United States senator William Edgar Borah (1865-1940) was influential in developing American foreign policy, particularly by his isolationist attitudes in the 1930s and his opposition to aid to France and Great Britain as World War II approached.
William E. Borah was born to William Nathan and Eliza West Borah on June 29, 1865, on a farm near Fairfield, III. The family had settled originally in Pennsylvania about 1750 and moved west at the turn of the 19th century.
Young William had little liking for farm life. He resisted a career in the ministry and, while still a schoolboy, ran away with a traveling troupe of actors. Then an older sister invited him to join her and her husband in Lyon, Kans., where William continued his education, entering the University of Kansas in 1885. Forced by illness to leave college after his freshman year, he read law at home and passed the Kansas bar examination in 1887. Hard times, however, forced him to leave Kansas, and he settled in Boise, Idaho.
Borah prospered and became prominent in Republican party circles. In 1895 he married Mary O'Connell, daughter of the governor of Idaho. Although Borah bolted the party to campaign for William Jennings Bryan in 1896, he rejoined it permanently in 1902. An unsuccessful candidate of the Progressive wing of the Republican party for U.S. senator in 1903, in 1907 he was elected to the Senate—where he served until his death. The senator was a political independent in his views. Although he was a corporation lawyer and champion of Idaho lumber interests, he also supported the working man. He led the Senate fight in support of President Wilson's income tax bill but opposed Wilson's trust-regulation policy. A nationalist and an imperialist before 1914, he led the most vocal opponents of Wilsonian internationalism after World War I.
Borah never traveled outside the United States, yet his significance in American history lies in his influence on foreign affairs. The "Idaho Lion's" commitment to isolationism, parochialism, legalism, and moralism in foreign affairs led him to oppose effective political and military intervention by the United States on the world stage during the 1920s and 1930s. He championed policy divorced from power and created illusions of peace in the United States just as violent forces were bringing on the most terrible war in modern times.
Borah opposed American membership in the League of Nations because he feared agreements committing the United States to the use of force at a time not of its own choosing. As a leader of the Senate "irreconcilables," he mapped the strategy in the Senate that defeated the Treaty of Versailles. In the Washington Disarmament Conference (1922), Borah supported the Washington Treaty system to limit naval armaments and maintain the status quo in the Pacific, but he was among those senators who insisted upon a reservation disassociating the United States from the use of military power to enforce it. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after 1924, he enlarged the Kellogg-Briand Pact (out-lawing war) to include all the nations of the world, but he later refused to sanction the use of American arms to uphold the treaty.
With the rise of Hitler in Germany, Borah joined the isolationists' bloc in the Senate that imposed the neutrality legislation of 1935-1937. He did not believe that vital American interests were threatened by totalitarianism abroad. A war for democracy in Europe, he declared, would end democracy at home.
Borah opposed President Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to bring American resources to the support of the Western democracies and, when informed of approaching war in Europe at a White House conference in 1939, he refused to believe it, insisting that his information was more accurate than the President's. Still opposing President Roosevelt vigorously, the Idaho senator died on Jan. 19, 1940.
Further Reading on William Edgar Borah
The best biography of Borah is Marian C. McKenna, Borah (1961). The three best books on Borah and American policy in the 1920s are Robert H. Ferrel, Peace in Their Time: The Origins of the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1952), and John Chalmers Vinson, The Parchment Peace: The United States Senate and the Washington Conference, 1921-1922 (1955) and William E. Borah and the Outlawry of War (1957). For Borah and the coming of World War II the best books are Selig Adler, The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth Century Reaction (1957), and Robert A. Divine, The Illusion of Neutrality (1962).