In 1944, Emily Taft Douglas, a proponent of overseas humanitarian projects and a postwar United Nations Organization, defeated one of the most strident isolationists in the House of Representatives—heralding, as some observers believed, the triumph of American internationalism. “We, ourselves, must have faith in the doctrine of collective security as a bulwark against another war and chaos,” Representative Douglas said. “We must be prepared to make whatever compromises and sacrifices that security demands.” 1
Emily Taft was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 10, 1899, one of three daughters of the famous sculptor Larado Taft and Ada Bartlett Taft. President William Howard Taft was a distant cousin. She grew up in Chicago and traveled widely with her father during his frequent lecture and teaching tours in the United States and Europe. President Woodrow Wilson’s effort to coax the United States into the League of Nations, though unsuccessful, convinced Emily Taft to register as a Democrat.2 She graduated with honors a year early, in 1920, from the University of Chicago, with a B.A. in economics and political science. After graduating, she embarked on a theatrical career. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City. Emily Taft joined national theatrical tours, winning acclaim as the lead in a Broadway production of The Cat and the Canary. She also became active in Illinois politics, as a protégé of pioneer women state legislators.3 She served as the organizing secretary for the Illinois League of Women Voters and, in that capacity, met her future husband, Paul Douglas, a University of Chicago economics professor and future U.S. Senator. They married in 1931 and raised one daughter, Jean.
The Douglases took up the internationalist cause after a 1935 trip to Europe convinced them of the dangers of fascism in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The couple returned to Chicago, where they began a public campaign to warn fellow citizens about the growing menace in Europe. In 1938, Paul Douglas won election as a Chicago alderman, and in 1942 he mounted an unsuccessful campaign as an independent Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Ten days later, Paul Douglas enlisted in the Marines as a 50–year–old private, where he served in the Pacific theater in World War II and became a decorated combat veteran. Emily Douglas returned from the 1935 trip abroad to organize and chair the government and foreign policy department of the Illinois League of Women Voters. In 1942, she became executive secretary of the International Relations Center in Chicago. During the war, she also traveled widely to raise funds for the Red Cross organization.
It was Douglas’s work as an advocate of internationalism, touring the state and the country, which brought her into her first campaign for public office. Illinois Democratic leaders approached Douglas to run for the state’s lone At–Large seat (with what was then the fourth–largest constituency in the nation) in the winter of 1943–1944. Douglas was shocked by the proposal, recalling that her first response was, “Gentlemen, this is so sudden!”4 In February 1944, after turning down the initial offer, Douglas reconsidered and accepted and won the Democratic primary. In the general election, she challenged two–term incumbent Republican Stephen A. Day, a staunch isolationist. Day was controversial even among the party faithful for his Nazi sympathies and his authorship of a 1941 book, We Must Save the Republic Now, which argued against intervention in the European war.5 Day enjoyed an enormous media advantage with the endorsement of the anti–FDR Chicago Tribune and its powerful publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick. Douglas charged that “by his voting record [Day] stands convicted as the worst obstructionist in Congress.”6 Douglas also ran as a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and foreign policies, including his plan for American participation in the postwar United Nations organization. Observers speculated that Douglas would have to ride FDR’s coattails to win her seat; in fact, she defeated Day by a greater margin than FDR’s over GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, taking 52 percent of the vote, with most of her support concentrated in Chicago. “Building a permanent, workable peace is the big job of this generation,” Douglas said shortly afterward. “It is evident that the electorate made a definite decision to get rid of extreme isolationists and obstructionists.”7 Syndicated columnist Marquis Childs hailed her victory as symbolizing the receding of isolationism,” in some ways more significant than the defeat of [isolationist Representative] Ham Fish in New York.”8
Representative Douglas registered her greatest influence in international relations. She received her lone committee assignment on Foreign Affairs and was widely recognized as a specialist in the field. Douglas became a forceful and erudite proponent of the Dumbarton Oaks plan for the creation of the United Nations. “My election was, without question, a mandate from the people of Illinois for the ideal of world cooperation,” Douglas told the New York Times. “In Congress, and especially in my work on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I am going to proceed on the thesis that the will to get along with the other nations of the world is of greater importance than the machinery. Failure to see that, I think, lies at the root of our not having achieved a permanent peace after the last war.”9 In marked contrast to her isolationist Illinois colleague, Jessie Sumner, Douglas voted with the vast majority of the House to support the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreements, which established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Along with California Representative Jerry Voorhis, she proposed legislation to put the United Nations in charge of international programs for arms control and the abolition of atomic weaponry. “With our new powers of destruction so vast and immediate, we have no time for fumbling,” Douglas said in a floor speech. “The ominous race must be halted at once.… The speed and firmness with which the [United Nations] acts, may determine the fate of mankind.”10
Having worked on behalf of the Red Cross during the war, she was an ardent supporter of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which provided food, shelter, and clothing to millions of displaced European postwar refugees. In August 1945, she joined several committee colleagues on a visit to Europe to inspect the work of UNNRA, particularly in occupied Germany and Italy. The spectacle of devastation in Europe convinced her that UNRRA, backed principally by American dollars, had a crucial role to play in the early reconstruction of the continent. “As the only major power which was neither bombed nor invaded, we must bear the chief burden of relief,” Douglas declared during House debates in the late fall of 1945. Furthermore, she believed UNRRA was the first experiment in making the international organization a reality. “Before men can cooperate politically, they must have bread, shelter, clothes, and medical care,” Douglas said in a floor speech. “By meeting elemental needs, the United Nations can save the lives of millions, [and] undermine the pull of violent nationalisms which emerge like fascism after every war.”11 Based on her visit to a refugee camp, she later proposed a program for the rehabilitation of European youth who were reared under fascist regimes. In the spring of 1946, as the threat of famine hung over Western Europe, Douglas urged Americans to return to wartime rationing to save food for donations.12
In the 1946 midterm elections, Douglas’s re–election campaign was seen as a bellwether race for the state and for Democrats nationally. Her opponent was William G. Stratton, a navy veteran and former one–term House Member and a staunch isolationist who pledged opposition to any foreign loans and ran on the GOP platform of lowering taxes and slashing federal expenditures.13 Douglas ran on a platform which supported President Harry S. Truman’s domestic policies and his expanded foreign aid programs. Weary and frustrated by wartime controls, high prices, commodity shortages, and the economic dislocations caused by demobilization, voters took their anger out on the Truman administration and its Democratic supporters in the House. At the polls, Americans ousted 54 House Democrats, returning control of the chamber to the GOP in the 80th Congress (1947–1949). Among those voted out of office was Douglas, losing 55 to 44 percent to Stratton, who ran a weak second to Douglas in Chicago but carried all but four of the downstate counties. The trend carried over statewide, where Republicans picked up six seats to take 20 of the 26 House delegation spots.14
Douglas was active in politics for much of her postcongressional life. In 1948, she campaigned on behalf of her husband, Paul, who won election to the first of his three terms as a U.S. Senator from Illinois. Emily Douglas was appointed in 1950 as U.S. Representative to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an organization for international cultural and scientific exchange that she had supported during her House career.15 She later served on the legislative committee of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice and as vice president and moderator of the American Unitarian Association, its highest lay office. In 1965, she marched in the Selma, Alabama, civil rights protest with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Emily Douglas also authored several books during her lifetime, including Margaret Sanger (1970), a biography of the pioneer in family planning, and Remember the Ladies (1966), a book of essays on famous American women. After Paul Douglas died in 1976, she resided in White Plains, New York, where she passed away on January 28, 1994.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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