Gerald Nye (1892-1971) was a U.S. Senator from North Dakota for 19 years. During his tenure, Nye gained national headlines for his leadership in several Senate investigations, including the Teapot Dome scandal and the inquiry into the business practices of munitions makers during World War I. He was a strong voice for American isolationism and vehemently opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II.
Gerald Prentice Nye was born in Hortonville, Wisconsin, on December 19, 1892, the first of four children born to Irwin Raymond and Phoebe Ella (Prentice) Nye. Nye's mother, always rather frail, died two months before his fourteenth birthday. Two years later, his father remarried, and Nye developed a warm relationship with his stepmother, Annie Semple. It was his father, however, that affected Nye's life most intensely. Soon after Nye's birth, his father, the editor of the weekly newspaper in Hortonville, moved his family to Wittenberg, Wisconsin to become the editor of that town's weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. A devote Republican and a strong supporter of Wisconsin progressive governor Robert M. LaFollette, the senior Nye used his newspaper to support numerous causes and reforms, not the least of which was political corruption. As Wayne S. Cole noted in Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations (1962), "As Gerald grew up he was immersed in the mores and values of the protest and reform movements that enlivened the western political scene during those years. When Gerald later took up the cudgels against big business, Wall Street, and special interests on behalf of the common man and the farmer, he was in a real sense continuing his father's earlier crusades."
Nye attended Wittenberg High School, where he was only an average student, but a leader of many extracurricular activities, including baseball, basketball, football, and the debate team. Graduating with his ten classmates in 1911, Nye planned to attend Marquette University to study dentistry, but financial hardship prevented his enrollment, and he subsequently never attended college. Having learned the newspaper business from his father, Nye became the editor of the Hortonville Weekly Review. Only 18 years old, what he lacked in experience, Nye made up for in enthusiasm and intensity. Campaigning for "clean government" in Hortonville, Nye targeted the local saloons. Although he was fairly successful in creating an anti-saloon movement in the small town of eight hundred, Nye's aggressive and relentless attacks cost him advertising money, printing business, and subscriptions. Compounded by his habit of spending beyond his means, Nye, who had purchased the newspaper in 1912, found himself in debt over $2,500 by September 1914. The following month, with a promise to pay his creditors, Nye closed down the newspaper.
The now-wiser 22-year-old Nye moved to Creston, Iowa, to become editor of the daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer. During the year that he spent in Creston, Nye tackled local, regional, national, and international topics in the eight-page spread. Writing as many as four editorials every day, Nye continued to campaign for temperance and prohibition. He also gave high priorities to the issues surrounding World War I, calling on the country to support President Woodrow Wilson. Considering his own strict isolationist policy before World War II, it was somewhat ironic that in 1915 Nye denounced former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for his isolationist views. Nye left the Plain Dealer to become a circulation manager for the Des Moines Register and Leader. However, he did not like the work, and in May 1916 he moved to Fryburg, North Dakota, as the new owner and editor of The Pioneer, which became the first privately owned newspaper in the state to tender its support to the Nonpartisan League, a newly formed progressive agrarian reform movement. In the same year, he married Anna Margaret Munch. They had three children and later divorced in 1940. After three years, Nye moved to Cooperstown, North Dakota, where he purchased and operated the Griggs County Sentinal-Courier. Continuing to support the Nonpartisan League and agrarian reform, Nye campaigned for LaFollette in his 1924 bid for the presidency as the candidate for the Progressive party. In the same year, Nye made his first step toward becoming a politician, losing a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives.
In 1925 Nye was appointed to the U.S. Senate by North Dakota governor, A.G. Sorlie, to fill a vacancy created by the death of Senator Edwin F. Ladd. One week after being named to the Senate, Nye left for Washington, D.C. It was the first time he had ever traveled farther east than Chicago. Although his credentials were presented on December 7, 1925, Nye did not take his seat in the Senate until January 12, 1926. A controversy arose over his appointment as some questioned the governor's authority to make the appointment. The official issue was that the North Dakota legislature had failed to bestow on the governor the power to make federal appointments. Little more than a technicality, the legal question was overshadowed by political considerations. As a progressive Republican, Nye did not garner the support of the conservative Republican senators who feared Nye would vote with Democrats and weaken the Republic hold on the Senate. After returning from a recess over the holidays, the Senate debated for five days before confirming Nye's appointment by a two-vote margin.
After winning a special election in June 1926 and then the primary and general election of 1926, Nye established himself as a duly elected U.S. senator. He would win reelections in 1932 and 1938, serving for a total of 19 years in the Senate. Youthful in appearance, conscious of his small-town background and lack of education, and slightly awed by his position, 33-year-old Nye, the second youngest senator at the time, looked the part. Nonetheless, little time passed before Nye, handsome, with unquestionable integrity, and the ability to speak powerfully and convincingly, earned the respect of his colleagues. During the first eight years in office, he focused on domestic policy, particularly those issues addressing the midwestern and western farming communities. Believing that the farmer was the backbone of the country, Nye was critical of any special favors or privileges allotted to the big businesses of the East. Although he originally vowed to support the Republican caucus, Nye was publicly critical of numerous conservative Republican policies. He supported numerous New Deal measures proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he vehemently opposed Roosevelt's National Recovery Act, which Nye argued created monopolies and preyed on the masses. He remained a vocal opponent of the National Recovery Act until the Supreme Court eliminated it in 1935. Often aligning himself with progressive Senators Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin and George W. Norris of Nebraska, Nye pushed for agricultural reforms and argued for the adoption of the McNary-Haugen bill, which created governmental price supports for basic crops.
Well-respected by progressives in his home state, Nye began building a national reputation in the 1920s as a skilled conductor of Senate investigations. As chairperson of the Committee on Public Lands and Survey, he presided over the investigation of the Continental Trading Company in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. The investigation revealed that President Warren G. Harding's interior secretary, Albert B. Fall, had leased an oil field valued at $100 million to Harry F. Sinclair of the Mammoth Oil Company without opening the offer to fair, competitive bidding. In return for the privileged lease, a large contribution was made to the Republican National Committee. As a result of Nye's investigation, the government revised the lease and recouped more than $7 million in tax money. Nye also chaired a committee appointed to investigate Senate campaign expenses in 1930. Once again Nye made headlines by exposing corrupt campaigning.
In 1932 questions began to arise within peace societies over the role of munitions companies in World War I. Based on rumors and reports that munitions makers had provoked war scares, opposed peace initiatives, and controlled corrupted public officials, the public began to call for an investigation. With most unwilling to undertake the project, fearing injury to their political careers, Nye was the only Senator who would agree to take on the influential munitions manufacturers. Having long believed in the dangers of big business and considering munitions companies as merchants of death, he felt morally obligated to investigate.
According to John E. Wiltz in In Search of Peace: The Senate Munitions Inquiry, 1934-36 (1963), when Nye agreed to chair the investigating committee, "At that moment, Nye began a new phase of his career. He would earn a reputation as the country's most eloquent isolationist. He would become a leader in the campaign to preserve peace for the United States at almost any cost—to put America first." Having supported the war effort during World War I, Nye, disillusioned with the ability of war to create viable solutions for peace, became one of the country's leading voices of isolationism, lambasting munitions makers and military personnel for attempting to push the United States into another world war.
On April 12, 1934, the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 206, also known as the Nye-Vandenberg Resolution, which directed the U. S. Vice-President to appoint a seven-member council to investigate individuals, associations, and corporations engaged in the manufacturing, distribution, sale, and import or export of munitions. Public interest was aroused, and numerous articles and editorials kept the public's attention throughout the hearings. From the start, Nye anticipated the guilt of the munitions manufacturers. According to Wiltz (1963), just days before the resolution was passed and before any investigation had been organized, Nye told a national radio audience of his feelings while watching a parade of 5,000 marching by the U. S. Capitol the previous week in celebration of Army Day: "Yet, even in that inspiring moment, I could not fully restrain myself and be blind to the fact that those glistening steel helmets, for example, were the profit-returning products of American manufacturers, a product intended to protect those fine heads under the helmets against shrapnel and shells which the same manufacturers had sold to the military departments of other nations which might some day be our foe in war. What madness. What rotten commercialism. Name a more inhumane trade. Was ever a more insane racket conceived in depraved minds or tolerated by an enlightened people?"
In part due to the public dissatisfaction with big business caused by the Great Depression, many in the country believed Nye's assessment. The committee hearings caused a national stir and resulted in sensational headlines. Although the committee could not prove the munitions makers pushed the United States into World War I, they did uncover unsavory connections between the military, munitions makers, and the huge wartime profits of numerous manufacturers and bankers. Although no legislation offered by the investigating committee was adopted, the findings did raise public awareness and interest in keeping the United States out of another war. Subsequently Nye was actively involved in the passage of the neutrality legislation passed in 1935, 1936, and 1937. These laws, in an attempt to avoid the U.S. involvement in another war, made illegal arms sales or loans to nations at war and permitted sale of nonmilitary goods only if the countries at war paid cash and did not transport the goods on American ships. During these years of national exposure as chair of the munitions investigation, Nye was at the peak of his senatorial career, gaining national acclaim for his public speeches denouncing the arms dealers and the need for American isolationism.
By 1939 war was already breaking out across the sea and the United States itself was torn between the desire to help its allies and the desire to stay out of the conflict. When Roosevelt attempted to repeal the neutrality acts, wishing to extend all aid short of war to U.S. allies, Nye became a leading voice opposing the president. In 1940 Nye was appointed to the Senate Foreign Relations committee and became a spokesperson for the newly formed America First Committee, an independent organization that opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. In March 1940, his first marriage ended in divorce, and in December of the same year, Nye married Marguerite Johnson, a schoolteacher.
On December 7, 1941, Nye was speaking before a large America First crowd at a rally in Pittsburgh when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Noninterventionist activities were halted abruptly. Despite his commitment to neutrality, as a patriotic American, Nye called for support of the war effort. After Pearl Harbor, public opinion shifted dramatically and those who opposed U.S. intervention were examined with suspicion. Thus, when Nye, the voice of non-interventionism, ran for reelection in 1944, he lost. After running a consulting business in Washington, D.C. for a time, Nye became the president of Record Engineering. In 1959, he accepted an appointment as the special assistant in charge of housing for the elderly for the Federal Housing Administration. In 1963 he resigned from his job and became a staff member of the Senate Committee on Aging. He retired in 1966 and died in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 1971.
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cole, Wayne S. Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations. University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
Encyclopedia of American Biography. Second edition. Edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Lamar, Howard R., The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977.
Noggle, Burl. Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920s. Louisiana State University Press, 1962.
Wiltz, John E. In Search of Peace: The Senate Munitions Inquiry, 1934-36. Louisiana State University Press, 1963.