With Americans now engulfed in passion for Ukraine, it wasn’t surprising that President Biden proposed sending $33 billion worth of weaponry and other aid to Ukraine’s beleaguered military. Nor was it surprising that Congress raised the number to $40 billion, or that both the Senate and House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor. Hidden within that lopsided vote, though, was a shocker: Every single “no” vote — 11 in the Senate and 57 in the House — came from a Republican.
Since the Vietnam era, Americans have come to expect antiwar rhetoric from liberal Democrats. Cancel that. This month’s votes in Washington signal a dramatic role reversal. Suddenly it is conservative Republicans who oppose US involvement in foreign wars.
The most ringing antiwar speeches during this month’s debate came from far-right members of Congress. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida sounded like a latter-day George McGovern when he warned of “a dangerous bipartisan consensus that is walking us into war with Russia. . . . Just a year ago we lost a war against goat herders waving rifles. Now we’re rushing to fight a nation that possesses 6,000 nuclear warheads?”
On the Democratic side, by contrast, there was nothing but outrage, denunciation of Russia, and aggressive chest-beating. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, voted for the $40 billion. So did Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and her ultra-progressive comrades in “the Squad.” Even Representative Barbara Lee, who in 2001 cast the only vote against launching what became the “global war on terror,” supported it. She said arming Ukraine is necessary because invading Russian troops are committing “crimes against humanity” and President Vladimir Putin is “trying to establish autocratic governments around the world.”
This table-turning makes ideological sense. Conservatives instinctively oppose social programs aimed at reshaping America. If they are consistent — as lamentably few are — they should also oppose projects aimed at reshaping other countries. It is liberal utopianism that tells Americans we can and should transform the world, react forcefully whenever crimes against humanity are committed, and fight to resist the emergence of autocratic governments anywhere.
Most intriguing about this political turnabout is that it does not represent a new departure for conservative Republicans, but rather a return to form. Over the past century and more, Republicans have repeatedly emerged as powerful voices opposing US intervention abroad. Today’s antiwar Republicans are calling the party back to its roots.
The most famous Republican in American history, Abraham Lincoln, outspokenly condemned the US seizure of Mexican territory while he was a congressman in the 1840s, before the party even existed. Half a century later, Republicans became principal leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League. One of them, Governor George Boutwell of Massachusetts, a cofounder of the GOP, denounced America’s “aggressive, unjustifiable, cruel war” in the Philippines, and said every country should be free to design its own government “without any inquiry by us as to its character.”
An idealistic Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, indulged the millenarian fantasy that the United States could secure “the final triumph of justice” by creating “a new international order under which reason and justice and the common interests of mankind shall prevail.” He ended up setting off nationalist rebellions in half a dozen countries and helping to lay the groundwork for Bolshevism and World War II.
All three presidents who succeeded Wilson were conservative Republicans who favored restrained foreign policy. Warren G. Harding said in his inaugural address that the United States “can be party to no permanent military alliance” and added: “We do not hate; we do not covet; we dream of no conquest, nor boast of armed prowess.”
Calvin Coolidge summoned world leaders to Geneva and proposed a global treaty to limit naval power, but was stymied by a coalition of shipbuilders, steel manufacturers, and arms makers. Herbert Hoover was the most anti-imperialist of all 20th-century presidents. He dared to tell Americans that many people abroad consider the United States “a new imperial power intent upon dominating the destinies and freedoms of other people,” and vowed never “to interfere by force to secure or maintain contracts between our citizens and foreign states.”
After World War II, Senator Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Republican,” led opposition to the proposed military alliance that became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “The building up of a great army surrounding Russia,” he warned, “violates the whole spirit of the United Nations charter.” He said the NATO alliance would set off “an inevitable arms race” because it “necessarily divides the world into two enemy camps.”
Since then, Republican presidents like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush have reveled in their ability to bomb other countries and overthrow their governments. Democrats often protested, urging more diplomacy and less rush to conflict. That period may have been an aberration. History, and this month’s votes in Congress, suggest that conservative Republicans make the best peaceniks.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.