Dakota Datebook: Gerald P. Nye
September 4, 2008
“Gerald P. Nye”
In the years leading up to World War II, North Dakota’s U.S. Senator Gerald P. Nye was one of America’s leading and most controversial isolationists. Opposing intervention in foreign wars, Nye was thrust into the national limelight as chairman of the Senate Special Committee Investigating the munitions Industry opening on this day, September 4, 1934. Concluding that munitions makers had frightened people into military activity and then were rewarded by enormous profits during the war, Nye’s committee became the driving force behind the 1930’s neutrality laws. But Gerald Nye had not always been a staunch isolationist.
Born December 19, 1892, Nye was raised in the agricultural state of Wisconsin. In 1911, when his plans to study dentistry at Marquette University failed due to a lack of funds, Nye followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming editor for the Weekly Review in Hortonville, Wisconsin.
Nye filled his editorials with subjects such as attacks on saloons, appeals for prohibition, and praise for the American farmer. When war erupted in Europe in 1914, foreign policy also became a favored topic. At the beginning of the European conflict, Nye wrote about “the absolute futility of war,” urging the United States to disarm as an example to other nations and to stop supplying munitions and food to belligerents because it prolonged the war. But after the sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915, the tone of his writing began to change. The day after the disaster, Nye insisted Americans should not “suffer unlimited abuse and insult”. The United States, he concluded, should make every attempt to stay out of the conflict, but at the same time be “ready to fight when disrespect and insult grows to a degree that is shameful.” By August of 1915, Nye was admonishing the American people to trust and follow President Wilson, being “ready to act when he thinks the time comes…”
In 1917 the United States entered World War I. Having moved to North Dakota the previous year, Nye urged every American through his Billings County newspaper to support the war effort. He led by example. Nye registered for the draft in 1917, but with a wife and new baby, he was not called to serve in the armed forces. Instead he served as the county director of Liberty Loan and War Savings drives as well as the United War Work Drive. When 1918 experienced a severe shortage of agricultural laborers because of the war, Nye helped farmers with harvest work in the field.
After World War I, Gerald P. Nye’s editorials resumed their previous tone of isolationism, an attitude that within a few years would come to define the future U.S. Senator from North Dakota.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Cole, Wayne S. Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
Cole, Wayne S. “Gerald P. Nye and Agrarian Bases for the Rise and Fall of American Isolationism.” In Three Faces of Midwestern Isolationism, 1-10. Iowa City: The Center for the Study of the Recent History of the United States, 1981.
Dakota Datebook, Prairie Public. (2008) http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/