A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’
A new political biography redeems Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana.
From his election in 1922 as United States senator from Montana until his defeat in the state’s 1946 Democratic primary, Burton K. Wheeler commanded attention as a leader of national importance. Until now, his eventful record has not received the attention it merits. Historians generally have ignored him. Marc C. Johnson, a veteran broadcast journalist and political aide to Idaho’s longest serving governor, Cecil D. Andrus, has written the first full monograph to appear about Wheeler. Two books with the same Plot Against America title, one by David George Kin (1946) and the other by novelist Philip Roth (2004), have left the fallacious impression that he deserved to go down in history as a traitorous American Nazi. Kin was a political hack of no lasting consequence, but Roth’s best-selling caricature won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction given by the Society of American Historians, a decision evidently preceded by no research to determine if the story had anything historical about it at all. To restore to the national consciousness an appreciation for Wheeler’s true historical importance, Johnson had a daunting task before him. In many ways, he has done well by his subject, but some of the misleading impressions remain.
Wheeler’s early years in Montana politics are a fascinating part of the story that Johnson tells. Born in Massachusetts to a working-class family in 1882, Wheeler arrived in Butte at age 23 with a law degree from the University of Michigan where he had matriculated despite never having gone to college. He plunged into local politics and became an outspoken progressive. Wheeler served in the state legislature and established a close relationship with one of Montana’s most powerful men, Senator Thomas J. Walsh, who in 1913 gave him the job of U.S. Attorney. He swiftly made a reputation for himself as a foe of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, long the state’s dominant economic power. His resolute defense in 1917 of IWW radicals to practice their right of free speech triggered fierce reprisals and even death threats against him. Wheeler’s views from this period earned him the nickname of “Bolshevik Burt.” That same year America intervened in the First World War. The anti-German mania of self-styled patriot groups disgusted him, and he valiantly opposed their campaign of intimidation against citizens who mistakenly thought that they lived in a free country. A pariah for a time, he suffered a historic defeat in the 1920 gubernatorial campaign.
Johnson emphasizes the critical importance of Wheeler’s decision thereafter to temper his politics by ceasing to attack the state’s dominant economic interests. Running for the U.S. Senate in 1922, he focused his attention on corruption in the Harding administration. He had very little to say in that victorious campaign about his longtime enemies at Anaconda. Toward the state’s power elites, he would go on for the rest of his career adopting this live-and-let-live campaign tactic while devoting himself to national issues, first having to do primarily with domestic politics and then, most importantly, foreign affairs.
Once in the Senate, Wheeler became allied with Robert M. La Follette, a progressive Republican from Wisconsin. When La Follette decided to run for the presidency in 1924 on a third-party Progressive ticket, he chose Wheeler, then 42, as his running mate. They campaigned on the issue of Republican corruption and on the need for a non-interventionist foreign policy. An economic upturn contributed to Coolidge’s re-election in a landslide, though the La Follette-Wheeler ticket received nearly five million votes, won the state of Wisconsin, and finished ahead of the Democrats in several states.
In a memoir co-written with Paul F. Healy, Yankee from the West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-Born U.S. Senator from Montana (1962), Wheeler nostalgically recalled the 1924 Progressive campaign as the ideological precursor for the New Deal of 1933. Yet, after briefly supporting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Wheeler became one of the president’s bitterest foes. Johnson writes, “Almost immediately…Wheeler’s optimism gave way to disillusionment with Roosevelt, and the two men faced off over an almost constant series of personal and political disagreements.” Most of the biography deals with Wheeler’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with Roosevelt. He did not succumb to the president’s legendary charm, which seemed to him only a mask concealing the most extreme case of megalomania in the history of American politics. Over time, their mutual antagonism deepened into contempt and hatred. Recounting the FDR-Wheeler feuds over the New Deal, Johnson does excellent work by building the book’s argument on a solid foundation consisting of primary and secondary sources.
Wheeler’s fateful opposition to America’s entry into the Second World War is the dramatic high point of the book. He based his anti-interventionist arguments on the revisionist thesis about the causes of the First World War and the reasons for America’s intervention in that conflict. Historical revisionism in this context basically meant two things. First, all the combatant imperialist powers bore responsibility for the war, not only Germany and her allies. Second, America had entered the war to make the world safe not for democracy but for Wall Street. Charles Austin Beard, the historian most responsible for popularizing these two revisionist viewpoints, frequently appeared before Congress as an expert witness warning about the likelihood of another war that once again, as in 1914, would be fought for empire. References to his books, articles, speeches, and radio addresses fill the pages of The Congressional Record for the decade of the 1930s. Johnson does not mention that Wheeler held forth as one of the senators most drawn to Beard’s ideas.
When the America First isolationist movement got underway in 1940, Wheeler became one of its headline speakers. In these addresses, he essentially presented a Beardian argument: World War I and World War II were really one war fought over the same imperialist issues. Nazism was a monstrous totalitarian regime, but Wheeler thought it no worse than the Soviet Union, our future ally. More to the point of the Constitution on matters of national security, Germany did not threaten the territorial integrity of the United States. Therefore, America had no cause to go to war. Like Beard, Wheeler thought that FDR looked to war as a means of escaping the consequences of his failure with the New Deal to end the Depression. Such arguments found great favor in America right down to Pearl Harbor, which permanently removed the ground from under anti-interventionists like Wheeler. By some lucky twists of political fortune in Montana, very ably analyzed by Johnson, the 60-year-old Wheeler survived his 1942 re-election campaign. Over the next four years, however, a political death knell tolled for the anti-interventionist leaders of the Senate: Gerald P. Nye in North Dakota, Bennett Champ Clark in Missouri, Guy Gillette in Iowa, D. Worth Clark in Idaho, Henrik Shipstead in Minnesota, Robert M. La Follette, Jr. in Wisconsin, and Wheeler himself.
Johnson takes FDR’s side in the great debates about the Second World War. He agrees with those historians who praise the president for doing what he had to do in the fight against Hitler, even if that meant bypassing Congress and purposely misleading the public about the administration’s plans from the beginning to involve the nation in war. Johnson gives Wheeler a point, albeit a minor one, for being right in noting that FDR had established in American politics a new level of Machiavellian realpolitik that other presidents would not be slow to imitate. He looks ahead to the executive prevarication practiced by Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war and by George W. Bush in Operation Iraqi Freedom as latter-day instances of presidential deceit in the tradition of FDR’s example in World War II.
Very much on the negative side for Wheeler, “the anti-Semitism label has stuck to his legacy.” It is fair to wonder why. There is nothing in his personal record to indicate anti-Semitic attitudes. Johnson shows that the indictment of Wheeler as an anti-Semite, involving diverse episodes, really boils down to his role as a headliner for the America First Committee. Even the guilt-by-association argument, which Johnson allows to stand, has almost nothing to recommend it. In America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940-1941 (1953), Wayne Cole documents the organization’s aggressive recruitment of Jews, many of whom served in leadership roles. America First resolutely opposed anti-Semitism and shut down chapters shown to have been infected by it. Anti-Semitism existed in its ranks due to prejudices prevalent in American culture that were not at all in keeping with the official aims, objectives, and policies of America First. Johnson finds reasons to justify the perception of Wheeler’s anti-Semitism, but would have done better to exculpate him completely from this charge.
Johnson leaves room for argument about Wheeler’s legacy, but he performs a welcome service by bringing forth this hell-raiser’s story from out of the shadows of public forgetfulness. It is the story of a ruggedly independent-minded patriot whose prophetic warnings about the danger posed to the American people by their militarized empire have come to pass in our time.
Richard Drake is a professor of history at the University of Montana.