…When a Montana politician said ‘no’ to war

By: - December 11, 2021 9:29 am

Portrait of American pacifist leader Jeannette Rankin (1880 – 1973), who in 1916 became the first female member of Congress when she was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana. Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry in both World War I and World War II and was an active leader in the antiwar movement during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Provided by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, was surely one of the most consequential days in the history of Washington, D.C. The president and Congress moved that day with unprecedented speed to deal with a profoundly significant issue, and politicians were united in their action – except for one solitary figure from Montana. 

President Franklin Roosevelt had been up late the night before – December 7 – meeting with his Cabinet and congressional leadership at the White House. When House Speaker Sam Rayburn left the conference late that Sunday night reporters asked him if the United States would declare war on Japan the next day. Rayburn, a legendary figure in American political history and a man of few words, said he wasn’t sure, the president was evaluating his options. 

The nation and its political leadership were reeling from the shocking news that the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had been ravaged by Japanese forces. Reports reaching Washington were still fragmentary, but all the news was bad. Numerous U.S. warships had been damaged or destroyed. Causalities were heavy. The Japanese had also attacked Guam, the Philippines, Malaya and Hong Kong, as well as Wake and Midway islands. The attacks, brutally carried out with great surprise, were, as Roosevelt would tell Congress, “unprovoked and dastardly.” 

At 12:30 p.m., Washington time on Monday, Roosevelt stood before a joint session of Congress and uttered his famous words about the events of Dec. 7, 1941 – “a day which will live in infamy.” 

Roosevelt spoke for less than seven minutes and left to great applause. The House and Senate met immediately and separately, and unlike 1917 when Congress last declared war, voted without debate to approve a resolution declaring war on Japan.

“The vote … against Japan was 82 to 0 in the Senate and 385 to 1 in the House,” the New York Times reported. “The lone vote against the resolution was that of Miss Jeanette (the Times misspelled her name) Rankin, Republican, of Montana. Her ‘No’ was greeted with boos and hisses. In 1917 she voted against the resolution for war against Germany.”

Twice in a period of just over 20 years, the gentlewoman from Missoula had courageously and amid huge controversy voted against war. I want to stand with my country, Rankin insisted, but she could not vote for war. 

Eight decades later it is difficult to fully comprehend the hell that rained down on the first women ever elected to Congress. 

A Montana Kiwanis Club passed a resolution of censure. The Republican national committeeman, prominent Cut Bank newspaper publisher Dan Whetstone, publicly called on Rankin to reverse her vote and “redeem the honor and loyalty of Montana.” The state was united for war, Whetstone said, and “messages from all parts of Montana indicate disappointment at your attitude failing to support the war declaration.”

The Glasgow Courier editorialized that Rankin should resign immediately since she clearly no longer represented the state. 

Rankin’s lonely vote received massive national attention. There were reports, incorrect as it turned out, that she had broken sobbing down after the vote and went into hiding. 

Henry McLemore, a columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain, authored a bitterly cynical, misogynistic piece about Rankin that was widely reprinted. It’s a shame, McLemore said, that Rankin wasn’t married because “she has qualities which would make her close to an ideal wife.” Since the congresswomen “dismissed the bombing as lightly as she would a run in her stocking,” Rankin would make the perfect domestic partner. “Any woman who is that full of sweetness and light,” McLemore wrote, “and who has such a complete inability to see what is going on, would be a fine catch for any man.” Miss Rankin’s husband “would escape all the declarations of war that go on in so many American homes.” 

McLemore, so dismissive of the Montana congresswoman in 1941, is remembered today, if remembered at all, for his fierce advocacy for interning Japanese American citizens, a subject he agitated for aggressively. He was wrong about that and about Jeannette Rankin. 

The Tampa Tribune quoted a local political activist on Rankin. “You can put this in your pipe and smoke it, and that is Representative Jeannette Rankin … will never go back after she has finished her present term. She is no credit to her patriotic sex.” 

That commentator was at least partly correct. Rankin’s political career – at least in elective office – effectively ended on Dec. 8, 1941. She did not run for re-election in 1942, and it seems inconceivable given the controversy around her vote against war that she might have won. 

Rankin was replaced in Congress in 1942 by a young history professor and World War I veteran by the name of Mike Mansfield, an Asian history scholar who almost immediately earned bipartisan accolades for his thoughtful service on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ten years later Mansfield was elected to the Senate and took a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. 

After her term expired, Rankin briefly retreated from public life as she had after her nearly as controversial vote against war in 1917. She lived off and on in Georgia, spent summers in Montana, traveled extensively, including to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent methods, and she never abandoned her views about the need for social change, her opposition to war and support for women’s rights. Gradually, she resumed a fully public life. 

In 1958, a young senator from Massachusetts and future president wrote an article for McCall’s magazine entitled “Three Women of Courage.” John Kennedy had recently published his book “Profiles in Courage,” and he wrote admiringly of Jeannette Rankin. She “was not a woman who shrank from hard and difficult tasks,” Kennedy said, “she had entered without fear in the heretofore all-male world of politics – and done it successfully.” 

Rankin continued to write and lecture, she organized and advocated, and by the late 1960’s she was spearheading demonstrations in Washington against the war in Vietnam. 

In a Washington Post profile in 1968, Rankin, now age 87, said “war is a vicious, stupid way of settling a dispute … war is a stupid way to try to change opinion.” The solution to American involvement in Vietnam was simple, Rankin said, “bring our boys home. They’re not settling the dispute – and they’re not getting on very well with the war, either.” 

On Jan. 15, 1968, Rankin joined 5,000 women in an anti-war march through snow to the U.S. Capitol. Judy Collins sang for the demonstrators, and Coretta Scott King, the wife of the civil rights leader, was in the group that styled itself the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. 

Upon reaching the Capitol, Rankin and a handful of anti-war colleagues meet with House Speaker John McCormick and Mike Mansfield, who was now the Senate majority leader and also a leading critic of American policy in southeast Asia. 

A picture showing Jeanette Rankin delivering a petition to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield on Jan. 15, 1968 (Billings Gazette).

Rankin, reportedly upset that the majority leader agreed to meet with only a small group, presented Mansfield with a petition seeking an end to the war and demanding withdrawal of American troops. A photo of the majority leader from Montana receiving the petition from the one-time congresswoman from Montana ran on the front page of The Billings Gazette. Mansfield would later have Rankin’s petition read on the Senate floor. 

Years later, Mansfield spoke reverently of his profound respect for Jeannette Rankin, particularly her commitment to life-long principles and her courage in the face of overwhelming opposition. He considered her, Mansfield said, one of the most impressive people he ever met. Many others came to feel the same. 

On a spring day in 1985, the state of Montana presented a statute of Jeannette Rankin to the United States Capitol. A large crowd filled the Rotunda, and Montana Congressman Pat Williams, then occupying the seat Rankin once held, remembered that the peace advocate and suffrage campaigner had “brought us to understand the meaning of the power and influence of an individual in this democracy carrying out her conscience.” 

While it is true that history has not judged favorably Jeannette Rankin’s votes against war, it is also true that over time few expressed any doubt about her courage. Perhaps it was a contemporary, the influential editor of the Emporia, Kansas Gazette, William Allen White, who best understood the enduring importance of the woman from Montana. White, a vocal advocate for U.S. entry into World War II and a critic of the pacifists and non-interventionists who opposed war, wrote about Rankin two days after her vote in 1941. 

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin,” White said. “Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she had the courage to do. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly.” 

As we acknowledge the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and remember the bravery of those who served and the legacy of those who paid the ultimate price in the worst conflict in human history, we would do well to also remember those, often vilified in their time, who fought against war, who advocated for peace. Theirs, too, was a special kind of fortitude. 

In an era when political bravery seems in dangerously short supply, Jeannette Rankin endures as a stirring example of courage in public life. She remains a Montana and American original. 

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