By Sen. George Norris
Review by David T. Jones
George Norris was one of the stormy petrels of U.S. politics in the first half of the 20th century. Nominally a Republican, he frequently denounced party positions and aligned himself with Democrats, notably including FDR during the New Deal. Elected to the House of Representatives five times, he was five times a senator, defeated only in 1942, after abandoning the Republicans to run as an independent with Democratic support in 1936. In 1942, then over 80, he ran out of potential supporters in a traditionally Republican state and was electorally retired.
Most notably, however, as we mull over the entrails of World War I with its 100th anniversary in the offing, Norris was prime among the era’s isolationists, being one of only six senators to vote against the U.S. declaration of war in 1917.
In a 2,200 word address to the Senate, responding to President Wilson’s call for a declaration of war, Norris denounced what he characterized as a “useless and senseless…unholy and unrighteous” war that would prove expensive in blood and treasure—debt that would burden us for generations.
In making his case, Norris reviewed the bidding leading the United States to the brink of war: essentially German sinking of U.S. ships. He noted both UK and Germany declared overlapping war zones that, if obeyed, would de facto have prevented neutral shipping normal, unmolested access to ports. Norris argued that these zones violated international law, and the United States had a number of options, including declaring war on both UK and Germany for violating our rights. More realistically (perhaps) he argued we should have embargoed U.S. shipping to the region, claiming that the need to receive U.S. goods would have led both countries to cancel these zones. Or we could have simply declared U.S. shipping could do what it wanted—at its own risk. It was a technical argument, and the results cannot be retroactively applied; submarines (Germany’s only real weapon to enforce the zones) were much less effective than they became during World War II so it is arguable the UK would have continued its prohibitions regardless of German action concerning war zones.
But Norris did not content himself with technical/legal argument. Instead, he entered both fists swinging into flat denunciations of bankers, stockbrokers, and financers whose massive purchases of war bonds could best be protected by engaging the United States in war. He quoted one such proponent to the effect that war would prompt prosperity (and if war wasn’t possible, intense preparations for war would be almost as useful economically). Hence, his conclusion was “the almost unanimous demand of the great combination of wealth â€¦ has a direct financial interest in our participation in the war.”
Norris contrasts “Wall Street and of thousands of men elsewhere who see only dollars” (today’s “one percenters”) but would never deign to share the already well known horrors of the war with those who will suffer war’s consequences. These men are “concealed in their palatial offices … sitting behind mahogany desks.”
We were, in Norris’ rhetorical flourish, “going into war upon the command of gold.” And war hawk sentiment was manufactured by “a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies.”
In some ways, Norris sounds Iraq-Afghanistan contemporary as Americans recoil from “wars-of-choice” with his perorations against wealthy manipulators of foreign policy. Interestingly, he abandoned isolationism when faced with Japanese aggression in China and fully supported U.S. action against fascism.