The America First Senators: Gerald P. Nye and Burton K. Wheeler
Gerald P. Nye

Politics can make strange bedfellows as well as strange foes. The foes of FDR’s New Deal and his foreign policy, for instance, were not always the same people. Rep. James W. Wadsworth Jr. (R-N.Y.) was one of the most extreme opponents of the New Deal but remained friends with FDR and actively cooperated with the Roosevelt Administration on foreign policy: he sponsored the first peacetime draft law in the House and defended Lend-Lease. This was also clear with the administration’s opponents of foreign policy. Although the most visible non-interventionist in the House was conservative Hamilton Fish III (R-N.Y.), in the Senate the two leading opponents were Gerald P. Nye (1892-1971) of North Dakota and Burton K. Wheeler (1882-1975) of Montana. They were hardly the beau ideal of those who had backed the anti-New Deal Liberty League in 1936: Nye was more supportive than most Republicans of the first New Deal and Wheeler’s reputation as a progressive was solid, being the running mate of Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) on his 1924 Progressive Party run for president. He also as chair of the Interstate Commerce Committee sponsored a major New Deal law, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935. Nye had gained a reputation as “Gerald the Giant Killer” for his role in the investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal and frequently criticized the tax policies of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, viewing them as favoring big business and the interests of the East rather than farmers and the interests of the Midwest. Nye supported raising taxes on the wealthy and pushed for an inheritance tax, but he also favored higher tariffs for goods that benefited his region of the country. He quickly soured the presidency of Herbert Hoover, stating that the greatest trouble “with Congress, with the Government, is that we fear new thoughts; we dread to depart from the beaten path; we withhold our support of things which are new and a departure from old ways. It is my hope that the next six months will have the effect of impressing upon Congress and the President the importance of accepting drastic means and new ways of righting wrongs of long standing” (Simkin, Nye).

TIME Magazine Cover: Burton K. Wheeler - Apr. 15, 1940 - Burton K. Wheeler  - Senators - Congress
Burton K. Wheeler

Although both men were initially friendly to President Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially Wheeler, who had pushed for his nomination in 1932, they also possessed a healthy wariness of the use of executive power. This manifested in their opposition to Roosevelt’s court-packing plan and his proposed 1938 reorganization plan. Wheeler had in fact taken a central role in both efforts to limit FDR’s power, which he resented. Nye had chaired the committee investigating the causes of World War I, the purpose of which was to push legislation to strip the profits from war. The Nye Committee found some unsavory connections between bankers and munitions makers but was unable to prove a conspiracy for getting the U.S. into war. He also accused the late President Wilson of withholding information to the American public before getting into World War I, to which Senator Carter Glass, who had been a personal friend of Wilson, denounced him for “dirtdaubing the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson” and slammed his fist on his desk until his knuckles bled (U.S. Senate). This committee served as a prelude to the debates on foreign policy before Pearl Harbor. After FDR won a third term, Nye and Wheeler cemented themselves as opponents of the Roosevelt Administration. Their conservatism rose significantly during his third term, including newfound opposition to continuing certain New Deal programs.

Both men voted against weakening the Neutrality Acts in 1939 and 1941, against the peacetime draft in 1940, and against the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Nye and Wheeler were also frequent speakers at America First events. On January 12, 1941, Wheeler delivered a speech against Lend-Lease on the floor of Congress, declaring, “The lend-lease-give program is the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy; it will plow under every fourth American boy. Never before have the American people been asked or compelled to give so bounteously and so completely of their tax dollars to any foreign nation. Never before has the Congress of the United States been asked by any President to violate international law. Never before has this nation resorted to duplicity in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Never before has the United States given to one man the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate” (Simkin, Wheeler).

Nye and Wheeler, however, met much criticism and both were subjects of Dr. Seuss’s 1940s cartoons, with Nye being portrayed in one as a horse’s ass. Wheeler was portrayed as nursing a Roosevelt hater. They also seemed to veer into questionable territory when they went after Hollywood for “pro-war propaganda”, asserting that because many of the major studio heads were Jewish, that they had special incentive to influence the public in the direction of war. This opened them up to accusations of anti-Semitism.

The fate of both men’s political careers, however, were sealed after Pearl Harbor albeit for different reasons. Nye lost reelection to Democratic Governor John Moses in 1944; he had lost some support as the socially conservative people of North Dakota were perturbed by his quick divorce and remarriage, and he was not able to get conservatives to unify behind him given his past record. His non-interventionism, although it was at that point unpopular with the overall American public, it wasn’t unpopular in North Dakota as they continued to reelect his more extreme colleague, William Langer. Wheeler lost renomination in 1946 despite President Truman’s support based on his non-interventionist record and for being insufficiently liberal to Leif Erickson, a candidate strongly backed by New Deal Democrats and elements of the far left. However, Wheeler had headed a bipartisan machine in Montana, and this machine had one last hurrah when Erickson was defeated by the far more conservative Republican Zales Ecton. Neither had regrets for the stands they took in their time. Nye worked in business and government until his retirement in 1966. Nye, who had been a lifelong smoker, developed heart and lung problems and died in 1971. Wheeler resumed the practice of law after his defeat and declined Republican efforts to recruit him to run against Senator Mike Mansfield in 1958, by this time he was 76 years old. Given the age of our current president, this seems rather quaint now. In 1962, he published his autobiography “Yankee from the West” and outlived Nye by four years.

P.S.: My grandfather was a driver for Senator Nye on his last campaign.


Drake, R. (2019, December 27). A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’. The American Conservative.

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A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’

Hill, R. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. (2012, December 23). Knoxville Focus.

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“Merchants of Death”. United States Senate.

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NYE, GERALD (1892-1971). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

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Simkin, J. Burton Wheeler. Spartacus Educational.

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Simkin, J. Gerald Nye. Spartacus Educational.

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