On April 4, 1917, Senator William Borah, Idaho Republican, left his apartment on Wyoming Street and walked his usual route to the U.S. Capitol for one of the most difficult and important votes of his career: supporting America’s entry into World War I. Decades later, on August 7, 1964, Idaho’s Democratic Senator, Frank Church, made a similar journey to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Capitol where he voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that yielded unconstrained authority over the conduct of the Vietnam War to the president.

Both men would soon regret their votes, leading to soul-searching re-examinations of their views about the role of America in the international arena.

At the time of his vote on WWI, Borah said he simply could not muster the strength to vote against U.S. entry in the war. Likewise, Church supported the president in a time of crisis. Both Senators had succumbed to national political pressures of then current mainstream thinking.

After the war, Borah said that of all the votes he had cast in the Senate, he rued most the one supporting American entry into World War I, according to separate biographies by Robert James Maddox and Marian C. McKenna. Church later complained that the vote on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was hurried and taken in the heat of the moment. He lamented the Resolution as one of his worst votes, and he greatly regretted not fighting it, as Bethine Church describes in her 2003 memoir. This month marks 50 years since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution vote.

Borah’s subsequent re-examination of America’s international behavior is most clearly brought into focus in the context of the protracted debate over U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union. Church’s reassessment of U.S. policies coincided with his ever-deepening analysis of the Vietnam War. Their respective re-evaluations of American foreign policy, separated by some 40 years, evolved in the months and years following their war votes. Although leaders of different political parties, their philosophies of foreign relations evolved to become very similar.


Story Guide
Part I: Forty years apart
1. The Borah-Church Parallels
2. Borah And The Monroe Doctrine
3. Borah’s Domestic Turn
4. Church’s Internationalist Evolution
5. High Water Mark of a Cold Warrior
6. Intervention in Mexico
Part II: Development of foreign policy
7. Church Abroad
8. Borah’s Writings
9. Church’s Intellectual Torment
10. Toward Greatness In Global Affairs

In the early days of their public careers, each was a strong apologist for U.S. military intervention wherever in the world it would lead. In this early phase of their foreign policy attitudes, both Borah and Church thought that it was vital to the nation to deploy economic and military resources against destabilizing forces, whether in Europe, Africa, Latin America or elsewhere.

At a tipping point in their reassessment, each senator began to question the utility of military intervention. The question they probed was how the U.S. could best promote its ultimate goal of demonstrating to the world the superiority of capitalistic democracy. They became convinced that war was exceedingly expensive and politically counterproductive. The two senators came to articulate a personal philosophy and a theory of international relations that equated unquestioned military intervention with abandonment of the moral high ground they believed distinguished America from other countries. Borah and Church’s evolved weltanschauung recognized their perceived reality of a world constantly changing in ways that America was incapable of controlling.

Church with Borah, eagle

Sen. Frank Church, flanked by an eagle and image of Borah, for campaign publicity shot. Frank Church Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University.

Borah and Church’s backgrounds and careers were closely parallel in a surprising number of ways. Each married the daughter of an Idaho governor. Each was an oratorically gifted attorney. They both had visceral fears of big organizations, whether government or non-government. They were aloof and detached from and at times antagonistic toward their respective political parties.

In 1936 Borah was a Republican candidate for U.S. president and 40 years later, Church won Democratic presidential primaries. They fought for constitutional rights particularly the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press. Borah the progressive and Church the liberal worked to rebalance institutional forces within an American political structure they deemed unfair to some of its less politically powerful citizens.

Their similarities in background and philosophy far outweigh a significant difference:  their pole-opposite attitudes toward international organizations. Borah was irreconcilably opposed to the League of Nations and other international mutual security pacts whereas Church actively promoted the United Nations and its role in mediating international conflicts.

Borah and Church served as United States senators longer than any other in the history of Idaho — Borah for 33 years beginning in 1907 and Church 24 years beginning in 1956. They debated, argued and fought on the battlegrounds of all the important public policy issues of their times. They attained national stature primarily because of their imprint on foreign policy, in their mid and later terms constantly questioning the motives and actions of administrations bent on military solutions.

During his terms in the Senate, Borah cultivated his reputation as a maverick, deftly playing the role of the outsider cultivating the press with his demagoguery and out right obstructionism. Church’s self-reliant thought and action endeared him to the politically independent and even to a few Republicans, but created a bittersweet relationship with fellow Democrats. A campaign brochure in 1968 highlighting Church’s political independence shows him sitting on a desk with the statue of an eagle on one side and a picture of Republican William Borah on the other. Church said Borah was his “boyhood hero.”

Omnipresent Borah

Borah’s image was omnipresent. Pictured: Sen. Church listens to state Sen. Nye at an Idaho State Society talk in D.C. on Borah’s hundredth birthday in 1965. The late senator looks on from the mantle. Frank Church Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University.

Although the foreign policy views of the two senators were framed during different periods of U.S. history, the political and social crucibles of those eras were nevertheless similar: times in which international uncertainties led to U.S. domestic fears of both the real and the fanciful threat of Marxism and communism. Unique domestic and foreign policy agendas were framed in the high-voltage years of those two periods of “red scare” in America. Borah was senator during the first red scare era, roughly from WWI until the early 1920s, a time noteworthy for occasional violence that underlay frothy rhetoric about the subversive activities of the Bolsheviks and Marxists.

The second red scare, roughly from the end of the second World War until the late 1950s, extended into the middle of Senator Church’s first term. Like its antecedent era, mid-century politics were characterized by propaganda, intimidation and scare tactics directed toward public servants as well as ordinary citizens who dared to question cold war orthodoxy.

In both post-war periods, Americans confronted the realities of on-going international conflict that preceding wars were supposed to have resolved, creating a world in which Bolshevism and communism would emerge as combatants to the American way of life. Earlier threats of anti-democratic monarchies were replaced by revolutionary upheaval across the globe. In the face of vehemently anti-communist currents of public opinion, each senator began to express doubts about the long-term success of traditional foreign policies.

Borah’s crusade for U.S. recognition of the post-Revolution government of the Soviet Union was founded on his belief that the U.S. should acknowledge the legitimacy of governments even when resulting from revolutionary change. While he did not necessarily approve of the success of the Russian Revolution itself, nor of the resulting governmental structure, Borah believed that social breakdown and violence erupting elsewhere in the world was beyond America’s control. This view of the U.S. role in international affairs argued that America should accept the reality of social change even if violent.

Four decades later, Church’s 10-year campaign to redirect U.S. foreign policy during the Vietnam War came to rest on a similar premise — that the nationalistic outburst of change in Southeast Asia was beyond America’s capacity to control.

Although Borah never travelled outside of the United States, he was notably well read in history, political science and literature and was considered by contemporaries to be an authority on the French Revolution. He achieved stature as an authoritative spokesman on national issues, particularly in foreign affairs, through his membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Church, by contrast, travelled extensively, beginning with his war experience in Asia and continuing while senator to engage first hand the peoples of Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee served as Church’s platform for espousing his beliefs and policy recommendations in international relations.

It was as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and for a time chairmen, that both Borah and Church acquired considerable information that served as the underpinning for their many pronouncements on foreign affairs and the proper role of the U.S. in the community of nations. Borah was a prolific and at times brash commentator. He has been accused of “shooting until he sees the whites of their eyes.” Church, on the contrary, was deliberative and occasionally, exasperatingly methodical in writing, rewriting and practicing important speeches in front of the mirror. Their oratory provided them a national audience for their foreign policy crusades.


Story Guide
Part I: Forty years apart
1. The Borah-Church Parallels
2. Borah And The Monroe Doctrine
3. Borah’s Domestic Turn
4. Church’s Internationalist Evolution
5. High Water Mark of a Cold Warrior
6. Intervention in Mexico

Borah’s first-term assessment of American foreign policy was that the U.S. needed to be actively and aggressively involved in foreign events. In this interventionist phase of his career, Borah criticized the Wilson Administration’s failure to promote and protect U.S. interests abroad. He castigated the Wilson Administration for not aggressively defending the rights of U.S. citizens when, in May of 1915, a German submarine sank the British Lusitania. He thought that the American lives lost in the incident commanded an aggressive response by the Administration. Borah complained that Wilson was long on rhetoric and short action, according to Maddox.

Asserting that the U.S. was obliged to protect American citizens wherever they may be, Borah proclaimed a novel and uniquely expansionary interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. Under the Doctrine, he said, it was the duty of the U.S. to, “…shield humanity from those revolting and shameful cruelties regardless of creed or nationality.” This interpretation of the Doctrine gave cover to American imperialists who were clamoring for widely interventionist policies. In a spirit of evangelical zeal, he also said, “my Bible and my religion teach me that there may be times when it is the duty of Christians to fight.”

At the time, Borah was particularly critical of the Wilson Administration’s do-nothing policy toward Mexico in late 1915 and early 1916. The upheaval in Mexico caused by successive coups and regional takeovers had resulted in the loss of American lives and confiscation of property. Borah thought there was nothing to be gained by waiting for the Mexicans to resolve their internal issues; lack of action by the Wilson administration continued to jeopardize Americans residing there.

Uncle Sam in Mexico

Clifford Kennedy Berryman via Wikimedia
1916 political cartoon on the “Mexican Expedition.”

Borah commended Wilson when, in March of 1916, the president ordered the Pershing Expeditionary Force into Mexico to bring some order to the chaos perpetrated by Poncho Villa. The senator thought that it was well within the constitutional authority of the president to initiate an action on foreign soil for the purpose of protecting Americans. Borah approved of the interventionist policy, as he said later at the Republican National Convention, in his “Americanism” speech: “Make our position strong for America first, for the protection of American rights here and abroad.” Read Borah’s “Americanism” speech [pdf], courtesy of University of Colorado WWI Collection.

Consistent with his interventionist views at the time and as a reaction to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Borah approved of “meddling” in Russia’s internal politics when he supported sending a commission there to encourage Russia’s continuing participation in the war against Germany. He thought the U.S. should take all necessary steps to ensure that Russia remained in the war. Russia’s withdrawal would allow Germany to concentrate its war efforts on the Western Front thereby further jeopardizing American soldiers. Even though a commission was not sent to Russia, Borah’s approval of an attempt to influence Russian policy while American troops were on Russian soil is consistent with the view he then held that American involvement in the world should be unlimited, a view that he would soon abandon.


Borah’s assessment of the international environment and his belief that U.S. involvement should be unrestricted ended in the early 1920s. With typical resoluteness, now on the opposite side of the issue, he began his attacks on U.S. international adventurism. He said the U.S. should learn the lessons of WWI, that America lost treasure and lives in a war that was none of her business and that henceforth the U.S. should concede the reality of world politics — that intra-national disputes cannot be solved by American soldiers.

Borah’s post-WWI view that the U.S. should attend to her own affairs and not interfere in the domestic quarrels of other countries provided the context for his attitude toward the Soviet Union and its series of revolutions. The world had changed and so had Borah.


Forty years later, Senator Church’s view of U.S. foreign policy underwent a change parallel to Borah’s. During the early and mid-1950s Church’s first-term perspective reflected the political orthodoxy that America was called to defend the world against any perceived Marxist subversion. This early-career belief in the need for U.S. activism internationally corresponded to Borah’s pre-World War I attitude toward U.S. foreign policy.

Crusade for Freedom

CIA via Wikimedia
1952 Crusade for Freedom fundraising pamphlet.

As the 1954 chair of Idaho’s Crusade for Freedom, organized to support the anti-communist Radio Free Europe, Church articulated the zero-sum rhetoric of mainstream America and of most Idahoans: any gain by communism anywhere in the world would be a loss of freedom, democracy and the American way of life. During the Crusade for Freedom campaign, Church implored listeners in a radio broadcast to, “strike a blow for freedom” by contributing to the Crusade. A couple of years later, he described a world “split into two parts, half slave and half free… We live in a bifurcated world.”

Church believed, like most of his Idaho constituents, that communists were not only active in international intrigue, but were engaged in espionage within the borders of the U.S. in an attempt to foment revolution, as he told a teachers’ union in Boise in 1957. During his first senatorial campaign, Church rattled sabers. In a meeting in Eastern Idaho, according to a local paper at the time, he said, “We can no longer afford the luxury of isolation (and) should we resort to the ‘Fortress America’ concept, it could mean enemy bombers over Blackfoot or Pocatello some morning.” Read “The Role of Public Education in a Free Society” [pdf] by Frank Church, courtesy of Boise State University Special Collections.

Throughout the late 1950s, Church staunchly proclaimed that the world was being divided between the fearsome reality of Marxist revolution and American democracy. “We wage the Cold War to preserve freedom in the full knowledge that we must live with the Cold War, and keep it a cold war,” he said.

An early advocate of mutual reduction in atomic warheads, Church nevertheless argued in the early days of his public career that the U.S. was the bulwark of protection against pernicious forces of international communism embodied by the Soviet Union. America must be prepared to use military force where necessary to stem its advance.

Church said that America was waging the Cold War to prevent a communist conquest of man. “Yield to communism in the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa and ultimate communist dominion of the world is assured,” he said in 1959 in a speech at Knox College in Illinois. He was convinced that the communists were winning the Cold War, among other reasons, because they offered quick-fix promises, which had special appeal to under-developed countries of the world.
Story Guide
Part I: Forty years apart
1. The Borah-Church Parallels
2. Borah And The Monroe Doctrine
3. Borah’s Domestic Turn
4. Church’s Internationalist Evolution
5. High Water Mark of a Cold Warrior
6. Intervention in Mexico

Following a 1959 visit to the USSR, Church said he was appalled by the degree of forced conformity in that atheistic, authoritarian and aggressively anti-individualistic society. “An ant society in human form,” he called it. He said he had seen “tyranny in a red cloak,” according to Fighting the Odds, a 1994 study from LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer. The tour reinforced an anti-communism that framed his Cold War view of international affairs. Left unchecked, he thought, communism would trample the United States and other democracies.


In 1958, Church propounded a view he would repudiate 10 years later. He said, “…the president must be the chief architect of American foreign policy, (and) as commander-in-chief of our armed forces, (the president) ought not to be obstructed in his program for national defense.” Church felt that although President Eisenhower had failed in his policies of deterrence and containment, he should be supported as foreign policy’s chief architect.

Frank Church in Korea

Frank and Bethine Church with soldiers in Korea, circa 1962. Frank Church Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University.

Church’s refrain of a two-world model was the central theme of his address at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960. The senator coveted the opportunity to give the keynote speech, which by all accounts fell short of expectations. Part cheerleading for the Democratic Party and part publicity of Republican failures, the speech was characterized as, “a ringing Cold War call to arms,” in the Ashby/Gramer book. In the address, Church reproved Republicans for failing to roll back the onslaught of communism. He described the world of developed countries as divided between the communists and the free societies and predicted that the east-west contest would expand into the “no man’s land” of nations emerging from the grips of colonial powers. In those newly developing regions, Church said, the world is bound up in mortal competition between freedom and communism. Communist tyranny invades the Middle East, he said, and plants its seeds in restless Africa.

The keynote address is the high water mark of Church’s Cold Warrior period. It epitomizes Church’s nationalism that sometimes bordered on jingoism. He was convinced at the time that America must be aggressive internationally in order to thwart insidious forces of revolutionary change promoted by the USSR and its allies, whose purpose was to undermine democratic institutions in Africa and elsewhere. Though never expressed in imperialistic terms, Church, the Cold Warrior, supported America’s expansive worldwide commitments.

Within a year of the keynote speech, however, Church began to reassess the nature of forces at large in the world and the proper U.S. response to them. Although it would take several years for him to create a model he believed to be better suited to the realities of the world than the Cold War paradigm, the world of the early 1960s was changing… and so was Senator Church.


In the aftermath of World War I, Senator Borah began his own reassessment of American international policies. He started to question stances he took in the years leading up to and during WWI. He became a more strident critic of U.S. intervention in world conflicts that he thought would certainly enmesh it in quarrels that should exclusively belong to local peoples who were directly affected.
Story Guide
Part I: Forty years apart
1. The Borah-Church Parallels
2. Borah And The Monroe Doctrine
3. Borah’s Domestic Turn
4. Church’s Internationalist Evolution
5. High Water Mark of a Cold Warrior
6. Intervention in Mexico

Even while musing over ways to keep Russia in the war and to preserve the two-front problem for Germany, Borah expressed concern that the Allies and Americans were trying to “coerce revolutions into forms that (their) policy-makers considered acceptable.” Borah thought that such active intervention was both futile and dangerous, according to Maddox.

William Borah

Library of Congress
William “Lion of Idaho” Borah.

Mexico offers an example of the metamorphosis that Borah’s philosophy of U.S. foreign policy was undergoing. His insistence on greater intervention in Mexican affairs by the Wilson Administration prior to the war moderated considerably following the war. His pre-war attitude toward intervention in Mexico was a “striking contrast with his friendly and considerate attitude” after the war. Johnson downplayed this change of heart as Borah not having thought the matter through in the early days of his career. According to Johnson’s Borah of Idaho.

However, as the debate over the war-ending Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations came to the foreground of national political discourse, Borah became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to international “entanglements” that he was certain were inimical to America’s interests. His newly formulated anti-imperialism was the underpinning for his belief that the U.S. should formally recognize the government of Russia even though spawned by revolution.

Borah’s rather sudden about face, to oppose U.S. interventionism, resulted primarily from his assessment of the failures of the protracted mayhem of the First World War. He concluded that the causes and results of the war were issues that involved only the imperial courts of Europe, not America. European monarchs were fighting each other for domination of the continent and control of the economic tentacles that reached into Europe’s colonies. The Versailles Treaty, in Borah’s view, did nothing more than punish the vanquished and reward the European victors, who would then expand their continental power and consolidate their colonial empires.

The war had nothing to do with saving the world for democracy. It calcified power and influence among the victorious European combatants. The U.S. had been drawn into that war and should have learned the most important lesson: that involvement in disputes of the imperial courts of Europe brings no benefit to the United States. Entanglement in the nefarious intrigue of the European powers had proved disastrous to the United States in the loss of life and treasure.

Tying further diplomatic knots with European countries through an international organization called the League of Nations was particularly abhorrent to Borah. The senator took every opportunity, in speeches across the U.S., to proclaim his message that the courts of Europe would manipulate the League at the expense of the U.S. His cross-country barnstorming tours elevated his reputation as an orator and an “Irreconcilable,” as he and a coterie of other senators who opposed the League came to be called.

For Borah, the revolution in Russia that brought a tumultuous end to the Romanov era was a positive result of the war. He had forecasted that the top-heavy imperial European governments would topple during the war. As to Russia, he was right. The Russian revolutions in March and November of 1917 established a government that would be more responsive to the Russian people, he thought. This new government would shed the decadent excesses of the old guard.

His view that this was truly a “people’s revolution” guided Borah’s insistence for the next 13 years that the U.S. had no right to tell the Russians what kind of government they should have. He took the short step of logic to also conclude that the U.S. had no right to tell any other country how to conduct its internal affairs or how to establish the mechanisms of political authority.

Borah’s paranoia toward the reactionary governments of Europe, coupled with his belief that a people has a right to determine its own destiny, merged in his construct of foreign affairs. The resulting belief was that the U.S. had no national interest in interfering militarily in the internal affairs of other countries, even during spasms of revolution. Borah’s transformation into ardent anti-imperialist was complete by the early 1922 midterm elections.

Read the second part of this essay next week.

The author would like to thank Dr. LeRoy Ashby, Washington State University professor emeritus, and Dr. Russ Tremayne, professor at the College of Southern Idaho, for their stimulating encouragement and well-informed guidance in researching and writing this chapter and Garry Wenske, director of the Frank Church Institute, for his valuable suggestions.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.