U.S. senator from North Dakota was lampooned by Dr. Seuss
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of Gerald P. Nye, whose strong isolationist policies put him at odds with many voters in the 1940s.
FARGO — During the 1930s and early '40s, one of the most active and vocal U.S. senators was a young lawmaker from North Dakota. Nationally, Gerald P. Nye was best known for his work on Senate committees like the Foreign Relations Committee, the Defense Committee and the Public Lands Committee, which he chaired. He also chaired the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, which soon became known simply as the “Nye Committee.”
Nye was instrumental in the development and adoption of the Neutrality Acts that were passed by Congress. Largely because of this, he was labeled as an isolationist, for which he had a number of supporters and critics. I found Dr. Seuss to be one of Nye’s more interesting critics.
Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, took some time off from writing children’s books in the early 1940s to lampoon Nye and a couple of other isolationists in political cartoons. Then, for over 70 years, most of Dr. Suess’s work remained politically dormant until Sen. Ted Cruz decided to read “his favorite children’s book,” "Green Eggs & Ham," to the U.S. Senate in a 2013 effort to filibuster President Barack Obama’s health care plan, the “Affordable Care Act.”
Nye was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1932 by getting over double the votes of his challengers, George Shafer in the primary election and P. W. Lanier in the general election. Even though Nye was kept busy tending to national issues in the Senate, he also found time to work on the concerns of North Dakota citizens he represented.
In September 1933, former U.S. Sen. Henry Hansbrough paid a visit to Sen. Nye with a special request. One month later, Hansbrough died, his body was cremated and his ashes were sent to Nye’s office in a shoebox. Nye’s staff carried out Hansbrough’s request by scattering his ashes beneath an elm tree on the Capitol grounds.
That same year, Herman Stern, a wealthy Valley City businessman, contacted Nye about difficulties he was having in getting Jewish relatives, friends and others out of Nazi Germany where their safety was in serious jeopardy. Nye contacted the consulate in Stuttgart, Germany, and immigration officials in the U.S. State Department and the Department of Labor to procure visas for the people Stern was trying to get out of Germany. Stern later expressed his appreciation to Nye and Gov. William Langer for their support in helping over 125 Jews escape persecution by the Nazis.
Beginning in 1934, Nye led an investigation into the munitions industry which he believed had profited from America's involvement in World War I, and “that greed was a significant factor” causing our country’s involvement. Nye was appointed chair of the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry because he was “deemed to have the competence, independence, and stature for the task.” Although the hearings were highly publicized, “the committee found little firm evidence of an active conspiracy among munitions manufacturers.”
Early in 1938, Nye made a mistake by attacking the legacy of former President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, who died in 1924. “Nye suggested that Wilson had withheld essential information from Congress as it considered a declaration of war.” This created anger among Democratic leaders in the Senate, especially with Sen. Carter Glass, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and he saw to it that funding for Nye’s committee was cut off — and without money, Nye’s committee was dissolved.
Nye was still convinced that a conspiracy existed among arms manufacturers, politicians and international bankers to draw the U.S. into a war in Europe. To counteract this, he helped draw up what were called “Neutrality Acts.” The first of these acts was passed by Congress on Aug. 31, 1935, and the act “imposed a general embargo on trading in arms and war materials with all parties in a war.” President Franklin Roosevelt invoked the act after Italy invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. The Neutrality Acts were renewed in 1936, 1937 and 1939, and each time the acts were expanded by placing new restrictions on what the U.S. could do in regard to involvement in a foreign war.
In 1938, Nye was up for reelection and he was challenged by William Langer, the man he had helped get ousted as governor of North Dakota four years earlier. Langer controlled the Nonpartisan League (NPL) and received their endorsement at the convention. Nye defeated him by receiving slightly over 5,000 votes in the Republican primary. Because of his strong showing in the primary, Langer decided to run as an independent. Fearing that Langer, as a third-party candidate, might get elected, William Lemke persuaded the Democratic candidate, Jess Nygaard, not to campaign for the position. In return, Lemke and Nye promised to support the Democratic candidate, John Moses, in his run for governor. The strategy worked, and both Nye and Moses were elected.
Nye became a major supporter of the America First Committee, established on Sept. 4, 1940. The primary spokesperson for AFC was Charles Lindbergh, and a number of prominent people, along with Nye, supported it. Total isolationism from any foreign wars was the goal of AFC, which was right in line with what Nye had been advocating for the past decade. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sen. Nye, along with all of the other members of the U.S. Senate, voted to declare war on Japan, Germany and Italy, and the AFC was dissolved.
In 1944, Nye was once again up for reelection, and his strong stand on isolationism did not have the appeal with voters that it once had. His challengers in the Republican primary were Usher Burdick and Lynn Stambaugh. Burdick had been heavily involved in North Dakota politics for over 30 years and had served as lieutenant governor and had been a U.S. representative for a decade. Stambaugh was a Fargo attorney who had served in combat during World War I and, in 1941, was elected national post commander of the American Legion. In the 1944 Republican primary, Nye received 38,191 votes, Stambaugh 37,218 votes and Burdick 35,687 votes.
The Democratic challenger in the general election was John Moses, the man Nye had helped get elected governor in 1938. Moses had been reelected in 1940 and 1942 and during his time as governor, "he successfully and radically reduced political influence in state administration, slashed government expenses, streamlined state accounting, balanced the budget, and brought the state out of debt."
Moses was a formidable candidate in his own right, but to further complicate the election for Nye, Stambaugh decided to run as an independent. In the general election, Moses received 95,102 votes, Nye 69,530 votes and Stambaugh 44,596 votes.
Following his defeat, Nye retired to Washington, D.C., where he organized and became president of Records Engineering Inc. In 1960, he was appointed assistant to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, and three years later he was appointed to the professional staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging.
Nye suffered from arterial disease and the clogged arteries in his legs were surgically replaced with plastic arteries. A blood clot went to his lungs and a doctor treating him “mistakenly prescribed a drug containing penicillin,” to which he was allergic, and as a result, Gerald P. Nye died on July 17, 1971.
“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.