Gerald Nye, the first of four children of Irwin Raymond Nye and Phoebe Ella Nye (née Prentice), was born in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, on 19th December, 1892. His father, the editor of a local newspaper, was a strong supporter of Robert M. La Follette, the leader of the left-wing in the Republican Party, and as a young boy he was taken to hear him speak.
Nye's mother died tuberculosis on 19th October, 1906. After leaving Wittenberg High School in 1911 he began work for his the Weekly Review in Hortonville. The following year he was appointed editor of the Times Plain Dealer in Iowa. A strong supporter of the temperance movement Nye constantly advocated prohibition in his newspaper.
In May 1916 Nye purchased the Fryburg Pioneer in Billings County, North Dakota. Two months later he married Anna M. Munch. Over the next few years the couple had three children (Marjorie, Robert and James). Nye joined the Republican Party and became a close associate of Iowa's progressive senator, Albert B. Cummins. In 1916 Nye used his newspaper to argue that Cummins should become the party's presidential candidate to take on Woodrow Wilson. The campaign failed and the party selected Charles E. Hughes instead.
In 1919 Nye was appointed editor of the Griggs County Sentinel-Courier . In his first editorial Nye promised he would be a "constant fighter" for the interests of Griggs County farmers. In the newspaper he repeatedly emphasized the need for farmers and local businessmen to join together in order the combat the growing power of "big business".
Nye was elected to Congress in 1926 and served on the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys. A member of the progressive wing of the party, he worked closely with William Borah, Henrik Shipstead, Hiram Johnson, Bronson Cutting, Lynn Frazier, Robert La Follette, Arthur R. Robinson, John Elmer Thomas, Burton K. Wheeler, George Norris in the Senate.
Nye strongly opposed the financial policies of Andrew Mellon, the secretary of the treasury under President Calvin Coolidge. He argued in May 1926 that Mellon's measures "provides great reductions in taxes to those who can best afford to pay taxes and causes the masses of the people to pay a greater proportion of the whole tax to be collected than was the case under the old bill." Instead Nye argued for higher tax rates for the rich and a inheritance tax. Nye was also a member of the Special Committee on Public Lands and Surveys that investigated the Teapot Dome Scandal. Although he endorsed the work of Thomas J. Walsh, the chairman of the committee, he also provided his own report that was highly critical of the role that the oil industry played in the scandal.
In 1929 Nye began to criticize the economic policies of President Herbert Hoover. In one speech he claimed that the greatest trouble "with Congress, with the Government, is that we fear new thoughts; we dread to depart from the beaten path; we withhold our support of things which are new and a departure from old ways. It is my hope that the next six months will have the effect of impressing upon Congress and the President the importance of accepting drastic means and new ways of righting wrongs of long standing."
Although he was not a pacifist, Nye shared some of their attitudes and his views on the munitions industry gained him the support of organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In one speech in 1930 he argued: "That government must respond to the wishes and interests of the masses of its people. That there is need for world leadership and example. That back of any successful war... there must be the motive looking to the well being of the people of every country instead of the motive to perpetuate the status quo. That in nearly every war it is the people who bear the burdens and that it is not the people who cause wars bringing them no advantage, but that they are caused by fear and jealousy coupled with the purpose of men and interests who expect to profit by them."
After the victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nye criticized the New Deal for "not going far enough in grappling with the economic emergency". He also denounced Roosevelt's for favouring big business while neglecting farmers, small businessmen and workers. However, he did support some of Roosevelt's measures such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act.
Nye was a close political associate of William Langer, a fellow member of the Nonpartisan League, who became Governor of North Dakota in January 1933. The following year Nye was told by Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, that Langer had been putting pressure on workers on federal relief to contribute to the Nonpartisan League newspaper, The Leader . Nye used this information to make a speech in Congress where he criticized Langer's actions. Nye was accused of betraying the Nonpartisan League and it marked the beginning of a long political feud with Langer.
Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, approached Nye, George Norris and Robert La Follette and asked them to instigate a Senate investigation into the international munitions industry. On 8th February, 1934, Nye submitted a Senate Resolution calling for an investigation of the munitions industry by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Key Pittman of Nevada. Pittman disliked the idea and the resolution was referred to the Military Affairs Committee. It was eventually combined with one introduced earlier by Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, who sought to take the profits out of war.
The Military Affairs Committee accepted the proposal and as well as Nye and Vandenberg, the Munitions Investigating Committee included James P. Pope of Idaho, Homer T. Bone of Washington, Joel B. Clark of Missouri, Walter F. George of Georgia and W. Warren Barbour of New Jersey. John T. Flynn, a writer with the New Republic magazine, was appointed as an advisor and Alger Hiss as the committee's legal assistant.
Alger Hiss worked for the legal department of the Munitions Investigating Committee. Walter Trohan accused Hiss of being a member of the American Communist Party and tried to persuade Nye to sack him: "He (Nye) summoned Hiss to his office, as he told me, and said that he was satisfied with the lawyer's work, but wouldn't stand for any Communist connections. Hiss looked Nye in the eye and solemnly swore he was no communist, but offered to resign in order to spare Nye, the committee and the investigation possible embarrassment. Nye said he would not sacrifice an innocent man and persuaded Hiss to remain."
Public hearings before the Munitions Investigating Committee began on 4th September, 1934. In the reports published by the committee it was claimed that there was a strong link between the American government's decision to enter the First World War and the lobbying of the munitions industry. The committee was also highly critical of the nation's bankers. In a speech Nye argued that "the record of facts makes it altogether fair to say that these bankers were in the heart and center of a system that made our going to war inevitable".
Several members of Congress, including Nye, Arthur H. Vandenberg, William Borah and Robert La Follette, pushed very hard for the passing of the 1935 Neutrality Act. President Franklin D. Roosevelt objected to this measure and lobbied for embargo provisions that would allow him to impose sanctions selectively. This was rejected by Congress and the act, signed on 31st August, imposed a general embargo on trading in arms and war materials with all parties in a war.
The 1936 Neutrality Act, passed in February of that year, renewed the provisions of the 1935 act for another 14 months. It also forbade all loans or credits to belligerents. However, this act did not cover "civil wars" or materials such as trucks and oil. During the Spanish Civil War some U.S. companies such as Texaco, Standard Oil, Ford Motor Company and General Motors sold such items to General Francisco Franco on credit.
Nye was a supporter of the Popular Front government and strongly opposed the support given to Franco's forces. In May, 1938, he introduced a Senate resolution that proposed the lifting of the embargo on shipment of arms to the Spanish government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear he was opposed to this resolution and it was defeated in the Foreign Relations Committee by seventeen votes to one.
Nye's long-term enemy, William Langer, was his opponent for his seat in Congress in November 1938. Nye was re-elected for a third term by a margin of nearly 20,000 votes over Langer out of more than 263,000 votes cast in the Senate race.
Nye remained a staunch isolationist during the emergence of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe. On the outbreak of the Second World War Nye joined the America First Committee (AFC) other members included Robert E. Wood, John T. Flynn, Charles A. Lindbergh, Burton K. Wheeler, Robert R. McCormick, Hugh Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Amos Pinchot, Harry Elmer Barnes and Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish. The AFC soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
On 15th April, 1940, Nye told a meeting in Pennsylvania that the European war was not "worthy of the sacrifice of one American mule, much less one American son." He also argued that "Russia, Stalin and communist ideology" would eventually win from the Second World War.
When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he realised that it would be vitally important to enlist the Unoted States as Britain's ally. Churchill appointed William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." Stephenson was very concerned with the growth of the American First Committee and his agents estimated that there were 700 chapters and nearly a million members of isolationist groups.
Nye attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for giving the leaders of England and France "reason to believe that if they would declare war on Germany, help would be forthcoming." He went on to argue that the United States had "sold out, by deliberate falsification, the two European nations with which we had the closest ties. We sent France to her death and have brought England perilously close to it."
On 22nd August, 1940 William Stephenson reported to London that the destroyer deal was agreed upon. The agreement for transferring 50 aging American destroyers, in return for the rights to air and naval basis in Bermuda, Newfoundland, the Caribbean and British Guiana, was announced 3rd September, 1940. The bases were leased for 99 years and the destroyers were of great value as convey escorts. Nye led the campain to defeat the administration Lend Lease proposal. Although Nye persuaded Burton K. Wheeler, Hugh Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Henrik Shipstead, Homer T. Bone, James B. Clark, William Langer, and Arthur Capper, to vote against the measure, it was passed by 60 votes to 31.
The British Security Coordination developed a policy of trying to undermine the leaders of the America First Committee (AFC). Leading isolationists were monitored, targeted and harassed. When Gerald Nye spoke in Boston in September 1941, thousands of handbills were handed out attacking him as an appeaser and Nazi lover. A BSC agent Donald Chase Downes was instructed to spy on the AFC. Bill Macdonald, the author of The True Intrepid: Sir William Stephenson and the Unknown Agents (2001), has pointed out: "Downes eventually discovered there was Nazi activity in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland and Boston. In some cases they traced actual transfers of money from the Nazis to the America Firsters."
In a speech in August 1941, Nye claimed that the motion picture industry had "become the most gigantic engines of propaganda in existence to rouse the war fever in America and plunge this Nation to her destruction". He added that the movies were "not revealing the sons of mothers writhing in agony in trench, in mud, on barbed wire, amid scenes of battle or sons of mothers living legless, or lungless, or brainless, or sightless in hospitals." His commented that this approach was partly due to the large number of refugees and British actors working in the industry.
In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that the "three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration". Soon afterwards Nye gave his support to Lindbergh and argued "that the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war." These speeches resulted in some people claiming that Nye was anti-Semitic.
The Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941. The following day Nye voted in the Senate for war. He admitted: "The one thing an American can want to do - win the war and win it with the greatest possible dispatch and decisiveness. It is not time to quibble over what might have been done or how we got where we are. We know only that the enemy chose to make war against us. To give our Commander in Chief unqualified and unprejudicial backing in his prosecution of the war is an obligation which I shall gladly fulfill. Differences over matters of foreign policy up to this hour are abandoned and unity should be accorded in every particular."
Nye's known isolationist views became very unpopular after America entered the war and he lost his seat in Congress in November 1944. He became a lawyer in Washington and was special assistant for elderly housing, in the Federal Housing Administration (1960-64).
Gerald Nye died in Maryland on 17th July, 1971.