To this day, the first American president’s valedictory warning against “foreign entanglements” is well known, and often cited for purposes both good and ill. But in 1934, Senator William Borah read a Washington Post editorial critical of himself that quoted Washington as having also said, “When, our institutions being firmly consolidated and working with complete success, we might safely and perhaps beneficially take part in the consultations held by foreign states for the advantage of the nations.”
An enraged Borah, the leader of the Republican party’s isolationist wing, instructed his staff to find the source of the quotation, which they traced to the Jewish scholar Horace Kallen, who was, in Esther Schor’s words, “an ardent Zionist, a prominent internationalist, and the leading advocate of what he called ‘cultural pluralism.’” As for Borah, who would denounce the quotation as a forgery, and condemn Kallen for it, Schor writes:
Having lost his 1936 bid for the Republican nomination, Borah spent the late 1930s pressing the case for American neutrality. He habitually blamed the Versailles Treaty for Hitler’s aggression. Privately, Borah also lamented Nazi persecution of “those poor people” and criticized Germany for financing insurgents in the United States. But he made no secret of his admiration for Hitler, imagining that a personal conversation with the Führer just might set things to right: “There are so many great sides to [Hitler], I believe I might accomplish something.” In 1938, he sought, through the German ambassador, an invitation to Berlin. But when the Foreign Office cabled the invitation to meet with both Hitler and Ribbentrop, Borah declined; he was ill, relations between the United States and Germany were deteriorating, and he suspected FDR would block his journey.
Upon learning that Germany had just invaded Poland, Borah told a journalist, “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler—all this might have been averted.” Meanwhile, despite [the prominent rabbi and Jewish leader] Stephen Wise’s personal appeals, Borah refused to speak out against the Nazi persecution of Jews.
By this time, Kallen had embarked on a quest for the origins of the quotation, which Schor recounts alongside a historical quest of her own regarding Kallen’s efforts to defend himself.