Gerald Ford Helped Lead GOP Away from Isolationism

During a speaking trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a couple of years ago, I whiled away a few spare hours touring the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

The news stories today about Ford’s death rightly focus on his “accidental presidency,” his pardon of Richard Nixon, and the important if transitional role he played in helping our nation recover from the trauma of Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam.

One underappreciated aspect of Ford’s record that I learned from my visit to the museum in Grand Rapids is that he was a committed internationalist. When Ford won his first race for Congress, in 1948, he ran as an internationalist Republican, defeating an isolationist incumbent.

It is easy to forget today, but before World War II, the Republican Party was the protectionist, isolationist party. Republicans sponsored the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff bill that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression, contributing to a downward spiral in global trade and feeding the resentments that set the stage for World War II.

After the war, Republicans such as Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan broke from the party’s past to work with Democrats to forge a bipartisan trade and foreign policy. In the late 1940s, the United States not only joined NATO but also the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Under this bipartisan consensus, U.S. government barriers to international trade and foreign investment continued to fall from their peaks in the 1930s to their relatively low levels of today.

Gerald Ford’s presidency and career are open for critique, but on the basic question of whether the United States should engage in the global economy or wall itself off in fear, Gerald Ford was on the right side of history.