In remarks before the Israeli Knesset, President George Bush implicitly conflated Barack Obama’s willingness to talk with hostile foreign leaders with appeasement of the Nazis. To strengthen his case Bush cited an unnamed Senator who allegedly said, “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland … 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.'”
The Senator to whom this quote is attributed was not a Democrat, but Republican William Borah of Idaho. If Borah is to be a negative exemplar for today’s foreign policy, the upshot is the opposite of what President Bush would have us believe.
Unlike Obama, Borah was not an advocate of multilateral foreign policy committed to engagement with an often messy and unpleasant world. Like most other Republicans in the years between the world wars, and much like President Bush today, Borah was a nationalist who believed that America should act unilaterally to protect and advance its exceptional civilization and not tie its destiny to foreign peoples and regimes.
“I obligate this government to no other power,” Borah said during the debate over American participation in World War I. No “vital issue,” he said should be submitted “to the decision of some European or Asiatic nation.”
In 1919, Borah joined with a majority of other Republicans in the Senate to defeat the Versailles Treaty that would have committed the U.S. to joining the League of Nations. America’s disengagement from the world during the interwar years contributed to the rise of Nazi aggression under Adolf Hitler. After Germany’s invasion of Poland Borah again joined with a majority of Republicans in Congress to oppose revision of the Neutrality Act to permit trade with the allies. In 1940, Borah and most congressional Republicans opposed the draft and in 1941 they also opposed the provision of Lend Lease aid to the allies. Without these measures, the Nazis would almost certainly have conquered Great Britain and possibly Russia as well.
Conservative attacks on political leaders for negotiating with our alleged enemies are nothing new. In the waning days of the Cold War, conservatives blasted one of the own, President Ronald Reagan, for pursuing arms control agreements with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1987, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and his political operative Tom Ellis formed The Leadership Coalition For Freedom Through Truth to “delegitimize the Soviet Union.” They urged Reagan to cease negotiating with the Soviets and to recognize that Gorbachev was not “a new kind of Soviet leader.” Conservative columnist Michael Johns charged that, “Seven years after Ronald Reagan’s arrival in Washington, the U.S. government and its allies are still dominated by the culture of appeasement.”
Conservative leaders Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips forged an Anti-Appeasement Coalition that compared Reagan to Hitler’s notorious appeaser, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Republican Senator James A. McClure of Idaho said, “We still have a lot of faith in Reagan but there is a lot of distrust of the negotiating process, a feeling that it leads to concessions that are unwise.”
Undaunted by such criticism from the right, Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that eliminated Soviet and US missiles from Europe. Reagan scorned conservatives who “have accepted that war is inevitable” and sold the treaty to the American people. Without the removal of these deadly, hair-trigger missiles and the mutual trust that the Treaty engendered, it is unlikely that the Berlin Wall would have fallen in 1989 and that freedom would have come to the satellite states of Eastern Europe without a single Soviet soldier firing a shot in defense of Communism.
The final irony in Bush’s revisionist history is that Borah may never have said the words that Bush quoted. The line about Hitler was not reported in the press at the time and does not appear in Borah’s correspondence. The line comes from a single source, journalist William K. Hutchinson's error-filled memoir, in which he attributes the line to a private conversation with Senator Borah.