A Nebraska Senator Opposes US Entry into the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress to declare war on Germany. When the vote was taken two days later, eighty-two senators voted for the war, while only six senators openly opposed it. One of the six was Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who believed that since both the United Kingdom and Germany had violated the neutrality of the United States, the declaration of war was unjustified. Norris voiced the opinion of many who opposed the war, arguing that in addition to the possible Allied loss of the war, the financial investment made by the United States in the form of massive loans and weapon sales would also be lost. Norris felt that US soldiers were being used as a form of insurance to protect the investments of wealthy bankers and businessmen.

Summary Overview

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress to declare war on Germany. When the vote was taken two days later, eighty-two senators voted for the war, while only six senators openly opposed it. One of the six was Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who believed that since both the United Kingdom and Germany had violated the neutrality of the United States, the declaration of war was unjustified. Norris voiced the opinion of many who opposed the war, arguing that in addition to the possible Allied loss of the war, the financial investment made by the United States in the form of massive loans and weapon sales would also be lost. Norris felt that US soldiers were being used as a form of insurance to protect the investments of wealthy bankers and businessmen.

Defining Moment

Relations between the United States and Germany, which had deteriorated sharply following the German attack on the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, became even more fraught in the first months of 1917, during which Germany openly violated its pledge to halt unrestricted submarine warfare and made a secret attempt to bring Mexico into the war on the German side. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson requested that Congress approve a declaration of war against Germany. Within the week, war was declared by both houses of Congress.

Though the majority of US senators, eighty-two in all, ultimately voted in favor of the US entry into war, there was spirited opposition from a few senators. In the House of Representatives, fifty representatives voted against the war, while more than three hundred were in favor. Many opponents of the war felt that both sides had violated the neutrality of the United States by declaring war zones in international waters. Opponents also felt that fighting in Europe was not in the best interest of the United States and that any investment lost if the Allies lost the war would be far less than the cost of war itself. There was certainly money to be made by going to war, and those opposed to the war argued that financiers and businessmen seemed to have too much influence over the government. With the Civil War and its terrible human cost still in living memory for some, war itself was, at times, considered a moral wrong. The killing, by German forces, of unarmed civilians in Belgium as well as at sea was used to bolster the argument for war, but those opposed argued that atrocities had been committed on both sides, and there was no moral imperative to fight Germany. Norris and others argued that the highest price was paid by ordinary citizens in times of war and that the nation was being led into war by schemes and trickery.

Despite these objections, the Senate debate of April 4 was openly pro-war, as were most of the national newspapers. In addition to Norris, Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette was another strong voice in opposition to the war, but it was Norris’s statement that the dollar sign should be added to the US flag if the nation went to war that brought the debate to a head, with other senators accusing him of being dangerously close to treason.

Following the United States’ entry into World War I, the government moved quickly to quash open opposition to the war. The Espionage Act of 1917 contained provisions that could lead to the prosecution and imprisonment of those who openly opposed the war effort, and thousands of anti-war activists were prosecuted because of this. The Sedition Act of 1918 was even more restrictive, making anti-war speech a criminal offense. Some activists were drafted directly into the Army and then court-martialed, resulting in harsh sentences. Some were accused of being spies. Many foreign-born anti-war activists were deported, while some prominent anti-war leaders who had been born in the United States lost their citizenship. Norris, however, continued to be popular with his constituency and remained in the Senate until 1943.

Author Biography

George William Norris was born in 1861 in Ohio. After graduating with a law degree in 1883, Norris moved to Nebraska to open a legal practice. In 1902, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he established a reputation as an independent-minded Republican. He was elected to the Senate in 1912. While in the Senate, Norris became a firm isolationist. He believed that bankers and industrialists had too much influence over foreign policy and were leading the nation into war. Norris was also a lifelong temperance advocate who believed that alcohol was the source of many national problems. He saw himself as an advocate for the common man, particularly small business owners whose livelihoods could be choked out by greedy corporations. Norris served in the Senate until 1943 and died in Nebraska in 1944.

Document Analysis

Norris begins his speech to the Senate by affirming his commitment to do his duty as an American citizen in the cause of the war if it was declared, despite his conviction that it was a “useless and senseless war.” Though he would do all in his power to be “behind our flag,” Norris objected to nearly every aspect of the reasoning behind the entry into war, primarily because he saw no compelling reason for the United States to involve itself in a foreign conflict. To Norris, the war was “unholy and unrighteous,” and US involvement in it did not make sense, given years of hard-fought effort to remain neutral. The most strident case to be made in favor of the war was that Germany, by waging unrestricted submarine warfare, had violated US neutrality. Norris argues that both Germany and Britain had violated neutral nations’ rights since the beginning of the war, flouting “existing international law.” In fact, Britain had been the first to declare illegal war zones, ignoring US protests. When Germany did the same, it offered a greater likelihood of endangering American lives, since Americans were much more likely to be involved in travel or trade with Britain, but the principle, to Norris, was the same.

Norris also addresses the other argument being made in favor of war with Germany–the atrocities committed against civilians. At the outbreak of war, the world had been shocked by the German Army’s treatment of the citizens of Belgium, who were killed by the thousands to prevent opposition to Germany’s push into France. In 1915, the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,200 people, further reinforced the negative perception of Germany among Americans. However, atrocities had been committed on both sides, Norris argues, and a natural, national sympathy toward Britain had led the United States away from true neutrality long before. From the first moment that the United States respected the British naval war zone but ignored the German one, the nation had ceased to be truly neutral.

Perhaps the most controversial argument made by Norris concerns his conviction that the war was being promoted not for the sake of the United States and its Allies but by private companies who wanted American citizens to offer up their lives to guard their commercial interests. The result would be the sacrifice of Americans in a war that was to Norris “the greatest holocaust that the world has ever known.”

Essential Themes

In his speech, Norris makes an impassioned plea for the United States to stay out of the war. The primary themes of this speech are the continued neutrality and isolationism that he advocates and his conviction that entry into the war was being sold to Americans under false pretenses. The war was not only unjustified, based on his objections to the reasons given, but also a plot to make money for financiers and industrialists. Norris represented the portion of Americans who had serious misgivings about joining a European war and believed that the United States should have maintained “the strictest neutrality” and enforced adherence to international law on all sides from the beginning. Norris’s opinion was not a popular one and did not prevent the United States from entering the war. At the end of the day on which he delivered his speech, the Senate voted to go to war, but his essential objections continued to be voiced by activists throughout World War I.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Hallac, Joanna. “April 1917, the Great War, and Congress.” US Capitol Historical Society. US CHS, 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
  • Hernon, Joseph Martin. Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789–1990. Armonk: Sharpe, 1998. Print.
  • Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971. Print.
  • “Milestones: 1914–1920: American Entry into World War I, 1917.” Office of the Historian. US Department of State, 3. Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
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