Dakota Datebook

Nye and the Isolationists

Friday, November 14, 2003

On this day in 1925, a 33 year-old newspaper editor from Cooperstown began a 20 year career in the U.S. Senate. He had never held office before, but this man’s strong convictions helped shape a nation-wide attitude toward World War II.

Gerald Nye moved to North Dakota in 1915 when he was 23 years old and became publisher of the Billings County Pioneer and then editor of the Griggs County Sentinel-Courier. He ran for Congress in 1924 but was defeated. A year later, Senator Edwin Ladd died in office, and Governor Sorlie chose young Gerald Nye to take his place. Many in the Senate didn’t want to seat Nye, however; he was a member of the non-partisan league, which was a bit too radical for many of the more conservative senators. But after a difficult debate, democrats, non-partisan leaguers and progressive republicans led to Nye’s acceptance. This impressed folks back home and led to his reelection the following year.

Nye was tall, slender, good-looking and outspoken. He made headlines when he chaired an investigation into the role played by wealthy corporations leading up to World War I. The Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry acted boldly, probing the dealings and activities of the country’s most powerful bankers and munitions makers.

In the end, the committee supplied evidence that World War I was instigated by imperial ambitions in Europe and that the U.S. had been lured into it by propaganda and aggressive maneuvering by American corporations.

North Dakota had been isolationist long before World War I, and now that same attitude was seeping into the popular thought of the whole nation. Nye argued that because of sheer distance and superior strength, no European country seriously threatened America. National security had not been at stake in the First World War, and nothing had changed since then.

The committee’s investigation was so effective that by April, 1937, 70% of the American people agreed that entering the First World War had been a serious and expensive mistake. As a result, Congress passed a number of neutrality laws that created an arms embargo, prohibited loans or credit to countries who were waging war, and prohibited trade and travel with warring nations using American ships. The laws made no distinction between whether warring countries were right or wrong, friend or foe; all were treated the same.

President Franklin Roosevelt complained that the neutrality laws weakened his ability to conduct foreign relations. When World War II broke out, the allies asked for help, and Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the arms embargo. But Senator Nye and many others wanted America to stay out of it. “We deny,” Nye told the Senate, “that the British Navy and the French Army are America’s first line of defense… We deny that the United States can make the world safe from Hitlerism by becoming the silent partner of the British Empire.”

When Congress nevertheless repealed the arms embargo on November 3rd, North Dakota’s entire delegation – Nye, Lynn Frazier, William Lemke, and Usher Burdick – voted no.

A month later, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Nye said, “Just what the British had planned for us… We have been maneuvered into this by the President.” The next day, however, our delegation voted to declare war.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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