James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Ludlow Amendment

by James M. Lindsay
January 10, 2011

Rep. Louis Ludlow appealed for approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a referendum on participation in a foreign war.

Rep. Louis Ludlow appealed for approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a referendum on participation in a foreign war. (Harris & Ewing/courtesy Library of Congress)

American history is rife with examples of bad policy ideas capturing the public imagination. Prohibition is the poster child for this malady. Today marks the anniversary of a House vote on one hare-brained foreign policy idea—the Ludlow Amendment.

Never heard of the Ludlow Amendment? It was a bill to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a national referendum to confirm any congressional declaration of war. No referendum would be necessary, however, if the United States had already been attacked.

Rep. Louis Ludlow (D-IN) proposed the bill in 1935, but the idea had been around for two decades. The Democratic and Progressive parties both made it a plank in their 1924 campaign platforms.

The Ludlow Amendment resonated with the public. The Gallup Poll, then in its infancy, found that three-quarters of Americans supported it. Part of the appeal was its populist premise: those who have to fight and possibly die in war should have a direct say in whether a war should be fought at all.

The amendment’s popularity also reflected the public’s isolationist mood. Americans saw storm clouds gathering in Europe and wanted no part of another world war. Supporters believed that Ludlow’s amendment would, as he put it, do more to “keep American boys out of slaughter pens in foreign countries than any other measure that could be passed.”

FDR’s allies on Capitol Hill kept the Ludlow Amendment bottled up in committee for several years. On January 10, 1938 supporters finally forced a vote to bring the bill to the floor. After FDR issued a personal message asking House members to vote no and his allies called in a few favors, the motion lost 209 to 188.  Although 188 votes is a sizable number, it’s far short of the two-thirds majority (290 votes) the Constitution requires for constitutional amendments. The push to enact the Ludlow Amendment was essentially dead.

It’s hard to exaggerate how bad an idea the Ludlow Amendment was (and is). Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, who was a leading isolationist voice before World War II only to become a leading internationalist voice after World War II, probably put the problem best: It “would be as sensible to require a town meeting before permitting the fire department to face a blaze.”

Nor would the Ludlow Amendment necessarily have slowed the march to war as much as its supporters presumed. Throughout American history popular passions have been just as likely to spur the country toward war as to hold it back. The “war hawks” pushed James Madison into the War of 1812. Grover Cleveland had to beat back jingoes urging war with Spain in the 1890s, and his successor, William McKinley, went to war only reluctantly. And I would wager that had the Ludlow Amendment been in place in 2003, the United States still would have invaded Iraq.

All of this raises a question: What is the foreign policy idea we are currently taking seriously that a humble blogger seventy-three years from now will mock as hare-brained?

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