The recent letter written by 47 Republican senators to the government of Iran about nuclear negotiations has revived talk about the classic phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The tag line, arguing that partisanship should be put aside in foreign policy, is often attributed to Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan) who used it in endorsing some of the diplomatic initiatives of the Democratic Truman administration at the start of the Cold War. Some pundits have argued that Vandenberg, once an isolationist who saw the internationalist light, was the man who coined the “water’s edge” maxim. Both parties have in fact been using the phrase when it suits them for more than a century.
In 1904, praising the diplomatic work of Secretary of State John Hay, the Charlotte News, out of North Carolina, opined that “partisanship stops at the water’s edge anyway.” The editors of the News added “that when it comes to dealing with a foreign power, partisanship sinks out of sight in patriotism.”
Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, was also aware of the phrase. His use of the maxim adapted itself to various political situations. In 1908, in a campaign speech for GOP presidential candidate William Howard Taft, Senator Lodge arraigned the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, for his opposition to naval appropriations at the level Lodge believed necessary. “We ought not to economize on the defence of our country. Politics ought not to stop at the water’s edge.”
More than five years later, in debate over whether to repeal tolls on foreign shipping moving through the soon-to-be-opened Panama Canal, a stance that put Lodge in rare agreement with the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, the senator said, “My politics have always stopped at the water’s edge.”
In 1915, in an interview with the New Republic about American opinion toward foreign policy, the young writer Walter Lippman concluded that “the war has shown us that we live in a society larger than any nation, that American politics cannot stop at the water’s edge, and that the dangerous states of the world — the Bakans, China, Mexico, Turkey and so on — are as much a part of the American problem as Tammany Hall and the New Jersey swamps.”
During the presidential election of 1916, President Woodrow Wilson faced a spirited attack on his foreign policy record from his Republican rival, Charles Evans Hughes. An Iowa newspaper reported that the president and Secretary of State Robert Lansing “have determined to adopt as the democratic slogan: ‘Politics should stop at the water’s edge.’” Wilson instructed Lansing not to campaign on behalf of his re-election. “They have the view and will insist that it is the duty of all citizens to sink partisanship and uphold the hands of officials who are trying to solve difficult international questions in the interest of the people as a whole.”
The Republicans denounced Wilson for claiming in his literature that the Democrats had achieved foreign policy successes in maintaining American neutrality in World War I. The chair of the Republican National Committee and manager of the Hughes campaign, William R. Willcox, complained that “the principal point which Republicans have raised in this campaign is that the Wilson administration has played politics with our foreign affairs, that it has never allowed its policies to ‘stop at the water’s edge.’” Other examples followed in the decades before Senator Vandenberg made use of the phrase.
It’s time to retire the hoary phrase about politics and the water’s edge. It was not the creation of Senator Vandenberg in the 1940s. It was never a guiding principle of American foreign policy before 1900. It was always used, either pro or con, by partisan politicians for their own purposes. It has lingered in the popular mind because it has been repeated so often without any research into its origins and usage decades before it became famous during the Cold War. Its persistence only reveals that clichés serve journalistic purposes far more readily than does historical reality.
Featured image: President Woodrow Wilson and his war cabinet, photographed in 1918. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.