Republican disagreement over Ukraine support echoes isolationists of WWII

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

The pointed exchanges among Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers about the U.S. commitment to Ukraine is a reminder that some policy debates never end. Like the one over U.S. overseas commitments. 

This renewal comes a year before President Joe Biden will preside over the 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the alliance that has protected the West since the aftermath of World War II is helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. 

And it echoes the domestic debate that took place in 1951 when the United States was considering sending U.S. ground troops back to Europe to bolster the nascent military-political organization. 

Recurrent disagreements over U.S. overseas commitments haven’t always followed the same partisan lines. A generation ago, liberal Democrats were calling for U.S. restraint abroad, while Republicans generally favored a more muscular U.S. role. 

More often, however, it’s been the Republicans urging the United States to concentrate on protecting its own borders, as many current House Republicans — and the two principal GOP 2024 presidential hopefuls — are doing. 

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote in a questionnaire response Fox commentator Tucker Carlson posted on Twitter. 

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called for auditing U.S. funds being spent in Ukraine, declaring, “There’s not bipartisan support among the American people for fighting a war in Ukraine that does nothing for Americans except force them to pay for it.”  

Now, look at what key figures were saying back in 1951, when President Harry S. Truman was considering sending ground troops back to Europe to counter the Soviet threat. 

“Our first consideration must be defense of America,” contended Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, a leading post-World War II Republican. 

“Operations on the continents of Europe and Asia, if any, should be undertaken only with the greatest care and under careful limitation,” Taft added, calling air and naval forces a sufficient deterrent and opposing the Truman administration’s plans to send additional U.S. ground troops to Germany. 

A month later, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave the administration’s counter argument. Air power alone is insufficient to deter a potential Soviet attack, he told a joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. 

“Our own security, as well as the security of our allies in Europe, requires vigorous efforts to build an effective defense force in Europe at the earliest possible moment,” he added. 

To be sure, no one is seriously suggesting sending American ground troops to Ukraine. However, since last year’s Russian invasion, the Biden administration has steadily increased the U.S. military and political commitment. 

On his recent trip to Ukraine and Poland, Biden made clear the U.S. intends to maintain that support as long as necessary. 

“There should be no doubt,” he told leaders of the coalition in Warsaw. “Our support for Ukraine will not waver. NATO will not be divided. And we will not tire.”  

Biden has also argued the defense of Ukraine represents a defense of democracy everywhere. 

Similarly, the argument for creating NATO was to strengthen Western Europe’s democracies to protect them from both a Russian invasion and the internal threat from their local Communist parties at a time Europe was struggling to overcome World War II’s ravages. 

For many Americans, the threat today to their own security seems far less from events abroad than in that post-World War II decade when the role of thousands of U.S. troops in liberating Europe from the Nazis was fresh in people’s minds. 

At present, the extensive U.S. role in helping Ukraine repel the Russian invaders has retained the majority support among Americans, according to recent polls. But the number has drifted downward over the past year, and outright opposition is growing, especially among Republicans. 

The GOP is split, in Congress, among its presidential candidates and in the country as a whole. 

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch supporter of helping Ukraine, has even urged the president to increase U.S. military support. Also supportive are likely GOP presidential hopefuls Mike Pence, the former vice president; Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state; Nikki Haley, formerly U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. 

But the two GOP presidential poll leaders, former President Donald Trump and DeSantis, are both campaigning as skeptics of the U.S. role. Trump accused Biden of risking World War III. 

And Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy noted before his election there was increasing reluctance in House GOP ranks for a “blank check” for Ukraine. More recently, he declined an invitation to visit Ukraine from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

That current Republican opposition not only echoes Taft’s views when NATO was formed, but also those of the GOP isolationists in the years before World War II. 

Hopefully, they’ll again lose the debate. 

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.