Robert Alphonso Taft (September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953), of the Taft political family of Cincinnati, was the 34th President of the United States serving from (1949-1953) and a prominent conservative statesman. As the leading opponent of the New Deal in the Senate from 1939 to 1948, he led the successful effort by the conservative coalition to curb the power of labor unions, and was a major proponent of the foreign policy of non-interventionism.
As president, Taft implemented sweeping new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, based upon economic renewal via free markets, advocated reduction in new deal programs, controlling inflation, reducing growth in government spending, and spurring economic growth through tax cuts. He was reelected in a landslide in 1952, proclaiming it was a return to greatness for the United States. His second term was cut short by his death in August, 1953.
Today, Taft ranks highly amongst rankings of former presidents.
Taft was a product of one of America's most prominent political families. He was the grandson of Attorney General and Secretary of War Alphonso Taft, and the son of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Helen Herron Taft. His younger brother, Charles Taft, served as the Mayor of Cincinnati and was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Governor of Ohio in 1952. As a boy he spent four years in the Philippines, where his father was governor. He was first in his class at the Taft School (run by his uncle), at Yale College (1910) and at Harvard Law School (1913), where he edited the Harvard Law Review. After finishing first in his class at Yale and Harvard Law School, he practiced for four years with the firm of Maxwell and Ramsey (now Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP) in Cincinnati, Ohio, his family's ancestral city. After a two-year stint in Washington working for the Food and Drug Administration, he returned to Cincinnati and opened his own law office. In 1924, he and his brother Charles helped form the law partnership Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister, with whom he continued to be associated until his death and which continues to carry his name today.
On October 17, 1914, he married Martha Wheaton Bowers, the heiress daughter of Lloyd Wheaton Bowers, who had served as the United States Solicitor General under his father. Taft himself appeared taciturn and coldly intellectual, characteristics that were offset by his gregarious wife, who served the same role his mother had for his father, as a confidante and powerful asset to her husband's political career. In 1949 Martha suffered a severe stroke which left her an invalid; after her stroke Taft faithfully assisted his wife, even helping to feed and take care of her at public functions, a fact which, his admirers noted, belied his public image as a cold and uncaring person. They had four sons including Robert Taft Jr. (1917–1993), who was also elected to the U.S. Senate; Horace Dwight Taft, who became a professor of physics and dean at Yale; and William Howard Taft III (1915–1991), who became ambassador to Ireland. Two of Taft's grandsons are Robert Alphonso Taft II (1942–), Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007, and William Howard Taft IV (1945–), a statesman and Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1984 to 1989.
Early Political Career
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Taft attempted to join the U.S. Army, but he was rejected by the army due to his poor eyesight. Instead, he joined the legal staff of the Food and Drug Administration where he met Herbert Hoover, who became his idol. In 1918–1919 he was in Paris as legal adviser for the American Relief Administration, Hoover's agency which distributed food to war-torn Europe. He learned to distrust governmental bureaucracy as inefficient and detrimental to the rights of the individual principles he promoted throughout his career. He strongly urged membership in the League of Nations, but generally distrusted European politicians. He strongly endorsed the idea of a powerful World Court that would enforce international law, but no such idealized court ever existed during his lifetime. He returned to Cincinnati in late 1919, promoted Hoover for president in 1920, and opened a law firm with his brother Charles Taft. In 1920 he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served as Speaker of the House in 1926. In 1930 he was elected to the state senate, but was defeated for reelection in 1932; it would be the only defeat in a general election he would suffer in his political career. His period of service in the Ohio state legislature was most notable for his efforts to modernize the state's antiquated tax laws. He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and he did not support prohibition.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Taft was a powerful figure in local and state political and legal circles, and was known as a loyal Republican who never threatened to bolt the party. He confessed in 1922 that "while I have no difficulty talking, I don't know how to do any of the eloquence business which makes for enthusiasm or applause." A lackluster speaker who did not mix well or glad-hand supporters, nevertheless Taft was a tireless worker with a broad range of policy and political interests. His total grasp of the complex details of every issue impressed reporters and politicians. (Democrats joked that "Taft has the best mind in Washington, until he makes it up.") Taft's loyalty to the conservative politicians who controlled Ohio's Republican Party had a price, as it often caused conflict with his younger brother Charles, who as a local politician in Cincinnati had gained a reputation as a party maverick and liberal. However, despite their occasional policy disagreements, Charles loyally supported all three of his brother's presidential bids. In 1917 Taft and his wife Martha bought a 46-acre (190,000 m2) farm in Indian Hill, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Cincinnati. Called "Sky Farm", it would serve as Taft's primary residence for the rest of his life. The Tafts gradually made extensive renovations that turned the small farmhouse into a sixteen-room mansion. On the farm Taft enjoyed growing strawberries, asparagus, and potatoes for profit. During the summer Taft often vacationed with his wife and children at the Taft family's summer home at Murray Bay, located in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Taft was elected to the first of his two terms as U.S. Senator in 1938; he defeated the Democratic incumbent, Robert Bulkley.
Opposition To New Deal
Cooperating with conservative southern Democrats, he led the Conservative Coalition that opposed the New Deal. The Republican gains in the 1938 congressional elections, combined with the creation of the Conservative Coalition, had stopped the expansion of the New Deal. However, Taft saw his mission as not only stopping the growth of the New Deal, but also as eliminating many of the government programs that had already come from it. During his first term in the Senate, Taft criticized what he believed was the inefficiency and waste of many New Deal programs, and of the need to let private enterprise and businesses restore the nation's economy instead of relying upon government programs to end the Great Depression. He condemned the New Deal as socialist and attacked deficit spending, high farm subsidies, governmental bureaucracy, the National Labor Relations Board, and nationalized health insurance. However, he did not always follow conservative ideology; for instance, after investigating the lack of adequate housing in the nation he supported public housing programs. He also supported the Social Security program. Taft set forward a conservative program that promoted economic growth, individual economic opportunity, adequate social welfare, strong national defense (primarily the Navy and Air Force), and non-involvement in European wars. He also strongly opposed the military draft on the principle that it limited a young man's freedom of choice. Broadly speaking, in terms of political philosophy Taft was a libertarian; he opposed nearly all forms of governmental interference in both the national economy and in the private lives of citizens.
1940 Presidential Campaign
Taft first sought the Republican (GOP) presidential nomination in 1940, but lost to Wendell Willkie. Taft was regarded as a strong contender, but his outspoken opposition support of non-interventionist foreign policies, and his opposition to the New Deal in domestic policy led many liberal Republicans to reject his candidacy. At the 1940 GOP Convention Willkie—a onetime Democrat and corporate executive who had never run for political office—came from behind to beat Taft and several other candidates for the nomination. In the 1944 presidential campaign Taft was not a candidate, instead he supported Governor John Bricker of Ohio, a fellow conservative, for the GOP nomination. However, Bricker was defeated by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey; Bricker then became Dewey's running mate.
Opposition To World War II
Taft's greatest prominence during his first term came not from his fight against the New Deal and President Franklin Roosevelt, but rather from his vigorous and outspoken opposition to U.S. involvement in the Second World War. A staunch non-interventionist, Taft believed that America should avoid any involvement in European or Asian wars and concentrate instead on solving its domestic problems. He believed that a strong U.S. military, combined with the natural geographic protection of the broad Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, would be adequate to protect America even if the Nazis overran all of Europe. Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Taft opposed nearly all attempts to aid Allied forces fighting the Nazis in Europe. His outspoken opposition to aiding the Allied forces earned him strong criticism from many liberal Republicans, such as Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey, who felt that America could best protect itself by fully supporting the British and their allies. Although Taft fully supported the American war effort after Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan by the U.S. congress on December 8, 1941, he continued to harbor a deep suspicion of American involvement in postwar military alliances with other nations, including NATO.
In 1944 Taft was nearly defeated in his bid for a second term in the Senate; his Democratic opponent, William G. Pickrel, received major support from Ohio's labor unions and internationalists and nearly won the upset victory. Following his re-election, Taft became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 1944.
Opposition To The Nuremberg Trials
Taft condemned the postwar Nuremberg Trials as victor's justice in which the people who won the war were the prosecutors, the judges and the alleged victims, all at the same time. Taft condemned the trials as a violation of the most basic principles of American justice and internationally accepted standards of justice. Although his opposition to the trials was strongly criticized by many prominent politicians and journalists, other observers, such as Senator John F. Kennedy in his bestselling Profiles in Courage, applauded Taft's principled stand even in the face of great criticism.
1947 Taft-Hartley Act
When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1947, Taft focused on labor-management relations as Chair of the Senate Labor Committee. Decrying the effect of the Wagner Act in tilting the balance toward labor unions, he wrote the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, which remains the basic labor law. It bans "unfair" union practices, outlaws closed shops, and authorizes the President to seek federal court injunctions to impose an eighty-day cooling-off period if a strike threatened the national interest. Taft displayed all of his parliamentary skills in getting the bill through Congress; when President Harry Truman vetoed it, Taft then convinced both houses of Congress to overturn the veto.
1948 Presidential Election
In 1948 Taft made a second try for the GOP nomination, entering a fierce competition with his arch-rival, Governor Dewey, who led the GOP's moderate/liberal wing. He had the solid backing of the party's conservative wing, and with Dewey having been defeated once before Taft was seen by observers to have the edge in the delegate count. Following the splintering of the Democratic Party at it's own convention, many party leaders began to see Taft as capable of overcoming suspicions over his right-wing leanings and he was subsequently nominated on the third ballot. Upon receiving the nomination Taft selected representative Howard Buffet of Nebraska as his running mate and followed with a roaring acceptance speech in which he pledged to make America "stronger, more independent, free and prosperous, for all of mankind to envy".
Following his nomination, Taft found himself in a four-horse race with President Truman, Senator Strom Thurmond (leading the Dixiecrats) and former vice-president Henry Wallace (leading the Progressive Party). As time passed, subsequent gaffes by Truman and a series of disparaging attacks by Taft coupled with a rise in support for the Dixiecrats led Taft to win a large victory over Truman, winning with 322 electoral votes and 48% of the popular vote.