Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jeannette Rankin and the 1940 Election as a War Referendum

Mary L. Dudziak

I am exploring the history of efforts to amend the constitution to include a requirement for a popular vote before entering a foreign war in one of my chapters in my current book project. One of the arguments I'll make -- previewed this Tuesday at Stanford, where I'm giving the David M. Kennedy Lecture on the United States and the World -- is that sometimes elections have served as war referenda. Here's a snippet, featuring Congressmember Jeannette Rankin of Montana.

The most important moments of democratic engagement over the war powers [for WWI and II] were the elections preceding the war declarations. The elections of 1916 and 1940 were, in essence, referenda on war. Since 1914, there had been efforts to amend the constitution to enable some sort of popular participation in decisions to go to war. But an important moment for the public to register their sentiment was already there: the power to elect not only the Commander in Chief, but also the members of Congress who would vote for or against war.

Nothing more strongly illustrates this point than the success of a Republican candidate in the 1940 election. Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate, was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course. But the State of Montana would send back to the House that year a candidate who had first captured the nation’s attention when, in April of 1917, she cast the first vote ever by a woman in Congress, a vote against the declaration of war with Germany.

Jeannette Rankin had been a suffrage organizer before she ran for political office for the first time in 1916. Her platform included preparedness for coastal defenses, as a way to avoid war. It was her widely publicized vote against war that shaped the course of her political life in later years. Unable to hold her seat in 1918, Rankin would be out of office -- until 1940.

In the interim, she worked for pacifist organizations and lobbied for constitutional reform of the war powers, believing that the people’s voice must be heard through a referendum before the nation went to war. In 1940, she challenged a weak incumbent, running an anti-war campaign. “By voting for me,” she said in a campaign speech, “you can express your opposition to sending your son to foreign lands to fight in a foreign war.”[i] The people of her district could vote against war by voting for Jeannette Rankin.

Elected by a comfortable margin, she predicted that, unlike the flurry of attention she received in 1917, “no one will pay attention to me this time,” since it was no longer unusual for a woman to serve in Congress.[ii]

Once in office, Rankin offered an amendment to the Lend-Lease bill to require specific congressional approval for the president to send American troops abroad. Twice in the spring of 1941, she introduced a resolution condemning any effort “to send the armed forces of the United States to fight in any place outside the Western Hemisphere or insular possessions of the United States.” These efforts were unsuccessful.[iii]

In December 1941, Congressmember Rankin heard the news about Pearl Harbor on the radio. She was anguished as she made her way to the Capital on December 8. She listened along with her colleagues as Roosevelt spoke of “a date which will live in infamy,” and called for a declaration of war. The House and Senate then quickly took up the resolution that “the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared.”[iv] In the Senate, there was no debate, and a swift and unanimous vote.

In the House, a radio station, continuing to broadcast after the president’s speech, in violation of House rules, captured the scene. Because of Rankin’s role as a war dissenter, “all eyes were on her as majority leader John McCormack moved the question.” She “rose to object, but was quickly cut off.” Congressman Martin of Massachusetts held the floor, “yielding to isolationists ready to recant their isolationism.” Rankin again tried to speak, but Speaker Sam Rayburn ignored her. Spectators in the gallery called out for her to sit down. When word came through that the Senate had already voted, House members insisted on moving forward. “They’re calling to shut down any further debate,” the radio announcer said. “A most unusual procedure.”

Standing, her hand raised, Rankin tried once more, and attempted to raise a point of order. Rayburn slammed down the gavel and said, “The roll call cannot be interrupted.” The other 388 members of the House present that day voted yes. Rankin's no vote was met with a chorus of hisses and boos.[v]

Harsh words about “Japanese devils”[vi] could be heard that day, as could Representative Byron’s claim that she would be willing to sacrifice her sons for the war effort.[vii] The House violated its own rules in their effort to silence the one voice in their chamber wishing to question the rush to war.

It is easy for us to question Jeannette Rankin’s judgment, but she was fulfilling her campaign promise, she would later say, the pledge she had made to the mothers and fathers of Montana to keep their sons out of war. The vote came so quickly, as compared with World War I – at 1:10 pm Eastern time, less than 24 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She thought that for something as momentous as war, they should wait until the facts were all in.[viii] There would be later occasions when Americans would wish that their members of Congress had taken the time to investigate. But on December 8, Rankin was widely vilified.

An avalanche of opprobrium fell down upon her immediately. She had to escape to a telephone booth, and a police officer helped her get safely back to her office.

Beneath a mountain hate mail, some, like Roger Baldwin, wrote to say that they admired her courage, and as the nation geared up for war, the writer Lillian Smith said: “that one little vote of yours stands out like a bright star in a dark night.”[ix]

I have more to say about how this fits into the politics of war, but this post is long enough! The short version is that the effort to silence Rankin shows that the events of Dec. 8 were better at mobilizing the country, and potentially at protecting seats in Congress for the former "isolationists", than as an example of interbranch deliberation and decision. The times of robust war politics were during the 1940 election campaign, and during the push and pull over neutrality legislation in the late 30s through 1941.

[i] Norma Smith, JR, 175-76. [Please excuse incomplete citations -- I thought they would be helpful nevertheless.]
[ii] Smith, JR, 177.
[iv] Cong Rec 9520.
[vi] Walter Cronkite, NPR.
[vii] Cong Rec 9521.
[viii] Ted Carlton Harris, “Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, First Woman Elected to Congress” (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1972), 295-96.
[ix] Lillian Smith to JR, December 13, 1941, quoted in Ted Carlton Harris, “Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, First Woman Elected to Congress” (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1972), 297.

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