By George F. Will

November 1, 2023

The Washington Post


Explaining his support for U.S. aid to Israel but not Ukraine, Sen. J.D. Vance, the shape-shifting Ohio Republican, wrote: “Israel has an achievable objective. Ukraine does not.” Actually, their objectives are identical — national survival while living in proximity to enemies whose objective is national annihilation.

Vance’s categorical conclusion, that Ukraine’s survival is unachievable, makes him a symptom of Donald Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party. If Trump becomes, for the third consecutive time, the party’s presidential candidate, one of our two major parties will be more isolationist than either party was momentous during the 1930s high tide of “America First” isolationism.

Vance reflects a long-lingering American, but especially Republican, tendency, particularly in the Midwest, where an Ohioan once exemplified it. Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953), son of a president, did not consider himself an isolationist. But early in 1940, shortly before Hitler’s blitzkrieg to Paris and the English Channel, Taft said, “It would be a great mistake for us to participate in the European war. I do not believe we could materially affect the outcome.” He lost the 1940 Republican presidential nomination to Wendell Willkie, who had been a registered Republican for less than a year and who said he would vote to reelect President Franklin D. Roosevelt rather than a Republican opposed to aid for Britain and France.

Taft greatly, if inadvertently, contributed to the nation’s security by voting against the NATO treaty. The Soviet Union, he said, did not want war, but NATO might provoke it to war. Besides, U.S. possession of the atomic bomb would keep the peace. On July 21, 1949, after the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade, the Senate approved NATO membership 83-13. Taft’s opposition, combined with his quest for the Republicans’ 1952 nomination, helped provoke Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of NATO (1951-1952), into entering the race. This brought the Republican Party into the bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that won the Cold War.

It is axiomatic that, regarding foreign policy, what most Americans want most of the time is as little of it as possible. Michael Barone, in his 2019 book, “How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t),” notes this: The South, receptive to England’s cavalier traditions, and the chosen home of pugnacious Scots-Irish immigrants, is the most hawkish region. The Midwest, which was settled by many immigrants who came here to get away from European conflicts, is the most dovish.

Vance, a residue of Trump, is, even more than Trump, a symptom of political rot. Trump skitters like a water bug across the surface of the nation’s life, motivated entirely by personal matters — malice, vengeance and the affirmation of crowds. Vance, 39, with his versatility of convictions and similar clingers to Trump’s coattails, might infect public life long after their hero has slouched away.

Right now is the most dangerous U.S. moment since World War II, more menacing than the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Then, the threat arose from one miscalculation by one occasionally erratic, but not constantly imprudent, leader (Nikita Khrushchev) of a nuclear power whose strategic arsenal was markedly inferior to America’s.

Today, there are three recklessly led nuclear powers — China lawlessly rampant in neighboring seas, Russia trying to violently revise European borders and North Korea. A fourth, Iran, is impending. And now, the post-World War II U.S. consensus about this nation’s world role is under attack in the party that Eisenhower rescued from Taft’s dangerous hesitancy and naiveté.

The cure for 1930s isolationism was Pearl Harbor. Will the cure for today’s isolationism be as sudden and surprising? The cold-eyed men in Moscow and Beijing must be as delighted as they are astounded by the spectacle of U.S. populists cultivating war weariness in a nation that is shedding no blood and is spending a pittance of its wealth.

Populists call the war in Ukraine a “forever war.” It is 20 months old. Twenty months into World War II in Europe — May 1941 — Hitler was triumphant from Norway to North Africa, and Victory in Europe Day was four years distant. World War II was not forever; it was worth winning.

In 1936, Winston Churchill warned a complacent British Parliament that “the era of procrastination is coming to its close. We are entering a period of consequences.” Vance — he once called Trump “cultural heroin”; now, he says never mind, Trump is a seer — is a consequence of Trump. The consequences of Vance and his ilk might be much larger than they are, and even more dreadful.


George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “American Happiness and Discontents,” was released in September 2021.