Author's note: This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the recent Rockford Institute conference on "The American Midwest." It is relevant, here, as a lesson in how modern progressives (who have lost their ideological bearings to such an extent that they are now signing on the interventionist wars waged by neo-Wilsonian liberals) can reclaim their ideological heritage and regain their bearings in the modern world. This column, then, is an open letter to my readers on the Left, who will hopefully learn from Wheeler's example.
There are two possible approaches to the subject of analyzing the populist and progressive movements in the United States, and I am going to describe the road not taken, right off the bat, so as to underscore my thesis: that there really is (or was) no such thing as a populist or progressive movement, or even a coherent ideology that either term might describe, but only a tendency, in effect¸ a spirit that seems, somehow, inextricably linked to the American Midwest, and, I would claim, practically everything West of the Mississippi. The populist or progressive spirit, in this sense, is a certain orneriness, a contrarian spirit that revels in its independence and willingness to stand up for high principle.
This is a personality trait, not an ideological principle, so you can see the virtual impossibility of describing the progressive "movement" that arose at the tail end of the 19th century in anything but the broadest brush strokes. While certain themes abound distrust of big business, hostility to banks, a belief in such populist panaceas as public power and "free silver," a Jeffersonian concept of local control and a regionalism that offended the super-centralism of Eastern liberals and socialist technocrats the populist and progressive tendencies in American politics were in no sense a unified movement, or a party, even though several different parties arose to claim these mantles. None of these parties, however, achieved any kind of real national presence: such success as they did achieve was on a strictly local level, such as the Farmer-Labor movement in the Northwest, and the Non-Partisan League in the American Midwest.
The broad-brushstrokes approach is more appropriate to a book, or to some university professor who has had years to perfect the condensation of my theme: that progressivism was a transitional movement, the seedbed that nurtured the Old Right and the conservative movement of today. But for my own purposes here and as a perfect illustration of the idea that populism is a personality trait rather than an ideology it is better to focus on one individual as an exemplar of this spirit. I have chosen Burton K. Wheeler, a Montana Democrat, who served in the US Senate from 1923 to 1946, for a number of reasons that ought to become apparent as we delve into his career. But, first of all, it is the personality that comes through, all these years later, in the pages of his excellent and very entertaining autobiography, Yankee from the West, that epitomizes the old progressive spirit.
He was, indeed, a Yankee from the West, born and bred in Hudson, Massachusetts, his paternal grandfather among the settlers who founded the Massachusetts town of Concord, and Wheeler recalls his Eastern youth it as if it were "etched in a whole gallery of Currier & Ives prints." His maternal grandfather, Abe Tyler, was a farmer and New England autodidact of a certain familiar type, whose orations at town hall meetings thrilled the young Wheeler and inspired in him a sympathy for unorthodox ideas. The beginning of Wheeler's political evolution is recorded, by him, as an early infatuation with the radical economic gospel of William Jennings Bryan, and a natural affinity for the low tariff-free trade views of Western farmers. This last, Wheeler confides, "disgusted" his brothers. "They pointed out how Massachusetts industry would suffer under free trade," but Wheeler, it seems, had developed a Midwestern frame of mind even before he went West.
Working his way through the University of Michigan Law School, he took a job as a traveling book salesman, roving throughout the Midwest hawking Dr. Chase's Receipt Book, which supplied the farming family with advice on how to deal with the everyday hazards of farming life, including "Suffocation from Hanging." In his travels he met the woman who was to become his wife, Lulu Wheeler, and, having graduated from law school, he was faced with the question that every youth faces at such a propitious time: what now? For Wheeler, the thought of going back East seemed stultifying. He had heard stories of the "wild West" and wanted to find out for himself. He took off on his own, looking for work in lawyers' offices from Los Angles to Portland, Tuscon, and Salt Lake City.
On October 15, 1905, he stepped off a train at the Northern Pacific depot in Butte, Montana, thinking that he had seen more of the West than Lewis and Clarke, but wondering if perhaps his luck had run out. After looking up every lawyer in town, and with only one offer that he decided to turn down he decided to go up to Spokane, Washington, on the grounds that he had never been there. He checked out of his rooming house, and started toward the train station, when he passed a saloon. Standing outside were two genial men, dressed like respectable citizens and, as Wheeler described them, "oozing with geniality." Before he knew it, he was inside the saloon, and deep into a poker game. A friendly game of cards turned out to be a complete loss for young Wheeler: inside of a few hours, not only was the train long gone but so were his savings. Now, he had no choice but to stay in Butte a quirk of Fate that would have a major impact not only on the course of his own career, but on the developing politics of the state of Montana.
Butte was a boom town, smack dab in the middle of bare-assed mountains, the countryside denuded for fifty miles around; it was a jumble of soot-stained buildings, crisscrossed wires, and mountains of slag. The fire of the smelter lit up the sky, day and night, and the air was sulfuric: it was like the lowest pit of Hell, thought Lulu Wheeler, when she first set eyes on it, and she promptly burst into tears but later came to love it. It was a land of extremes: not only an extreme physical environment, but also extremes of wealth and poverty. The Company, as they called the Anaconda Copper Company, dominated not only the town but the state: a gigantic smokestack, said to be the largest on earth, dominated the skyline, belching smoke and hellfire. In its shadow the workers rose each morning and descended into the mines, more than two thousand miles tunneling the Butte mountains. An average of one miner a day was killed or seriously injured: and the survivors were prone to "miner's con," a disease of the lung that struck down many more in the long term.
As a diversion, they sought out any and every sort of entertainment when the day's work was done: Butte was the scene of more bars than the Barbary Coast, with such colorful establishments as The Alley Cat, Bucket of Blood, the Cesspool, the Graveyard, and Pay Day beckoning the thirsty miner is search of a good time. It was a man's town, full of Cornish and Welsh miners, and later the Irish; it was also full of confidence men, prostitutes, and adventurers who sought their fortunes in the state's great mineral wealth, battling not only Mother Nature to plunder her hidden treasures, but also fighting each other, and the politics of the state revolved around the feuds of the copper kings. They used the state and local governments, just as their employees used crowbars and dynamite, as weapons in the struggle over disputed mines.
By 1905, when Burt Wheeler was first elected to the state legislature, these battles had been largely resolved in favor of "The Company" and, in Montana in those days, there was no need to ask "which company?" The Anaconda Copper Company not only owned most of the state of Montana, but it owned both major political parties, the state legislature, the governor, and local officials down to the county level. The Company was used to getting its way, and wasn't shy about paying off its friends and potential enemies: but they soon discovered, to their great consternation, that Wheeler couldn't be bribed. Wheeler became a champion of the common folk of Montana, the miners who took their lives in their hands every day when they went down into those great pits, the domain of the underworld, and were lucky to come out unscathed. He managed to pass a fair amount of legislation protecting workers' rights, giving workers the benefit of a doubt in personal injury cases but not without furious opposition from The Company.
Wheeler's political star rose on a wave of left-populist sentiment symbolized by the electoral sweep that the Socialist Party made in Butte's 1911 city elections, where they elected their candidate for mayor along with a majority on the city council. The new mayor was inaugurated on a platform that he would close all dance halls in the red light district, ban the sale of alcohol in "any place where there is traffic between the sexes," and regulate the prostitution business so that the girls would get regular checkups. The $10 license collected by the city from practitioners of the world's oldest profession was promptly abolished, as it was considered a source of graft on the part of the police.
This was hardly the socialism of Marx and Lenin. Instead, it was more like the moralism of Carrie Nation mixed with the suffragette radicalism of Jeanette Rankin. Rankin, a Montana Republican, was the first woman ever elected to Congress, and also a staunch opponent of World War I, one of 49 members of Congress to vote against entering the European maelstrom. The war had some pretty fearsome consequences in Montana: you wouldn't think that landlocked Montana would worry much about a possible German invasion, but stories of German spies in the state were common, and there was a great to-do about a possible attack from German aircraft. There were all kinds of sightings of the airborne Hun, who were said to be dropping to earth in balloons, and if the newspapers of the time are to be believed the hills of Montana were crawling with the Kaiser's legions. The immigrant miners were caught up in this hysteria, much of it based on ethnicity, and the Germans and Irish came under particular scrutiny, on account of their alleged pro-German sympathies. Union leaders were accused of sabotaging the war effort. The Montana Council of Defense, a group appointed by the Company-owned governor, assumed almost total power in the state in the name of winning the war, of course.
Wheeler had by this time been sidelined by The Company in state politics, and, with the help of the liberal faction of the Democratic party, managed to get himself appointed state district attorney on the resignation of the incumbent. Wheeler, who had defended union organizers from the depredations of The Company, now felt called on to defend the Non Partisan League organizer who was beaten and driven out of town by a pro-war mob: he searched (in vain) for the murderers who dragged Frank Little, an IWW organizer who spoke out against the war, from his bed and hanged him from a railroad trestle in Butte. More than 2500 mourners turned his funeral procession into an antiwar protest. When the editor of the Butte Bulletin, Bill Dunn, thundered that "every man, woman and child knows that Company agents perpetrated this foulest of all crimes," he was accused to sedition. But Wheeler refused to prosecute him, just as he refused to prosecute all the other dissidents whose only crime was to take the US Constitution seriously.
The governor and his Council of Defense demanded that Wheeler crack down: Montana, they whined, had become a hotbed of sedition and high treason, and it was all his fault. Wheeler replied that free speech was no crime. This, and the antiwar views of his wife, Lulu, caused him no end of trouble. When Lulu Wheeler was approached and asked to take the wheatless, sugarless pledge a conservation measure designed to help the war effort she steadfastly refused, citing her friend Jeanette Rankin's opinion that one ought not to deny her children wheat or sugar as long as it was still being used to make whiskey. This outraged the town gossips and local super-patriots, who soon spread the canard that the Wheelers were pro-German.
The Council of Defense went on the warpath, and the newspapers joined in, demanding his resignation. Wheeler's life was threatened. His friends crossed the street to avoid him. While his wife stood by his side, and his good friend, Senator Thomas Walsh, offered to reappoint him despite the tremendous political pressure to dump him, Wheeler resigned, and returned to the practice of law. The Company, it seemed, had beaten him but, as it turned out, their victory was only temporary. Wheeler was soon up and running for office, this time for governor: he was determined to break Anaconda's death-grip on Montana politics.
Montana's Company-controlled press went ballistic. They called him "Bolshevik Burt," and accused of everything from treason to advocating "the nationalization of women" (whatever that was supposed to mean!). Posters appeared all over the state showing a hand dripping with blood, captioned: "Don't let this happen to Montana!" Prominent Democrats, such as Senator Henry Myers, urged a yes vote for the national Democratic ticket, but urged his fellows to resist the takeover of the state party by Wheeler and his band of nonpartisan reformers.
In Dillon, south of Butte, Wheeler was refused the use of a hall to give a campaign speech. When he used a ranch outside of town as an alternative site, the meeting was visited by a band of vigilantes who grabbed him and made every attempt to drag him away, saying they were going to lynch him on the spot. He managed to escape, however, taking refuge in an old boxcar that was in use as a railroad depot. Wheeler was rescued by a ranch-hand, who declared that he was ready to die for free speech: he and Wheeler spent the night in the boxcar, until the sheriff could arrive and escort Wheeler to safer terrain. After that, they called him "Boxcar Burt" and that wasn't the last time in the course of the campaign that his life was in danger.
For all the red-baiting hysteria, however, Wheeler and his supporters in the Nonpartisan League were little more than good government reformers. Wheeler's slogan, during his race for governor, was "If elected, I will not put Anaconda out of business, but I will put it out of politics." The slogan of the NPL candidates was: "We are opposed to private ownership of public officials" hardly a revolutionary call to overthrow the capitalist state. The Company, on the other hand, had used the alleged threat of sedition and "anarchy" to impose martial law on the state and crush all opposition: Anaconda's idea of "laissez-faire" capitalism was that The Company should be left alone to control not only the economy but the state government.
Wheeler's defeat in this election meant that they would retain control for just a little while longer: Boxcar Burt was down, but not out. His friends and supporters in the Nonpartisan League urged him to run for the US Senate in the 1922 elections, and, after a hard-fought campaign, he was elected by a large margin, and immediately joined the progressive caucus of the next Congress. When he arrived in Washington, he addressed the national Council of Progressives, some 800 delegates, and spoke not only about the concerns of farmers freight rates were too high, boxcars too dear but also hailed the call of the conference to release the free speech prisoners who were still imprisoned as a result of the recent war hysteria. In doing so, he pointed out that he was acting as "a true conservative" would, explaining that we needed to return to the original letter and spirit of the Constitution "from which we have wandered in recent times."
Right off the bat, Wheeler's career in the Senate was marked by a brashness that was in marked contrast to the complacent collegiality of that august body. His first major speech was a rip-roaring attack on the Attorney General, Harry M. Daugherty, for protecting the profiteers of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. Here was an outfit with the rather unattractive moniker of the "Mammoth Oil Company" bribing the secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, who had been a Republican Senator representing New Mexico, to turn over public lands for private profit. Great tracts of Midwestern and California land had been bought up by the federal government in the name of "conservation" but these were leased out secretly by the Department of the Interior to those "entrepreneurs" who were generous with their "loans." Secretary Fall raked in the cash, as did several others in the Harding administration, and the progressives, when the scandal was exposed, were up in arms, with Walsh, Wheeler, LaFollette, and a phalanx of Midwestern progressives taking the lead.
The investigations of the Teapot Dome scandal led to a vicious reprisal from the Attorney General's office, which indicted Wheeler on the trumped-up charge of unlawfully using his influence to obtain oil and gas leases for one of his supporters. Long before Richard Nixon drew up lists of his enemies and sicced the FBI on them, Wheeler was targeted by those same federal agents, who had been assigned by their Republican paymasters to travel to Montana and dig up dirt on those two troublemakers, Wheeler and Walsh.
The progressives won a moral and a political victory in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal, in which the power of certain private interests were exposed. They also shook up the political landscape to such an extent that they threatened the two-party system. While the Republicans renominated Coolidge, the Democrats ignored Wheeler's forewarning of a progressive revolt and put up Morgan lawyer John W. Davis. Wheeler repudiated the national Democrats, and the progressives walked out of the party, and put up their own ticket, with Robert M. La Follette as the candidate of the newly-formed Independent Progressive Party. Wheeler was drafted to run for Vice President, but initially he refused the new party's entreaties. He didn't think he had the national stature, and had never ventured into such alien lands as New York, Boston, or Chicago, where the audiences were a far cry from the folks back home in Montana.
It was at this point that Wheeler received word that a second indictment against him was imminent, and that the Justice Department lawyers were readying the charges but wouldn't release them if he decided against accepting La Follette's offer. The progressive movement, although strong in the Democratic party, was even more militant and pervasive in the Republican party, especially out West, and the Republicans were convinced that a La Follette-Wheeler ticket would hurt them more than it would the Democrats. Wheeler was so enraged by this threat that, immediately upon receiving it, he told La Follette that he had changed his mind: he would run after all.
During that campaign, both Wheeler and La Follette offered up an array of nostrums public power, government control of vast tracts of wilderness land as a cure for the all-pervasive corruption of national politics. The government, it seemed, was for sale to the highest bidder, and the leitmotif of the progressives in congress and on the national scene was that they were shocked shocked! that such unseemly behavior was even possible. It never occurred to them that the instruments designed to "protect" the consumers from monopolism, and the public weal from theft, had been created and designed by the very same interests they were supposed to regulate. There was something supremely naïve about this strain of American progressivism as exemplified by Wheeler and La Follette, at least at this stage in its development; but Wheeler proved far less of a Midwestern naïf when it came to foreign affairs.
At an election event in San Francisco, a man rose to announce that, as a captain in the British army, he was very much interested to hear Wheeler's opinion of La Follette's antiwar stance. After La Follette voted against our entry into World War I on the grounds that it served only the Morgan interests and the international bankers, the Wisconsin state legislature had passed a resolution practically accusing their own Senator of being little more than an agent of the Kaiser. Wheeler prefaced his reply by averring that "we have had too much British interest in our national affairs," and declared that he had no apology to make for La Follette's antiwar stance. The American people, in electing Wilson, had done so on account of his lying boast: "He kept us out of war." Besides, said Wheeler, he wasn't campaigning for the votes of English, Japanese, or any other foreign nationals, "but just Americans who believed in America." Wheeler reports in his memoir that "this answer met with such wild cheering that I used the story again at an evening meeting and any other place I could figure out a way to drag it in."
When all the votes were in, La-Follette/Wheeler had polled a little under five million votes, carrying Wisconsin, but running ahead of Davis in 12 states, all of them out West. In California, they garnered 33 percent to Davis's 8 percent, and in Montana the Independent Progressives achieved 39 percent of the vote, with Coolidge's 42.5 percent barely edging them out.
Wheeler returned to the Democratic party, but he always emphasized the meaninglessness of party labels or, indeed, political-ideological labels of any kind and took up the cudgels on behalf of a number of "liberal" causes, such as the repeal of Prohibition, and especially the fight against the Smoot-Hawley tariff. In this fight Wheeler was the tribune of his agrarian constituents, who had to sell in a free market and buy in a protected market. Wheeler and his fellow "sons of the wild jackass" as Senator George H. Moses, Republican of New Hampshire characterized the progressive free traders of both parties saw themselves as the defenders of ordinary folk against the aristocrats of corporate privilege. Just as Wheeler had stood up to The Company in its demands for special privileges and subsidies from the state government back home in Montana, so he opposed the machinations of the Eastern manufacturers and the various investment banking institutions to enrich themselves at the expense of consumers.
Embedded in the tariff question were all kinds of other issues: regional, economic, and even moral. Senator Smoot was determined to keep in his tariff bill provisions that kept supposedly obscene written materials out of the country on the grounds that they might fatally subvert the nation's morals. Wheeler and progressives of both parties moved to strike the morals provision, whereupon Smoot proposed to read to the Senate the juiciest passages from D. H. Lawrence's latest novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Naturally, the Senators would have to meet in secret session, in order to preserve the moral tone of the nation. The Senate majority, more confident than Smoot that the country would survive the assault on its morals, rejected the idea of secrecy, and invited the Senator to go ahead with his proposed public reading. Smoot showed up on the Senate floor with an armful of naughty volumes. "The reading of these books," he intoned, "would so disgust senators that they would never dream of agreeing to the amendment" that would abolish the morals provision of the tariff law. "You need only read a page or two to know how damnable they are." One after the other, the members of the Senate went up to Smoot's desk to receive the forbidden volumes: the worst (or is that best?) passages had been helpfully bookmarked by the Senator and his aides. The galleries tittered as it became apparent that they were reading more than a page or two. Wheeler and his progressive allies mocked Smoot for having made Lady Chatterly's Lover into a classic, but all their sarcasm, no matter how withering, failed to carry the day. As Wheeler sardonically notes in his memoir, "It was nearly thirty years before the customs bureau felt the American public was mature enough to have Lady Chatterley's Lover imported."
Wheeler was one of the first Democrats to come out for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential bid in April of 1930, in a speech at the Democratic party's Jefferson Day dinner and was also one of the first to turn against him. While Roosevelt made all the right liberal-progressive noises, and talked about and seemed to genuinely empathize with the plight of the ordinary American in his famous fireside chats, his sort of progressivism was neither populist nor was it truly American, at least not in the sense that Wheeler and his fellow sons of the wild jackass understood it. It took a while for the progressives of both parties to wake up to the danger posed by FDR, but when they did they were galvanized, and none more so than Burton K. Wheeler.
The debate over the National Recovery Act was the first real division between the formerly solid pro-New Deal progressives and the President. Whereas the old progressive goal of legislation had been to foster competition within a capitalist framework, to protect the medium-to-small businessmen and the farmers from monopolist predators, the apparent aim of the NRA was to create giant cartels and stifle competition. Wheeler denounced the act as unworkable and undemocratic and saw in it the first inklings of a dangerous trend in the Administration, a lust for centralized power.
Much was made by FDR of the apparent antipathy Mrs. Wheeler had for him personally: he called her the "Lady MacBeth" behind the Senator, who influenced him to oppose the administration. There is some truth to this, but the antipathy was not so much personal as it was ideological. The Wheelers' daughter, Elizabeth Wheeler Colman, tells the story of how, upon passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, secretary of agriculture and noted fellow traveler Henry A. Wallace presented them with two apple trees that he had hybridized. Wheeler-Colman writes;
"They grew beautifully, but bore no fruit. Mother thought that they symbolized the philosophy behind AAA."
Here, after all, was a government agency that was authorized to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers to slaughter animals, throw out milk, and refrain from planting crops. Wheeler, always on the lookout for corporate welfare schemes, couldn't help but notice that one sugar company alone received over a million dollars to keep its sugar off the market. Opposition to government largesse was hardly a new position for Wheeler: he had opposed Hoover's prelude to the New Deal, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which had the power to extend all sorts of government-backed credits to the railroads, banks, and insurance companies. Not all progressives saw it that way, however: young Bob La Follette had been scared into supporting the RFC because, as he confided to Wheeler, he was deathly afraid of a crash. "Yes," said Wheeler, "and the sooner it's over the better. This will only prolong the depression." But the economy was not allowed to shake out the massive malinvestment that had been caused by bank credit expansion: instead, the house of cards was built higher and higher until the collapse, when it finally came, was catastrophic.
These were intimations of the progressive revolt against the New Deal, but in the main, at least in the beginning, the Western bloc supported FDR as long as they thought he was just trying to get the country back on track. There was one "emergency" measure, however, that they couldn't and wouldn't support, one the implications of which were ominous to those who still believed in constitutional government, and that was the court-packing scheme. When the NRA and the AAA were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the President retaliated in the only way he knew how by purging them. His purpose was not even half concealed beneath the pretense of proposing a sweeping "reorganization" of the federal judiciary, which, among other things, involved granting himself the power to appoint a new Supreme Court justice for every member of the court who refused to retire after the age of seventy. With six at that age or over, and with no sign of a single one of them retiring, Roosevelt would get to pack the court with at least six more justices. It was a prescription for a presidential dictatorship, and Wheeler was absolutely appalled. While the President tried mightily to win him over, Wheeler was determined to oppose him: indeed, Wheeler led the opposition, and this was really the beginning of his political transformation.
For up until the court-packing scheme was introduced in Congress, Wheeler and his fellow progressives had been reliable allies of the President. Just as long as the New Deal was seen as an emergency measure to deal with an unnatural catastrophe, a jobs-making program to alleviate the suffering of ordinary folk, a kind of insurance against the economic royalists taking advantage of the crisis to extend and cement their control of industry, the progressives were for it. But as soon as it became apparent that FDR and his Brain Trust were out for pure power, and that they reveled in and even extended the economic downturn precisely because it empowered them, men like Wheeler began to turn against the administration.
Court historians endlessly quote the famous words of the President's plea to pass the court-packing scheme: "Here is one third of a nation ill nourished, ill clad, ill housed now!" he thundered, in that voice rich with resonance, "if we keep faith with those who had faith in us, if we would make democracy succeed I say we must act now!" It was, thought Wheeler, "the most demagogic speech [he] had ever heard," as he puts it in his memoir, and what was frightening was that it was coming from the President of the United States instead of some strutting European would-be Caesar.
Wheeler's opposition and that of the other congressional progressives was a fatal blow to the President's ambition: for here he was inveighing against the "nine old men" as the virtual embodiments of economic royalism, and the avowed enemies of plutocracy were siding with the conservatives! Roosevelt sent his emissary, Tommy Corcoran, to negotiate a deal, but Wheeler would have no truck with it. The President, said Corcoran, "doesn't care about those Tories being against it, but he doesn't want you to be against it."
The canny FDR knew that he couldn't win without progressive support. While he could always attack the conservatives as lackeys of Wall Street, and characterize their opposition to his dictatorship as the self-interested defensiveness of the Haves against the Have-nots, such a tactic wouldn't work when it came to Wheeler. The President thought he could lull Wheeler into his camp, or at least neutralize him, by promising the Montana Senator a strong voice in picking the six new Supreme Court justices. But even if Wheeler believed this might happen, he wasn't buying it. What the President failed to understand was that progressivism in the Western sense was not just another form of ideological leftism, but a different species altogether from its Eastern cousins. They had stood up against The Company's monopolization of economic and political power: would the progressives sit still while their fellow "liberals" overthrew the Constitution and effected a similar coup? In his reply to the President's "ill-nourished, ill-clad, ill-housed" demagoguery, Wheeler clearly stated the libertarian roots of the progressive credo:
"Create now a political Court to echo the ideas of the executive, and you have created a weapon; a weapon which in the hands of another President could well be the instrument of destruction; a weapon that can cut down those guarantees of liberty written into your great doctrine by the blood of your forefathers and that can extinguish your right of liberty of speech, or thought, or action, or of religion; a weapon whose use is only dictated by the conscience of the wielder."
That the President's conscience was not a contingency he could count on was the clear implication of this statement, and as the court-packing fight unfolded this became ever more apparent. Roosevelt and his supporters used every weapon at their disposal including a tremendous propaganda campaign, with every sort of pressure brought to bear on Senators to get them to vote in favor. Even some of Wheeler's own appointees wrote him letters, protesting his opposition to the President's plan. This had the opposite of its intended effect on Wheeler, whose personality was naturally averse to this insult to his incorruptibility, and he redoubled his efforts to striking effect.
For it was Wheeler who really crippled the President's propaganda blitz, and stopped the up-'til-then undefeated FDR dead in his tracks. He went to Justice Louis Brandeis, who recommended that he go see Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes if he wanted any help in the matter such as a public statement. Wheeler balked: he had opposed the appointment of Hughes, but Brandeis himself went to the phone, called up the chief justice, and handed the phone to Wheeler. Soon Wheeler had a statement from the chief justice of the Supreme Court, which he dropped like a bombshell in the congressional hearings on the bill. The sound of the explosion could be heard all over Washington, as the opposition to the court-packing galvanized and carried the day and the vote. When the Judiciary Committee reported unfavorably on the bill, this sentence stood out: "This is a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America." This may be one of Wheeler's lasting achievements: that no one has dared raised such a bill or anything like it ever since.
The completion of the progressives' break with FDR and the New Deal came over the issue of intervention in Europe, and, for Wheeler, this was really the defining moment of his political career, the key to his transformation from someone who considered himself a liberal or a man of the Left into an exemplar of the Old Right. Opposition to imperialism was always a major plank in the progressive platform, but during the economic emergency of the Great Depression and the first hundred days of the Roosevelt administration, the issue of war and peace abroad had taken a back seat to the issue of impending class war on the home front. As war clouds gathered on the European horizon, however, and the New Dealers ran out of peacetime ways to spend themselves out of the Depression, Roosevelt increasingly looked abroad for the solution to his domestic political problems.
Wheeler recalls a conversation between FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in which the latter is sitting there asking: "Franklin, when are you going to do something about unemployment?" The President ignores her, and instead turns his attention to Wheeler. She repeats the question, and still no answer. Finally, after a third inquiry, FDR turned to her and said: "My dear, if I knew I would have told you a long time ago. I'm going to try a little of this and a little of that and see what we come out with." Wheeler, in his memoir, notes that in 1937 he related this story to a White House aide, and was surprised by his comment: "Did it ever occur to you that there is no unemployment in wartime?"
The populist-progressive understanding of war as a business undertaking, one which profited banks, arms manufacturers, and undertakers, was an analysis that was sharpened and honed in the years leading up to our entry into World War II. The militant anti-interventionism of the William Jennings Bryan, Randolph Bourne, Tom Watson, and others was really born in the disillusionment that swept the country in the wake of the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the rejection of the League of Nations. The great war to end all war, famously touted as a struggle to "make the world safe for democracy," had apparently been fought to make the world safe for the spread of European imperialism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Wilsonian dream of peace and universal democracy gave way, in very short order, to the nightmare of Europe in the thrall of totalitarianism.
Wheeler had opposed the policy of intervention, in 1926, when Coolidge sent the Marines into Nicaragua. The "dollar diplomacy" of those years was a ready target for the progressives, who merely saw it as the machinations of The Company transferred to an international setting. Wheeler saw that the leathernecks landed in order to prop up a US-backed government "and thus retain control for some New York bankers of that little country's national bank and railroad." He introduced a resolution calling for the withdrawal of US troops: it failed but his opposition had some influence in getting the administration to come up with an exit strategy. In 1927, he had opposed those who wanted to go to war with Mexico, when a leftist government expropriated American property and took out after the Catholic Church. American Catholics were instantly converted into the vanguard of the War Party, and pressure was brought to bear on Wheeler by some of his constituents. Wheeler, however, took the view that, as he put it, "If we went to war because some country was persecuting a religious group . . . we would be at war with every country in the world sooner or later."
He also spoke out against the British attempt to lure us into protecting Western economic interests in Shanghai, and argued that "England's strong-arm policy in the Orient has failed, and if the US follows the advice of some of our pro-British citizens in the Orient, she will also fail." We could either get out of the way, and let a moderate democratic regime take root in China, or else face the prospect that the country would go Bolshevik. In this he was prescient, as he was on the question of the European war. There, too, the unintended consequences of our actions would produce a boomerang effect, and we would later have cause to regret it. If we had allowed Hitler and Stalin to fight it out, then "one would end in his grave, the other in the hospital, and the United States and the world would have been rid of two menacing tyrants."
This was the crux of the Old Right's foreign policy stance in the prewar years, and it was the natural extension of the old progressive critique of dollar diplomacy, with the added feature of a growing anti-communism. When Wheeler first went to the Senate he took a trip to Russia, and returned thinking that perhaps, at some point, the regime would soften up, and begin to moderate its repressive features. He thought that recognizing the regime might help accomplish this. But he came to realize that Communism was something different altogether, and by the time Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union and American leftists were demanding US intervention to save the "worker's fatherland," Wheeler was completely disabused of this notion that the Soviets could be tamed or even tempered. In 1940, as we teetered on the brink of intervening, Wheeler saw much further than many: "The United States," he said, "will undoubtedly enter the war with Germany and win. But mark my word, within ten years we will be asking Germany to assist the West in controlling Russia."
It was, of course, the Old Right's worst nightmare: in building up the Soviet Union, we were laying the foundations of a cold war that would extend into the 1990s. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wheeler did not give up the fight but kept on the Administration's case, and even lobbied for a negotiated peace. Why, he wanted to know, wasn't the United States making a deal with the anti-Hitler opposition in the German military? These heroic fighters against Nazism on the home front were haughtily dismissed by FDR and the pro-Soviet Harry Hopkins as "Prussian junkers," who had to be swept away along with Hitler. Yet they could have saved millions from dying after the Allied invasion of Europe, by overthrowing Hitler before the Normandy landing and negotiating an end to the war. FDR, however, would not deal with the German underground, and insisted on Germany's unconditional surrender, even against Stalin's advice.
In the postwar period, Wheeler was targeted by the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the labor unions, the Communists, and the big Eastern interests: together they succeeded in unseating him, in 1946, after a smear campaign that even made the one they pulled on Lindbergh look mild in comparison. The Communists went through all the trouble of having an entire book published and widely distributed throughout the state, The Plot Against America: Senator Wheeler and the Forces Behind Him, by David George Kin, which reads as if the author wrote it during the course of a prolonged drinking binge. Indeed, in this work Mr. Kin turned the run-on sentence into a high art-form. According to this screed of unsurpassed shrillness, Wheeler was really a flunkie of The Company all along, and a Nazi too. The crudeness of the prose is matched by the crudeness of the illustrations, which show Wheeler in tow with the Fuehrer and Anaconda. "The workers and farmers and the middle class of American must rally round Russia," Mr. Kin declaimed, and reject "fascists" like Wheeler and Harry Truman. The Saturday Review of Literature called it a classic of the smear technique, and Harper's magazine declared it the worst book of the year.
The Communist-dominated labor unions had turned against him for his antiwar position and his outspoken anti-Russian stance, and in 1946, when he faced formidable opposition in the person of Leif Erickson, a former justice of the state supreme court, he underestimated the number, power, and determination of his numerous enemies. A longtime friend of Wheeler's in the miner's union said to him: "BK, just say something good about Russia. It will soften the union's opposition to you." Wheeler refused. Money from out of state poured into his opponent's coffers, and smears in pamphlet and even book form flooded the state. In the end, Erickson scraped by, 47,828 to 41,912. Wheeler's political career was over. He retired to practice law in Washington, where he died in 1975 at age 92.
So we come to the end of Wheeler's Progress, and find that the spirit of the old progressive remains unaltered and undimmed. Only now, instead of being denounced as "Bolshevik Burt," and depicted as the harbinger of Red Revolution, he was caricatured as quite the opposite: a reactionary opponent of Good King Franklin and very probably a Nazi agent. And all without changing his essential views, although his politics did evolve. Wheeler's progress from the champion of progressivism to the greatest enemy of the New Deal had shorn him of his leftist tinge and his taste for economic nostrums, and left him with a healthy skepticism of all centralized power, whether public or private, and a positive hatred of war. Unlike the ex-Commies and liberal Johnnie-come-lately's of the postwar era, Wheeler did not fall for the Cold War version of interventionism. In his memoir he writes that "the 'preventive war' urged by the 'radical right' recommends itself to me even less than intervention in prior wars." This ornery old progressive, who had stood up against The Company, had shed his left-liberal skin and made a similar stand against the Managerial State this time as an exemplar of the Old Right.
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