Burton K. Wheeler

Burton K. Wheeler
United States Senator
from Montana
In office
March 4, 1923  January 3, 1947
Preceded by Henry L. Myers
Succeeded by Zales Ecton
Member of the Montana House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born Burton Kendall Wheeler
(1882-02-27)February 27, 1882
Hudson, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died January 6, 1975(1975-01-06) (aged 92)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Other political
Progressive (1924)
Spouse(s) Lulu M. White (18831962)
Children 3 sons: John, Edward, and John
3 daughters: Elizabeth, Frances (died 1957), and Marion
Alma mater University of Michigan

Burton Kendall Wheeler (February 27, 1882  January 6, 1975) was an attorney and an American politician of the Democratic Party in Montana; he served as a United States Senator from 1923 until 1947. He returned to his law practice and lived in Washington, D.C. for his remaining years.

Wheeler was an independent Democrat who initially represented the left wing of the party, receiving support from Montana's labor unions. He ran for vice president in 1924 on the Progressive Party ticket headed by Wisconsin Republican Robert La Follette, Sr.. An ardent New Deal liberal until 1937, he broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the issue of packing the United States Supreme Court. In foreign policy from 193841 he became a leader of the non-interventionist wing of the party, fighting against entry into World War II until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Early life and education

Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts, to Mary Elizabeth Rice (née Tyler) and Asa Leonard Wheeler.[1] He grew up in Massachusetts, attending the public schools. He first worked as a stenographer in Boston, Massachusetts.

He traveled west to attend University of Michigan Law School, where he graduated in 1905. He initially intended to settle in Seattle, but after getting off the train in Butte, Montana, he lost his belongings in a poker game. The new attorney settled there and began practicing law.[2][3]

Marriage and family

Wheeler married Lulu M. White. They had six children: John, Elizabeth, Edward, Frances, Richard and Marion. Frances helped her father with his research for his autobiography, Yankee from the West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-born U. S. Senator from Montana, which he published in 1962 and dedicated to her and his wife.[4]

Political career

Wheeler was elected as a Montana state legislator in 1910, and in that position, he gained a reputation as a champion of labor against the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which dominated the state's economy and politics. He was appointed as a United States Attorney. During his tenure, he was notable for not issuing a single sedition indictment during World War I, especially significant as Montana was a large stronghold of the Industrial Workers of the World. In other parts of the country, IWW membership was suppressed under the new sedition law.


In 1920, Wheeler ran for Governor of Montana, easily winning the Democratic primary, and he won the support of the Non-Partisan League in the general election. The ticket included a multi-racial set of candidates, unusual for 1920, including an African American and a Blackfoot Indian.[5] Wheeler was defeated by Republican former U.S. Senator Joseph M. Dixon.[3]

Wheeler ran as a Democrat for the Senate in 1922, and was elected over Congressman Carl W. Riddick, the Republican nominee, with 55% of the vote. He broke with the Democratic Party in 1924 to run for Vice President of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket led by La Follette. They carried one state—La Follette's Wisconsin—and ran well in union areas and railroad towns. He returned to the Democratic Party after the election, which Republican Calvin Coolidge won in an Electoral College landslide. He served a total of four terms and was re-elected in 1928, 1934, and 1940.


In 1930, Wheeler gained national attention when he successfully campaigned for the reelection to the U.S. Senate of his friend and Democratic colleague Thomas Gore, the colorful "Blind Cowboy" of Oklahoma. Wheeler supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election, and many of his New Deal policies. He broke with Roosevelt over his opposition to the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, and also opposed much of Roosevelt's foreign policy before World War II. In the 1940 presidential election, there was a large movement to "Draft Wheeler" into the presidential race, possibly as a third party candidate, led primarily by John L. Lewis.

In 1938, Wheeler introduced Senate Resolution 294, a "sense of the senate" statement that, in order to insure fair competition, AM radio stations in the United States should be limited to a transmitter power of 50,000 watts.[6] Now commonly known as the Wheeler resolution, it was approved on June 13, 1938[7] and the next year the Federal Communications Commission implemented a 50,000 watt cap, which still remains in force.[8]

Opposition to World War II intervention

Wheeler, an outspoken non-interventionist, opposed the U.S. entry into World War II.[9]

As tensions mounted in Europe, he supported the anti-war America First Committee. As chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, Wheeler announced in August 1941 he would investigate “interventionists” in the motion picture industry. He questioned why so many foreign-born men were allowed to shape American opinion. "Critics charged that the Committee was motivated by animus to Jewish studio heads."[10] Representing the studios was 1940 Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie who charged that Wheeler and other critics sought to impose the same kind of censorship that Nazi Germany was enacting all over Europe. Wheeler also led the attack on Roosevelt's Lend Lease Bill charging that if passed "it would plow under every fourth American boy".[11] Roosevelt in response charged that Wheeler's statement was "the damnedest thing said in a generation".

After the start of World War II in Europe, Wheeler opposed aid to Britain or the other Allies, already fighting in the war. On October 17, 1941, Wheeler said: "I can't conceive of Japan being crazy enough to want to go to war with us." One month later, he added: "If we go to war with Japan, the only reason will be to help England." The United States Army secret Victory Program was leaked on 4 December 1941 to Wheeler, who passed this information on to three newspapers.[3][12]

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Wheeler supported a declaration of war saying, "The only thing now is to do our best to lick hell out of them."[13]

Later life

Wheeler sought renomination in 1946 but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Leif Erickson, who attacked Wheeler as insufficiently liberal and for his "pre-war isolationist" views. Erickson in turn was defeated by Republican state representative Zales Ecton.

On September 15, 1950, Wheeler served as counsel to fellow Democrat from Minnesota Max Lowenthal during the latter's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.[14]

Wheeler did not return to politics, nor full-time to Montana, but took up his law practice in Washington, D.C. Aided by research by his daughter, Frances (died 1957), Wheeler wrote his autobiography, with Paul F. Healy, Yankee from the West, published in 1962 by Doubleday & Company. He dedicated the book to his wife and daughter. He died in Washington, D.C., aged 92, and is interred in the District of Columbia's Rock Creek Cemetery.[15] His Butte home is a National Historic Landmark in recognition of his national political role.[16]

In 2004, journalist Bill Kauffman described Wheeler as having been notable as an "anti-draft, anti-war, anti-big business defender of civil liberties".[17]

  • During the 1946 campaign, David George Kin wrote and published The Plot Against America: Senator Wheeler and the Forces Behind Him, a political pamphlet against Wheeler by supporters of the Communist Party USA. It accused Wheeler and Harry S. Truman of being part of a fascist conspiracy.[18]
  • In Philip Roth's alternate history novel, The Plot Against America (2004), Wheeler serves as Vice President during the fictional Presidency of Charles Lindbergh. Roth depicted Acting President Wheeler as a political opportunist who imposes martial law in Lindbergh's absence. (However, Wheeler had historically been known as a leading opponent of the martial law imposed by the Governor of Montana during World War I.)[17]
  • In an earlier, lesser-known alternate history novel, The Divide (1980) by author and cartoonist William Overgard, Wheeler becomes President in 1940, campaigning on a platform of isolationism despite huge victories by the Axis in that year (far larger than those which actually occurred). As a result, when the U.S. belatedly finally enters the war, it is defeated in 1946 and partitioned as spoils between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; Wheeler along with most of the government and military are ultimately executed as war criminals.

See also


  1. Burton K. Wheeler (with Paul F. Healy), Yankee From The West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-born U.S. Senator from Montana, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962, full text online at Internet Archive website, accessed December 12, 2012
  2. Gunther, John (1947). Inside U.S.A. New York, London: Harper & Brothers. p. 176.
  3. 1 2 3 Tribune Staff. "125 Montana Newsmakers: Burton K. Wheeler". Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  4. Yankee from the West: The Candid, Turbulent Life Story of the Yankee-born U. S. Senator from Montana, by Burton K. Wheeler and Paul F. Healy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1962, full text online at Internet Archive Website
  5. Current Biography 1940, p. 858
  6. "Limitation of Power of Radio Broadcast Stations" (Senate Resolution 294), Journal of the Senate of the United States of America (Seventy-Fifth Congress, Third Session), June 9, 1938, page 507.
  7. "Radio Stations Broadcasting in Standard Band", Journal of the Senate of the United States of America (Seventy-Fifth Congress, Third Session), June 13, 1938, page 539.
  8. "Proposed New FCC Rules Well Received", Broadcasting, February 1, 1939, pages 16-17, 70-73.
  9. gordonskene (4 May 2017). "May 4, 1941 - Burton K. Wheeler Makes The Case Against Intervention". pastdaily.com. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  10. David Gordon.America First: the Anti-War Movement, Charles Lindbergh and the Second World War, 1940-1941
  11. Inside U.S.A. (Gunther), p. 175.
  12. Charles E. Kirkpatrick, Writing the Victory Plan of 1941, Ch. 4, "Detailed Planning", United States Army Center of Military History, CMH Pub 93-10.
  13. Susan Dunn (2013). 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler-the Election Amid the Storm. Yale UP. p. 310. ISBN 9780300190861.
  14. "Hearings regarding Communist espionage in the United States Government". Archive.org. 28 August 1950. pp. 2959–2986. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  15. Burton K. Wheeler profile, Political Graveyard website
  16. George R. Adams and Ralph Christian (February 1976). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Burton K. Wheeler House" (pdf). National Park Service. and Accompanying 2 photos, exterior, from 1975. (681 KB)
  17. 1 2 Bill Kauffman, "Heil to the Chief", The American Conservative, September 27, 2004.
  18. "Wheeler's Progress: The Evolution of a Progressive", antiwar.com, May 1, 2009.

Further reading

  • Anderson, John Thomas. ”Senator Burton K. Wheeler and United States Foreign Relations” PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 1982
  • Johnson, Marc C., “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Burton K. Wheeler, and the Great Debate: A Montana Senator's Crusade for Non-intervention before World War II”, Montana: The Magazine of Western History (Winter 2012) 62#1 pp 3–22
  • Morrison, John, and Catherine Wright Morrison, Mavericks: The Lives and Battles of Montana's Political Legends (2003), pp 161–96
  • Ruetten, Richard T. Burton K. Wheeler, 1905-1925, An Independent Liberal under Fire (1957); vol 1 of standard biography
  • Ruetten, R. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana: A Progressive between the Wars (1961); vol. 2 of standard biography

Primary sources

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Henry L. Myers
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Montana
March 4, 1923 January 3, 1947
Served alongside: Thomas J. Walsh, John E. Erickson, James E. Murray
Succeeded by
Zales Ecton
Preceded by
Lynn Frazier
North Dakota
Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
1933 1936
Succeeded by
Elmer Thomas
Preceded by
Clarence Dill
Chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee
1935 1947
Succeeded by
Wallace H. White
as Chair of the
Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee
Party political offices
Preceded by
Sam V. Stewart
Democratic nominee for
Governor of Montana

Succeeded by
John E. Erickson
Preceded by
Henry L. Myers
Democratic nominee for
U.S. Senator from Montana (Class 1)

1922, 1928, 1934, 1940
Succeeded by
Leif Erickson
Preceded by
Progressive nominee for
Vice President of the United States

Succeeded by
Honorary titles
Preceded by
John N. Heiskell
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
(Sitting or Former)

alongside Clarence Dill (D-WA)

December 28, 1972 January 6, 1975
Succeeded by
Clarence Dill
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