See biography by J. T. Patterson (1972); study by R. Kirk and J. McClelland (1967).
(born Sept. 8, 1889, Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.—died July 31, 1953, New York, N.Y.) U.S. politician. The son of William H. Taft, he served in the Ohio legislature before being elected to the U.S. Senate (1939–53). He became known as a strong advocate of traditional conservativism and earned the nickname “Mr. Republican.” He opposed centralizing power in the federal government and cosponsored the Taft-Hartley Act to restrict organized labour. An isolationist, he opposed U.S. involvement in postwar international organizations. He was a favourite-son candidate for president at Republican Party national conventions, especially in 1948 and 1952, but internationalists in the party opposed his conservative views. After the election of Dwight Eisenhower, Taft became Senate majority leader and Eisenhower's chief adviser in the Senate.
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Robert Alphonso Taft (September 8, 1889 - July 31, 1953), of the Taft political family of Ohio, was a Republican United States Senator and as a prominent conservative spokesman was the leading opponent of the New Deal in the Senate from 1939 to 1953. He led the successful effort by the conservative coalition to curb the legal privileges of labor unions, and he was a major proponent of the foreign policy of non-interventionism. However, he failed in his quest to win the presidential nomination of the Republican Party in 1940, 1948 and 1952. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Taft as one of the five greatest senators in American history.
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 the late 1940s 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.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Taft attempted to join the US 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 distrusted the League of Nations, and European politicians generally. 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; 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" [Taft Papers 1:271].) 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 farm in Indian Hill, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Cincinnati. They gradually made extensive renovations that turned the small farmhouse into a sixteen-room mansion. Called "Sky Farm", it served as Taft's primary residence for the rest of his life. On the farm Taft enjoyed growing strawberries, asparagus, and potatoes for profit. In the summertime Taft often vacationed with his family at the Taft family's summer estate at Murray Bay, located in the Canadian province of Quebec.(Patterson, pp. 112-116)
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 Republican liberals, 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, 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 received major support from Ohio's labor unions and internationalists and nearly won the upset victory. However, in 1950 Taft ran a more effective campaign in which he wooed factory workers; he won a third term by a wide margin. He became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 1944.
By the start of his third term in the Senate, Taft had been given the nickname "Mr. Republican"; he was the chief ideologue and spokesperson for the paleoconservatism of the Republican Party of that era, and he was the acknowledged national leader of the GOP's conservative faction. (Patterson, p. 335)
From 1947 to 1949, when the Republicans controlled the Senate, Taft was his party's leading voice in domestic policy. He was reluctant to support farm subsidies, a position that hurt the GOP in the farm belt in the 1948 elections. Moving a bit to the left, he supported federal aid to education (which did not pass) and cosponsored the Taft-Wagner-Ellender Housing Act to subsidize public housing in inner cities. In terms of foreign policy he was non-interventionist and did not see Stalin's Soviet Union as a major threat. Nor did he pay much attention to internal Communism. The true danger, he believed, was big government and runaway spending. He supported the Truman Doctrine, reluctantly approved the Marshall Plan, and opposed NATO as unnecessary and provocative to the Soviets. He took the lead among Republicans in condemning President Harry S. Truman's handling of the Korean War.
In 1952 Taft made his third and final try for the GOP nomination; it also proved to be his strongest effort. He had the solid backing of the party's conservative wing, and with Dewey no longer an active candidate many political pundits regarded him as the frontrunner. However, the race changed when Dewey and other GOP moderates were able to convince Dwight D. Eisenhower, the most popular general of World War Two, to run for the nomination. According to biographer Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower agreed to run in part because of his fear that Taft's isolationist views in foreign policy might unintentionally benefit the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The fight between Taft and Eisenhower for the GOP nomination was one of the closest and most bitter in American political history. When the Republican Convention opened in July 1952, Taft and Eisenhower were neck-and-neck in delegate votes, and the nomination was still up for grabs as neither had a majority. On the convention's first day Eisenhower's managers complained that Taft's forces had unfairly denied Eisenhower supporters delegate slots in several Southern states, including Texas and Georgia. They proposed to remove pro-Taft delegates in these states and replace them with pro-Eisenhower delegates; they called their proposal "Fair Play". Although Taft angrily denied having stolen any delegate votes, the convention voted to support Fair Play 658 to 548. In addition, several uncommitted state delegations, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, agreed to support Eisenhower. There were rumors after the convention that the chairmen of these uncommitted states, such as Arthur Summerfield of Michigan, were secretly pressured by Dewey and the GOP's Eastern Establishment to support Eisenhower; however, these rumors were never proven (Summerfield did become Ike's Postmaster General following the election). The addition of these formerly uncommitted state delegations, combined with Taft's loss of many Southern delegates due to the Fair Play proposal, decided the nomination in Eisenhower's favor. Despite his bitterness at his narrow defeat and his belief that he had been unfairly ambushed by the Eisenhower forces (including Governor Dewey), after the convention Taft issued a brief statement conveying his congratulations and support to Eisenhower. Thereafter, however, he brooded in silence at his summer home in Quebec. As the weeks passed, Eisenhower's aides worried that Taft and his supporters would sit on their hands during the campaign, and that as a result Eisenhower might lose the election. In September 1952 Taft finally agreed to meet with Eisenhower, at Morningside Heights in New York City. There, in order to gain Taft's support in the campaign, Eisenhower promised he would take no reprisals against Taft partisans, would cut federal spending, and would fight "creeping socialism in every domestic field." In fact, Eisenhower and Taft agreed on most domestic issues, their disagreements were primarily in foreign policy. Eisenhower firmly believed in NATO and was committed to the U.S. supporting anti-Communism in the Cold War.
Following Eisenhower's election and the GOP takeover of Congress, Taft served as Senate Majority Leader in 1953, and he strongly supported Eisenhower's domestic proposals. He worked hard to assist the inexperienced new officials of the administration. He even tried–with little success–to curb the excesses of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. By April the President and Taft were friends and golfing companions, and Taft was praising his former adversary. Defeat in 1952, it seemed, had softened Taft. No longer burdened by presidential ambitions, he had become less partisan, less abrasive, and more conciliatory; during this time he was widely regarded as the most powerful man in Congress.
In 1957, a committee led by Senator John F. Kennedy selected Taft as one of five of their greatest Senate predecessors whose oval portraits would adorn the President's Room off the Senate floor. Kennedy would profile him in his book Profiles in Courage, and Taft continues to be regarded by historians as one of the most powerful U.S. Senators of the twentieth century. (Patterson, p. 617)
"This Memorial to Robert A. Taft, presented by the people to the Congress of the United States, stands as a tribute to the honesty, indomitable courage, and high principles of free government symbolized by his life.