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Austin, Warren Robinsonlocked

(12 November 1877–25 December 1962)
  • Travis Beal Jacobs

Warren R. Austin.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107894).

Austin, Warren Robinson (12 November 1877–25 December 1962), U.S. senator and ambassador, was born in the rural community of Highgate Center, Vermont, near the Canadian border, the son of Chauncey Goodrich Austin, a successful country lawyer, and Anne Robinson. He attended the University of Vermont, receiving his Ph.B. in 1899. He married Mildred Lucas in 1901, and they had two children.

After graduating Austin read law in his father’s firm, which had been moved to St. Albans, the county seat. He passed the Vermont bar exam in 1902 and began practice in the firm. Becoming active in local politics, in 1904 he ran successfully for state’s attorney for Franklin County and in 1909 for mayor of St. Albans, and he was a U.S. commissioner from 1907 to 1915. An effective public speaker, Austin worked hard for the Republican party and, gaining recognition, was chosen in 1908 as chair of the state convention. In 1912, as a progressive in the party, he lost the Republican nomination for Congress. Nonetheless, while a number of Vermont Republicans joined Theodore Roosevelt’s (1858–1919) new progressive “Bull Moose” party, Austin campaigned for the party regulars.

Austin concentrated on advancing his legal career and interests. In 1914 the U.S. Supreme Court admitted him to practice, and in 1916 he received an offer from the American International Corporation (AIC), recently established by some of the nation’s prominent financial and manufacturing leaders. Led by New York’s National City Bank, AIC proposed to expand vigorously American investments abroad. Austin went to Peking (Beijing), China, as legal representative in negotiations for financing and building railroads and the development of the Shantung province Grand Canal. In an example of dollar diplomacy and the “Open Door,” he wrote contracts for some $130 million worth of American loans. He believed, furthermore, in the efforts of the Protestant missionaries. Although he foresaw other financial opportunities in China, when he completed his work in 1917 he returned to the United States and opened his own firm in Burlington, Vermont’s major city.

Austin’s law practice, meanwhile, grew, and he attracted considerable attention throughout the state. During the 1920s he won a record settlement in an alienation-of-affection case, and he successfully represented the state of Vermont in a boundary dispute with New Hampshire before the U.S. Supreme Court. His clients included some of the major interests in the state, and while participating in numerous community activities, he once again became active in Republican party politics.

In 1930 Austin entered the U.S. Senate race to fill the unexpired term of the late Frank L. Greene. He showed his political skill by winning a difficult primary contest the following March, emphasizing local issues and personalities and straddling the issue of Prohibition. In the special election three weeks later he easily defeated his Democratic opponent. In Washington, D.C., he expressed his and his state’s conservatism, and he lamented President Herbert Hoover’s (1874–1964) defeat in 1932. With his concepts of small government, frugality, and individualism he became concerned about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of executive power during the Hundred Days. Austin’s consistent opposition to the New Deal gave Vermont Democrats, with active national support, the opportunity to wage a strenuous campaign against him in 1934 by stressing what the administration had done for Vermont during the depression. The New Deal became the major issue, and Austin’s emphasis on conservatism and individualism enabled him to survive an extremely close election. Not surprisingly, his legal thinking and political beliefs prompted him to oppose ardently Roosevelt’s unsuccessful Supreme Court proposal in 1937.

This anti–New Deal Republican senator, however, did not share his party’s isolationist position on the restrictive neutrality legislation during the 1930s. Instead, he supported “limited internationalism.” As historian George Mazuzan has shown, for years Austin had held a “moral-legal” view that saw “law as the only rational solution to problems among men and nations,” leading later to his belief in the necessity of a postwar international organization. In 1938, as the totalitarian challenge in Europe and Asia grew, he insisted that “isolationism was dead.” He advocated a flexible foreign policy that meant, in 1939, neutrality revision and a stronger defense program, particularly after the start of the European war. In 1940 he easily won reelection; however, his support of the administration’s foreign policy, from the destroyers-for-bases deal to lend-lease, increasingly separated him from his Republican colleagues.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Austin’s internationalism led Secretary of State Cordell Hull to choose him to be a charter member of the congressional foreign policy advisory group for the State Department; later, as one of the leading senators endorsing a postwar organization, he was on its Committee of Eight. However, as Austin tried to lead his party to internationalism and support for postwar cooperation among nations, the Republican isolationist leadership removed him as assistant minority leader, a position he had gained in 1933 for his conservatism, and kept him off the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until late in the war.

As the war ended, Austin served as an adviser at the Inter-American Conference at Mexico City on the problems of war and peace, and he recognized the important role of the economy in rehabilitation and peace. He believed that foreign economic aid would be vital for recovery, and he argued for America’s leadership role in the United Nations with his “missionary zeal.” His work on behalf of internationalism and a postwar role for the United States highlighted his Senate career.

To further bipartisan support for the UN, President Harry S. Truman named Austin the country’s first ambassador to the UN on 5 June 1946, although a provision of the Constitution prevented him from assuming the title until after that session of Congress ended. He idealistically carried to the UN his faith in legal rules and reason, and he believed that the UN would be a vital force for world peace under U.S. leadership. This universalism would be sorely tested during the late 1940s with the emerging Cold War and Washington’s strategy of containment of Communism.

The administration seldom consulted with Austin on the formulation of policy, and none of the secretaries of state under Truman shared Austin’s faith in the UN. Thus, Austin became primarily a spokesman for the United States. Reconciling his views with the increasingly unilateral and anti-Soviet position of his government, he defended publicly those policies and convinced himself that they supported the growth of the UN. The Communist defiance of the UN during the Korean War completed his conversion to a cold warrior, and the New York Times wrote that the ambassador constantly “ridiculed the Soviet Union for talking peace while carrying on aggression.” When Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur as UN commander, the ambassador, even though he was the most prominent Republican in the administration, repeatedly endorsed the decision and the UN’s limited war. As the New York Times recalled, “Combining Yankee shrewdness in bargaining with a forceful mode of expression, he made an eloquent protagonist for the American viewpoint in world affairs,” and in doing so he provided a valuable service for his government.

After Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952, the 75-year-old Austin, whose health had been failing, asked to be relieved. A few months after Austin returned to Burlington, his long-standing heart condition caused a cerebral attack. He made a remarkable recovery and indulged his lifelong interest in growing apple trees, and he accepted an honorary chairmanship of the Committee of One Million to keep the People’s Republic of China out of the UN. He died at home.


Austin’s papers are in the Bailey Library at the University of Vermont, with the exception of some Austin material on the 1937 federal judiciary reorganization at Yale University. For his ambassadorship, State Department material at the National Archives should be consulted, as well as the appropriate volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Austin’s published writings are few. George T. Mazuzan, Warren R. Austin at the UN, 1946–1953 (1977), has a long opening chapter on Austin’s earlier career. See also Henry W. Berger, “Warren R. Austin in China, 1916–1917,” Vermont History (Autumn 1972): 246–61; Mazuzan, “Vermont’s Traditional Republicanism vs. the New Deal: Warren R. Austin and the Election of 1934,” Vermont History (Spring 1971): 129–41; Mazuzan, “ ‘Our New Gold Goes Adventuring’: The American International Corporation in China,” Pacific Historical Review (May 1974): 212–32; David Porter, “Warren R. Austin and the Neutrality Act of 1939,” Vermont History (Summer 1974): 228–38; and Mazuzan, “America’s U.N. Commitment, 1945–1953,” Historian (Feb. 1978): 309–30. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Burlington Free Press, both 26 Dec. 1962.