Great Conservatives from American History #8: Kenneth Wherry

Legends rise and fall in politics, and Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska was one of them. He had been in federal politics since 1903, first as representative and then as senator, and in the process had successfully reduced the powers of the Speaker of the House in response to the rule of Illinois’ Joe Cannon, authored the 20th Amendment, and sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority. However, his maverick nature and his strong support of President Roosevelt was rubbing his increasingly conservative constituents the wrong way. In 1940, in a bad omen for Norris, Roosevelt lost Nebraska by almost 15 points. Norris also stuck out like a sore thumb for his support for FDR’s foreign policy (although he couldn’t support the peacetime draft). The political change of Nebraska and his advanced age left him open for a challenge. Enter Kenneth Wherry (1892-1951).

Wherry had a bit of a political odyssey himself, since as a state senator from 1929 to 1932 he was generally thought of as a progressive, including by none other than Norris himself, who wrote positively of him, “Senator Wherry is one of the most promising men in public life to honor Nebraska in a long time. Having served as an outstanding member of two sessions of the Legislature, he has demonstrated himself to be a forceful representative of the people’s interests, a man of outstanding ability, always fighting for what he conscientiously believes to be right” (Dalstrom). Wherry had in the past made two unsuccessful efforts at higher political office in 1932 and 1934, for the Republican nomination for governor and for Senate respectively. Norris’ chances of reelection in 1942, already difficult, were doomed after Democrats decided to back their own candidate and Wherry won handily.

In the Senate, Wherry made his presence known as a staunch conservative. He would call himself a “political fundamentalist” and often put issues in stark dichotomies, such as between “free enterprise and socialism” or “economy and waste” (Time, December 10, 1951). He was a staunch foe of price controls, high spending, New Deal laws, socialism (he made an exception for funding a TVA steam plant in 1948), and internationalism. Such a foe of the latter he was that on December 4, 1945, he was one of only seven senators to vote against the United Nations Participation Act. An experienced salesman who had sold furniture, coffins, cars, and real estate, Wherry was a talented spokesman and debater. However, he could engage in what became known as “Wherryisms”, in which he spoke so fast that he would jumble his words. These included telling a senator he would have “opple amportunity” to speak, calling Wayne Morse of Oregon “the distinguished Senator from Junior”, “Chief Joints of Staff”, referring to Indochina (Vietnam) as “Indigo China”, calling Spessard Holland of Florida “the Senator from Holland”, and “bell door ringer” (Time, Time). Wherry’s rise was rapid, and in 1944, he was elected majority whip. In 1945, he was among members of a Congressional delegation to visit Buchenwald to see the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Assuming Leadership

The official leading Senate Republican for the 80th Congress was Majority Leader Wallace White of Maine, but he was a figurehead for Robert Taft of Ohio and given his increasingly poor health, Majority Whip Wherry would often serve effectively as acting majority leader. Wherry himself was to the right of the average of his party, and unlike party leadership and the majority of Republicans, he was one of 23 senators to vote against Greek-Turkish aid in 1947, one of 17 senators to vote against the Marshall Plan in 1948, and one of 13 senators to vote against the NATO Treaty in 1949. His Americans for Democratic Action score was a mere 6% and his DW-Nominate score was a 0.544, making him one of the most conservative senators in his time. As a prime backer of conservative policy and doctrines, he even took Senator Robert Taft to task for sponsoring the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Bill, which provided for public housing. Despite Wherry’s role as an arch-foe of the Truman Administration, he earned the respect of President Truman, who wrote him, “While you and I are as far apart as the poles on policy, I can admire an honest opponent” (Lewiston Morning Tribune). With the retirement of White, Republicans elected Wherry minority leader in 1949.

As minority leader, Wherry successfully pushed for an amendment to the Senate rules in 1949 that made cloture apply to all business except rules changes by a 2/3’s vote of the entire Senate. In April 1951, he led the charge against sending troops to Europe under the North Atlantic Treaty. Although Wherry and his non-interventionist allies were not able to prevent granting Truman authority to send troops to Europe without Congressional authorization, he with John McClellan (D-Ark.) succeeded on passing an amendment 49-46 limiting Truman to four divisions, with Congressional authorization required for more (ADA World). Americans for Democratic Action scored him negatively on every key vote except civil rights during Truman’s second term.

Wherry and Civil Rights

Although there were efforts by Southern Democrats to appeal to the anti-New Deal Republicans for votes against civil rights legislation as New Deal-like, this was not so for Wherry. He was a supporter of civil rights legislation, opposing a Southern effort to weaken desegregation of the army and supporting ending debate on a Fair Employment Practices bill in 1950. He was also a supporter of a federal poll tax ban and in 1943 backed Senator William Langer’s (R-N.D.) anti-discrimination rider to an education bill. On July 19, 1946, Wherry voted for the Equal Rights Amendment, which had a curious mix of conservatives and liberals for and against, opponents including Senators Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Robert Taft (R-Ohio), the latter who expressed concern that the amendment would nullify sex-specific labor protections (De Wolf). However, Wherry also, with Senator Lister Hill (D-Ala.), led a subcommittee to investigate homosexuality in the Federal government based on the widespread belief that this would make them susceptible to blackmail by Soviet agents.

The End

Wherry was in 1951 thought of as a rising star in the Republican Party and possibly a nominee for vice president. However, fate had a different idea; that year he was diagnosed with liver cancer and in October he had an operation. While recovering from surgery, Wherry contracted pneumonia and died on November 29th. He was one of the great conservatives for his strong advocacy of conservative positions as well as his role as a conservative leader in the 1940s and early 1950s against the tide of New Dealism and internationalism.


ADA World: Congressional Supplement. (1951, October). Americans for Democratic Action.

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Dalstrom, H.A. (1978). The Defeat of George W. Norris in 1942. Nebraska History 59: 231-258.

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De Wolf, R. (2021, May 2). The 1940s Fight Against the Equal Rights Amendment Was Bipartisan and Crossed Ideological Lines. History News Network.

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GOP ‘Wheel,’ Senator Wherry Succumbs at 59. (1951, November 30). Lewiston Morning Tribune.

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Kenneth S. Wherry: A Featured Biography. United States Senate.

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People, Jun. 25, 1951 (1951, June 25). Time Magazine.

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SJ Res 61… (1946, July 19). Govtrack.

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The Congress: Fundamentalist Republican. (1951, December 10). Time Magazine.

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To Amend S.637… (1943, October 20). Govtrack.

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