Munitions Investigating Committee

In 1933 Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, approached Gerald P. Nye, George Norris and Robert La Follette and asked them to instigate a Senate investigation into the international munitions industry. They agreed and 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. Alger Hiss was the committee's legal assistant. John T. Flynn, a writer with the New Republic magazine, was recruited and wrote most of the reports published by the committee.

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 the munitions industry. The committee was also highly critical of the nation's bankers. In a speech in 1936 Gerald P. 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".

Gerald P. Nye remained a staunch isolationist during the emergence of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe. In August 1940, 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 15th April, 1940, Gerald P. 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.

In 1941 Nye was the most active member of the America First Committee in the Senate. This involved the attempt 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.

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 America First Committee influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year the organization had 450 local chapters and over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941.

Primary Sources

(1) Dorothy Detzer , in her autobiography Appointment on the Hill (1948) reported a conversation she had with George Norris in 1933 about Gerald P. Nye leading the investigation into the international munitions industry.

Nye's young, he has inexhaustible energy, and he has courage. Those are all important assets. He may be rash in his judgments at times, but it's the rashness of enthusiasm. I think he would do a first-class job with an investigation. Besides, Nye doesn't come up for election again for another four years; by that time the investigation would be over. If it reveals what I am certain it will, such an investigation would help him politically, not harm him. And that would not be the case with many senators. For you see, there isn't a major industry in North Dakota closely allied to the munitions business.

(2) Gerald P. Nye, speech in Congress (May, 1933)

Investigations serve a most healthy purpose in that they prevent many practices and serve as a caution against practices which might be considered proper and customary but for the development of a conscience by the existence of an investigating committee.

With economic and political influence coming into such concentrated control it is of greatest importance that legislative bodies be on closest guard against encroachment which further threatens a free government. Honest investigations, prosecuted by legislators determined to reach and develop the facts, and by legislators who in their work can and will abandon partisanship, are of greatest value to the government and its people. They afford necessary knowledge basic to helpful legislation. They educate people to practices unfriendly to their best interests. They throw fear into men an interests who would by any means at their command move governments to selfish purposes.

(3) Gerald P. Nye, speech reported in the New York Times (10th February, 1936)

It would not be fair to say that the House of Morgan took us to war to save their investment in the Allies, but 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. We started in 1914 with a neutrality policy which permitted the sale of arms and munitions to belligerents, but which forbad loans to belligerents. Then, in the name of our own business welfare. President Wilson permitted the policy to be stretched to the extent of permitting the house of Mor gan to supply the credit needs of the Allies. After this error of neutral ity, the road to war was paved and greased for us.

(4) Report on Activities and Sales of Munition Companies (April, 1936)

Almost without exception, the American munitions companies investigated have at times resorted to such unusual approaches, questionable favors and commissions, and methods of 'doing the needful' as to constitute, in effect, a form of bribery of foreign governmental officials or of their close friends in order to secure business. These business methods carried within themselves the seeds of disturbance to the peace and stability of those nations in which they take place.

While the evidence before this committee does not show that wars have been started solely because of the activities of munitions makers and their agents, it is also true that wars rarely have one single cause, and the committee finds it to be against the peace of the world for selfishly interested organizations to be left free to goad and frighten nations into military activity.

(5) Joel B. Clark, introduction to the Munitions Industry: Report on Existing Legislation (5th June, 1936)

The Committee wishes to point out most definitely that its study of events resulting from the then existing neutrality legislation, or the lack of it, is in no way a criticism, direct or implied, of the sincere devotion of the then President, Woodrow Wilson, to the high causes of peace and democracy. Like other leaders in government, business and finance, he had watched the growth of militarism in the pre-war years. Militarism meant the alliance of the military with powerful economic groups to secure appropriations on the one hand for a constantly increasing military and naval establishment, and on the other hand, the constant threat of the use of that swollen military establishment in behalf of the economic interests at home and abroad of the industrialists supporting it. President Wilson was personally impelled by the highest motives and the most profound convictions as to the justice of the cause of our country and was devoted to peace. He was caught up in a situation created largely by the profit-making interests in the United States, and such interests spread to nearly everybody in the country. It seemed necessary to the prosperity of our people that their markets in Europe remain unimpaired. President Wilson, himself, stated that he realized that the economic rivalries of European nations had played their part in bringing on the war in 1914.

(6) Gerald P. Nye, speech in Congress (6th June, 1936)

Loans extended to the Allies in 1915 and 1916, led to a very considerable war boom and inflation. This boom extended beyond munitions to auxiliary supplies and equipment as well as to agricultural products. The nature of such a war-boom inflation is that, like all inflations, an administration is almost powerless to check it, once the movement is well started. Our foreign policy then is seriously affected by it, even to the extent of making impossible the alteration of our foreign policy in such a way as to protect our neutral rights.

(7) Gerald P. Nye, speech in Congress (July, 1939)

No member of the Munitions Committee to my knowledge has ever contended that it was munitions makers who took us to war. But that committee and its members have said again and again, that it was war trade and the war boom, shared in by many more than munitions makers, that played the primary part in moving the United States into a war.

(8) Gerald P. Nye, speech reported in the New York Times on 28th August 1940.

England and France reason to believe that if they would declare war on Germany, help would be forthcoming. Some day history will show, as one of the blackest marks of our time, that we 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. Had they stalled Hitler for a while, while they prepared to meet him, the story might have been different.