The Great Plains During World War II



During the 1930s, Great Plains residents expressed an overwhelming sentiment for isolationism, including the variations of non-interventionism and neutrality. Like most Americans who felt betrayed by the European powers at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, which ended the Great War, many also agreed with Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota that the United States had been led to war in 1917 by the bankers, financiers, and munitions manufacturers solely for economic gain at the expense of thousands of American lives. Nye called the Great War "incorporated murder," and many men and women in the Great Plains agreed.

In 1938, When Germany annexed Austria and seized the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, the people of the Great Plains expressed sympathy for the oppressed Europeans but nothing more. A year later, when Germany invaded Poland, Great Plains residents wanted to stay out of a new European war. The people of the Great Plains generally supported the Neutrality Act of 1936 which prohibited loans and credits to warring nations, except for ordinary commercial business. A year later, Congress amended the Neutrality Act, in part, to authorize the president to list certain goods that could be traded to belligerents on a cash-and-carry basis. The Neutrality Act of 1937 was hardly impartial because it favored Great Britain which had a large navy capable of protecting its merchant ships transporting goods from American ports. Even so, the people of the Great Plains hoped the act would keep the nation out of war.

In general, Great Plains leaders and their constituents voiced isolationist sentiments. Senator Lynn J. Frazier from North Dakota, like many Great Plains men and women, believed that only trouble could come from entangling alliances, collective security agreements, and international organizations, such as the League of Nations. Frazier also contended that military appropriations and preparedness could only lead to an international arms race that made war inevitable. Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas advocated his own brand of isolationism, but in contrast to Nye and Frazier, he considered himself an internationalist who opposed war. Capper supported trade agreements with Latin America but not Europe and Asia. His isolationism sprang from George Washington's admonition to avoid entangling alliances and Thomas Jefferson's embargo prior to the War of 1812. He opposed strengthening the army and navy because a military build up would lead to war. Capper argued that the United States needed the army and navy only for the defense of American shores. Capper did not believe that a new European war would endanger American security, as long as the nation remained truly neutral. Many Great Plains people agreed.

During the 1930s as Europe sped rapidly toward war, many representatives and senators from the Great Plains states adamantly spoke in favor of isolationism and, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, non-interventionism and neutrality. Few people of the Great Plains gave much attention to Japanese expansion and militarism. Instead, their congressional representatives constantly made the case that isolationism, however, defined, meant staying out of European wars. A foreign policy based on isolationism, non-interventionism, or neutrality would protect the nation.

The following documents from the Congressional Record provide an overview of their isolationist sentiments and the support of their constituents. The examples focus on the congressional representatives from the central and northern Great Plains states which were the most isolationist in the region.

In March 1939, Representative Carl T. Curtis from Nebraska warned that Europe would soon be engaged in another major war. He argued that while Plains men and women and other Americans might be sympathetic to Great Britain and France which confronted a grave threat from Germany, the United States could not police the world. He also blamed the Roosevelt Administration for using the European crisis to deflect attention at home from more relevant problems such as low agricultural prices, unemployment, and economic recovery from the Great Depression.

A month later, Kansas Senator Arthur Capper presented the Senate with a number of letters from constituents urging him to do everything possible to keep the nation out of war. These letters are significant because they indicate strong feelings of isolationism among the people of the central Great Plains.

In April 1939, Representative Francis H. Case of South Dakota also presented a resolution from the American Legion urging Congress to avoid entangling alliances and pursue a foreign policy based on non-interventionism in the disputes of others.

After receiving nearly 1,000 petitions, some with multiple signatures urging neutrality and the avoidance of war, Senator Capper took the Senate floor on May 9, 1939, and made an impassioned speech for peace.

In June 1939, Representative William Lemke of North Dakota spoke against a resolution to revise the Neutrality Act because the proposed change would give the president too much power that he could use to lead the nation into war.

On July 18, 1939, little more than a month before Germany invaded Poland, North Dakota's Senator Nye provided the Christian Science Monitor with an article entitled "Can the United States Be Neutral? Yes If It Minds Its Own Business." Nye had his column added to the Congressional Record.

On September 30, 1939, only weeks after Germany invaded Poland, Representative Edward R. Burke of Nebraska delivered an address over the Columbia Broadcasting System which he had entered into the Congressional Record. Burke believed that the arms embargo of the Neutrality Act was unneutral. He advocated the sale of munitions on a cash-and-carry basis to any nation that could pay. American shipping and financing that could lead to war would not be involved, but all warring nations would be treated equally.

In mid-October 1939, Senators Edward Burke of Nebraska, William J. Bulow of South Dakota, and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana addressed the danger of repealing the arms embargo of the Neutrality Act and the danger of entering a new European war. In that discussion Senator Wheeler made the riveting remark that the American people "do not want to see the bodies of their boys hung on the Siegfried Line." The people of the Great Plains agreed.

At that time, Senator Lynn Frazier of North Dakota also opposed repealing the arms embargo of the Neutrality Act. He believed such action would enable the munitions manufacturers to commit the United States to war, just as they had in 1917.

On May 17, 1940, Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas made an impassioned speech over the National Broadcasting System which he had entered into the Congressional Record. Capper contended that the efforts of President Roosevelt to increase military preparedness and industrial production and to strengthen the national defense ultimately would lead to the entry of the United States into the European war. Intervention and war, he believed, would conclude with the end of democracy and the establishment of a dictatorship in America.

After the fall of France in June 1940 and Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, the people of the Great Plains saw the danger of American entry into the war greater than ever before, and they used their congressional delegations to support neutrality, even isolationism, if such action would keep the peace. In November 1940, the Wichita Council of Churches urged Senator Capper to support their desire for the federal government to prohibit the sale of scrap iron, aviation fuel, and other war materiel to any nation that might go to war with the United States. Significantly, the Council noted Japan as a danger to the security of the United States.

As early as January 1941, some Great Plains residents saw war inevitable because President Roosevelt ignored their pleas for peace and to remain out of the European conflict. Representative J. Chandler Gurney of South Dakota entered editorials in the Congressional Record from the Yankton Press and Dakotan of January 6 and 7 in which the editor accused the president of making a "personal declaration of war" against Germany.

By early 1941, Congress debated the merits of the president's proposed Lend-Lease bill, which gave the president the authority to provide military aid to any country with payment in some form after hostilities ended. Many Great Plains men and women considered the Lend-Lease bill no less than another ruse by the Roosevelt Administration to commit the nation to war on behalf of Great Britain.

Representative Harry B. Coffee of Nebraska also opposed the Lend-Lease bill because it would give the president unprecedented power to commit the nation to war. In a January 13, 1941, editorial in the Omaha World Herald, he gave his reason for opposing the bill.

Representative Clifford Hope of Kansas opposed the Lend-Lease bill. Although he favored aid to Great Britain short of war, he believed the bill would enable the president to become a dictator and commit the nation to war.

In March 1941, Senator Frazier of North Dakota entered the following editorial that he had contributed to the Bismarck Tribune into the Congressional Record. Frazier vociferously opposed the Lend-Lease bill. Senator Nye supported Frazier's opinion but with more moderate language. Even so, he argued that the bill would eventually lead the United States to support the most aggressive and imperialistic country in history—Great Britain.

In May 1941, Senator Gerald Nye gave a radio address in which he attacked President Roosevelt's foreign policy and told his listeners that, "If we get into this war it will not be because the President tried to keep us out." A portion of his address follows.

By late summer 1941, many Great Plains residents feared that President Roosevelt would commit the nation to war more than they feared Germany. Japan still did not seem a major threat to them. Carl T. Curtis delivered the following address over the Columbia Broadcasting System on August 8, a portion of which follows. Curtis urged his listeners not to follow the war crowd primarily found in the Roosevelt Administration.

The December 7, 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on the United States by German and Italy four days later destroyed all sentiments of isolationism, non-interventionism, and neutrality. The nation had been attacked. The people of the Great Plains had wanted peace, almost at any price, they now wanted revenge. Senator Arthur Capper expressed this sentiment in a rallying call for unity and commitment. He did so in a radio address entitled "A United Nation," which he delivered over the National Broadcasting System on December 29. A portion of that address follows.

In order to aid additional research on the isolationist, non-interventionist, and neutrality views expressed by congressional representatives and the people of the Great Plains, the following list of entries in the Congressional Record will provide easy access to the issues. The central and northern Great Plains states are emphasized to provide an example that will help researchers pursue the issues in greater depth for all of the Great Plains States. These citations for relevant reading are intended to be suggestive not comprehensive.

In addition, the following listing of the congressional representatives of the Great Plains states will aid further research. The Texas delegation includes only the districts from Dallas to San Antonio and west to the New Mexico border. The web links will take the research to a biographical entry for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate during the war years.