The 20th century transformed the United States from a moderate power only loosely involved in world affairs into a superpower where most questions of foreign relations revolved around American goals and intentions. Much of this transition began taking place during the period just before and just after World War II. Numerous treaties were ratified, much planning was required and many discussions took place in the U.S. Senate. An important part of this work in creating a global role for the United States came from a one-time, small-town attorney from McLennan County, Texas.
Thomas Terry Connally was born on a farm near the small community of Hewitt in McLennan County on Aug. 19, 1877, just after the end of Reconstruction. He graduated from Baylor University in 1896 at age 19 and earned a law degree from the University of Texas in 1898. Immediately after graduation, he enlisted in the army to fight in the Spanish-American War. He believed in the role that America must play in world affairs, but in the meantime, moved to Marlin in Falls County to set up a law practice.
After respected terms in the state legislature and as Falls County prosecuting attorney, he was elected to Congress in 1916. America entered World War I in 1917, and Connally, at age 40, briefly resigned from Congress to join the Army once again. After his return, he was put on the House Foreign Affairs Committee where he actively supported President Woodrow Wilson’s leadership on the world stage and plans for American entry into the League of Nations, an organization dedicated to world peace founded by Wilson. Because of bitterly divisive debates over the League, American entry never came to pass.
Connally was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1928. He eventually came to serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, becoming its chair in 1941. He supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to help arm the Allies as they fought against the Nazis and the Japanese. America could not afford to shy way from the demands of a dangerous world. Connally’s role as Foreign Relations Chair proved to be invaluable as the nation worked with Allies across the globe as World War II raged.
As World War II neared an end, Connally supported new American leadership in world affairs following the war. Roosevelt himself had supported the American entry into the League of Nations years before and now supported a new organization similarly dedicated to peace and justice among the nations of the world. Roosevelt had referred to the Allies as “the United Nations” since the United Nations Declaration in 1942 and pushed for the creation of a formal organization that united all the world’s nations.
Connally was a natural choice to serve as a delegate, one of 850 from 51 nations.
He met with delegates from other nations to form the United Nations as delegates met in San Francisco, California, in April 1945. He was named vice chairman of the Conference on International Organization that formally created the UN. He served as a representative to the first UN conference in London later that year and the second UN conference in 1946 in New York, which later became its permanent headquarters. He also helped the UN begin expanding beyond the initial World War II allies in 1946 by securing the admission of Afghanistan, Iceland, and Sweden to the assembly.
Connally won reelection easily in 1946. Nationally, the Democrats lost their majority in the Senate in light of President Harry S. Truman’s unpopularity at the time. Connally lost his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee but stayed on the committee. The chairmanship loss would be reversed when Democrats regained the Senate in 1948. With the Cold War with the Soviet Union deteriorating, a new treaty appeared before the committee that would also have lasting repercussions for the nation.
The North Atlantic Treaty allied the United States with Canada, and ten European nations into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Connally pushed its approval through committee, and it was ratified in the Senate on July 21, 1949, by a vote of 82 to 13. NATO would be the first permanent alliance that the United States had entered into since it allied with France during the American Revolution. NATO became the cornerstone of America’s defensive posture against any communist expansion in Europe and was the first line of defense in any confrontation with the Soviets during the decades-long Cold War.
America’s commitments abroad faced another test with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Connally’s committee helped provide Truman with the congressional support he needed in organizing for the latest war. Connally also openly defended Truman’s controversial firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for publicly criticizing the president.
Connally decided not to seek reelection in 1952. After his retirement, he remained in Washington; and though 75 years old, he opened a law firm. He died in October 1963. He died in a world that now looked to America for leadership in defense of the free world.
Ken Bridges is a historian, writer and native Texan. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.