The North Dakota U.S. Senator who fought to keep the country out of World War II
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Sen. Gerald P. Nye, one of the leading advocates for not getting involved in the war prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
FARGO — Prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, one of America’s leading advocates for not getting involved in World War II was a U.S. Senator from North Dakota.
Sen. Gerald P. Nye learned about the horrors of war from both of his grandfathers who were actively involved on the Union side in the Civil War. Then, after Nye learned about the huge profits some companies made because of our involvement in World War I, he led Senate investigations to look into those companies.
Gerald Prentice Nye was born Dec. 19, 1892, in Hortonville, Wis., to Irwin and Phoebe Ella (Prentice) Nye. While Gerald was still an infant, the family moved 50 miles southeast to the small town of Wittenberg where Irwin established a newspaper, The Enterprise. He also became the town’s postmaster and, with his friend, Wilbur Hollembaek, established a printing and publishing company.
While Gerald was growing up, politics became a major issue of conversation in the Nye household. In the Wisconsin Legislature was a Republican lawmaker who was building a progressive coalition that would not only alter politics in Wisconsin but would have ripple effects across the nation. That legislator, Robert La Follette, was elected governor in 1900, U.S. Senator in 1905 and was a presidential candidate in 1912 and again in 1924.
Irwin was a major La Follette supporter, and his printing company was kept busy while La Follette was governor. With his father, Gerald attended a number of La Follette speaking engagements and even had opportunities to meet the Wisconsin governor. Gerald’s uncle, Wallace Nye, another La Follette supporter, was a progressive Republican who, in 1913, was elected mayor of Minneapolis.
When Gerald was 13, his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and periodically his parents “made trips to the South for recuperation.” While they were gone, Gerald and his brother, Clair, published their father’s weekly newspaper. In 1906, Phoebe died, and his father remarried three years later.
Gerald graduated from Wittenberg High School in 1911, and he moved back to Hortonville to live with his grandparents where he edited The Hortonville Review, a newspaper that his father and Hollembaek had recently purchased. Unable to pay a number of his bills, Gerald closed down the paper in October 1914 and moved to Creston, Iowa, to become the editor of the recently established Creston Daily Plain Dealer. About a year later, he worked as the circulation manager for The Des Moines Register.
One of the things gleaned from Nye’s early editorials and newspaper articles was his concern for the farmers who were being exploited by business interests out east. In 1915, a new, agrarian reform movement called the Nonpartisan League (NPL) was founded in western North Dakota. This piqued Nye’s interest and he believed he could lend his expertise in the newspaper business to help this movement grow.
In May 1916, Nye purchased The Fryburg Pioneer, a weekly newspaper in Billings County, N.D., which became “the first privately-owned newspaper in the state that backed the newly formed NPL.” The NPL also had its own newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, which was published weekly in Fargo.
Fryburg was a small village that was founded only three years prior to Nye’s arrival. Nye’s “first campaign was to have the county seat moved from Medora to Fryburg.” That effort failed, but he was much more successful in getting voters to support the NPL in the 1916 election.
The goal of the NPL leadership in 1916 was to "enter the Republican primary, gain control of the state government, and enact its program." When the Republican primary was held in June, all but one of the state office candidates endorsed by the NPL won the Republican nomination. In the November general election, the full slate of NPL candidates within the Republican Party was elected. In the Legislature, the NPL also won control of the House and picked up some seats in the Senate.
Nye continued to write editorials that “lambasted big government and big business.” He pushed issues that would help the rural farmers and also advocated for a graduated income tax and supported the eight-hour day for working women.
Initially, Nye supported the efforts of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson to keep us out of World War I in Europe. When the U.S. Senate voted to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917, Nye supported it. He registered for the draft, but with a wife and baby, he did not have to serve. Instead, he was “food administrator and county director of Liberty Loans and War Savings drives, served on the Red Cross donation executive committee, and was director of United War Works drives.”
When the war was over, leadership within the NPL was very pleased with Nye’s ability to convey the objectives and goals of their organization in a convincing manner so, in 1919, they asked him to be the editor and manager of The Griggs County Sentinel-Courier, a much more widely distributed newspaper that was owned by NPL members, and Nye agreed to relocate to Cooperstown where the paper’s office was located. As a resident of Cooperstown in the early 1920s, “Nye was active in all community projects and a leader in civic development.”
“In 1924, Nye unsuccessfully sought election as a progressive Republican to the U.S. House.” On June 22, 1925, U.S. Sen. Edwin Ladd died in office. Ladd had been a member of the NPL, and the league urged Gov. Arthur Sorlie to appoint “a true progressive who would work with (Sen. Lynn) Frazier.” Even though the NPL had given their support to Sorlie in the 1924 gubernatorial election, many league members did not fully trust him because he had not endorsed La Follette in the 1924 presidential election.
To avoid being forced to make a choice as to who to appoint, Sorlie said the decision to choose Ladd’s successor should be left for a special election in June 1926, but the league disapproved, instead asking for the governor to appoint an interim senator. On Nov. 14, 1925, Sorlie made his decision and, to the surprise of almost everybody, he selected Nye to fill out the rest of Ladd’s term.
Because of his progressive views, many of the regular Republicans in the U.S. Senate fought to not allow Nye to be seated. Sen. George H. Moses, chairman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee, told Sorlie that Nye’s appointment would not be approved because Sorlie “had no authority to make that appointment.” He claimed that Sorlie’s action in appointing Nye violated the 17th Amendment. After much fighting back and forth, Nye was not officially seated until January 1926.
We will continue the story about Gerald P. Nye next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.