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Spoiled Child Of American Politics
Henry Cabot Lodge was a public man in the old sense—one who was often wrong but never evil
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
If Congress was scheduled to take up railroad legislation, he would divest himself of his railroad securities. When the tariff came up for discussion, he would sell all stocks in corporations affected by foreign competition. In 1909, for example, he sold his shares in the National Carbon Company simply because the chemical schedules were due for revision and despite advance knowledge that the company was about to increase its dividend rate. He later repurchased them at a loss of many thousands of dollars.
Lodge was a conservative, but not, as many have argued, a reactionary. His enemies forgot that throughout the Roosevelt administration he supported nearly everything TR advocated.
Lodge’s chief political interest was in foreign affairs, and it is in this field that both his good and bad qualities can be observed most clearly. He was an old-fashioned patriot, with a fierce loyalty to the flag that today might seem almost naive. As he grew old he recognized that most people did not feel as strongly as he, and attributed the difference to his memory of the Civil War.
“Those who lived through the war times have a more tender sentiment about their country,” he said in 1913. “They are less dispassionate no doubt in judging America and the American people than others.” A few years before his death he had this to say to a friend who had lived much of her life abroad:
“Brought up in Italy as you were, nothing was more natural than that you should have the predilection for Europe which has influenced you for so many years, but I am happy to think that after the reflection which those years have brought you have changed your mind. . . . Our defects are obvious enough and so are the defects of democracy, but I honestly believe that we are the best of the great powers now in existence. . . . Democracy . . . has its failings no doubt, but it is better than any other system that we have yet devised and for that reason I have faith in it and especially in the periods of great trial. On the really great issues, the majority of the American people have not yet failed.”
His love of America made him a strong nationalist, but it is absurd to think of him as an isolationist. From the early Nineties on, he wished to see America play a large role in world affairs. Alter the World War he was ready to vote for a treaty guaranteeing the borders of France against any future German aggression. He was not, however, an internationalist. His exaggerated, sometimes belligerent patriotism prejudiced him against schemes involving any surrender of American sovereignty. But this does not mean that he thought America could exist apart from Europe and Asia.
Patriotism to Lodge involved an emphasis on national “honor.” In international affairs, a nation’s word must be its bond. He spoke repeatedy of the “sanctity” of treaties. He thus opposed compulsory arbitration pacts, simply because he felt that certain national interests (such as immigration policy) were not arbitrable. “I will not put my hand to a treaty that promises to do things which we know we would not do,” he once told Theodore Roosevelt. “That is not advancing peace but promoting war and trouble.” Once a treaty was signed it must be lived up to. Therefore never sign one that you are not prepared to carry out to the letter.
This combination of hardheaded practicality and high moral tone goes far toward explaining Lodge’s position in the fight over the League of Nations. He felt that the compact committed the United States to actions it would not always be willing to take. Especailly he was worried by Article X, which guaranteed the political independence and territorial integrity of all members against attack.
Such a broad and general commitment seemed dangerous to him. He was not opposed to intervening to protect others against aggressors; he merely wished to reserve to Congress the right to decide in each case exactly what and how much should be done. He reasoned that public opinion would insist upon this in fact, and that it was far better to limit the scope of the treaty and obey it implicitly than to agree to an idealistic but unrealistic principle and then violate it.
Yet the essential logic of his position in the League battle was marred by his partisanship and by his nonconstructive approach. One cannot escape the conclusion that he was as much interested in embarrassing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic party as in fighting for the sanctity of treaties. He forced his opponents into a position where they had to compromise with his views or resign themselves to defeat. Yet in the process he aroused such resentment with his devilish cleverness and temper-shattering manner that his opponents chose defeat—at great cost to the nation.
Practicality has its obvious virtues. But sometimes idealism calls for a little chance-taking. During the Great War, when the League idea was first broached, Lodge made a speech in which he argued that world government, though probably impracticable, was nevertheless well worth seeking. In Matthew Arnold’s words, he said: