Robert Alphonso Taft was born on September 8, 1889. He was the oldest child of William Howard Taft and his wife Helen Louise "Nellie" Herron and the grandson of Attorney General and Secretary of War Alphonso Taft. As a child he spent four years in the Philippines, where his father was governor. As an adolescent he was a brilliant academic. He finished first in his class at the Taft School in Cincinnati (run by his uncle), at Yale College and at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1913. He edited the Harvard Law Review. Following his graduation, Taft scored the highest mark in the state on the Ohio bar exam in 1913. He practiced law for four years with the firm of Maxwell and Ramsey (now Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP) in Cincinnati. He then worked in Washington for the Food and Drug Administration, before returning to Cincinnati to start his own law office. In 1924, he and his brother Charles helped form the law partnership Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister, with whom he continued to be associated until his death. The firm continues to carry his name today.
On October 17, 1914, he married Martha Wheaton Bowers, a gregarious woman who contrasted her taciturn and intellectual husband. In 1949 Martha suffered a severe stroke which left her an invalid. Following her stroke Taft assisted his wife and helped to feed her and look after her at public functions.
The Tafts had four sons: William Howard Taft III (1915–1991), a future Ambassador to Ireland; Robert Alphonso Taft, Jr. (1917–1993), a future U.S. Senator; Lloyd Bowers Taft (1923–1985), an investment banker in Cincinnati, and Horace Dwight Taft (1925–1983), a professor of physics and dean at Yale. Two of Robert Taft's grandsons are Robert Alphonso "Bob" Taft III (born 1942), Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007, and William Howard Taft IV (born 1945), Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1984 to 1989.
In 1917 Taft and his wife Martha a 46-acre farm in Indian Hill, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, which they named "Sky Farm". It was the family home for the rest of his life. During the summers, Taft regularly vacationed with his wife and children at the Taft family's summer home at Murray Bay, Quebec.
Taft was not a religious man. He belonged to the Episcopal church, and spent more Sundays at his golf club than in church.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Taft attempted to join the U.S. Army, but he was rejected due to his poor eyesight. He joined the legal staff of the Food and Drug Administration where he met Herbert Hoover, a man he came to admire. In 1918–1919 he went to Paris as legal adviser for the American Relief Administration, Hoover's agency which distributed food to war-torn Europe. He strongly supported membership in the League of Nations, as well as the idea of a world court that would enforce international law
Taft returned to Cincinnati in late 1919 and opened a law firm with his brother Charles Taft. In 1920 he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served as speaker of the house in 1926. In 1930 he was elected to the state senate, but was defeated for reelection in 1932, his only defeat in a general election. He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, and he did not support prohibition. In 1925 he voted against a bill to outlaw dancing on Sundays, and he led the fight against a bill sponsored by members of the Klan requiring all Ohio public school teachers to read at least ten verses of the Bible each day in class. In his speech opposing the bill, he strongly advocated the separation of church and state. The bill passed the legislature but was later vetoed by Ohio's governor.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Taft was a powerful figure Republican politics. He was not an eloquent speaker, but earned a reputation as a tireless worker. His conservative leanings brought him into conflict with his younger brother Charles, a local politician in Cincinnati who had a reputation as a liberal. Despite this, Charles supported all three of his brother's presidential bids.
Taft was elected to the first of his three terms as U.S. Senator in 1938. He soon established himself as a leader of the Conservative Coalition that opposed the New Deal. During his first term in the Senate, Taft criticized New Deal programs for their cost, their waste and their harming of private enterprise. He called the New Deal socialist and attacked deficit spending, high farm subsidies, and the growing governmental bureaucracy. But he supported some socially conscious programs inclding public housing and Social Security. Some historians have described Taft as a libertarian because he opposed many types of governmental interference in both the national economy and in the private lives of citizens.
Taft was an outspoken opponent of US involvement in the Second World War. Taft believed that America should avoid any involvement in European or Asian wars and concentrate instead on solving its domestic problems. He believed that a strong U.S. military, along with the natural geographic protection of the broad Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, would be adequate to protect America even if the Nazis conquered all of Europe. Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Taft opposed nearly all attempts to aid Allied forces fighting the Nazis in Europe. His opposition to aiding the Allied forces earned him strong criticism from many liberal Republicans, such as Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey.
Taft fully supported the American war effort after Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan by the U.S. Congress on December 8, 1941, but he opposed American involvement in postwar military alliances with other nations, including NATO. Taft's was one of the few voices during the Second World War to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.
In 1944 Taft narrowly won a second term in the Senate, winning by less than 18,000 votes out of nearly three million cast. Taft condemned the postwar Nuremberg Trials, calling it "victor's justice" and vengeance against the defeated. He said:
"I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret."
He was strongly criticized both by Republicans and Democrats for this. Senator John F. Kennedy in his bestselling book Profiles in Courage, applauded Taft's principled stand even in the face of great bipartisan criticism.
When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1947, Taft became Chair of the Senate Labor Committee. He wrote the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, which remains the basic labor law today. It banned "unfair" union practices, outlaws closed shops, and authorized the President to seek federal court injunctions to impose an eighty-day cooling-off period if a strike threatened the national interest. When President Harry Truman vetoed it, Taft convinced both houses of Congress to override the veto.
Taft was non-interventionist who did not see Stalin's Soviet Union as a major threat. He saw the real dangers as big government and runaway spending. He opposed NATO and he took the lead among Republicans in condemning President Harry Truman's handling of the Korean War. Taft questioned the constitutionality of the war itself. He said:
"In the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained."
Taft was a supporter of the new independent State of Israel and called for the shipment of military aid for the new country.
In 1950, Taft won a third term in the senate by 431,184 votes. Even many union members reportedly voted for him. By the start of his third term in the Senate, Taft had been given the nickname "Mr. Republican". He was acknowledged by most to he the most prominent politician in his party and a leading candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 1952.
Taft had first sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, but lost to Wendell Willkie. His outspoken support of non-interventionist foreign policies, and his opposition to the New Deal in domestic policy led many liberal Republicans to see him as unelectable. It was in 1940 that Taft first clashed with Thomas E. Dewey, then a New York District Attorney who had become nationally famous for successfully prosecuting several prominent organized-crime figures, especially New York mob boss "Lucky" Luciano. Taft felt that Dewey was not conservative enough. In the 1944 presidential campaign Taft was not a candidate. He supported Governor John W. Bricker of Ohio, a fellow conservative. Bricker was defeated by Dewey, who had become the Governor of New York in 1943. Dewey named Bricker as his running mate; the Dewey-Bricker ticket would go on to lose to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the general election.
In 1948 Taft made a second try for the GOP nomination, but was defeated by Dewey, who led the party's moderate/liberal wing. In the 1948 presidential election, Dewey was defeated by the Democratic presidential candidate, President Harry S. Truman.
In 1952, Taft made his third and final try for the GOP nomination. Taft had the solid backing of the party's conservative wing. Former U.S. Representative Howard Buffett of Nebraska (father of billionaire Warren Buffett) served as one of his campaign managers. Many political pundits regarded Taft as the frontrunner, but the race changed when Dewey and other GOP moderates were able to convince Dwight D. Eisenhower, the most popular general of World War II, to run for the nomination. Eisenhower ran because of his fear of Taft's non-interventionist views in foreign policy and his opposition to NATO.
When the Republican Convention opened in Chicago in July 1952, Taft and Eisenhower were neck-and-neck in delegate votes. Eisenhower was able to win a number of floor votes regarding the eligibility of certain delegates, and as a result, Eisenhower was able to win the nomination. After the convention Taft issued a brief statement conveying his congratulations and support to Eisenhower, but thereafter he did nothing to aid the candidate. In September 1952, Taft finally agreed to meet with Eisenhower. In order to gain Taft's support, Eisenhower promised he would take no reprisals against Taft partisans and would cut federal spending.
Following Eisenhower's election and the GOP takeover of Congress, Taft served as Senate Majority Leader in 1953. He strongly supported Eisenhower's domestic proposals. He tried, without success, to curb the excessive red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Soon Eisenhower and Taft were friends and golfing companions. Taft's defeat seemed to make him less abrasive and more conciliatory.
On May 26, 1953, Taft delivered his final speech, in which he warned of the dangers of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. He said:
"I have never felt that we should send American soldiers to the Continent of Asia, which, of course, included China proper and Indo-China, simply because we are so outnumbered in fighting a land war on the Continent of Asia that it would bring about complete exhaustion even if we were able to win."
In early 1953 Taft began to feel pain in his hips, and after a painful golf outing with President Eisenhower in April 1953 he went to Walter Reed Hospital for initial tests. The test results led doctors to suspect a tumor or arthritis. Taft underwent further tests at a hospital in Cincinnati. He was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. On June 10, 1953, Taft transferred his duties as Senate Majority Leader to Senator William Knowland of California, but he did not resign his Senate seat. He told reporters that he expected to recover and return to work. But his condition rapidly worsened, and Taft returned to New York Hospital for surgery on July 4. He died on July 31, suffering a final brain hemorrhage just hours after his wife Martha's final visit.
In 1957, a committee led by Senator John F. Kennedy selected Taft as one of five of the greatest Senators, whose portraits would adorn the President's Room off the Senate floor. Taft continues to be regarded by historians as one of the most powerful U.S. Senators of the twentieth century.