The freshman senator from Minnesota rose from his desk at the rear of the august chamber to deliver his first major policy speech. His Senate colleagues, and the nation at large, could only guess his intentions for this public debut. His background provided few clues. Only 34 years old, he was the youngest senator in U.S. history at the time, and had never before held elected office. Just six months prior, he had been a journalist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press reporting on state politics, not participating in them. He had not even asked for the job—in a surprise move, the governor tapped the relative unknown to fill the vacancy after the sudden death of the incumbent. The cause this unlikely national leader might take up was a mystery.
His floor speech quickly dispelled any uncertainty. “I am squarely opposed to an isolationist policy. The facts of the world today convince me that it is untenable and impractical… I will admit to you frankly that I see many dark shadows on the road we travel under this bill. But they are not as dark as the shadows which overcast the road of isolation. I am convinced that abandonment of isolation constitutes the best chance of staying out of war.”
With these words, the “rangy, jut-jawed, fierce-eyed newspaperman with a stomachful of courage,” as the press described him, threw his support behind controversial legislation that all but committed the United States to take sides in a foreign war. In so doing, he not only broke ranks with his party and with most of his state’s congressional delegation, but he also defied the majority of his constituents and resisted the populist sentiment sweeping the country. His stand was as much of a surprise as his seat.
The Senator was Joseph Hurst Ball, a Republican. The bill was the Lend-Lease Act to aid Great Britain in its defense against Nazi Germany. The year was 1941.[i]
For students of American politics, Senator Ball’s story is a historical curiosity. For me, it is of personal interest—Joe Ball was my wife’s grandfather, and his campaign posters hang on the walls of our home. But for all Americans following the debate in the current presidential campaign about the rightful role of the United States in the world, Senator Ball’s story is instructive and inspiring. He was an outspoken Republican critic of the “America First” agenda embraced by his party’s establishment at the time—and by the Republican standard bearer of today, Donald Trump. Senator Ball stood not only for promoting U.S. national interests, but also for promoting the interests of world peace and security, knowing that the former is not truly possible without the latter. For his hawkish, internationalist views, his critics called him “Senator Cannonball.” I call him an American hero.
The year Joe Ball went to Washington, the America First movement was steamrolling across the country, with Charles Lindbergh, a national hero and fellow Minnesotan, leading the way. The agenda Lindbergh championed was anti-war, anti-intervention, anti-foreign aid, and anti-immigration, including denial of political asylum to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. It was quintessentially isolationist, with eerie parallels to today, and for Senator Ball, it violated common sense. “Do we sit back and stop Hitler at New York… or shall we help stop him at the cliffs of Dover?” he asked rhetorically. For him, the America First ideology also violated moral sense. Speaking from the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, Senator Ball prayed that the United States would lead the world in establishing “a concept of international order based upon a few civilized rules of conduct among nations.”[ii] Isolation was just plain wrong.
Ball challenged Lindbergh to a debate on U.S. foreign policy in the capitol of their home state: “I welcome the opportunity to refute the defeatism and confusion which the America First leaders have preached in this city and are spreading throughout the nation.” It was a gutsy, if not politically suicidal, move; the hometown newspaper commented that it was certainly not meant to curry votes in the isolationist state. Members of the Minnesota chapter of the American Bund, a German-American cultural club, actually taunted and spit on the stumping senator. But it worked. Senator Ball upstaged the folk hero. “Never was the case for all aid to Britain more convincingly made,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported. Lindbergh, on the other hand, “made no converts.”
The first America First movement was ultimately defeated by the Empire of Japan when it attacked Pearl Harbor later the same year. Belief in the chimera of U.S. isolationism was shattered overnight. But a vindicated Senator Ball was not vindictive: he turned immediately to an even more ambitious internationalist project. As the world war raged, with the outcome far from certain, he began planning for world peace after victory by the Allies.
In March 1943, he introduced Senate Resolution 114 urging the United States and its allies to form an international organization that would administer relief, rehabilitate economies, establish a “machinery for the peaceful settlement of disputes,” and marshal peacekeeping forces when victory came. Co-sponsoring the bill were Senator Burton of Ohio, also a Republican, and Senators Hill of Alabama and Hatch of New Mexico, both Democrats. With the introduction of the “B2H2” resolution, as it was called, the seeds of the United Nations were planted in the U.S. Senate. In Senator Ball’s words, the United Nations system envisioned by the bill was an alternative to the methods of “balance of power diplomacy, imperialism, peace pacts, multilateral treaties and nonaggression pacts. All have failed.” He argued that “a stronger mechanism” was needed “to control the age-old plague of war.” Commentators praised the far-sighted measure, noting that that it became “a definite focusing point for public discussion of post-war United Nations policy… [and] may foreshadow a genuine revitalization of the Republican Party. Joseph Hurst Ball finds himself in the vanguard of the new movement.”
The spirit that animated Senator Ball and the other forefathers of the United Nations is the same spirit behind the Christian Declaration of American Foreign Policy in the most recent print edition of Providence. We are called in Genesis 2:15 to “cultivate the garden” of creation, which in international politics today means marshalling our power and influence to uphold a liberal world order. This order serves as the “outer perimeter” of our national security. In an echo of Senator Ball’s 1941 floor speech, the declaration states that “the United States’ safety and prosperity is most strongly assured in a world shaped by liberal norms of accountable governance, open economics and cooperative security—a world in which military force is less likely to be called upon in the first place.”
Where are the Joe Balls of today? What rising Republican star has the courage to challenge the populist America First agenda hypnotizing the party of Eisenhower and Reagan? To their credit, legions of GOP national security experts have publicly criticized Trump. But precious few of the party’s elected leaders have. Case in point: the Republican junior Senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton. Senator Cotton is a decorated war veteran, a student of international affairs, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, and, at age 39, the chamber’s youngest member and in the vanguard of a new generation of GOP leadership. He believes “we need to be active and engaged throughout the world” and claims to stand squarely in the “post-World War II bipartisan consensus” on U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, Cotton backs Trump, and the American First agenda he trumpets. Perhaps to appease his red-state constituents, he defends his party’s presidential candidate by asserting that “I believe Donald Trump believes that… we need to tend more closely to our core national-security interests.”[iii] No Joe Ball, he.
Senator Ball’s stalwart internationalism compelled him to endorse FDR in 1944, a political betrayal the state’s Republicans could not forgive. He lost his reelection bid four years later to a then little-known Minneapolis mayor named Hubert Humphrey. Although he briefly reemerged later to defend his former colleagues against the red-baiting of neighboring Senator Joe McCarthy, Joe Ball and his wife Elisabeth eventually retired to their farm in the Shenandoah, living long enough to see their daughter—my mother-in-law—follow his lead in public service. Few remember Senator Ball today. But for the sake of the Republican Party, for the sake of our republic, and for the sake of securing republican values worldwide, perhaps we should.
Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.
Photo Credit: Portrait of Senator Ball, via U.S. Senate Historical Office.
[i] Stuhler, Barbara. Ten Men of Minnesota and American Foreign Policy. January 15, 1973.
[ii] LIFE, vol. 15, no. 19, p. 34, Nov. 8, 1943
[iii] “Why Would a Republican Hawk Support Donald Trump?” by Uri Friedman in The Atlantic, July 3, 2016