William Borah

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William Borah
William Edgar Borah cph.3b19589.jpg
United States Senator
from Idaho
In office
March 4, 1907 – January 19, 1940
Preceded by Fred Dubois
Succeeded by John W. Thomas
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
In office
Preceded by Henry Cabot Lodge
Succeeded by Key Pittman
Dean of the United States Senate
In office
March 4, 1933 – January 19, 1940
Preceded by Reed Smoot
Succeeded by Ellison D. Smith
Personal details
Born William Edgar Borah
(1865-06-29)June 29, 1865
near Fairfield, Illinois
Died January 19, 1940(1940-01-19) (aged 74)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Morris Hill Cemetery
Boise, Idaho
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Mary McConnell Borah
(m. 1895–1940, his death)
Parents William Nathan Borah
Elizabeth West Borah
Residence Boise, Idaho
Washington, D.C.
Alma mater University of Kansas
Profession Attorney
Religion Protestant
Nickname(s) The Lion of Idaho [1]
The Big Potato [2]

William Edgar Borah (June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940) was a prominent United States Senator from Idaho, a Republican noted for his oratorical skills and isolationist views. Progressive, independent, and often outspoken, he served over 32 years in the Senate and was internationally known as "The Lion of Idaho."[1]

Early life and career

Born in southeastern Illinois near Fairfield in Wayne County, Borah was the son of Elizabeth (West) and William Nathan Borah. He was educated at the county common schools and the Southern Illinois Academy at Enfield. According to a drawing published by H. T. Webster in 2015, Borah had a boyhood ambition to be a railway conductor.[3] He attended University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1885, but was forced to leave after contracting tuberculosis in his freshman year. He read law and was admitted to the bar in Kansas in September 1887.


After practicing law in Kansas at Lyons, Borah headed for Seattle in 1890, but only had rail fare at the time to get to Idaho, with plans to work and move on.[2] He decided to stay in the growing capital city of Boise, where he became the most prominent attorney in the new state.

Borah ran for the U.S. Senate in 1902, but was defeated in the Idaho Legislature by Weldon Heyburn,[4][5][6] a Republican attorney from Wallace in the Silver Valley of north Idaho. (Before the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by the individual state legislatures). In 1907, shortly after being elected to the Senate, Borah served as the prosecuting attorney in the nationally publicized trial of "Big Bill" Haywood and two other labor union officials for the 1905 murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. Clarence Darrow defended Haywood, who was eventually acquitted by the jury.

In 1907, a federal grand jury indicted Borah for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by procuring timberlands through fraudulent means, on the grounds that the Barber Lumber Company had used fraud and Borah was the company's general counsel.[7] The trial of the case was deferred until the conclusion of the Haywood case, due to the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. Following the Haywood acquittal, Borah was tried and acquitted in early October.[8][9][10]

Marriage and family

In 1895, Borah married Mary McConnell (1870–1976) of Moscow, daughter of Idaho Governor William J. McConnell. They first met in Moscow while he was campaigning for her father.[11][12] They had no children, and she died at the advanced age of 105 in Beaverton, Oregon,[13][14] and is buried next to Borah at Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.[15] Petite and elegant, she was commonly known as "Little Borah."[16][17][18]

Later in life in Washington, Borah had a relationship with Alice Roosevelt Longworth,[19] with whom he had one daughter, Paulina Longworth Sturm (1925–1957).[20] And according to one family friend, "everybody called her 'Aurora Borah Alice.' " [21]

U.S. Senate

Early in his Senate career

On January 15, 1907, the Idaho Legislature elected Borah to the U.S. Senate over the controversial Democratic incumbent, Fred Dubois.[22][23][24] Reelected by the legislature in January 1913,[25][26] and four more times by popular vote (1918, 1924, 1930, 1936) after the 17th Amendment changed the way senators were selected, Borah remains the longest-serving member in Congress in Idaho history.

A member of the Republican National Committee from 1908 to 1912, Borah was a delegate to the 1912 Republican National Convention. As a senator, he was dedicated to principles rather than party loyalty, a trait which earned him the nickname "the Great Opposer." Borah disliked entangling alliances in foreign policy and became a prominent anti-imperialist and nationalist, favoring a continued separation of American liberal and European Great Power politics. He encouraged the formation of a series of world economic conferences and favored a low tariff.

In 1919, Borah and other Senate Republicans, notably Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Hiram W. Johnson of California, clashed with President Woodrow Wilson over Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. It ended World War I and established the League of Nations. Borah emerged as leader of the "Irreconcilables," a group of senators noted for their uncompromising opposition to the treaty and the League. During 1919, Borah and Johnson toured the country speaking against the treaty in response to Wilson's speaking tour supporting it. Borah's impassioned November 19, 1919, speech on the Senate floor in opposition to the treaty and League of Nations contributed to the Senate's ultimate rejection of it.[27]

In 1922 and 1923, Borah spoke against passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which had passed the House. A strong supporter of state sovereignty, he believed that its clause authorizing federal authorities to punish state officials for failure to suppress lynchings was unconstitutional. The bill was defeated by filibuster in the Senate by Southern Democrats. When another bill was introduced in 1935 and 1938, Borah continued to speak against it, by that time saying that it was no longer needed, as the number of lynchings had dropped sharply.[28]

Following Lodge's death in 1924, Borah became the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post he held until 1933, when the Democrats regained the majority. As chairman, he became known for his pro-Soviet views, favoring recognition of the Soviet Union, and sometimes interceded with that government in an unofficial capacity during the period when Moscow had no official relations with the United States. Purportedly, Kremlin officials held Borah in such high esteem that American citizens could gain permission to travel throughout the Soviet Union with nothing more than a letter from the Senator.[29]

Domestically, he sponsored bills that created the Department of Labor and the Children's Bureau. He was one of the Senators responsible for uncovering the scandals of the Harding Administration.[citation needed] In 1932, unhappy with the misguided policies of President Herbert Hoover, such as a doubling of revenues with no positive results, in light of the Great Depression Borah refused to publicly endorse Hoover's reelection campaign.

After Hoover's defeat by the Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, Borah became the dean of the Senate and supported certain components of the New Deal. These included old-age pensions and the confiscation of U.S. citizens' gold by executive order, but he opposed the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Personality and views

Borah was a progressive Republican who often had strong differences of opinion with the conservative wing of the party. Borah also had a reputation for being headstrong and independent. When conservative President Calvin Coolidge was told of Borah's fondness for horseback riding, the president is said to have replied, "It's hard to imagine Senator Borah going in the same direction as his horse."[2]

Conservative Republicans in Idaho, notably Governor and later Senator Frank R. Gooding, often feuded with Borah as well. Nevertheless, Borah became a strong political force in Idaho and elsewhere, often in spite of opposition from his own party.

Wallace E. Olson, then president of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in mocking the United States income tax system and rates reported on the debates held in Congress that,

A fear expressed by a number of opponents was that the proposed law, with its low rates was the camel's nose under the tent that once a tax on incomes was enacted, rates would tend to rise. Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho was outraged by such anxieties, and derided a suggestion that the rate might eventually climb as high as 20 percent. Who, he asked, could impose such socialistic, confiscatory rates? Only Congress. And how could Congress, the Representatives of the American People, be so lacking in fairness, justice and patriotism?.[30]

In 1931, Borah declared he was in favor of the revision of the Versailles Treaty and the Polish corridor, and the revision of the Treaty of Trianon that divided lands from the old Hungarian Kingdom between Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.[31]

In 1932, Borah strongly disagreed with the suggestion of the drafters of the London Economic Conference of 1933, who met in Geneva, that the United States should settle intergovernmental debts as a step to recover from the Great Depression.[32]

Borah became the dean of the U.S. Senate in 1933, an informal term used to refer to the Senator with the longest continuous service.

Borah positioned himself as the Republican expert on foreign affairs. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, he was not alarmed. He told the press the combination of President von Hindenburg and the Nazi leader should be able to administer the affairs of the German people.[33]

"I think Hindenburg one of the greatest men, not alone of this time, but of all time,” he said. “I am impressed with the fact that Hitler speaks more and more with the voice of the German people, with reference to certain matters growing out of the World war and Versailles, which will have to be revised in the interest of peace."

1936 Presidential campaign

In an attempt to revitalize the progressive wing of the Republican Party, a 71-year-old Borah ran for nomination as candidate for President of the United States in 1936, the first from Idaho to do so. His candidacy was opposed by the conservative Republican leadership and dismissed by Roosevelt. Borah managed to win only a handful of delegates and won a majority of delegates in only one state, Wisconsin, where he had the endorsement of Progressive United States Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr. Borah refused to endorse the eventual Republican nominee, Alf Landon, leading some to believe he might cross party lines and support Roosevelt's reelection. Ultimately, as he had four years earlier, he chose to support neither candidate.[34] Even more significantly, Borah announced:

Unless the Republican party is delivered from its reactionary leadership and reorganized in accord with its one-time liberal principles, it will die like the Whig party of sheer political cowardice...[The people] are offered the Constitution. But the people can't eat the Constitution.[21]

Final years

Despite his failed presidential run, throughout his long career Borah remained personally popular among Idaho voters. While in the Senate in Idaho he never faced a serious political challenge from either the Republicans or Democrats.[citation needed] After abandoning his presidential campaign, later in 1936 at the height of Democratic power during the New Deal era, Borah ran for reelection against three-term Idaho Governor C. Ben Ross, a Roosevelt ally, and won with well over 60 percent of the vote.

Known for his public integrity, eloquent speaking ability, and genuine concern for his constituents, his private affairs were less straightforward; his romantic relationship with the irascible and none-too-discreet Alice Roosevelt Longworth was unseemly, especially for the time, but it apparently did him no lasting political harm.[35]


Borah Peak, Idaho's highest

Still in office, Borah suffered a fall and died in his sleep at his home in Washington, D.C., on January 19, 1940 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 74.[36][37] His state funeral at the U.S. Capitol was held in the Senate chamber on Monday, January 22.[38] A second state funeral in Idaho was held three days later at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise, where Borah's casket lay in state beneath the rotunda for six hours prior to the funeral at three o'clock. An estimated 23,000 passed by the bier or attended the funeral service,[39] nearly equal to Boise's population (26,130) in 1940. He is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.[40]


In 1947, the state of Idaho donated a bronze statue of Borah to the National Statuary Hall Collection, sculpted by Bryant Baker.[41] Idaho's highest point, Borah Peak, at 12,662 feet (3,859 m) was named for him in 1934,[42] while he was dean of the Senate. Two public schools are named for him: Borah High School in Boise, opened in 1958, and Borah Elementary School in Coeur d'Alene,[43] both with "Lions" as mascot.

At the University of Idaho in Moscow, his wife's hometown, an annual symposium on international problems and policy,[44] a residence hall, and a theater in the student union building bear his name. Borah Avenue in Twin Falls is also named in his honor.

William E. Borah Apartment, Windsor Lodge, a home of his in Washington, D.C., was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1976.[45]

Bora Laskin, the Chief Justice of Canada from 1973–1984, was named after Borah.[46][dubious ]

"If I could have talked to Hitler" quote

Statue in Washington, D.C.
by Bryant Baker, 1947

Borah may be best known today for having reportedly said, in September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler—all this might have been averted." The source of this quote was a 1940 Senate Document, News Articles on the Life and Works of Honorable William E. Borah, compiled and written by William Kinsey Hutchinson, then International News Service's Washington Bureau Chief. Hutchinson indicated that Borah said it to him in private "in words that ran like a prayer."[47] There is no other public record of Borah saying this; Borah died before Hutchinson published the document, and thus could not deny or confirm it; its veracity is therefore unknown.

The quote has been repeatedly cited as evidence of the alleged naivete of a belief in the power of pure diplomacy. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer has referred to the quote in at least three of his columns, making an analogy to negotiating with China in 1989, with North Korea in 1994 and with Iran in 2006.[48] In August 2006 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to the quote when decrying those who want to "negotiate a separate peace with terrorists."[49]

On May 15, 2008, President George W. Bush referred to the quote in a speech to the Knesset in Israel commemorating that nation's 60th anniversary, after stating, "some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."[50] Some, including Barack Obama himself, interpreted Bush's comment to be a criticism of Obama, who was about to become the Democratic nominee for president, for his stated willingness to negotiate with the leaders of Iran. White House staff stated that the reference was meant more as a criticism of former president Jimmy Carter, who had argued that the U.S. should be willing to meet with Hamas.[51]

Other quotations

  • "No more fatuous chimera has ever infested the brain than that you can control opinions by law or direct belief by statute, and no more pernicious sentiment ever tormented the heart than the barbarous desire to do so. The field of inquiry should remain open, and the right of debate must be regarded as a sacred right." —1917[52]
  • "America has arisen to a position where she is respected and admired by the entire world. She did it by minding her own business... the European and American systems do not agree." —1919 speech in Brooklyn opposing the League of Nations.[53]
  • "There is something phoney about this war."[54] —1939 interview, commenting on the lack of military response by the Western Allies (United Kingdom and France) against Nazi Germany following the German invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II. The term Phoney War became the standard term used by journalists and historians for the relatively quiet period of war from September 1939 to the German invasion of France in May 1940.
United States Senate
Preceded by
Fred Dubois
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Idaho
March 4, 1907 – January 19, 1940
Served alongside: Weldon B. Heyburn, Kirtland I. Perky, James H. Brady, John F. Nugent, Frank R. Gooding, John W. Thomas, James P. Pope, D. Worth Clark
Succeeded by
John W. Thomas
Party political offices
Preceded by
Pre-17th Amendment
Republican Party nominee, U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Idaho
1918 (won), 1924 (won), 1930 (won), 1936 (won)
Succeeded by
John W. Thomas
Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Cabot Lodge
Chair of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Succeeded by
Key Pittman
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Reed Smoot
Dean of the United States Senate
March 4, 1933 – January 19, 1940
Succeeded by
Ellison D. Smith
South Carolina
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Gelasio Caetani
Cover of Time Magazine
May 5, 1924
Succeeded by
Homer Saint-Gaudens


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Idaho governor sets Borah day". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. Associated Press. November 23, 1957. p. 7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Bates, Kirk (January 25, 1940). "The Senator who traveled alone". Milwaukee Journal. p. 22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "The Best of H. T. Webster" (Simon and Schuster, 1953), page 104
  4. "Caucus tonight on Senator". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. January 7, 1903. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Weldon Brinton Heyburn, 1852-1912, Papers, 1889-1911". University of Idaho Library. Retrieved June 25, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "How Heyburn got it". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. January 17, 1903. p. 4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Senator Borah must prove his innocence". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. October 2, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Jury acquits Borah on first ballot". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. October 3, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Senator Borah vindicated". Boston Evening Transcript. October 3, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Senator Borah is acquitted". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. October 4, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Ulrich, Roberta (October 14, 1970). "Widow of Sen. Borah nearing 100th birthday anniversary". Ludington Daily News. Michigan. UPI. p. 9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Taylor, Dabney (October 14, 1970). "Mrs. Borah recalls 100". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. Associated Press. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Mrs. Borah dies". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. Associated Press. January 16, 1976. p. 7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Illness claims Mary Borah, 105". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. Associated Press. January 16, 1976. p. 2A.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  16. Sumner, Allene (May 30, 1928). ""Little Borah" is popular confidant of many ex-serviceman". San Jose News. California. p. 12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Death takes Borah, noted Idaho Senator". Milwaukee Journal. January 20, 1940. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Mary Borah retains wit at 100 mark". Toledo Blade. Ohio. Associated Press. October 14, 1970. p. 30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Carter, Jack (April 8, 1988). "did Sen. Borah father Alice Longworth's child?". Idahonian. Moscow. p. 1C.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Cordery, Stacy A. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. New York: Penguin Group, Viking Adult (2007). ISBN 0-670-01833-3 ISBN 978-0-670-01833-8
  21. 21.0 21.1 Brands, H.W. (2008). Traitor to his Class. New York, NY: Doubleday. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-385-51958-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Brands" defined multiple times with different content
  22. "Borah wins long fight". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. January 16, 1907. p. 3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Joint session ratifies Borah". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. January 17, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Idaho bestows toga on Borah". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. January 18, 1907. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "State of Idaho reelects William E. Borah U.S. Senator". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. January 14, 1913. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Ford, James A. (January 15, 1913). "Idaho short term senatorship left in doubt on first ballot". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. p. 3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Classic Senate Speeches: Notes on William E. Borah to The League of Nations on November 19, 1919. Retrieved May 15, 2008. Text of the speech also here.
  28. "Proceedings of the U.S. Senate on June 13, 2005 regarding the "Senate Apology" as Reported in the 'Congressional Record'", "Part 3, Mr. Craig", at African American Studies, University of Buffalo. Retrieved July 26, 2011
  29. "At The Hinge Of History: A Reporter's Story" Accounts of Joseph C. Harsch regarding certain issues. Retrieved March 6, 2014.
  30. The Wall Street Journal. October 5, 1973. p. 8, col. 4-6. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Show Stolen?, Time Magazine, November 2, 1931
  32. The World Economic Conference, Herbert Samuel, International Affairs (1933) 12#4 p 445.
  33. Keesing's Contemporary Archives Volume I, (January 1933) p 655
  34. A Lion Among The Liberals, by Kevin C. Murphy. Retrieved May 15, 2008.
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  38. "Leaders grieve at state rites for Sen. Borah". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. Associated Press. January 23, 1940. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. Bottcher, Walter R. (January 26, 1940). "Senator Borah rests in mountain's shadow". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. Associated Press. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. Cemetery Walking Tour: William E. Borah, published by City of Boise. Retrieved May 15, 2008.
  41. "Statue of Borah unveiled today". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. Associated Press. June 6, 1947. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. "Named for solon: Idaho's highest mountain be called "Borah Peak"". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Associated Press. February 12, 1934. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  45. Cathy A. Alexander, Ralph Christian, and George R. Adams (January 1976), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: William Edgar Borah Apartment, Number 21, Windsor Lodge / William Edgar Borah Apartment, Number 21, Chancellery Cooperative (PDF), National Park Service, retrieved June 22, 2009CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> and Accompanying three photos, exterior, from 1975 and 1978 PDF (1.56 MB)
  46. Girard, Philip (2005), Bora Laskin: Bringing Law to Life, Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, ISBN 0-8020-9044-3<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  47. William Kinsey Hutchinson, News Articles on the Life and Works of Honorable William E. Borah, Late a Senator from the State of Idaho, Senate Document 150 (Washington, D.C., 1940), p. 37.
  48. "Why the Nazi Analogy Is on the Rise", Brendan Nyhan, Time Magazine, August 31, 2006
  49. Address at the 88th Annual American Legion National Convention, Donald Rumsfeld, August 29, 2006
  50. John Yang (May 15, 2008). "Bush's 'Nazi' swipe at Obama". NBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  51. CNN, "The Situation Room," May 15, 2008 at 5 PM EDT.
  52. William E. Borah Quote/Quotation at quotes.liberty-tree.ca
  53. U.S. Senate: Art & History Home > Classic Senate Speeches
  54. McNaughton, Frank (September 19, 1939). Edward T. Leech (ed.). "Roosevelt Deplores German Bombings". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh Press Company. United Press. p. 8. ISSN 1068-624X. Retrieved September 9, 2015. 'There is something phoney about this war,' [Senator William E. Borah (R. Idaho) in an interview] told questioners yesterday, explaining that he meant the comparative inactivity on the Western Front. 'You would think,' he continued, 'that Britain and France would do what they are going to do now while Germany and Russia are still busy in the East, instead of waiting until they have cleaned up the eastern business.' He did not expect an early end to hostilities.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links