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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 979

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This is the grave of Gerald Nye.

Born in 1892 in Hortonville, Wisconsin, Nye grew up in a staunchly Populist and Progressive family. He very much imbibed those values, for better and for worse. His father was a huge supporter of the great Wisconsin reformer Robert La Follette. His family was also one that ran newspapers. So as soon as he graduated from high school in 1911, he became the editor of the paper in Hortonville. But he wanted to run a bigger paper and was willing to move to do so. So he ended up in Iowa for awhile and then bought a paper in North Dakota. There, in a land unfit for humans to survive, Nye would make his way.

Like his father, Nye became a newspaperman for the Little Man. Yes, he was very much in that populist tradition. Nye hated banks and capitalists. He also believed that Jews controlled global capital. He was very politically ambitious. He ran for Congress in 1924 as a progressive Republican and ally of La Follette. He did not win. But in 1925, Senator Edwin Ladd died. North Dakota didn’t have a clear way to choose a successor, something I guess they never got around to figuring out after the ratification of the 17th Amendment. The legislature wanted to keep control of it because it was very conservative. But the governor said he had the authority and named Nye. It worked out that Nye got to stay.

In Washington, Nye became a fairly powerful figure. He was seen as a complete yokel by the Washington set. But he was popular at home and was elected to three full terms beginning in 1926. Nye was the kind of guy who was loud, sure of himself, a good speaker, and also suspicious of anyone in power. He did have one major principle–he was effectively a pacifist. He became known for his investigation of the munitions industry during World War I, finding what he believed was all sorts of profiteering, though actual proof was a bit sketchy. He was disgusted by the war machine. But the commission was also shut down after he started attacking Woodrow Wilson for withholding information from Congress while asking for the declaration of war to enter World War I. Supposedly, Carter Glass was so angry about this that he closed the hearing by banging his fist on the table so hard and enough times that he cut himself.

Nye was a lifelong Republican but he hated the plutocratic economics of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury for the Harding, Coolidge, and most of the Hoover administrations. He was part of the committee investigating Teapot Dome and argued for high taxes on the rich. He was OK with the New Deal initially, but turned against it because it fit his general belief that a strong centralized government was a suspicious centralization of power. This was why a lot of Progressives opposed the New Deal.

As the Nazis rose in Europe, Nye basically didn’t care. He wasn’t pro-Nazi exactly but he was as staunch an isolationist as America had, plus having his own anti-Semitic beliefs. To Nye, the global war machine was controlled by Jews who wanted to get Christian nations into wars. He also thought Hollywood was full of Jews (OK) that were using the movies to push America into World War II (huh?). He called for investigations of Hollywood over this. He was a founder of America First, the right-wing organization dedicated to keeping America out of the war and was full of people who were either pro-Nazi or playing footsies with them. He said, in a 1940 speech, that the war was not “worthy of the sacrifice of one American mule, much less one American son.” He was infuriated by the Lend-Lease Program and led the Senate fight against it, though in the end it passed fairly easily. He kept harping on the Jews too, coming out in open support of Charles Lindbergh after the aviator said that Jews were leading the nation toward war. Nye said, “the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war.” Nice guy. On December 7, 1941, Nye found out that Japan had attacked the U.S. just before he was to give a speech at an American First gathering in Pittsburgh. He didn’t quite believe it at first but even when he found out it was true, he still went ahead and gave his speech to the people there, only telling them Japan had bombed Hawaii at the end. And then Nye didn’t even have the courage of his convictions, voting to enter World War II the next day.

Oddly, despite all of this, he hated the Franco government and wanted the government to give arms to the Spanish Republicans. Consistent, the man was not.

In the early years of the war, the British Foreign Office sent the intellectual Isaiah Berlin to the U.S. Berlin wrote a detailed report about key American senators. He was unsparing. He said Nye :

is a notorious fire-eating Anglophobe Isolationist. His principal claim to fame rests on his committee which investigated the American armament industry a few years before the war, and much popular anti-British feeling stems from publicity which was accorded to that committee. He is a member of the Farm Bloc, and possesses some influence in the Republican senatorial caucus. He has Fascist connexions, and works closely with Wheeler and Reynolds inside and outside the Senate. His bĂȘte noire is Willkie, whom he hates even more than the British Empire; indeed, he recently went to the length of defending the latter against the criticisms of the former, since he evidently regards any stick as good enough to beat Willkie with

Well, people in North Dakota got sick of Nye’s bit and he had become an embarrassment. In 1944, North Dakota voters chose the Democrat John Moses and kicked Nye out. Nye did not go back to North Dakota. Would you? Of course not. He had already bought land in Washington and stayed there as a political insider. He got involved in early record keeping programs for the government and made a bunch of money that way. Later in life though, he actually went back to public service in a very workaday way. Eisenhower appointed him to the Federal Housing Administration as assistant commissioner. Kennedy kept him on. In 1963, he actually accepted a staff job to the Senate Committee on Aging. I wonder if any other senator has ever returned to the body as a staffer?

Nye was a big smoker and his later years were extremely unhealthy. He developed heart disease and was on a lot of medicine. But that’s not what did him in exactly. A doctor didn’t know he was allergic to penicillin after he got surgery for a blood clot on his lung. But…he was allergic. And that dose killed him in 1971. He was 78 years old.

Gerald Nye is buried in Fort Lincoln Cemetery, Brentwood, Maryland.

If you would like this series to visit other of the bad people involved in America First, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Burton Wheeler is in Washington, D.C., and David Walsh is in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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