Children walk among buildings destroyed during fighting in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Credit: The Associated Press

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It’s “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” That was one man’s opinion years ago of a spark setting off the world’s greatest conflict.

Just before the Russian attack on Ukraine, a U.S. Senate candidate taunted people worried about war, saying, “I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” Sound similar?

The first statement came from British Prime Minister   Neville Chamberlain in 1938, referring to Nazi Germany’s taking over part of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain gave Germany Britain’s approval, a classic case of trying to stay out of war by surrendering first. The war came — the Second World War.

The second quote came from   J.D. Vance, a well-known author who is the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Ohio. He has the support of former President Donald Trump.

The GOP is split between traditional Republicans and the Trump forces that have taken over the party. Trump’s policies have become the party’s policies, leading his supporters to charge that the long-time members are RINOs — Republicans in Name Only.

This transformation has seemed almost complete and effective. Congressional primaries this year are expected to provide a reading of just how well the Trump takeover has succeeded. Vance is part of that takeover.

But the congressional reaction to the Ukraine invasion changed the political picture. Since World War II, both parties have backed efforts to halt the expansion of the Soviet Union and then of Russia, its successor. That involvement in world affairs was a change for the Republicans.

“There’s always been isolationist voices in the Republican Party,” said   Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. In Chamberlain’s day, they provided the leadership for opposition to U.S. involvement in the coming world war.

The main opposition organization was called   America First. Its leaders not only favored American isolation from events overseas, but some of them were openly sympathetic to Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian and anti-Semitic regime.

Republican leadership made a major course correction after the Second World War. They controlled Congress during Democratic President Harry Truman’s early years in office, at a time when he tried to take steps to stem the expansion of the Soviet Union.

GOP   Sen. Arthur Vandenberg headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had isolationist credentials, having believed that the U.S. could make concessions to Japan that would avoid war. But he changed his views and led Republican support for Truman’s policies.

Vandenberg became famous for saying: “We must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.” An opponent of the New Deal, he maintained that Congress could argue about domestic policy but should unite behind the president on foreign policy.

One outgrowth of a bipartisan foreign policy was   NATO, founded in 1949 as a mutual defense organization meant to stop further Soviet expansion westward in Europe. Its key element is American assurance that the U.S. would back resistance to further Soviet moves. It worked.

If there are enough police to slash crime, some may believe that the police force can be cut because there’s now so little crime. Some NATO members and Trump seemed to adopt this view.

Trump revived America First as a slogan and was openly sympathetic to authoritarian leaders. He disliked NATO and was favored in the   2016 election and his   2020 impeachment by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who would later launch the Russian attack on Ukraine.

The America First argument in 1941 and 2022 is essentially the same. “We have got to take care of things here at home first,” Tennessee GOP   Sen. Bill Hagerty said recently. In other words, we should not spend money on the Ukraine war when we have U.S. domestic and military needs.

Hagerty and his allies make such statements while ignoring the irony of their opposition to both health and welfare spending and Ukraine outlays. They prefer cutting taxes. It’s possible that their opposition is simply based on a desire to deny the federal government any more funds for any purpose.

Trump Republicans do not accept Vandenberg’s view. For them, isolationism may be good politics.

Eleven of the 50 Republican  U.S. senators voted against major spending for Ukraine. All came from states without ocean access. Isolationism continued to find its home in mid-America. In the House, 57 of the 206 Republicans voted against this spending.

Does this alignment reveal the true extent of the GOP split? It clearly shows that the question of just who is a RINO remains to be determined.

Traditional Republicans have faced elimination by candidates who support Trump and follow his policies. But now most congressional Republicans have an active policy they can support, replacing their party’s routine opposition to the Democrats.

Even to a limited degree, a dormant bipartisan policy has awakened, reviving traditional Republicanism. As with his effort to weaken NATO, Putin’s Ukraine gamble seems to have backfired.

Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.