Deja vu: Republicans fracturing over Ukraine, just like Korea
A Democratic president is saddled with a stalemated war against an alleged existential threat. Embattled and increasingly unpopular, his approval ratings hover in the mid-30s. A disorganized but emboldened Republican Party assail the White House for its foreign policy missteps and expensive domestic agenda.
The arc of history, at home and abroad, appears to be plateauing under the weight of unmet expectations and intransigent opposition.
Much had changed since President Truman secured an upset electoral victory to claim a term all his own. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans sensed a golden opportunity to wrest control of the federal government for the first time in decades, particularly on the issue of the Korean War. However, despite their change in political fortunes, the Republican party remained divided in its vision for America in the world and how it criticized the quagmire in Korea. It was October 1950.
The comparisons between Truman’s final two years and our current time of turmoil offer intriguing parallels. Both then and now, the United States and Russia were involved in an escalating cycle of tensions predicated on different visions for global order. While the origins and costs of the Korean War and the Russian invasion of Ukraine differ, each constituted the first significant conflict in a U.S.-Russia confrontation which initiated major political change within the United States. However, that is where the comparisons may end.
During the height of the Korean War, a range of foreign policy cliques were present within the Republican Party. However, Dwight Eisenhower’s triumph in the 1952 GOP primaries and general election solidified the party’s support for the Cold War consensus. In 2022, after 20 years of failed war policies, U.S. involvement in Ukraine is undoing decades of that consensus. But it is worth juxtaposing these two eras and the changing nature of political culture to show in detail how the modern Republican Party is likely evolving along a different path.
The early days of Cold War foreign policy were marked by significant political dissent. Despite the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and fervor of domestic anticommunism, there was considerable disagreement over how to address these new realities, particularly within the Republican Party and especially its Midwestern cohort. Conservative skeptics opposed the Marshall Plan, conscription, and involvement in NATO. For committed non-interventionists, the start of the Korean War served as another medium to assail the emerging Cold War order.
The most strident opposition came from proto-libertarians like Republican Representative Howard Buffett of Nebraska. Buffett was an early critic American militarism and conscription. He viewed these domestic policies as bigger threats to American liberty than the foreign scourge of communism. The war in Korea deepened his skepticism of U.S. foreign and military policy, and in 1950 he ran on an anti-war platform. In his opposition to the Korean War, Buffett went so far as to assert that the U.S. government was the primary initiator of the conflict.
Former President Herbert Hoover mirrored many of Buffett’s assertions. Despite the ignominious end to his presidency, Hoover, who still held sway within his party, vocally opposed Truman’s policies on the Korean peninsula and in Western Europe. The former president took his concerns to the air in a speech on December 20, 1950. His address touched off “the Great Debate” about America’s role in the new Cold War.
The GOP’s conseravtive standard bearer, Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft, similarly opposed American involvement in the war and used the conflict to critique President Truman’s Cold War policy. Despite some early accommodations with the Cold War state, Taft returned to the oppositional fold with the start of the Korean War. In his campaign tract, A Foreign Policy for America, Taft asserted that the U.S.“had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be.”
The escalation of the Korean War also fueled his fears that the larger Cold War contest would turn America into a garrison state. As the war ground on, Taft worried that “the very independence we are trying to protect may be destroyed by perpetual war.”
However, these strains of anti-war opposition were counterbalanced within the party by supporters for continued execution of the war. Much of this Republican support was animated by partisan sentiments which attacked the Truman administration for its alleged weakness. Prominent “Asia First” Republicans like Congressman Walter Judd and others associated with the so-called “China Lobby,” and backers of arch-conservative General Douglas MacArthur asserted that the president was holding back in his prosecution of the war.
Additionally, the hawkishness of the China Lobby was buttressed by the party’s moderate core, which shed its noninterventionism in the wake of World War II and embraced an assertive foreign policy.
Despite such disorganization, the GOP was able to capitalize on the growing embers of discontent with the Korean War in the 1950 midterm elections. While the Democrats maintained their majorities in both houses, off-year elections yielded the Republican Party 28 seats in the House and six in the Senate. The 1950 midterms boded well for the Republicans’ White House chances; the only question that remained was who the party’s standard bearer would be.
The 1952 Republican Party primaries changed everything. Despite going into the convention with a delegate deficit and a subsequent contentious convention fight, Cold War mantle-holder Gen. Eisenhower emerged victorious over the party’s conservative standard bearer (and leader of the non-interventionist faction), Senator Taft. Eisenhower would, of course, go on to capture the White House. The GOP also picked up two Senate seats and 22 in the House, capturing the trifecta for the first time in over two decades.
That year’s elections helped consolidate an elite Republican internationalist orthodoxy, particularly for the party’s more moderate, northern contingent. While plotting a center course with the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration effectively solidified the Cold War status quo and contained his party’s “isolationist” wing. While dissent remained within some corners, particularly on specific issues like foreign aid, official Republican convention was now in line with the liberal internationalism that animated U.S. involvement in Korea and the Cold War.
Like the early conservative Republican response to Korea, Republican criticism towards American involvement in the Russian-Ukraine War has run the gamut from hawkish calls for escalation to realist calls for negotiation to rightwing criticisms of alleged U.S. instigation.
However, unlike 1952, America is unlikely to witness a similar set of historical forces that will homogenize Republican foreign policy thinking today. Whereas the Korean War occurred after an Allied victory over fascism, which spawned the threat of communism, Russia’s war in Ukraine has come on the heels of 20 years of material and spiritual exhaustion resulting from the Global War on Terror. Moreover, the military burden of the GWOT fell disproportionately upon rural and working class communities in regions of the country closely aligned with the GOP’s base.
In contrast with the early Cold War, it’s unclear that President Biden’s autocracies v. democracies framework possesses the same narrative weight as the threat from Soviet and Chinese communism. Early polling suggests a growing partisan divide concerning America’s role in the world. Whether motivated purely by partisanship, a visceral reaction to economic woes, or a reasoned response to the War on Terror, the GOP base is seemingly reverting to its noninterventionist roots.
Republican primary results have borne out these polls with populist and libertarian-leaning noninterventionist incumbents dominating their primaries and new figures entering the fray. Unlike the Korean War’s wake, the party’s noninterventionist wing, perhaps not dominant, is manifesting signs of health and growth.
It would be unwise to predict a reversal in these trends. The decentralization of the internet has allowed for the disaggregation of political culture. For better or worse, long gone are the authoritative days of National Review and Human Events forming and policing conservative political culture from the top down. In their place is a panoply of right-wing media outlets and influencers who display varying degrees of opposition to a strained foreign policy consensus.
Furthermore, peer-to-peer communication coupled with right-wing meme culture allows conservative and libertarian dissidents to bypass cultural mediators altogether. And, unlike earlier eras where non-interventionist sentiment centered in the rural Midwest, this iteration of restraint is dispersed throughout America’s rural and exurban environs.
Similarly, the universalization of open primaries, unlike the hybrid system of 1952, allows dark-horse candidates to capture the party’s standard. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Republican Party establishment, more inclined to support the status quo, can mount an effective campaign to quash intraparty dissent.
The foreign policy discord within the Republican Party is a reversion to a historical norm. The more time passes from the Reagan and Bush eras, the further out of place “[l]et us now begin… a crusade for freedom,” or “[e]ither you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” seems to fit within the political culture of the modern Right.
Likewise, the historical pressures and contingencies that created an earlier foreign policy consensus within the GOP and between the two parties are absent. Therefore, it is unlikely that a simulacrum of an earlier paradigm can be willed into existence. Don’t expect a return to “normal” anytime soon.