Charles Peters, the founding editor of Washington Monthly and one of the most important people in my life, died on Thanksgiving at the age of 96.
There are many heartfelt tributes to Peters, who nurtured two generations of liberal journalists. But I want to linger on one aspect of his life because it sheds light on one of the most important decisions facing Congress in the coming months.
Earlier this year when I last saw Peters, who was infirm in body but still vibrant in mind, we discussed Wendell Willkie, the losing 1940 Republican nominee for president. Willkie may be sadly forgotten as a historical figure, but he endured as one of Peters’ heroes.
In fact, Peters wrote a 2005 book, “Five Days in Philadelphia,” vividly reconstructing the 1940 Republican convention, which took place in the shadow of France falling to the Nazis.
Without the wrenching tragedy in Europe, combined with one of the most stirring citizen uprisings in political history, the GOP probably would have instead nominated Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the icon of Republican isolationism. “Taft did not win,” Peters writes, “because Wendell Willkie … who possessed a magnetic personality and a determination to see Hitler stopped emerged from nowhere.”
Incumbent presidents normally tread cautiously in election years. But because Willkie was the GOP nominee rather than Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to enact the first peacetime draft in American history and send much-needed destroyers to beleaguered Britain.
It made all the difference at a moment when the Nazis were on the march and Britain stood alone in its darkest hour.
For more than 70 years after Willkie’s nomination, the Republican Party tapped presidential candidates who believed in America’s robust role in the world. It was a direct line from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to both Presidents Bush.
That internationalist tradition, of course, ended abruptly with the nomination of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s “America First” battle cry was pioneered by the late 1930s movement headed by aviator Charles Lindbergh, who combined anti-war fervor with a whiff of anti-Semitism.
Now, as the Republican ideology is defined by Trump’s whims and resentments, the consequences of his 21st-century isolationism are apparent. As Ukraine faces its darkest hour, a significant number of House Republicans are balking at additional military aid.
Some of the problem is that American voters now have the attention span of a hyperactive 3-year-old. Despite the national unity when Russia first invaded, an Associated Press-NORC poll earlier this month found that nearly half of Americans now believe that we are spending too much in supporting Ukraine in its 21-month war.
Invoking frugality to justify shortchanging Ukraine is a hollow argument. The Biden administration has been pushing for a new $61.4 billion aid package for Kyiv. But against the backdrop of a $1.7 trillion deficit, this is chump change.
The true cost of abandoning Ukraine is astronomical. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been banking on America and Europe growing weary with a war without an easy or fast resolution. The dangerous delay in rearming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government can be read as a sign that America’s commitments can be fickle.
Russia expert Leon Aron, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has speculated that Russia’s next steps could be infinitely more dangerous. In his new book, “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War,” Aron theorizes that Moscow may try to seize Russian-speaking enclaves in Estonia or Latvia.
(I am grateful for Michael Mandelbaum’s review of the book in American Purpose for highlighting Aron’s interpretation of Putin’s long-term agenda).
Both Estonia and Latvia are members of NATO, whose members we are obligated to defend by treaty. The costs to America and its allies of a direct confrontation with Russia in the Baltic states would be daunting. The military risks of a collision between the world’s two leading nuclear powers would be cataclysmic.
The lesson is the same as it was in Wendell Willkie’s era: Isolationism and American disinterest in the world emboldens aggressors and encourages autocrats. A failure of American resolve in Ukraine will also be carefully noted by China as it contemplates the risks of military action against Taiwan.
Yes, there is a good chance that aid to Ukraine will squeak through Congress as part of a package deal that also could include emergency monies for southern border security. But the risks are obvious: Coupling Ukraine with perhaps the most contentious domestic issue is akin to juggling with flame throwers. Any tiny stumble or maladroit flick of the wrist could spell disaster.
The best indication of Republican fecklessness on Ukraine is the current position of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., usually a fervent supporter of aid to Kyiv. Presumably reflecting an underlying restlessness in his caucus, McConnell now favors tying Ukraine to border security.
Back in the 1950s, Republicans kept pointing to Harry Truman and the Democrats with the sneering line, “Who lost China?” It was an unfair question since China was never ours to lose.
Along with our European allies, we have taken on a responsibility to defend Ukraine with weaponry and money. Now, many congressional Republicans, emulating Trump in his disdain for alliances and the international order, are eager to renege on that commitment.
If the new GOP isolationists succeed in their efforts to cut off or severely curtail military weaponry for Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s government may eventually be forced to agree to a humiliating settlement with Russia. In that case, it may be sadly relevant to ask in the halls of Congress, “Who lost Ukraine?”
Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a fellow at the Brennan Center (NYU).