George Norris, the Great War, and political courage

Andy Long on George Norris's integrity, unselfishness, courage, and consistency – even in the face of harsh criticism.

by

Though I grew up 90 miles away in Grant, probably the first time I heard about McCook’s George Norris was in college. It wasn’t in history class, though. I was heading home about 1 a.m. after a night on O Street in Lincoln when I walked past a used bookstore. Usually, this got our attention since the owner had cats that lived in the bookstore window.

On this night, there was a cart in front of the bookstore with books to give away. One of these books was John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. I picked it up and was amazed that there was a story about a U.S. Senator from McCook named George Norris.

We learn about Norris’s integrity, unselfishness, courage, and consistency from his failures. One of his biggest was the Armed Ship Bill.

In 1917, World War I was in full swing in Europe and the Armed Ship Bill would allow for neutral American merchant ships to be armed to fight off German U-Boats. World War I was brutal, killing millions in trench warfare. It started out with a terrorist assassination of an archduke in the Balkans and due to nationalism and a variety of treaties, it brought all of Europe into the conflict.

This was not necessarily seen as a war of good vs. evil. At the time, there were many Americans who sympathized more with the Germans than the British and French. With the demand for weapons for war and with a strong British navy, American businesses were quick to realize a profit by trading with the British and the French. 

It looked like it might be a challenge to get the Armed Ship Bill through Congress, but after the Zimmerman telegram was leaked to the press, opposition melted away. This note from the Germans to Mexico said they hoped the United States would stay neutral, but if unrestricted submarine warfare drew America into the war, the Germans would seek to ally with Mexico against the Americans. It was obvious that this bill would pass and draw us into war.

In an attempt to stop the bill, Norris believed that if he could rally enough senators they could carry out a filibuster until the end of the session and keep the Armed Ship Bill at bay. Norris was able to do just that.

This was not a popular move. Almost the entire country, including Nebraska, now stood against Germany. They viewed the Zimmerman note and submarine warfare as terroristic attacks against the United States. 

The filibuster worked, but shortly after, a new Congress started its session, a special session was called by President Wilson, and the White House declared that the president didn’t need Congressional authority. Wilson issued an executive order to execute the Armed Ship Bill, and eventually, we entered the Great War.

Politically, it was a no-brainer to support the bill. It had overwhelming support in the country and in Nebraska. So why did Norris oppose it? He felt it was being driven by money and industry, which was profiting from trade with Britain and France. Norris opposed sending American kids to die to simply keep trade going. He was not willing to trade profits for human life, and fought for the common family against big business.

Norris was quickly painted as a German sympathizer, even a traitor. Newspapers vilified him. Norris called for an event back in Nebraska where he aimed to explain his situation. The place was crowded and at the start. The crowd was hostile.

Sen. George Norris

But Norris was able to explain why he opposed the bill, in detail. More importantly, Nebraskans were willing to listen. Though many in the crowd still disagreed with Norris, they respected his resolve. In fact, they continued to elect Norris to serve Nebraska for over two more decades. And in that time, Norris continued his willingness to go against his party and public opinion to do what he thought was best for the common person.

During the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt cited Norris and the questions we can ask to determine if someone is a true statesman. He said:

“History asks, Did the man have integrity? Did the man have unselfishness? Did the man have courage? Did the man have consistency?”

There are few statesmen in America today who so definitely and clearly measure up to an affirmative answer to those four questions as did Nebraska’s George W. Norris. Integrity, unselfishness, courage, and consistency are as important now as they were in his day.

 Andy Long is executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp. and leads community efforts to facilitate the formation, retention, attraction, and expansion of businesses in the McCook area. He also is the director of Cultivate Rural Leaders, a nonprofit organization providing rural communities and organizations with leadership education. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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