Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress, voted against United States entry into World War I in 1917 and did not run for reelection to the House of Representatives in 1918. Ever since, historians have assumed that Rankin’s “no” vote cost the Congresswoman her seat in Congress.
Some of her contemporaries certainly believed it did. “I knew she couldn’t be elected again if she did vote against the war,” her brother Wellington Rankin said. “I didn’t want to see her destroy herself.” The formidable head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt, charged that Rankin’s vote lost the woman suffrage cause “a million votes.” At the time, Catt announced, “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation.”
But Rankin remained a formidable political figure in her home state of Montana and on Capitol Hill. In some ways her vote against the war actually enhanced her political standing. Nervous about her growing power, the state legislature gerrymandered her into a district filled with Democrats, leading Rankin to run for the Senate instead—a decision that the incumbent Montana Democratic Senator, Thomas Walsh, had feared would happen.
Despite the common misconception today, voting against the war resolution in 1917 was not an act of political suicide. Nor was Rankin alone in her opposition. When she voted “no” early in the morning of April 6, 1917, Rankin joined 49 other House Members.
As a freshman lawmaker, Rankin decided to not participate in the war debate—a choice she later regretted—but she was diligent in her attendance. She was there when the debate began on the morning of April 5, sitting and listening until midnight when she briefly left the chamber. She was back to participate in the roll call vote, but she never articulated her opposition on the floor during debate. In fact, the only record we have of her commenting on the war in the House was during the final vote when she violated House Rules and made a quick statement after the tally clerk called her name: “I want to stand by my country,” she said, “but I cannot vote for war.”
Twenty-one other Members, however, did speak at length during debate, and cited four main reasons for their opposition to the war resolution: the war threatened no vital national interest; public opinion did not support entering the war; Congress had not given the U.S. policy of “armed neutrality” a chance to succeed; and finally, the country was being pushed into the war to protect commercial interests and arms manufacturers.
The greatest surprise of the debate came when Majority Leader Claude Kitchin of North Carolina rose in opposition to the war. “War upon the part of a nation is sometimes necessary and imperative,” he said. “But here no invasion is threatened. Not a foot of our territory is demanded or coveted. No essential honor is required to be sacrificed. No fundamental right is asked to be permanently yielded or suspended. No national policy is contested. No part of our sovereignty is questioned.”
Midwestern Members frequently spoke of opposition to the war back home—sentiments they had picked up from their constituents during the recent election. “The truth of the matter is that 90 per cent of your people and mine do not want this declaration of war,” Fred A. Britten of Illinois said, “and are distinctly opposed to our going into that bloody mire on the other side.” Britten’s stand was another surprise since he had built a reputation as a supporter of a powerful navy. Nebraska’s Charles H. Sloan spoke of “the well-known opposition of two-thirds of the American people,” and Charles Hall Dillon of South Dakota said “a great majority are opposed to this broad declaration of war.”
Members also made the argument that the Woodrow Wilson administration had not explored every possible foreign-policy alternative. Indeed, several Members believed President Wilson’s diplomatic efforts had not been given a complete chance. “Armed neutrality, which was advocated by the President only a few weeks ago, has not been sufficiently tried,” Wisconsin’s E.E. Browne said, “and no facts have been produced to show it has failed.” C. Frank Reavis of Nebraska stated that “no student of current history can declare that all expedients short of war have been exhausted.” Some Members, in fact, thought diplomatic efforts by the administration were beginning to bear fruit.
Opponents to the resolution claimed that munitions makers and assorted other industries that stood to profit from the war were pushing the United States into the conflict. Ohio’s Isaac R. Sherwood accused DuPont Chemicals and Bethlehem Steel with promoting war in order to boost profits. Edward J. King of Illinois argued that the U.S. was set to go to war to protect the millions that Wall Street magnate J.P. Morgan had loaned to Great Britain. Western Members repeated these same claims. Washington’s William L. La Follette spoke of “a war of commercialism” in Europe, while Nevada’s E.E. Roberts stated, “I am opposed to declaring war to save speculators.” Clarence C. Dill of Washington was similarly “unwilling to vote to send the boys to the European trenches because we can not trade with the countries now at war.”
While Rankin sat and absorbed the debate, opponents made even more arguments against the war. William E. Mason of Illinois warned that the United States was unprepared and feared the “wholesale murder” of untrained American troops, many of whom were barely out of their teens. Others charged that the administration had never actually been neutral in its dealings with Europe, clearly favoring Britain and France over Germany. Several Republican Members reminded Democratic colleagues that their 1916 campaign touted the fact that President Wilson “kept us out of war.” “Your platform pledges are null and void,” Minnesota’s Ernest Lundeen charged. “You promised peace, but war was in your hearts.”
When House clerks tallied the war vote early on April 6, almost two-thirds of the opponents in the House were Republican, and almost three-quarters came from Midwestern states, where neutrality remained popular among voters. During the 1918 election cycle, the consequences for voting against the war varied: more than half of the 50 House opponents (27) won reelection. Six lost renomination (including five Republicans), and eight lost reelection (including five Democrats). Five retired, and three died in office. Two Republicans ran for other office—including Jeannette Rankin who ran for the Senate.
Rankin may have opposed the war but she was rock-ribbed in her support for the young Americans fighting it. She championed war-time appropriations to fund the troops, and backed the federal takeover of America’s mines for the purpose of extracting resources for the war effort. Later in the year she also supported the declaration of war against Austria-Hungary.
But the no vote cast a long shadow over her legacy. In 1936, Rankin was asked to write an article about her 1917 vote against the war. She remembered that endless and emotional session. And she remembered what she was thinking as she sat and listened. “I had been thinking peace until I had built up a peace-thinking habit. I had been speaking against war for seven years, during the campaign for woman suffrage.” Her conclusion was inevitable. “I voted against war because I felt there must be a better way,” she wrote. “I would vote that way again.”
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (5 April 1917): 306–413; Washington Post, 6 April 1917; Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1917; Christian Science Monitor, 1 April 1936; Paul Sothe Holbo, “They Voted against War: A Study of Motivations” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1961); Richard Kenneth Horner, “The House at War: The House of Representatives during World War I, 1917–1919” (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 1977).
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