Burton K. Wheeler

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Burton K. Wheeler
Senator Burton Kendall Wheeler.jpg
United States Senator
from Montana
In office
March 4, 1923 – January 3, 1947
Preceded by Henry L. Myers
Succeeded by Zales Ecton
Personal details
Born Burton Kendall Wheeler
(1882-02-27)February 27, 1882
Hudson, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died January 6, 1975(1975-01-06) (aged 92)
Washington, District of Columbia, U.S.
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Progressive (1924)
Spouse(s) Lulu M. White; 1 daughter, Frances Wheeler (died 1957)
Alma mater University of Michigan

Burton Kendall Wheeler (February 27, 1882 – January 6, 1975) was an attorney and an American politician of the Democratic Party in Montana; he served as a United States Senator from 1923 until 1947. He returned to his law practice and lived in Washington, DC for his remaining years. He was an independent Democrat who represented the left wing of the party, receiving support from Montana's labor unions. He ran for vice president in 1924 as an independent on the Progressive Party ticket headed by Wisconsin republican Robert La Follette, Sr.. An ardent New Deal liberal until 1937, he broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the issue of packing the Supreme Court. In foreign policy in 1938-41 he became a leader of the isolationist wing of the party, fighting against entry into World War II.

Early life and education[edit]

Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts to Mary Elizabeth Rice (née Tyler) and Asa Leonard Wheeler.[1] He grew up in Massachusetts, attending the public schools. He first worked as a stenographer in Boston, Massachusetts.

He traveled west to attend University of Michigan Law School, where he graduated in 1905. He initially intended to settle in Seattle, but after getting off the train in Butte, Montana, he lost his belongings in a poker game. The new attorney settled there and began practicing law.[2]

Marriage and family[edit]

Wheeler married Lulu M. White. They had a daughter, Frances, who died in 1957. She had helped her father with his research for his autobiography, which he published in 1962 and dedicated to her and his wife.[citation needed]

Political career[edit]

He was elected as a Montana state legislator in 1910, and in that position, he gained a reputation as a champion of labor against the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which dominated the state's economy and politics. He was appointed as a United States Attorney. During his tenure, he was notable for not issuing a single sedition indictment during World War I, especially significant as Montana was a large stronghold of the Industrial Workers of the World. In other parts of the country, membership was suppressed under the new sedition law.[citation needed]

1920s[edit]

In 1920 Wheeler ran for Governor of Montana as a candidate of the Non-Partisan League. The ticket included a multi-racial set of candidates, unusual for 1920, including an African American and a Blackfoot Indian.[3] Wheeler was defeated by Republican Joseph M. Dixon.[2]

Wheeler ran as a Democrat for U.S. Senator in 1922 and won election with 55% of the vote over Republican Congressman Carl W. Riddick. He served a total of four terms, being reelected in the 1928, 1934 and 1940 elections. He broke with the Democratic Party in 1924 to run for Vice President of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket led by La Follette. They carried one state—La Follette's Wisconsin—and ran well in union areas and railroad towns. He returned to the Democratic Party after the election, which Republican Calvin Coolidge won in a landslide.[citation needed]

1930s[edit]

In 1930, Wheeler gained national attention when he successfully campaigned for the reelection to the U.S. Senate of his friend and Democratic colleague Thomas Gore, the colorful "Blind Cowboy" of Oklahoma. Wheeler supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election, and many of his New Deal policies. He broke with Roosevelt over his opposition to the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, and also opposed much of Roosevelt's foreign policy before World War II. In the 1940 presidential election, there was a large movement to "Draft Wheeler" into the presidential race, possibly as a third party candidate, led primarily by John L. Lewis.[citation needed]

During World War II[edit]

As tensions mounted in Europe, he supported the anti-war America First Committee. As chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, Wheeler announced in August 1941 he would investigate “interventionists” in the motion picture industry. Wheeler questioned why so many foreign-born men were allowed to shape American opinion.[4]

After the start of World War II in Europe, Wheeler opposed aid to Britain or the other Allies, already fighting in the war. On October 17, 1941, Wheeler said: "I can't conceive of Japan being crazy enough to want to go to war with us." One month later, he added: "If we go to war with Japan, the only reason will be to help England." The United States Army secret Victory Plan was leaked on 4 December 1941 to Wheeler, who passed this information on to three newspapers.[2][5]

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Wheeler did not oppose the United States' entry into World War II, and said the only thing left to do was "to lick hell out of them".[citation needed]

Later life[edit]

Wheeler sought renomination in 1946 but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Leif Erickson, who attacked Wheeler as insufficiently liberal and for his pre-war isolationist views. Erickson was defeated by Republican state representative Zales Ecton.

Wheeler did not return to politics, nor full-time to Montana, but took up his law practice in Washington, D.C. Aided by research by his daughter, Frances (died 1957), Wheeler wrote his autobiography, with Paul F. Healy, Yankee from the West, published in 1962 by Doubleday & Company. He dedicated the book to his wife and daughter. He died in Washington, D.C., aged 92, and is interred in the District of Columbia's Rock Creek Cemetery.[6]

In 2004, journalist Bill Kauffman described Wheeler as having been notable as an "anti-draft, anti-war, anti-big business defender of civil liberties".[7]

In popular culture[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
Henry L. Myers
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Montana
1923-1947
Served alongside: Thomas J. Walsh, John E. Erickson, James E. Murray
Succeeded by
Zales Ecton
Honorary titles
Preceded by
John N. Heiskell
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
(Sitting or Former)

with Clarence Dill

December 28, 1972 – January 6, 1975
Succeeded by
Clarence Dill

References[edit]

  1. ^ Burton K. Wheeler (with Paul F. Healy), Yankee From The West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-born U.S. Senator from Montana, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962, full text online at Internet Archive website, accessed December 12, 2012
  2. ^ a b c Tribune Staff. "125 Montana Newsmakers: Burton K. Wheeler". Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved August 27, 2011. 
  3. ^ Current Biography 1940, p. 858
  4. ^ David Gordon.America First: the Anti-War Movement, Charles Lindbergh and the Second World War, 1940-1941. Quote: "Critics charged that the Committee was motivated by animus to Jewish studio heads." Representing the Studios was 1940 Republican Presidential Candidate, Wendell Willkie who charged that Wheeler and other critics sought to impose the same kind of censorship that Nazi Germany was enacting all over Europe. Wheeler also lead the attack on Roosevelt's Lend Lease Bill charging that if passed it would "plow under every fourth American boy". Roosevelt in response charged that Wheeler's statement was "the damnedest thing said in a generation".
  5. ^ Charles E. Kirkpatrick, Writing the Victory Plan of 1941, Ch. 4, "Detailed Planning", United States Army Center of Military History, CMH Pub 93-10.
  6. ^ Burton K. Wheeler profile, Political Graveyard website
  7. ^ a b Bill Kauffman, "Heil to the Chief", The American Conservative, September 27, 2004.
  8. ^ "Wheeler's Progress: The Evolution of a Progressive", antiwar.com, May 1, 2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, John Thomas. ”Senator Burton K. Wheeler and United States Foreign Relations” PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 1982; Wheeler, Burton Kendall. Yankee From the West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-Born U.S. Senator from Montana (1962); reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1977 (American National Biography & Dictionary of American Biography)
  • Johnson, Marc C., “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Burton K. Wheeler, and the Great Debate: A Montana Senator's Crusade for Non-intervention before World War II”, Montana: The Magazine of Western History (Winter 2012) 62#1 pp 3–22
  • Morrison, John, and Catherine Wright Morrison, Mavericks: The Lives and Battles of Montana's Political Legends (2003), pp 161–96
  • Ruetten, Richard T. Burton K. Wheeler, 1905-1925, An Independent Liberal under Fire (1957); vol 1 of standard biography
  • Ruetten, R. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana: A Progressive between the Wars (1961); vol. 2 of standard biography

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]