Sen Norris' most difficult year
In his three decades in the Senate George Norris' most difficult year may have been 1917. Fresh from his narrow reelection victory in November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson discarded his campaign pledge of "He kept us out of war," for a policy of arming American merchant ships headed to Europe during the Great War. In a bill proposed by Nebraska Democrat Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, merchant ships would be equipped with "guns and gunners and other instrumentalities," to aid their defense against the German submarines or U Boats.
After the German foreign minister sent the infamous Zimmerman Telegram to Mexico seeking its aid in war against the United States, Hitchcock offered the bill believing it would pass easily. Unfortunately for Hitchcock his fellow Nebraskan, George Norris, joined six senators to filibuster the bill, defeating it and unleashing a firestorm on Norris.
President Wilson blasted Norris who he accused of putting the United States is in a "helpless and contemptible position." Wilson blamed the failure of the bill on "a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own." The "willful men" attack would become part of Wilson lore.
Sen. Hitchcock, publisher of the Omaha World Herald declared it was a "little short of amazing that patriotic Americans who are true friends of peace hesitate to trust the president." The Nebraska Senate offered a resolution of censure against Norris because he "failed to represent the sentiment of the people of Nebraska." One senator offered a resolution that Norris was a "betrayer of the people of the state and of the United states." An anonymous senator said "no state but one populated by Molly coddlers would support Norris' position". The censure petition would fail 20-12 but the message was sent and received by Norris.
The senator penned a letter to newly elected governor Keith Neville. In it he admitted he was "sensitive to the almost universal condemnation" of people in Nebraska and the country for his filibuster efforts then sought a special May 1 election to allow Nebraska voters to recall him. Neville dismissed the request say there was "no demand for the election," and that it was a "needless expense."
The armed ship bill would pass later in March but the sound and fury about the bill was buried under the dramatic news of the overthrow of the Russian Czar Nicholas II and the American declaration of war on April 7, 1917. The filibuster, though, would lead to reform of Senate rules as senators passed Rule 22, establishing cloture or a limitation on debate if two thirds of senators agreed to the limit. Norris would vote for Rule 22. In 1975 the two thirds requirement would be reduced to three fifths.
Norris' effort against the Armed Merchant Ship Act and the subsequent firestorm would earn him mention in the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, authored by Theodore Sorenson and John Kennedy. (500 words)
Doug Clouatre teaches history at McCook Community College. His book Presidential Upsets is available on Amazon.com and excerpts from his alternative history book, French Betrayal, can be read on www.Facebook.com /frenchbetrayal1939/