Special Report

Fake News and Fervent Nationalism Got a Senator Tarred as a Traitor During WWI

The fiery progressive Robert La Follette responded with a classic defense of free speech in wartime

Robert La Follette (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Robert "Fightin' Bob" La Follette was one of the most hated men in America when he took the U.S. Senate floor on October 6, 1917. Vicious caricatures depicted the Wisconsin senator receiving the German Iron Cross medal and holding a German spiked helmet. Theodore Roosevelt, La Follette’s old rival in the Progressive movement, called La Follette “the most sinister foe of democracy in this country” and told an audience that he wished “we could make him a gift to the Kaiser for use in his Reichstag.”

His transgression? Opposing the United States’ entry into World War I.

For years, the stout, stubborn 62-year-old Republican, with a huge shock of brushed-back white hair, had railed against American involvement in the Great War happening overseas. But it was the events of the fall of 1917 that sealed his fate, for better and for worse.

Two weeks earlier, speaking without notes in St. Paul, Minnesota, before 10,000 members of the National Non-Partisan League, a congress of left-of-center farmers and workers, La Follette declared that the nation’s biggest issue had become how to pay for the war he had opposed. Applauded by the crowd, La Follette then ad-libbed a sarcastic attack on the main U.S. justification for war, the German submarine attacks on ships that had killed Americans.

“I don’t mean to say we hadn’t suffered grievances,” La Follette said. “We had, at the hands of Germany. Serious grievances.” He continued, “They had interfered with the right of American citizens to travel on the high seas – on ships loaded with munitions for Great Britain.” This was a partial exaggeration: not all ships the Germans sank had carried military cargoes. But La Follette pointed out – correctly – that the British ocean liner Lusitania had been carrying munitions to England in 1915 when a U-boat sank it, killing 1,193 people, including 123 Americans.

The crowd cheered La Follette, but the next day he found himself facing a nationwide backlash and a classic bit of “fake news.”

An Associated Press report on La Follette’s St. Paul speech, printed in hundreds of newspapers nationwide, misquoted him as saying that “We had no grievance” against Germany, while a New York Times headline declared, “La Follette Defends Lusitania Sinking.” Minnesota’s Republican governor announced La Follette’s statements would be investigated. One of the state’s senators, Frank Kellogg, brought a petition to the Senate from the Minnesota Public Safety Commission that denounced La Follette as “a teacher of disloyalty and sedition” and called for the Senate to expel him – which the Constitution allows with a two-thirds vote.

It was under these circumstances that La Follette addressed the crowded Senate floor. The galleries were packed with spectators eager to hear how the crusader known as “Fighting Bob” would respond to the outrage over his speech in St. Paul.

Instead of acknowledging the rancor, or the expulsion petition, La Follette delivered a sweeping defense of the right to free speech in wartime. Across the country, La Follette warned, governors, mayors and police were preventing or breaking up peaceful meetings about the war. Dissenters were being unlawfully arrested and jailed for no crime.

“The right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war,” La Follette argued. “In this government the people are the rulers in war no less than in peace.”

A century later, La Follette’s defiance stands as one of American history’s greatest examples of how to endure an era of national crisis and personal attack -- and persevere until better times come. “La Follette’s address,” wrote Carl Burgchardt in his 1992 book, Robert M. La Follette, Sr.: The Voice of Conscience, “is regarded as a classic argument for free speech and representative government.” But in 1917 and 1918, as the nation rallied for war and punished peace advocates, La Follette was cast into political exile.

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A former governor of Wisconsin, congressman, candidate for president, and U.S. Senator since 1905, La Follette had spent decades as a Progressive reformer, enacting populist government reforms, regulation of big business and progressive taxation while battling machine politicians, monopolies and the wealthy.

His anti-war stance emerged from his concern for the working class. As early as 1910, La Follette attacked what President Dwight Eisenhower would later term the "military industrial complex." Wars, in La Follette’s terms, were good for the munitions industry, bonanzas for international trusts and tragedies for the poor who had to fight them. From 1914 to 1916, as trench warfare in Europe claimed millions of lives, La Follette pressed for the United States to stay neutral, hewing to the isolationist foreign policy it had mostly practiced since George Washington’s presidency.

On April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and called for war over Germany’s Zimmermann Telegram and its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, La Follette stood silent amid the cheers, his arms folded. Two days later, in a Senate speech, La Follette argued that the American people – or his constituents, at the very least – still favored neutrality.

“The poor, sir, who are the ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power,” La Follette lamented, “[but] they will have their day and they will be heard.” The 15,000 letters and telegrams sent to La Follette’s office about the war were running 9 to 1 against joining the conflict. In an era before nationwide public opinion polling, he cited straw polls from town meetings, especially in the isolationist Midwest, that recorded overwhelming opposition to war.

La Follette ended his April speech with tears falling from his eyes. The next senator who spoke called La Follette’s speech “pro-German, and pretty nearly pro-Goth and pro-Vandal.” After the Senate voted for war, 82-6, La Follette walked back to his office. A hostile spectator in the hallway handed him a rope, as if to say La Follette had hanged himself.

For the rest of 1917, as the U.S. prepared to send 2 million Americans overseas to fight, La Follette continued his lonely protests amid accusations of betrayal. Decades of struggle for Progressive causes had strengthened his resolve amid adversity. During the war, “La Follette … once again became the principled, suffering loner that he constantly believed himself to be,” wrote Bernard A. Weisberger in the 1994 book The La Follettes of Wisconsin.

He backed up his speeches with action. La Follette voted against reviving the military draft. He opposed the Espionage Act, predicting correctly that the Wilson Administration would use it to suppress free speech. He pushed, unsuccessfully, to fund the war through a wealth tax, instead of the massive loans Congress approved.

In August, La Follette called on Congress to declare that the United States was fighting for a peace “without annexation or indemnities” – that is, no nation would keep any seized territory or force other nations to pay war reparations. But President Wilson rejected negotiations with the German government; La Follette’s resolution went nowhere.

The senator continued to agitate and organize against the war. Then came his speech in St Paul, the outrage, and his follow-up speech in October.

La Follette was as defiant as ever. “Neither the clamor of the mob nor the voice of power will ever turn me, by the breadth of a hair, from the course I mark out for myself,” he declared in his October 6 speech, “directed by a solemn conviction of right and duty.”

La Follette delivered a classic answer to the charge that dissent in wartime is disloyal. Actually, free speech is even more important in wartime than in peace, he argued. During war, citizens and Congress have the right to debate “its causes, the manner in which it should be conducted, and the terms upon which peace should be made.” He quoted lawmakers of the 1840s who protested the Mexican War while the U.S. was waging it, including Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

Citizens should be more vigilant about their rights in wartime, La Follette insisted, alert to the danger of the military or public officials assuming too much power. He issued a warning for a nation that would soon transform into a global superpower. “If every preparation for war can be made the excuse for destroying free speech and a free press,” La Follette said, “then we may well despair of ever again finding ourselves for a long period in a state of peace.”

Between the United States’ possession of remote overseas territories and “the obligations we seem almost certain to assume as a result of the present war,” he warned, “a war can be made any time overnight” -- justifying further invasions of rights.

The rejoinder speech was met with the expected vitriol. Senator Joseph Robinson of Arkansas walked toward La Follette, shaking his fist, denouncing La Follette to his face as he looked back with disdain. “If I entertained those sentiments,” Robinson seethed, “I would apply to the Kaiser for a seat in the Bundesrat” – the upper house of the German Parliament.

Hearings on the expulsion petition were set to begin just over three months later, on January 8, 1918. That day, La Follette’s son, Bob La Follette, Jr., fell ill with a streptococcus infection. It left him near death for months. Standards of senatorial comity still in place, the hearings were postponed at La Follette’s request. Facing the threats of expulsion and the possible loss of his son, La Follette gave no more public speeches on the war. He didn’t return to the Senate until September 1918. “For the entire year he was a pariah, neutralized and muzzled, the nightmare of gagging fully realized,” Weisberger wrote.

Denunciations at home in Wisconsin hurt La Follette most. The state legislature passed a resolution that accused him of sedition. At the University of Wisconsin, a power center of Progressivism, the faculty, including many former allies, voted 421 to 2 to condemn him.

Economics professor Richard T. Ely charged that La Follette had been “of more help to the Kaiser than a quarter of a million troops.” In his diary, La Follette noted with sorrow that his picture, which had hung in all the university’s buildings, had been taken down.

Then the war fever broke. Voters turned against Wilson in the November 1918 elections, in part because he violated his own declaration that “politics is adjourned” in wartime and asked voters to return Democrats to Congress. Republicans won a slim, two-vote majority in the Senate, making La Follette, a maverick who at times crossed party lines, a swing vote. A week later, the war ended with an armistice and a German defeat. Later that month, a Senate committee voted 9-2 against expelling La Follette. The full Senate agreed in January 1919, by a vote of 50-21.

Before his 1925 death, La Follette enjoyed growing respect for his anti-war stance. In 1919, he helped defeat the Treaty of Versailles in the Senate, in part because it extracted territory and reparations from the defeated nations, outcomes he’d warned against. In 1923, after Wisconsin re-elected La Follette, the Senate reimbursed him $5,000 for legal fees in his defense against expulsion – an implicit admission that the case against him had been unfair. 

“He was content to submit his case to the judgment of the future,” wrote Burgchardt in Robert M. La Follette, Sr.: The Voice of Conscience. “Particularly in the post-Vietnam era, historical commentators have admired La Follette’s opposition to World War I and his steadfast support of basic constitutional rights.” With time, some historians have also questioned America’s decision to join the First World War’s mass slaughter – and argued that La Follette was right.

In 1955, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy chose La Follette as one of five outstanding senators commemorated with portraits in the Senate Reception Room.

“I may not live to see my vindication,” La Follette told his son-in-law during the war, “but you will.” 

About Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine

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