|George W. Norris, circa 1918
Greeting, all, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where my wife Karen and I are enjoying our annual summer beach getaway.
My beach reading this summer included an oldie but goodie, Profiles in Courage by then-senator and future president John F. Kennedy. And among the great stories in it, one particularly caught my eye this year, the one about George W. Norris, the Progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska, who, among other things, dared to defy mob hysteria in 1917 by taking a lonely stand against American entry into what he considered a pointless, terrible war … in his case, World War I.
With all the debate today, in 2007, about how Democrats in Congress under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should wage their fight against George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq — and at what point principle must stand before politics — Senator Norris and his 1917 stand lays down a good marker.
In January 1917, just two months after having won reelection to the White House on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson already was pushing the country to intervene in the stalemated European contest that already had cost millions of lives since 1914. War fever swept the country, fanned by the recently-released Zimmerman telegram (in which a German diplomat allegedly promised Mexico return of Texas and California in return for its helping it launch attacks against the US) and German submarine warfare on the high seas. President Wilson that month tried to turn the heat up another notch by insisting that Congress pass the Armed Ship Bill, authorizing him to arm American merchant vessels carrying armaments to England, and the House passed it within days on a vote of 403 to 13. Anyone who opposed this measure was labelled a coward, a traitor, or unAmerican.
But Norris smelled a rat. Norris in 1917 was a freshman Senator, one-time school teacher and small-town lawyer old enough to have lost an older brother in the Civil War. To Norris, armed American ships meant provoking the Germans into an incident that could spark war without any sober debate, and he bristled at the broad grants of Presidential authority in the Bill’s small print. Behind it, Norris suspected the hand of American financiers and munitions makers who had banked heavily on the Allied side in the war and now saw their investments at risk. And Norris was not willing to shed American blood to bail out corporations.
So Norris and a small band of like-minded Senators, including Wisconsin’s Progressive Robert LaFollette, launched a filibuster to kill the Armed Ship Bill. Their strategy was to use the Senate calendar and stall a final vote until noon on March 4, 1917 — Inauguration Day — when the Senate would adjourn sine die.
Norris won. The filibuster worked. But there was bloody hell to pay for it. The country screamed treason, stupidity, and arrogance. President Wilson — who would prove himself no friend of free speech during the War — led the verbal assaults. The fact is, most Nebraskans, most Americans, even most Progressives disagreed stridently with Norris. Even JKF, writing his book decades leter, felt the need to distance himself from Norris’s position: “It is not now important whether Norris was right or wrong,” he wrote. “What is now important is the courage he displayed in support of his convictions.”
Norris, stunned by the outcry, felt compelled to ask the Governor to a call a special recall election to allow Nebraskans the chance to vote him out of office. At the same time, he went home and called a town hall meeting in Omaha to confront critics. Over three thousand people came and Norris could not find a single friend to share the stage with him. Alone, he stood in front of the mob and said simply “I have come to speak the truth.” Then he went on: “Even though you say I am wrong…, has the time come when we can’t express our opinions in the Senate, where we were sent to debate such questions, without being branded by the moneyed interests as traitors?”
Norris didn’t change any minds about the War, but he won the crowd’s respect. Te Governor felt no need for a recall election, and Norris went on to serve many more years in the US Senate. Despite Norris’s victory against the Armed Ship Bill, President Wilson quickly asserted executive power to arm US vessels without Congress’s permission, and within a few months the country had entered a European bloodbath whose merits even today remain a matter of debate. Wilson called it a struggle “to make the world safe for democracy,” but World War I’s more immediate fruits were 16 million dead, millions more wounded or displaced, a peace treaty rejected in the US, and the planting of seeds for even more bloodshed 20 years later in World War II.
Now, fast forward to today, September 2007, as Washington, D.C. braces for what promises to be a grueling showdown over the future of America’s role in Iraq — with President Bush showing every sign of intending to stick to his surge-based war plan at least long enough to pass it off to a next president in 2009, and Congressional Democrats in apparent disarray over how to confront him. Where is the George Norris of 2007? Can anyone on Capitol Hill claim to be living up to the standard of courage, skill, and integrity he set in fighting Woodrow Wilson’s war plans in 1917? I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question. The threat to our country today is as great as it was in 1917, the issues as complex, and the need to cut through double talk on all sides just as urgent.
I hope the roster will be long. JFK published his original edition of Profiles in Courage fifty years ago, in 1955. Perhaps a next edition will include a few names of current members of Congress with the vision and tenacity to lead in confronting today’s morass, waiting to make their marks in during the struggles over the next few weeks.
That, at least, is my hope, sitting here at Cape Hatteras on this sunny Labor Day weekend, sipping my cup of coffee, looking out over the sand dunes toward the beach beyond.
Thanks for your patience in reading through this long post. All the best. –KenA