitrust laws, and public ownership of utilities. Yet they reacted to the New Deal with varying degrees of outraged horror, instinctively alerted to its revolutionary intent. Borah held his tongue until the threat was acute, then attacked the National Recovery Act as the dictatorship of the trusts, the death knell of the independent businessman, and the end of constitutional government in America. The badly shaken GOP, mesmerized by FDR, was galvanized, and rallied around the first Republican to challenge That Man in the White House.

When FDR openly bid for dictatorship and proposed to pack the Supreme Court, and the New Dealers went around exclaiming that the Constitution represented "the ox-cart system," Borah disdainfully replied that "the ox-cart should and will have a high place at the bar of history." Working with dissident Democrat Burton K. Wheeler, Borah mobilized congressional opposition to the court-packing scheme and handed the President his first legislative defeat. The New Deal steamroller was stopped dead in its tracks—but a battle was soon brewing on another front.

As the financial and political elites revved up the war propaganda machine, Borah bitterly observed that the same forces that had dragged us into the first Great War were ineluctably drawing us into a second. British lecturers once again bestrode the country, spreading the propaganda of Anglo-Saxon solidarity. Just as in the Great War, the conflict between the Allies and the Axis powers was a clash of empires, a scramble for colonies and economic concessions, not a crusade for democracy and humanity. He would not be duped again.

As German armies blitzed Poland, the Low Countries, and France, Borah mustered all his resources for the last and greatest fight of his life. The 74-year-old Senator, who was quite ill, manned the battlements as the President launched an assault on the Neutrality Act. In this important legislation, Borah and his fellow "isolationists" had constructed a mighty bulwark against the threat of intervention. By stopping the flow of American arms to the belligerents, the Neutrality Act was designed to insulate the United States from attack, maintain legitimate commercial ties with all parties, deprive American munitions makers of war profits, and prevent us from being drawn into foreign conflicts by the logic of events. This huge obstacle on the road to war was removed only after a long debate, which reached its climax with Borah's speech to the Senate. Passionately reasserting the idealism that had inspired the passage of the Neutrality Act to begin with—the desire to stop the spread of weapons of mass murder—his voice rose, then fell to a whisper as he neared the end of his peroration: we were embarked on a course that could only end in war, but it was not too late to turn back.

Borah's last speech was a denunciation of a proposal by Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison to give the President dictatorial powers over industry in peacetime. While the interventionists pointed with alarm to the alleged threat from abroad, "the most vicious enemies of human liberty, the most dangerous to free institutions are the treacherous foes who seek shelter under the laws and institutions which assure free speech, free press, and personal liberty, and then make use of this shelter to destroy the government which protects them." Edison's proposal embodied all the worst fears of the progressive isolationists and their conservative allies: that we would fight National Socialism in the trenches and embrace it at home.

Borah died in January 1940, before the tragedy had completely unfolded. Yet he was hopeful, even at this late hour. Though the world looked to be marching in lockstep toward a totalitarian future, and liberty was seemingly in ignominious retreat, "the little democracy of Finland," bravely and singlehandedly holding off the Soviet advance, "had demonstrated to the world the falsity of this cowardly lie." Had he lived, his optimism may well have been tempered by the triumph of the forces he had fought all his life and the utter defeat and extinction of the old-style liberals, of which he was one of the last.

Borah's Old Guard Republican enemies considered him a dangerous radical, but his credo was more accurately described by Walter Lippmann in 1936 as "a lineal descendant from the earliest American liberals, an individualist who opposes all concentration of power, political or economic, who is against private privilege and private monopoly, against political bureaucracy and centralized government." He kept a notebook of his favorite quotations, and one entry by Oliver Goldsmith seems to summarize his personality and politics: "Great minds are bravely eccentric; they scorn the beaten track."

Borah's evolution from prairie radical to isolationist reactionary was a measure of change not so much in the man as in the world he confronted: the liberalism of 1906 was deemed reactionary in 1936. In a short time, a whole generation of American liberals found themselves exiled to the other side of the political spectrum—without having changed their own fundamental stance.

This sudden switch in political polarities, a general inversion of the traditional categories of left and right, has occurred three times in our history. Before 1914, liberalism meant opposition to imperialism and war, while conservatives were the sons of Ares; in Borah's last days, liberals were doing the war-mongering, and the right was pushing peace. The Cold War saw yet another shift of foreign policy values, with the right militantly internationalist and the left reinventing isolationism. In the post-Cold War world, it is happening again, as the contents of this magazine make plain. If leftist historians are now engaged in a serious project of "revising" the history of the American right, let them recognize this transformative phenomenon—and its implications for their own "liberal" creed. 

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