Robert A. Taft: A Profile In Courage

At the conclusion of any war, difficult decisions must be made between the victors and the defeated. After World War II, for instance, many of the leaders of the Nazis in Germany were put on trial as war criminals by an international tribune. But imagine, for a moment, if at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, if an international court had tried to indict leaders from the U.S. for their role in waging that war. It was exactly that type of prosecution that Republican Senator Robert A. Taft feared when he opposed the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi war criminals.

During the Nuremberg Trials eleven Nazis were found guilty under an indictment for "waging an aggressive war" and sentenced to death. The verdict was a popular one especially in the United States, but Senator Robert A. Taft was not a member of the majority. With nothing to gain and his political future to lose, Taft's conscience and political courage caused him to speak out against a verdict he believed to be an act of vengeance, compromising the American and European justice systems.

Senator Robert A. Taft led conservative Republican opposition to the Democratic administrations of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In 1931-32 he was a member of the Ohio Senate, and from 1939 until his death he served in the U.S. Senate. Despite his nickname "Mr. Republican," Senator Taft was known to break party lines on issues such as education, housing, health and other welfare measures.

In 1946, Robert Taft was chief spokesman for the Republican Party and it looked likely that Republicans would gain control of both Houses of Congress paving the way for Taft's Republican nomination for the presidency in 1948. When a verdict was reached in the Nuremberg trials, the Senate was not in session and Senator Taft had no obligation to share his views. But Taft's strong belief that the trials were unjust caused him to speak out. "The trial of the vanquished by the victors cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice," Taft said. He believed the Nuremberg trials challenged both the legal structure and the Constitution of the United States and set a dangerous legal precedent worldwide. In 1946 Democrats and Republicans alike branded Taft a Nazi sympathizer. His views were highly unpopular with his constituents and the majority of American citizens.

I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret.

Characterized by Kennedy as an act of political courage, speaking out against the trials did not cost Senator Robert A. Taft his career in the U.S. Senate. He continued to serve until his death in 1953. Taft never did accomplish his dream of becoming president, campaigning twice unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination of his party. Kennedy believed Taft showed personal strength and conscientious action in his pursuit of justice and what he felt was the right path, in spite of the fact that his views were contrary to those of the majority of Americans.

Daniel Webster: A Profile In Courage

Before the Civil War, one of the biggest challenges the United States faced was how to expand westward and allow more states to join the union while maintaining the balance at the national level between the number of pro-slave states and anti-slave states. Many in the northern states, were opposed to slavery but one in particular, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts looked for a compromise to preserve the union, to keep the United States intact, while also allowing the country to expand and accept new states as members.

The solution he suggested is now known as The Compromise of 1850. Senator Webster addressed the Senate on March 7, 1850. "Mr. President," he said, "I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but an American and a Member of the Senate of the United States… I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause." His stance on the compromise would destroy both his popularity and his dream of becoming President. John F. Kennedy believed this disregard of personal consequences for the good of the country to be a profile in courage.

Henry Clay brought the Compromise of 1850 to the attention of Senator Webster on January 21, 1850. It consisted of many provisions, allowing for instance California to become a state but it also made it a crime for Northerners to help fugitive slaves who were trying to escape slavery by fleeing to the North.

In Webster's North, few could stomach a stricter fugitive slave act. It would become—until prohibition—the most flagrantly disobeyed legislation ever passed by Congress. The North also believed that New Mexico and Utah, both acquired from Mexico, should be admitted as free states. Webster himself was openly opposed to slavery. He wrote, "From my earliest youth, I have regarded slavery as a great moral and political evil." But, Daniel Webster believed that the preservation of the Union was of far greater importance than his own, or the North's, opposition to slavery. This was not a popular view with the majority voters and Webster's stance cost him his political future.

In front of a packed Senate chamber on March 7, 1850, Senator Webster pleaded the Union's cause. Webster said, the Senate's main concern was neither to promote slavery nor to abolish it, but to preserve the United States of America.

Instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in those caverns of darkness… let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union.

Senator Webster's support of the Compromise of 1850, John F. Kennedy wrote, "insured its success, resulted in his political crucifixion, and, for half a century or more, his historical condemnation." The Compromise would eventually pass both Houses of Congress and be signed in to law. It would not prevent civil war, but would delay it for ten years. Senator Webster would die a Senator in 1853, never fulfilling his dream of becoming President. In his last words to the Senate he wrote, "No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of his country." For his brave act, John F. Kennedy included Senator Webster in his book Profiles in Courage.


Robert A. Taft, oil on canvas, 1953, by Rudolf Anton Bernatschke

Robert A. Taft, oil on canvas, 1953, by Rudolf Anton Bernatschke


Honorable Daniel Webster

Honorable Daniel Webster