Burton K. Wheeler

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Burton K. Wheeler (1882-1975), was a Democratic politician and Senator (1923–47) from Montana. Born to a poor Yankee family in Massachusetts, he migrated to Montana in 1907. His quick wit and powerful and sharp tongue made him a leading politician. Based in Butte, he led the left-wing of the Democratic party against the copper interests, and spoke out for the Progressive Movement. After his defeat for state attorney general, President Woodrow Wilson named him U.S. District Attorney for Montana (1913-1918).

In 1920, Wheeler ran for governor on the radical leftist Non-Partisan League ticket and was also the Democratic candidate. he was defeated by a conservative coalition in a Republican year, but came back to win the Senate seat in 1922 thanks to liberal and left support by labor unions and radical farmers. He was the running mate in 1924 for Robert LaFollette, who ran a third party presidential campaign based on labor union and German American support.

A leading Senate progressive in the 1920s, Wheeler gained fame by exposing the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding Administration.

He was one of the earliest supporters in the west of Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1932 and was a liberal who supported the entire New Deal. In 1935, as chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, Wheeler led a successful fight to win passage of the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. It was bitterly opposed by the electric utilities lobby.

Wheeler he broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 and led the successful battle to stop Roosevelt from expanding the Supreme Court and packing it with liberals.

Wheeler leaks top sectret US war plan three days before Pearl Harbor

Before Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), he was an isolationist, leading opposition to help for Britain in World War II, a position favored by his German American, Scandinavian and Irish Catholic supporters. He warned of a potential Roosevelt dictatorship if the United States joined the war. After Roosevelt asked for Lend-Lease legislation in 1940 to send military supplies to Britain, then very hard pressed in its war with Nazi Germany, Wheeler called it the "New Deal's triple-A foreign policy--it will plow under every fourth American boy." Roosevelt shot back that Wheeler's statement was "the most untruthful," the "most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has been said in public life in my generation." In early December 1941 a military officer gave Wheeler a copy of the top secret American war plan for fighting Germany, and Wheeler gave it to the Chicago Tribune, which published the secrets in a desperate effort to weaken the American military so much that Roosevelt would avoid war. Pearl Harbor came a few days later and Wheeler went quiet.

Wheeler was defeated in the 1946 Democratic primary because he was too conservative for most Democrats. The seat then turned to the Republican Zales Ecton. He became a highly paid corporate lawyer in Washington and gave strong support to Republican Senator Joe McCarthy.

Further reading

  • Wheeler, Burton. Yankee from the West (1962), his autobiography
  • Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-1945 (1983).