The problem of international treaties superseding the U.S. Constitution and undermining the foundations of our Republic is not a new one. The conservative movement of the early 1950's, which looked on the United Nations with extreme suspicion, was particularly sensitive to this threat -- and they hit upon a solution: the Bricker Amendment.
Introduced into the Senate in February, 1952, as Senate Joint Resolution 130, the "Bricker Amendment" to the Constitution read as follows:
Mobilizing to support Bricker, conservatives built a grand coalition which included all the major veterans groups, the Kiwanis Clubs, the American Association of Small Business, many women's groups, as well as the conservative activist organizations of the time, such as the Freedom Clubs and the Committee for Constitutional Government. The conservative press joined in the campaign; writing in Human Events, Frank Chodorov said that
The proposed amendment arises from a rather odd situation. A nation is threatened by invasion, not by a foreign army, but by its own legal entanglements. Not soldiers, but theoreticians and visionaries attack its independence and aim to bring its people under the rule of an agglomeration of foreign governments. This is something new in history. There have been occasions when a weak nation sought security by placing itself under the yoke of a strong one. But, here we have the richest nation in the world, and apparently the strongest, flirting with the liquidation of its independence. Nothing like that has ever happened before.
The breach in our defenses, said Chodorov, is in Article VI of the Constitution, which provides that "... All Treaties ...shall be the supreme Law of the Land... any Thing in the Constitution to the contrary notwithstanding." At the time of the Founders, the division between foreign and domestic policy was clear enough; there was never any intention, as Jefferson wrote, to enable the President and the Senate to "do by treaty what the whole government is interdicted from doing in any way."
But as the concept of limited government was eroded -- and under pressure from the endless stream of pacts, covenants, and executive agreements issuing forth from the United Nations and its American enthusiasts -- the chink in our constitutional armor widened. Just as the growth of administrative law had threatened to overthrow the old Republic during the darkest days of the New Deal, so under Truman and Eisenhower the burgeoning body of treaty law threatened to overthrow U.S. sovereignty. Executive agreements had created administrative law of a new type; treaties which sought to regulate domestic economic and social behavior to a degree never achieved by the Brain Trusters. If the New Deal had failed to completely socialize America, to conservatives it often seemed as if the United Nations seemed determined to finish the job. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, human beings were endowed with all sorts of "rights," including the right to a job and the right to "security." There were, however, certain significant omissions, chief among them the right to own and maintain private property. Another equally glaring omission was the unqualified right to a free press, the regulation of which is left up to member nations. When three Supreme Court justices, including the Chief Justice, cited the UN Charter and the NATO treaty in support of their argument that Truman had the right to seize the steel mills, conservatives went into action -- and the fight for the Bricker Amendment began in earnest.
The Eisenhower Administration, and particularly the U.S. State Department, went all out to defeat the Amendment. Leading the opposition was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. This was the same John Foster Dulles who had said, two years previous, that "The treaty power is an extraordinary power, liable to abuse," and warned that "Treaties can take powers away from the Congress and give them to the President. They can take powers from the states and give them to the federal government or to some international body and they can cut across the rights given to the people by their Constitutional Bill of Rights." Hammered with this quote by Clarence Manion, Dean of Law at Notre Dame University, and a leading proponent of the Bricker Amendment, Dulles could only take refuge in the argument that this President would never compromise U.S. sovereignty.
Although the Bricker Amendment started out with fifty-six co- sponsors, it eventually went down to defeat in the U.S. Senate, 42-50, with 4 not voting. (A watered-down version, the "George proposal," lost by a single vote.) The defection of Senators William Knowland and Alexander Wiley from conservative Republican ranks on this occasion was particularly significant, and marked the beginning not only of Wiley's chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but also the decline of the movement to put and keep America first.
As Frank E. Holman, president of the American Bar Association, and the sparkplug of the Bricker Amendment movement, wrote:
In the destiny of human affairs a great issue like a righteous cause does not die. It lives on and arises again and again until rightly won. However long the fight for an adequate Constitutional Amendment on treaties and other international agreements, it will and must be won. This will be the history of the Bricker Amendment as it has been the history of all other great issues and causes.
Holman's comments were published in 1954 as Story of the Bricker Amendment, (The First Phase) -- a title which one can only hope is prophetic.
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