Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-Montana) is probably a name not easily recognized these days, unless you were doing research into the events leading up to America’s entry into World War 2. But this New Deal Senator from Montana, who represented the Left Wing of the Democratic party, was a strong advocate for our staying out of the conflict and was its vocal opponent until the events of December 7, 1941 changed all that.
Wheeler was actually not as much in the minority as history has led many to believe. There was a movement to keep the U.S. out of the war. Like most movements, it had factions within the movement who probably did as much to derail it as the promote it. America First, the umbrella Organization to keep the U.S. out of the war was made up of people who were legitimately against the idea of the U.S. getting involved in another European War (World War 1 had only been over for a little over 20 years before conflicts flared back up), but there were those whose motives were suspect; that America First was considered pro-Nazi by many. Initially, America First attracted a number of prominent figures, who felt another War wasn’t going to solve anything and that our involvement wasn’t to our advantage. Figures and contributors to the movement ran across the political and social spectrum – from Walt Disney to John F. Kennedy. Formed in 1940, America First had as many as 800,000 in its membership at its peak in 1941.
So Senator Burton K. Wheeler wasn’t some isolationist crackpot, although some were. The legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, who served as one of the spokesmen for the group, addressed crowds and laid blame for the conflict on oil and banking interests, ostensibly claiming the reason for the war in the first place was because of Jewish Industrialists. It was that sort of rhetoric that caused fissures within the movement and caused many supporters to temper their enthusiasm.
This panel interview with Senator Wheeler comes some 7 months before our entry, when there was still an enthusiastic movement afoot to keep us out. Here is that interview, as it ran on May 4, 1941.