The Ludlow Amendment

Highpoint Of American Isolationism

Rep. Louis Ludlow (D-Indiana), author of the Ludlow Amendment. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

Once upon a time, Congress nearly gave away its right to debate and declare war. It never actually happened, but it came close in the days of American isolationism something called the Ludlow Amendment.

Shunning The World Stage

With the exception of a brief flirtation with empire in 1898, the United States attempted to avoid involvement in foreign affairs (European, at least; the U.S. never had many problems shouldering into Latin American affairs), but close ties to Great Britain and Germany's use of submarine warfare dragged it into World War I in 1917.

Having lost 116,000 soldiers killed and another 204,000 wounded in just over a year of the war, Americans were not eager to get involved in another European conflict. The country adopted its isolationist stance.

Insistent Isolationism

Americans adhered to isolationism throughout the 1920s and 1930s, regardless of events in Europe and Japan. From the rise of Fascism with Mussolini in Italy to the perfection of Fascism with Hitler in Germany and the hijacking of the civil government by militarists in Japan, Americans tended their own issues.

Republican presidents in the 1920s -- Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover -- also gave scant attention to foreign affairs. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Hoover's Secretary of State Henry Stimson merely gave Japan a diplomatic slap on the wrist.

The crisis of the Great Depression swept Republicans from office in 1932, and new President Franklin D.

Roosevelt was an internationalist, not an isolationist.

FDR's New Attitude

Roosevelt firmly believed that the United States should respond to events in Europe. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, he encouraged American oil companies to enact a moral embargo and stop selling oil to Italy's armies. The oil companies refused.

FDR, however, won out when it came to the Ludlow Amendment.

Peak Of Isolationism

Representative Louis Ludlow (D-Indiana) introduced his amendment several times to the House of Representatives beginning in 1935. His 1938 introduction was the one most likely to pass.

By 1938, Hitler's reinvigorated German army had retaken the Rhineland, was practicing blitzkrieg on behalf of Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and was preparing to annex Austria. In the East, Japan had started a full-out war with China. In the United States, Americans were scared history was about to repeat.

Ludlow's Amendment -- yes, a proposed amendment to the Constitution -- read: "Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its Territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a Nation-wide referendum. Congress, when it deems a national crisis to exist, may by concurrent resolution refer the question of war or peace to the citizens of the States, the question to be voted on being, Shall the United States declare war on _________? Congress may otherwise by law provide for the enforcement of this section."

Twenty years earlier, even entertaining this resolution would have been laughable. In 1938, though, the House not only entertained it, but voted on it. It failed, 209-188.

FDR's Pressure

FDR hated the resolution, saying it would unduly limit the powers of the presidency. He wrote to Speaker of the House William Brockman Bankhead that: "I must frankly state that I consider that the proposed amendment would be impracticable in its application and incompatible with our representative form of government.

"Our Government is conducted by the people through representatives of their own choosing," FDR continued. "It was with singular unanimity that the founders of the Republic agreed upon such free and representative form of government as the only practical means of government by the people. Such an amendment to the Constitution as that proposed would cripple any President in his conduct of our foreign relations, and it would encourage other nations to believe that they could violate American rights with impunity.

"I fully realize that the sponsors of this proposal sincerely believe that it would be helpful in keeping the United States out of war. I am convinced it would have the opposite effect," the president concluded.

Incredible (Near) Precedent

Today the House vote that killed the Ludlow Amendment doesn't look all that close. And, had it passed the House, it's unlikely the Senate would have passed it on to the public for approval.

Nevertheless, it's amazing that such a proposal got so much traction in the House. Incredible as it may seem, the House of Representatives -- that house of Congress most answerable to the public -- was so scared of its role in U.S. foreign policy that it seriously considered giving up one of its bedrock Constitutional duties -- the declaration of war.

Sources:

Ludlow Amendment, full text. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Peace And War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941. (U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, 1943; repr. U.S. Department of State, 1983.) Accessed September 19, 2013.

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Jones, Steve. "The Ludlow Amendment." ThoughtCo, May. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-ludlow-amendment-3310191. Jones, Steve. (2017, May 12). The Ludlow Amendment. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ludlow-amendment-3310191 Jones, Steve. "The Ludlow Amendment." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ludlow-amendment-3310191 (accessed September 24, 2017).