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Political Hell-Raiser


History is written by the winners, so goes the line; we get accustomed to a narrative of history that doesn’t allow for alternative outcomes – or choices. Sitting here today, for example, the story of the 2020 presidential election is yet to be written; two years from now, it all will seem inevitable.

We need those reminders of the mutability of our story and the options before us, and that’s the value in the essays and longer narratives of counterfactual (what-if) history. And it’s the value in looking at history from a different angle, a perspective that offers a fresh take on what happened and why, and what the alternatives might have been.

That brings us to Political Hell-Raiser, the new book by Marc Johnson, published by University of Oklahoma Press. (Semi-disclaimer here: This is the same Marc Johnson whose columns are appearing here on Saturdays.)

The hell-raiser of the title is Burton K. Wheeler, a U.S. senator from Montana from 1922 to 1946. He was a remarkable figure, and a full biography of him is overdue, but not just because he was one of the leading figures in Congress for a long time. He was also, remarkably, a counter to most of the trends that ran during his political career, and until near the end thrived doing it. He was a radical leftist during the 20s, when the nation veered to the right, and – after working hard for Franklin Roosevelt’s election – became a bitter critics of Roosevelt and was identified toward the end more with business interests and anti-communism. (His own view was that he never changed all that much, but the emphasis and perceptions he allowed to grow certainly did.)

He loved political fights, and got into no lack of them, and more than one threatened to rip up not only his political career but private life as well. There was some courage here, no small amount of intelligence and political street smarts and a clear and persistant awareness – even allowing for some change over time – of who he was and what his guiding principles were.

He became best known as one of the leaders in the non-interventionist movement, the group (Johnson generally avoids the term “isolationist” though others might not) which argued against American involvement in a second world war, and helped keep the United States out of it until Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. He was a major national political figure then, and though a Democrat a leading – maybe the leading – thorn in FDR’s side. (And FDR was fully aware of it.)

This is a side and perspective of history we don’t often get. The prevailing side in American politics in that period is what we ordinarily hear: About the draft toward war, the push by Roosevelt to help0 Great Britain and oppose the Nazis, and the ultimate triumph in 1945. But there was, until Pearl, a strong anti-war movement, and it had no stronger spokesman than Wheeler. After the United States entered into the war, Wheeler’s balloon deflated, fast, and after winning four races for the Senate he lost his seat, in the Democratic primary, in 1946: His views were out of step, and widely perceived as being soft on or even sympathetic to the Nazis (though Wheeler personally never was and supported the war once it was declared).

That’s the outline, but there’s more to the story. We see not only the poorly-informed and even naive aspects of Wheeler’s non-interventionism but also the wise aspects to it; he foresaw the rise of a military-industrial complex and the tendency toward militarism, and the threats to freedom and democracy, that war would bring. We see here also some of the often-neglected dark sides of the Roosevelt years, the way the federal government’s power was often abused in time of war. The internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry are noted here (and Wheeler was critical of them), but many other bad actions joined them in those years.

Johnson has done fine work here shining a light on a part of American history we often do not see (or might feel uncomfortable examining). Much of it, too much, resonates with American as it is most of a century later.

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