Preparing America for World War II: Franklin Roosevelt, Isolationism, and America First

By Aaron Bauer

June 1940 was a dark time in human history. After the conquest of Poland in October 1939, Hitler unleashed his armies on Western Europe in the spring of 1940. Denmark and Norway fell quickly, Belgium was overrun, and by early June, France was near total collapse. On June 10th, Italy entered the war on Germany’s side, declaring war on its former allies France and Britain. That same day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt FDR at UVAwas scheduled to address the graduating class at the University of Virginia. He used the opportunity to comment on the events transpiring across the Atlantic. Roosevelt condemned Italy’s aggression as a stab in the back, and spoke of the dangers of a world dominated by the brutal fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Going a step further, the president declared that the U.S. would “extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.”

To most Americans today, Roosevelt’s statement would seem natural, expected even, in the face of unprovoked aggression. Yet, the profound isolationism that followed the utter implosion of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist vision in 1919 still dominated U.S. politics in 1940. From 1920 onwards, the financial heft of Wall Street and the material resources of a continent ensured America’s place as an economic giant, but disengagement and disinterest were the order of the day when it came to global affairs. Throughout the next two decades, both the American people and their government saw events beyond the nation’s shores as none of their concern. Congress translated this sentiment into law in the form of immigration restrictions, tariffs, and even repeated proposals for a constitutional amendment requiring a popular referendum for any declaration of war. As totalitarian wars of conquest raged in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt had to contend with a dominant political faction at home who believed taking sides the height of folly.

In his June 10 address, Roosevelt met the isolationists head on:

Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.

Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare of a people without freedom—the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.

Leading isolationists of both parties fired right back. Roosevelt’s pronouncements were “nothing but dangerous adventurism” in the opinion of North Dakota Republican Gerald Nye. Massachusetts Democrat David Walsh decried the idea of sending armaments overseas to aid those fighting Hitler: “I do not want our forces deprived of one gun, or one bomb or one ship which can aid that American boy whom you and I may someday have to draft.” Aviation celebrity and arch isolationist Charles Lindbergh derided the June 10 speech as “defense hysteria” and argued that foreign invasion was only a threat if “the American people bring it on through their own quarreling and meddling with affairs abroad.”

This was not the first time Roosevelt and isolationists had come to rhetorical blows. When Japan began its bloody conquest of China in 1937, Roosevelt called for a “quarantine” of aggressor nations. Isolationists in Congress responded by threatening impeachment. Realizing the strength of the opposition, Roosevelt resolved to take an incremental approach. The president was very conscious of the risk in getting too far ahead of public opinion. As he put it to an aide, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”

Despite the challenges, by mid-1940 Roosevelt’s incremental strategy had begun to show signs of life. Though the overwhelming majority of the public continued to oppose direct involvement in the war, polls showed two-thirds now supported some kind of aid to Britain. Mainstream newspaper editors, who enjoyed far more influence in 1940 than the print media of 2018, came around and began to advocate for sending aid. Dr. Seuss, who in the war years drew political cartoons for the New York paper PM, mocked Republican isolationists as half-elephant/half-ostrich creature with its head in the sand (the GOPstrich). As Americans bickered and dawdled, the war in Europe was going from badchurchill june to worse. The French surrender on June 22nd left Britain as the sole nation still in the fight against Hitler. German aircraft pounded British cities and there were fears of an imminent German invasion of the British Isles. The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that getting America into the war was his country’s only hope for victory. In a defiant speech to the House of Commons that June, he promised that Britain would fight on “until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

In the face of the crisis, Roosevelt knew he must act decisively. The U.S. desperately needed to build up its army, which at the beginning of 1940 was approximately one twentieth the size of Germany’s and armed with weapons decades out of date. By the end of World War I, America had fielded the fourth largest army in the world. Between post-war disarmament and an isolationist Congress opposed to military spending and determined to shut down weapons manufacturers, the U.S. army had slid to eighteenth by 1939, just ahead of the Portuguese. To give the U.S. the time it needed to rearm, Britain had to be kept in the war. Further complicating matters, 1940 was a presidential election year, and Roosevelt had to undertake all this while running for reelection to an unprecedented third term. It would take every bit of his considerable political skill to see it done.

One of Britain’s most urgent needs was additional ships to defend her shores and commerce. Roosevelt negotiated with Churchill to trade unused U.S. destroyers for leases establishing military bases on a number of British territories in the Western hemisphere. Knowing there was no time for a lengthy fight in Congress, Roosevelt simply bypassed it and announced that the deal had been made. With characteristic deviousness, Roosevelt tried to steal some media attention from his 1940 opponent Wendell Willkie by making this announcement at the same time as Willkie’s speech accepting the Republican nomination. While Roosevelt was praised for getting the better end of the deal with the British, his end-run around Congress brought on full-throated condemnation from his critics. Willkie called the move “the most dictatorial and arbitrary of any President in the history of the U.S,” and the St. Louis Post Dispatch proclaimed “Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war. He also becomes America’s first dictator.” Public criticism aside, Roosevelt had taken an important step in forging a transatlantic alliance against Hitler, and U.S. arms sales became a crucial lifeline for the British.

Preparing the U.S. military required a far greater act of political courage. With the Army’s need to begin training an army of more than a million men as soon as possible, Roosevelt took the risky step of vigorously supporting the first-ever peacetime draft in U.S. history. On this issue, the president received key support from an unexpected quarter: Wendell Willkie. Though critical of Roosevelt’s methods and parts of the New Deal agenda, Willkie differed from many Republican elected officials in his belief that “we cannot brush the pitiless picture of their [the stricken people of Europe] destruction from our eyes or escape the profound effects of it upon the world in which we live,” and that “some form of selective service is the only democratic way in which to assure the trained and competent manpower we need in our national defense.” The selective service bill made it through Congress with bipartisan support, and Roosevelt, over the objections of his advisers, began conscription just a week before voters went to the polls. America would have a military capable of meeting the threats abroad.

Neither conscription nor Willkie’s charisma proved able to shake Roosevelt’s political coalition, and 1940 saw the nation’s first (and only) election of a third-term president. His electoral victory did not, however, signal the defeat of the forces of isolationism. September 1940 saw the formation of the America First Committee, which would become one of the largest anti-war organizations in U.S. history. Its spokesperson, Charles Lindbergh, clashed frequently with the Roosevelt administration. Largely based in the Midwest, the Committee argued that staying out of the war was vital to the preservation of American democracy and that the sending of aid weakened the U.S. and risked drawing the country into the war. Roosevelt had his own case to make, and in December delivered the sixteenth “fireside chat” radio address of his presidency to put it before the American people. If the Axis is victorious, he argued, Americans would be “living at the point of a gun.” Roosevelt pointed out the futility of negotiating, that experience had “proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.” America’s role was clear, he declared, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself.”

As 1940 drew to a close a new emergency arose: the financial underpinnings of the American aid to Britain were in dire straights. The previous year, Roosevelt had pried from Congress authorization for “cash and carry” arms sales to Britain. But after more than a year of war, Britain had nearly exhausted its ability to pay hard cash. The mess of debts that had languished after the First World War (Britain still owed the US $4.4 billion in 1934) killed any political appetite in the U.S. to loan the British the funds they needed. A creative solution was required, and fast, if American weapons and supplies were to remain on the front lines of the war. The solution came to Roosevelt, almost fully formed, while he was enjoying a post-election vacation cruise. The Lend-Lease policy, as it came to be called, was a classic Roosevelt workaround. The U.S. would lend, rather than sell, Britain the equipment it needed for the duration of the war, with the expectation that it would either be returned or Britain would pay to replace it. The president’s staff were stunned by his sudden insight. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins called it a “flash of almost clairvoyant knowledge and understanding.” “He did not seem to talk much about the subject in hand, or to consult the advice of others, or to ‘read up’ on it,” recounted speechwriter Bob Sherwood. “One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece.”

Conceiving of Lend-Lease was one thing, but getting it through Congress was something else entirely. Roosevelt’s first step was to explain the idea to the public. In a press conference, he used an accessible and compelling metaphor:

Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

The President’s critics were having none of it. Such an arrangement would inevitably entangle the country in foreign wars. Ohio Republican Senator Robert Taft, the son of former president William Howard Taft, believe that Lend-Lease would give Roosevelt dictatorial powers “to carry on a kind of undeclared war all over the world.” Charles Lindbergh characterized the policy as “another step away from democracy and another step closer to war.” But during the weeks of hearings Congress held in early 1941, the law’s supporters won the argument—public support rose from 50 percent to 61 percent and Roosevelt signed it into law in March 1941. In a time when totalitarian regimes were ascendent across much of the world, Roosevelt saw this process as exemplifying the strength of a democratic system: “Yes, the decisions of our democracy may be slowly arrived at. But when the decision is made, it is proclaimed not with the voice of one man but with the voice of 130 million.”

Even as the passage of Lend-Lease allowed for continued and increasing U.S. aid to Britain, the American public and its government remained deeply divided over the nation’s path. German submarines were sinking a lot of American supplies in transit, but public support for U.S. Navy convoys to protect them remained lukewarm (52 percent in May). Enough isolationists in Congress pledged “unalterable opposition” to convoys to block any possible action. Furthermore, large majorities opposed getting further involved, with 79 percent of Americans expressing desire to stay out of the war and 70 percent believing Roosevelt was doing enough or too much for Britain. In late May, Roosevelt exercised one of the few remaining available options and used his authority to declare an “unlimited national emergency.” This granted him additional unilateral authority to prepare the country for war by increasing the size of the military and exercising more control over the defense industry. Roosevelt announced this move in a national radio address in which he cast the war in Europe not as a local squabble, but as “a war for world domination.” He painted a bleak picture of a world culturally and economically dominated by Nazi Germany, and implored Americans to realize the danger: “Some people seem to think that we are not attacked until bombs actually drop in the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago, but they are simply shutting their eyes to the lesson that we must learn from the fate of every nation that the Nazis have conquered…”

By the summer of 1941, Roosevelt felt he had reached the limit of where he could lead the public. When Germany launched its massive invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941, Roosevelt intervened again and again to break through a reluctant bureaucracy and get aid flowing to the war’s Eastern front. Missouri Democrat Bennett Clark spoke for many when he described Nazism versus Communism as “a case of dog eat dog.” “Stalin is as bloody-handed as Hitler,” Bennett said, “I don’t think we should help either one.”

It was the German U-boats, just as in 1917, that swung public opinion decisively in favor of war. Repeated sinkings of U.S. merchant and military ships throughout 1941 that killed more than a hundred American sailors convinced a majority that war was necessary. Support for the arming of merchant ships (forbidden by a Neutrality Act passed by Congress in the 1930s) rose from 30 percent in April 1941 to 72 percent by the fall. Even so, isolationists in the Senate were able to stall a Neutrality Act revision. Roosevelt again took to the airwaves, announcing in a September fireside chat a “shoot-on-sight” policy. “No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we will keep open the line of legitimate commerce in these defensive waters…. Let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril…. When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” With public opinion continuing to shift (a September 1941 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent agreed that the defeat of Germany was more important than keeping America out of war), the revision eventually passed the Senate by a small margin.

Roosevelt once said “I am a juggler. I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” Across 1939 to 1941, he indeed performed a remarkable feat of political juggling. The president removed legal and political barriers to supplying military aid to the nations fighting Hitler, played a role in the complete reversal of public opinion on the importance of defeating Germany, and rebuilt the U.S. military from a state of near complete neglect, all the while dealing with entrenched isolationism in Congress, weathering attacks from America First, and winning the only third term in U.S. history. Roosevelt’s public leadership, along with German submarine warfare and the news of the destruction wrought by Hitler’s armies relayed by American journalists in Europe, emotionally prepared the U.S. for war. Though it was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war that brought the U.S. into the Second World War, Roosevelt’s dogged, incremental efforts to overcome isolationism were essential to prevent Axis victory in the war’s opening years. This same persistence in building up the nation’s army, navy, and military production saved precious months and years when the time came to truly get into the fight. Roosevelt had succeeded in making America an arsenal of democracy.

Sources:

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

American Warlords by Jonathan W. Jordan

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by George McJimsey

The American Presidency Project by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley

 

The Case of the Missing Monument: John Adams and Historical Memory

By Kaleena Fraga

The Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Washington D.C. is dotted with such landmarks testifying to the importance of America’s early presidents. But there is one founding father conspicuously absent from D.C.’s memorial scene–the nation’s second president, John Adams.

Even in life, Adams worried about his place in American history. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written in 1815, after both of their presidencies had ended, Adams wrote:

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”

George Washington, he predicted, and Benjamin Franklin, would be celebrated while he, John Adams, faded away into oblivion.

A few years later, the question of Adams’ place in American memory continued to gnaw at him. On top of being forgotten, Adams worried that he would be misremembered. He lamented,

“Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not——Panegyrical Romances, will never be written, nor flattering Orations pronounced to transmit my Character to Posterity in glorious Colours. No nor in true Colours neither.”

Adams is perhaps overshadowed in American history by the presidents whose administrations bookended his one term in office–George Washington, as the nation’s first president, and Thomas Jefferson, who called his own election “the revolution of 1800.” Yet Adams played a crucial role in the nation’s founding, no less so than either Jefferson or Washington.

One of the only founding fathers who did not own slaves, Adams participated in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s first vice president, and as the nation’s second president. He was a determined advocate for the Declaration of Independence, passionately defending it while the quieter Jefferson preferred to listen and watch. Although his maneuvering to avoid war with France during his one-term in office made him unpopular–and his infamous Alien & Sedition Acts even more so–Adams once grumbled:

“I will defend my Missions to France as long as I have an Eye to direct my hand or a finger to hold my pen. They were the most disinterested And meritorious Actions of my Life. I reflect upon them with So much satisfaction that I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsibility of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.”

Recently, the House of Representatives took concrete steps to establish such an Adams memorial, after years of lobbying by the Adams’ family and their foundation, the Adams Memorial Foundation. Previous attempts to organize a memorial for Adams failed over indecision over the location, running into certain laws that prohibit construction on the Mall or Tidal Basin, the kind of places most of Adams’ proponents would like to see his likeness.

In July 2018 the House passed a bill that would “establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president.” The bill’s sponsor, Stephen F. Lynch, who represents the district where Adams was born, Braintree, Massachusetts, believes that the entire Adams’ family deserves to be honored.

“John Adams’ legacy was instilled through his entire family,” Lynch said. “John’s wife Abigail is known as an advocate for women’s rights and his son, John Quincy Adams, later served as our nation’s sixth president.”

John Adams worried that he and his accomplishments would be forgotten. With the passage of the House bill, perhaps the second president will finally get the recognition that he deserves.

Julia Grant at the Corner of History

By Kaleena Fraga

Julia Grant is one of the many women largely forgotten by most Americans, yet one who bore witness to watershed moments and even likely altered the course of American history.

Part I: The End of the Civil War

Grant, née Dent, was married to the Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant. She was his steadfast companion during the war, despite her own Southern roots. She, like Mary Lincoln, endured questions about her loyalty to the Union cause–both were labeled secesh, or a supporter of secession because of their Southern roots and their families’ divided loyalties. But Julia Grant completely supported her husband and the Union. When approached in a grocery store by a woman who suggested that Julia Grant was “Southern in feeling and principle,” Grant responded, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”

Still, Grant admitted to deep melancholy after touring the fallen city of Richmond, Virginia. She described abandoned streets littered with paper “like forest leaves after summer is gone.” In her memoirs, she wrote how she left the tour feeling distraught. “I fell to thinking of all the sad tragedies of the past four years. How many homes made desolate! How many hearts broken! How much youth sacrificed!…tears, great tears, fell from my eyes…could it be that my visit reminded me of my dear old home in Missouri?”

As the two armies faced off near Richmond, and as the war began to look hopeless for the South, Confederate general James Longstreet seethed that continuing to fight was “a great crime against the Southern people and Army….[a] hopeless and unnecessary butchery.” In discussions with a Union General, Edward Ord, Longstreet suggested that his own wife could pass through Union lines and meet with Julia Grant, whom she had known as a girl, and then Julia could visit the Confederate side.

Julia Grant, for her part, was enthusiastic to participate. “Oh how enchanting, how thrilling!” she exclaimed to her husband. But when she asked Ulysses S. Grant if she could go, he refused. “No, you must not,” he said. “The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.”

The war would continue for two more months, before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Part II: Julia Grant, Mary Lincoln, and a Fateful Decline

In the end, Julia Grant’s greatest influence on the Civil War itself may be her companionship to her husband–she traveled over 10,000 miles during the war in order to accompany him as often as possible–and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant, an alcoholic, never drank when his wife stayed with him.

Yet Julia Grant would command an oversized influence on the events directly after the war. Over the course of the conflict, her husband had developed a close working relationship with the president, Abraham Lincoln, who had struggled to find an effective leader for the Union Army. As the war wound down near Richmond, Julia Grant also spent time with Lincoln’s wife, Mary.

mary lincolnTheir first meeting was auspicious. In his biography of her husband, Ron Chernow writes that it became family lore among the Dents. In their telling, Julia Grant paid a courtesy call on Mary Lincoln, only to find that the First Lady “expected [Julia] to treat her like royalty.” Mary Lincoln is infamous for her wild rages, but she had special reasons to dislike the Grants–she suspected that Ulysses S. Grant wanted her husband’s job, and he had allowed her son Robert to join him as an aide-de-camp, against her wishes.

Their relationship never improved, and Julia Grant was horrified when Mary Lincoln accused General Ord’s wife of flirting with her husband in a blistering tirade. When Julia tried to intervene, Mary Lincoln snapped, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”

A few months later, when the Lincolns invited the Grants to a night at the theatre, Julia Grant “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln.” When the president later encouraged her husband to accompany them, Ulysses S. Grant offered his regrets, joking that he “now had a command from Mrs. Grant.” Lincoln understood, saying, “Of course…Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request.”

In the end, the Lincolns invited Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. That night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth–dramatically altering the lives of everyone else in his box. Word had already spread that Grant would be accompanying the Lincolns that night, and, indeed, Booth sought to assassinate both Lincoln and Grant. We’ll never know if Grant would have been killed alongside with Lincoln, or if his military instinct might have saved both their lives.

There’s no doubt that Julia Grant played an important role during the Civil War by supporting her husband and suppressing his inner demons. Her fateful decision after the war to refuse the Lincoln’s invitation likely altered the course of events for decades to come.

Happy Summer from History First!

History First will be offline for the next two weeks–but we’ll return the week of July 30th with our usual biweekly publications.

In the meantime we encourage you to check out some of the articles we’ve written over the past few months!

We’ve written about everything from McKinley’s bad luck to Bush Sr.’s baseball game with the Queen of England. We looked back on the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial–and which speakers weren’t allowed to sit on the stage–and examined JFK’s famous speech in Berlin, putting to rest the notion that he compared himself to a donut in front of thousands of Germans. In other words, we’ve covered a lot! Check out a list of recent articles to the right, or search to see if we’ve written about your favorite presidential story.

Happy Summer!

Love,

History First

Harry Truman & the Creation of NATO: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

President Trump is in Europe this week, stirring up animosity among European allies as he rages on Twitter about their contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Trump has taken a decidedly different approach to NATO than his predecessors, and many European leaders seem to be at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new American policy. The European Council president, Donald Tusk, even went as far as to say, “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.”

TRUMP NATO
Photo Credit: Politico.com (Matt Wuerker)

For many Americans of a certain generation, NATO has always existed. So where did it come from? To answer this, we must look to Harry Truman.

Following WWII, many European and American leaders were alarmed by Soviet aggression. This led to several alliances and pacts among European countries, seeking to combine Western European defenses with the United States’ policy of containment. NATO, then, was born in part from Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” which pledged support to nations threatened by communism and sought to counter Soviet expansion.

The twelve original countries (the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Great Britain) signed an agreement that stated “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman called NATO “a shield against HST NATO 2aggression.”

NATO wasn’t a universally accepted idea in the United States. Just as isolationists had opposed President Wilson’s League of Nations, they rejected the idea of involving the United States in a multinational alliance. This push was led by Robert Taft, the son of the former president William Howard Taft, who said that NATO “was not a peace program, but a war program.” The Soviet Union felt threaten by the alliance, and created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as their own version of NATO.

After a lengthy confirmation process in the Senate, the NATO treaty was confirmed.

When Harry Truman signed the treaty on August 24, 1949 he declared:

“By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.”

Since it’s founding, NATO has fought ISIS and helped to broker peace in Bosnia. After the two world wars of the 20th century, it has maintained relative peace among European nations. In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time–this being the clause that declares that an attack on one nation is an attack on them all–in order to deliver assistance to the United States.

The world is very different than the 1940s and 1950s when NATO was born. And so is the man in the White House. Whether or not Trump continues to engage with NATO or removes the United States from the alliance all together has yet to be seen.

Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, conspiracy theories abound in today’s politics. But conspiracy theories have always had a place in American political history. On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as president, stepping into the role from the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor died in office. Taylor’s death was seen as suspicious by some, to the point that his body was exhumed 141 years after his death.

milly fillmore
Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

Taylor, after partaking in 4th of July activities on a hot summer day in Washington D.C. is reported to have downed large quantities of iced milk and cherries, which gave him a terrible stomach ache. The doctors who tried to cure him made things worse, and Taylor, a Whig, died a few days later. His vice president Fillmore was also a Whig, but had dabbled in perhaps the first (but not the last) political party born of a conspiracy theory, the Anti-Masons, who believed that Freemasons were murdering whistleblowers. They counted John Quincy Adams as one of their members. Fillmore would also later join the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party.

Taylor’s illness at the time was attributed to “cholera morbus” caused by what he ate, but suspicions abounded. Although Taylor had no known enemies–Professor Elbert B. Smith, of the University of Maryland called him the “Eisenhower of his time”–he did live in an era ripe with political tension. In the build-up to the Civil War, which would start ten years later, states continued to argue about rules pertaining to slavery, leading one Senator to draw a pistol on another on the Senate floor in the months before Taylor’s death.

Taylor was from the South and had even owned slaves, but his actions as president made many Southerners nervous. He had climbed the political rungs through his career as a soldier, and sought to damper any talks of secession among the states. Fillmore was from the North, but sympathetic to Southern interests. Once president, he helped to arrange the Compromise of 1850 which Taylor had opposed. Although the Compromise allowed California into the Union as a free state, it also hardened the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to help recover slaves who had fled their owners, and denying slaves who fled their right to a trial by jury.

Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991, after lobbying by author Clara Rising, who claimed that Taylor, not Lincoln, could be the first American president to be assassinated. She theorized that Taylor’s death could have come from arsenic poisoning, and that he had died suddenly and strangely for someone so healthy. “Right after his death, everything [Taylor] had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” said Rising.

The results of the tests done on Taylor’s exhumed body put the conspiracy theory to rest: although his corpse contained trace amounts of arsenic, it would not have been enough to kill him. It’s likely that the milk and cherries that Taylor ate did not kill the president, but perhaps exacerbated another condition–and the doctors’ attempts to save him likely made things worse.

Although Taylor didn’t live long enough to leave much of a mark on the presidency or the nation, his untimely death easily leads to speculation of what could have happened if he lived. If Taylor had served out his full term, instead of Fillmore, would it have been possible to avoid the Civil War? We’ll never know.

William Howard Taft & the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president. He was driven to the White House on the crest of his wife’s ambitions–she had wanted to be First Lady since childhood. Taft’s enduring goal was to join the Supreme Court.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

Taft had harbored this ambition since he became a superior court judge in his late twenties. Several times he got close–President McKinley promised him an appointment if Taft would accept his order to serve as Governor General of the Philippines. And President Roosevelt had similarly (twice) offered an appointment. But Taft found himself consistently answering to other callings outside of the Supreme Court–he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines and his wife, Nellie, convinced him pursue the presidency instead.

Taft didn’t especially enjoy being president–he once remarked that he hardly remembered his one term in office–and the end of his presidency was clouded by his former friend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, effectively denying either of them a chance of reelection. But Taft did leave his mark on American jurisprudence–as president, he had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Supreme Court.

taft sworn inOn October 3rd, 1921, Taft finally realized his ultimate goal and was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

As Chief Justice, Taft would oversee a court that expanded federal power, leaned conservative, and approved of Prohibition.

Many of Taft’s decisions–including a controversial ruling that allowed warrantless wiretaps of telephone conversations to be used against defendants in court–were overturned once he retired from the bench. Antonin Scalia noted that Taft, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Perhaps Taft’s greatest legacy on the Supreme Court was to increase its power and prestige. Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges’ Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court more control over the cases in its docket and took away the automatic right of appeal. Taft often pushed for unanimity among his fellow justices, believing that such a statement would increase the court’s authority.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, left a tangible mark on Washington D.C. As First Lady, she set about theSCOTUS beautify the city, and ordered 2,000 cherry trees from Japan as part of this effort. Taft too forever changed the landscape of the capitol. He lobbied Congress to put aside funds for a new Supreme Court building–the one we know today–moving the justices out of the old Senate Chamber and into a building of their own. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Of his presidency, Taft once remarked “I don’t remember that I ever was president.” He served nine years on the bench as opposed to four years as president, presiding over 250 decisions. Taft only left the Supreme Court once his health required that he do so.