Dakota Datebook

Nye and the Isolationists

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


On this date 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 his strong convictions helped shape the nation’s attitude about war.

Gerald Nye moved to North Dakota in 1915 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. However, many in the Senate didn’t want to seat Nye. He was a member of the Non-Partisan League, which was too radical for many senators. But after a difficult debate, Democrats, N-P-L members, and progressive Republicans supported Nye’s appointment. 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 chairing an investigation into the role played by wealthy corporations leading up to World War I. The special committee acted boldly, probing the dealings 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 attitude seeped into popular thought. Nye argued that no European country seriously threatened America. National security had not been at stake in the First World War, and nothing had changed.

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 waging war, and prohibited the use of American ships for trade and travel with warring nations.

President Franklin Roosevelt complained that the neutrality laws weakened his ability to conduct foreign relations. When World War II broke out, he asked Congress to repeal the arms embargo. North Dakota’s entire delegation 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, he joined with the rest of the delegation, voting 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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