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Historiography on Taft’s diplomacy

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1.5 Historiography on Taft’s diplomacy

There is a widespread acceptance amongst scholars that William Howard Taft was an inactive president who largely confined himself to the White House and refrained from vigorous public engagements.53 This relative unpopularity was reflected in his third place finish in his presidential re-election campaign of 1912. He failed to escape the shadow of his titanic predecessor and was succeeded by Woodrow Wilson, another colossus of 20th century American politics. Given that his largely unremarkable presidency was wedged between the epochal administrations of two figures whose legacies still resonate today, Taft has resultantly been reduced to the margins of 20th century U.S. history, his tenure roundly condemned as being lethargic and directionless. Much criticism centered on his administration’s approach to foreign affairs, which stressed the importance of the nation’s rapidly growing capital resources and downplayed Theodore Roosevelt’s emphasis on military force.54 While Taft argued that such a policy would assist in the creation of orderly societies by helping to develop the unindustrialized nations while simultaneously earning profits for American investors, opponents offensively dubbed it ‘Dollar diplomacy’. However, a journey through the historiography of Taft’s administration reveals a more nuanced picture and suggests that the portrait of him as a failed president with no tangible, enduring legacy is not wholly accurate.

Dexter Perkins appraisal of Taft provides a much more layered analysis of the administration. Published shortly after World War II, Perkins Hands Off: A History of the Monroe Doctrine states that “At the distance of more than a quarter of a century, it can readily be seen that Mr. Taft, in discharging his high office, was by no means the ghastly failure which party spirit, and the venom of his predecessor, was to make him seem; his constructive achievements were many..”55 He also applauds the policy of ‘Dollar diplomacy’ for bearing “no sinister financial aspect”, unlike earlier policies pursued by Roosevelt.56

There were other notable reappraisals of Taft’s foreign policy record as the 20th century progressed. An analysis of The American Historical Review is a further instance of a revisionist interpretation of the Taft era. This passage from a 1974 review article- written at a time when the United States was still reeling from its draining and futile engagements in Vietnam- offers a fresh take on Taft’s diplomatic dealings; “It remains refreshing, now that American presidents have got the habit of assuming absolute power to deploy the military abroad, that Taft felt inescapably constrained by the absence of a formal, legal sanction. Despite some gross sabre rattling and a personal readiness to intervene….Taft refused to move because Congress gave him no authority to do so.”57

Paolo Coletta’s narrative from the same period largely follows this tone. His work offers a gently critical interpretation of the Taft administration, and surmises that Taft “was not a bad president but a rather good one”58, failing to achieve greatness because he was incapable of playing the shrewd political games that his predecessor reveled in. In a publication three years later, Akira Iriye has praise for Taft’s foreign policy, suggesting that it was universalistic in imagination as well as application and paved the way for the coming of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism. Iriye goes further and concludes that the criticism of dollar diplomacy “tells as much about the accomplishments as about the problem of that diplomacy. Wilsonian foreign policy was not so much a rejection of Taft’s approach as an attempt to overcome some of these problems without throwing away the accomplishments.”59 While not a categorical endorsement of all of Taft’s foreign policy decisions, these writings indicate that in an age of catastrophic diplomatic failures, the historiography of Taft’s administration was more favorable than many would expect.

Favorable appraisals of the Taft administrations diplomacy are in the minority however. For Walter LaFeber there is little ambiguity regarding Taft’s dollar diplomacy. He rejects Iriye’s assertion completely when arguing that rather than seeking to protect order and the status quo abroad, trade and economic opportunity was the chief engine driving U.S. policy, regardless of the chaos and revolution that may result. For him, Taft’s policies “perfectly illustrate the quest for overseas markets that were needed to deal with the requirements of the Second Industrial Revolution….and how that quest led to disorder and even revolution”.60 In essence, Taft’s dollar diplomacy used dollars not as a substitute for bullets –as he’d claimed- but as a supplement.

Like Roosevelt, the historiography on Taft’s diplomacy has been widely dominated by the hegemonic framework favored by scholars for most of the 20th century. However, Richard Collin argues that the failure of Dollar Diplomacy in conception and practice may owe more to clumsiness than hegemonic expansiveness.61 This clumsiness was demonstrated in his overpopulating of his inner circle and cabinet with lawyers who favored active intervention and American economic primacy.62 In a damning summation, Collin states that by replacing Roosevelt’s use of power and responsibility and his commitment to internationalism with open American economic motives, Taft obliterated much of their predecessors’ attempts to establish friendlier relations with Latin American countries. Taft’s clumsy economic initiatives would only reinforce the Latin stereotypes of materialism and insensitivity.63

More contemporary readings on Taft’s presidency have also been largely unkind. Stephen Graubard regards Taft as having been Roosevelt’s ‘dauphin’ and remarks that the world order he proposed to achieve through the growing economic interdependence of nations never materialized.64 Others regard his dollar diplomacy in Central and Latin America as a farce and an ill-fitting disguise for Yankee imperialism.65 So while there have been notable instances of scholars re-appraising and defending Taft’s diplomatic efforts, the broader historiographical consensus remains dominated by the hegemonic paradigm who stress a sinister, economic driven plot as Taft’s ultimate motivation.

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