About Burton Kendall Wheeler
Burton Kendall Wheeler (February 27, 1882 – January 6, 1975) was an American politician of the Democratic Party and a United States Senator from 1923 until 1947.
Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Elizabeth Rice (née Tyler) and Asa Leonard Wheeler. He grew up in Massachusetts, attending the public schools and working as a stenographer in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1905. He initially headed for Seattle, Washington, but after getting off the train in Butte, Montana and losing his belongings in a poker game, he settled there and began practicing law.
He became a Montana state legislator in 1910 where he gained a reputation as a champion of labor against the Anaconda Copper Mining Company which dominated the state. He then served as a United States Attorney, most famously refusing to hand down a single sedition indictment during World War I, especially significant as Montana was a large stronghold of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1920 he ran for Governor of Montana as a candidate of the Non-Partisan League. The ticket included a multi-racial set of candidates, unusual for 1920, including an African-American and a Blackfoot Indian. Wheeler was defeated by Republican former U.S. Senator Joseph M. Dixon, but ran for U.S. Senator two years later.
Wheeler won election to the United States Senate from Montana in 1922 with 55% of the vote over Republican Congressman Carl W. Riddick and served four terms, being reelected in the 1928, 1934 and 1940 elections. He broke with the Democratic Party in 1924 to run for Vice President of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket led by Robert La Follette, Sr. He returned to the Democratic Party after the election, which was not successful for the Progressives or the Democrats. Wheeler supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election, and many of his New Deal policies, but broke with him over his opposition to the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, and also opposed much of Roosevelt's foreign policy before World War II.
In 1930, Wheeler gained national attention when he successfully campaigned for the reelection to the US Senate of his friend and Democratic colleague Thomas Gore, the colorful "Blind Cowboy" of Oklahoma. Wheeler is often credited for steering public opinion in Gore's favor with a series of speeches in which, with characteristic hyperbole, he repeatedly implied that he would personally play the part of the Blind Cowboy's horse on his ride to Washington.
In the 1940 presidential election, there was a large movement to "Draft Wheeler" into the presidential race, possibly as a third party candidate, led primarily by John L. Lewis.
During World War II
As tensions mounted in Europe, he became a supporter of the anti-war America First Committee. As chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Commission, Wheeler announced in August 1941 he would investigate “interventionists” in the motion picture industry. Jewish studio heads were of particular concern to him. Wheeler questioned why so many foreign-born were allowed to shape American opinion.
After the start of World War II in Europe, he opposed any aid to Britain or the countries involved in the war. On 17 October 1941, Wheeler said: "I can't conceive of Japan being crazy enough to want to go to war with us." One month later, he added: "If we go to war with Japan, the only reason will be to help England." The United States Army secret Victory Plan was leaked on 4 December 1941 to Wheeler, who passed the Plan on to three newspapers.
Wheeler did not, however, vote against America's participation in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, saying the only thing left to do was "to lick hell out of them".
Wheeler sought renomination in 1946 but was defeated by Leif Erickson, who attacked Wheeler as insufficiently liberal, in the Democratic primary. Erickson was then defeated by Republican state Representative Zales Ecton. Wheeler did not return to politics and returned to his law practice. He died in Washington, D.C. and is interred there at Rock Creek Cemetery.
In Popular Culture
In the alternate history novel The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth, Wheeler serves as Vice President in the administration of President Charles Lindbergh. Roth depicted Wheeler as a political opportunist who imposes martial law in Lindbergh's absence, whereas the real Wheeler had been a leading opponent of the martial law imposed in Montana during World War I. Bill Kauffman described Wheeler as being an "anti-draft, antiwar, anti-big business defender of civil liberties".
The Plot Against America: Senator Wheeler and the Forces Behind Him is also the name of a pamphlet by David George Kin, published against Wheeler during the 1946 campaign by supporters of the Communist Party USA, which accused both Wheeler and Harry S. Truman of a being part of a fascist conspiracy