Austin College, President Taft, and the League of Nations

[Written on April 25, 2019]

On this day 100 years ago, Austin College had a special visitor. The 27th President of the United States.

Republican William Howard Taft had won election in 1908, serving one term. By 1921, he would be appointed Chief Justice of the United States. Taft is the only person to have ever served as both President and Supreme Court Justice; when the President visited Austin College on April 25th, 1919, he was “between jobs.” Taft was touring the nation on behalf of the administration of Woodrow Wilson. His presence on campus had one purpose: to advocate for the newly created League of Nations specifically, and for American international engagement in general in the wake of victory in the Great War. Taft was arguing on behalf of a bold, confident, inspired, fearless America that would work to reshape the world.

Taft had plenty of opposition, most of it from his own party. The Republican party at the time was significantly influenced by an “America First” isolationism. This strain of thought would continue well into the 1920s and 1930s, long after the League of Nations idea had been rejected by Washington. The America First philosophy of focusing on home sounded intrinsically appealing, but a closer look revealed the fearful and nasty details within.

America Firsters claimed to be wary of conflict abroad, but employed grievance rhetoric that displayed a willingness to use military might at any slight. America Firsters clamored for prosperity at home, but supported the adoption of barriers to commerce that hampered wealth accumulation. America Firsters projected their fears outwards, but also revealed a hysteria towards an “enemy within.” 100 years ago, that enemy within was clear: Americans of the Jewish faith.

From writer Susan Dunn:

“Seeking to brand itself as a mainstream organization, America First struggled with the problem of the anti-Semitism of some of its leaders and many of its members. It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.”

“Still, the problem of anti-Semitism remained. After Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee closed its doors, but not before Lindbergh made his infamous speech at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941. After charging that President Roosevelt had manufactured “incidents” to propel the country into war, Lindbergh proceeded to blurt out his true thoughts.”

“’The British and the Jewish races,’ he declared, ‘for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.’ The nation’s enemy was an internal one, a Jewish one. ‘Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,’ he contended. Booing began to drown out the cheers, forcing him again and again to stop, wait out the catcalls, and start his sentences over.”

Austin College was fortunate to have the former president come and speak; he was in demand state wide. The Editor of the Austin American Statesman included a large invitation to the ex-President to come to Austin after his visit to Sherman, and implored Texas Governor William Hobby to join him. Hobby replied that, regretfully, Taft was only able to make one stop in Texas. That stop would be on the AC campus at Sherman Hall.

Taft arrived in Sherman by train at noon, and attended a reception at a downtown hotel. He was escorted to campus by Governor Hobby and Austin College President Thomas Clyce to the Clyce home on Grand Avenue, where the first family of AC hosted their distinguished guests for dinner and conversation. That evening, guest and hosts made the short walk across Grand Avenue to an overflow crowd at Hoxie Thompson Auditorium. Before his speech, the former President posed for a photo with the entire Kangaroo student body in front of Sherman Hall.

From the Courier Gazette:

“Back of the stage hung the service flag of Austin College bearing 160 stars, ten of them gold. Beside it hung a great American flag. About the balcony were festooned the flags of the allied nations. Governor Hobby said he would be glad to welcome the distinguished visitor anywhere in Texas, but prefers to welcome him in Sherman, where he finds the most perfect union of spirit to win the war, and now to perpetuate the peace that has been won.”

Half of the crowd was made up of women. Austin College had finally relented in the admission of women that academic year, in part because of the social activism of females. Those in attendance included the first ever class of Austin College women students, who would that same year form the first female literary society at AC: Kappa Gamma Chi. The Kappas also mark 100 years of existence in 2019, and many are sailing away on a cruise ship to celebrate the anniversary as we speak. Bon Voyage Kappas! (Lord have mercy non-Kappas on that boat).

From the AC Chromascope:

“Mr. Taft addressed an audience which completely filled the auditorium and which was composed of hearers from all parts of North Texas and Southern Oklahoma, telling in clear and convincing terms why America should enter a League of Nations to help guarantee to the world peace and political territorial integrity. At all times he held the interest of his hearers, and at all times were his hearers generous in showing their approval of his statements.”

As Taft spoke, he made his political position clear. From the Courier Gazette:

“Now I am here tonight as an advocate. I have been a Judge for a long time, but in this case I may have what may be called a ‘slant’ on this question, so I am going to leave this question with you to be thought over.”

Methodically, Taft made the case for an international environment to foster diplomacy, economic integration, and collective security within the family of nations. Doing so, he claimed, would lead to reduced tensions, greater prosperity and a increased political liberty.

From the Sherman Democrat:

“The joining in of this country with others in a league to enforce peace will not, said Mr. Taft, involve us in wars. On the whole the effect will be to prevent wars, because when one country violates the territorial or political integrity of another member of the League or considers such a violation, that country will have the entire League to face. The……. great step which the League of Nations makes in securing world peace is in compelling open diplomacy. Secret treaties have been the canes of many misunderstandings which led to war.”

Taft was clear to point out that while he supported Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s initiative, and that while he had strong disagreement with other members of his own party, he would always remain a member of his Republican party until his last days. He vowed to continue the work to ensure that his party would eventually adopt his principles as its own.

From the Sherman Democrat:

“In closing his address, Mr. Taft said that the League of Nations is not a party issue. It is too big for that. He called upon all patriotic Americas to examine the covenant and determine for themselves if it is right and just in principle, and if so to support it for the sake of all humanity. Don’t examine it with the view of helping someone, he said, or of hurting someone.”

Taft’s internationalist values would eventually triumph after WW2, and would remain core American foreign policy principles for multiple generations thereafter. Those values were occasionally carried out unwisely or with insincerity, often with disastrous humanitarian results from Asia to Africa and Latin America. Nevertheless, those values also helped to usher in a global order that replaced the disastrous conflicts of the first half of the 20th century with an unprecedented stability and prosperity in the late 20th century.

The creation of the post WW2 order is due in part to advocates such as NYU professor Clyde Eagleton. Dr. Eagleton was a member of the U.S. delegations to the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks and 1945 San Francisco conferences which founded the League successor organization, the United Nations. He was also an Austin College graduate, Class of 1911. Like former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the late 1940s, an Austin College Kangaroo was “present at the creation” of Taft’s vision in 1919.

By the end of the Cold War, the Republican party had fully embraced the internationalism of William Howard Taft. This transition was embodied within the head of the party in 1992. Like Taft, President George H.W. Bush was a Republican. He was also a statesman, a former envoy in Asia, and a former ambassador to the United Nations, and fluent in the French language. The Bush administration’s deft diplomacy in overseeing the end of the Cold War alongside NATO allies is one of the most underappreciated elements of his administration. It was also Taft’s dream turned reality. The Republican party had come so far, and so had the United States of America.

1992 was also a year when Marc Parrish, your humble author, was a student at Austin College during a very exciting time to be a traveler of the world. I had arrived in Sherman in 1988 like most freshmen, as a Texas kid with much more to learn than to teach. What followed was nothing short of miraculous. Courses on American foreign policy, study abroad in Europe, summers in D.C., Jan Term in Mexico, competitions in New York, Fulbright applications to Latin America, and post-graduation dreams in far corners of the planet. Walls were falling in Berlin, and reconciliation spread like a wildfire to points west, south, and east. By the time AC was done with me, I had been transformed into a global citizen. A famous ad campaign for the Longhorns down in Austin reads “what starts here changes the world.” It could easily apply to the Roos up in Sherman.

In 2003, 84 years after Taft’s visit, President George H.W. Bush arrived at Austin College. He spoke at Hoxie Thompson Hall, the same stage as Taft back in 1919. There, Bush spoke to students about leadership as the Chair of Excellence in International Leadership at Austin College. Former Austin College professor of International Studies Shelton Williams was there as well, assisting the former American President as he made his way around campus.

Today, the same ideological forces Taft warned against back in 1919 have reemerged. As Dr. Williams appropriately put it a few years ago, this insular ideology is:

“…simply a revisionist view of the system of international relations established after the Second World War………..that would replace it with American unilateralism, economic nationalism, and disregard for the global welfare. The base assumption is that the US has somehow lost something or been cheated of something in this system. Actually the US has gained 70 years of relative peace and great prosperity and a return to isolationism would not save money, security or tranquility. It would be a disastrous return to instability and regional conflicts that would ultimately drag us back in at higher stakes and less leverage.”

“The base assumption is that the US has somehow lost something or been cheated of something in this system.”

Yup. Or, as Taft himself would say, the base assumption is a short sighted, zero sum “view of helping someone, or of hurting someone.”

Austin College is a shining city on an internationalist hill, which is pretty amazing in itself. The school is located in a country isolated by two vast oceans. It is located in a frontier state far removed from the cosmopolitan coasts. It is located in a rural region apart from the bustling urban areas of Texas. Even its location in the more established section of Sherman is somewhat distant from that town’s activity. It is quiet on campus. Isolated.

And yet, Austin College gives its students the world. Those students in turn each play a small part to further the values expressed by Taft & Bush: to promote a world of American diplomatic engagement, economic integration, and collective security. Those values may increasingly be in retreat today just as they were in 1919, but they’ll be reasserted again by a future President.

Hopefully, like Taft & Bush, that President will also be invited to speak at Austin College.