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  • Isolationist Voices in the Truman EraNebraska Senators Hugh Butler and Kenneth Wherry
  • Bernard Lemelin (bio)
Key Words

Cold War, conservatism, Great Debate, isolationism, United States Congress

Although North Dakota has acquired during the early Cold War period the reputation of having been "the nation's most isolationist state,"1 Nebraska was certainly not too far behind in that regard. This situation to a large extent can be ascribed to the attitude of its two prominent Republican senators: Hugh Butler, who sat from 1941 to 1954, and Kenneth Wherry, from 1943 to 1951. Suffice it to say that Butler, depicted by the New York Times as "a leading Midwest isolationist,"2 opposed the Greek-Turkish Aid Program and the Marshall Plan. In early 1952, incidentally, he did not hesitate to describe Dwight Eisenhower as "the choice of the 'Eastern Internationalists' who looked to him to continue the foreign handout programs."3 As for Wherry, portrayed as "a powerful spokesman of . . . isolationist Republicanism" and "an outspoken critic of nato," he disparaged the British loan of 1946 and introduced, a few years later, a famous resolution to restrict the power of the president to assign troops to Europe.4

This article, which is based primarily on an examination of the rich manuscript collections of Butler and Wherry at the Nebraska State Historical Society (Lincoln), seeks to present and analyze both politicians' views of US foreign policy during the Truman years. More specifically, it addresses questions such as the following: What were Butler's and Wherry's perceptions of the containment policy? Why did they oppose most of the Truman administration's programs? To what extent do these Nebraskans deserve the label "isolationist"? What was their impact in this nascent Cold War context?

Such a study is justified on several grounds. First, the Nebraskans' conservative viewpoint on foreign policy, expressed in a resolutely internationalist context,5 represented an oddity sufficiently unusual in itself to intrigue any attentive [End Page 83] observer of the period, since the great majority of their congressional colleagues firmly believed that the threat of international communism outweighed any lingering fear of an American overcommitment abroad. In fact, until their respective deaths in the early 1950s, Butler and Wherry persisted in vocally opposing US bipartisan internationalism. Interestingly, Nebraska, as implied above, was one of the rare states in the immediate postwar era to rely on a senatorial delegation made exclusively of isolationist elements.6

Second, this article is especially relevant from a contemporary perspective, as isolationist voices emanating from the Grand Old Party on Capitol Hill have been widely heard in recent years7 and still reverberate today. Obamaera foreign aid, which had "few domestic allies," provides a cogent case in point, as illustrated by the denigratory position displayed by Republican congressmen such as Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Ted Poe (Texas), and Andy Harris (Maryland) regarding that sensitive issue.8 These representatives, indeed, were among those legislators who then urged sharp reductions in America's foreign aid budget.9 For his part, Rand Paul (Kentucky), "the leading critic of US foreign aid in the . . . Senate since he was elected to the chamber," even called in 2014 for the abolishment of all US aid programs, including to Israel.10

Third, a comparative and systematic study of Butler and Wherry's isolationist stance during the early Cold War era is without equivalent in the current historical literature. In their survey History of Nebraska (2014), scholars Ronald Naugle, John Montag, and James Olson only refer to both politicians in a brief paragraph in order to demonstrate the Grand Old Party's political domination in the Cornhusker state during the 1940s.11 As for the specific publications dealing with each of these "two political giants of the Republican party,"12 it must be noted that the foreign policy issue, overall, did not receive an exhaustive treatment. For instance, in the chapter entitled "Wherry's View of International Political Intrigue" in historian Marvin Stromer's monograph The Making of a Political Leader: Kenneth S. Wherry and the United States Senate (1969), Stromer omits any mention of key postwar foreign policy matters such as the British loan, the Truman Doctrine, and the Point Four...


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