Give peace a chance? Congress’s lone World War pacifist

Only one Member of Congress, Representative Jeannette Rankin, voted against the resolution that brought the United States into the Second World War. Astonishingly, she had also voted against American participation in the First World War.


A clear, steady and solitary voice

‘In a clear, steady voice, Rankin voted “No,”. The packed House Chamber erupted with boos and jeers’.

President Roosevelt had just addressed the joint session of the 77th United States Congress. The 82 Senators present came together with 389 Representatives on the floor of the House. They had joined to denounce Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbour and to vote for war.

Jeannette_Rankin_portrait By Sharon Sprung ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On 7 April 1917, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin voted against declaring war on Germany. And now,  24 years later, she faced another war resolution in Congress. She stuck to her pacifist beliefs and cast the only vote against declaring war on Japan. In doing so, she became the only Member of Congress to vote against both World Wars.

On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan launched its attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour. This was, according to President Roosevelt, a date that would live in infamy. The next day, Congress was asked to pass a joint resolution to declare war against Japan.

She was one of only two Members of Congress present at both votes. But she was the only legislator to vote twice against the USA’s participation in a world war. The vote was unanimous in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, 388 members voted for the resolution.

There was only one vote against, from Miss Rankin.She was one of only two Members of Congress present at both votes. But she was the only legislator to vote twice against the USA’s participation in a world war.

‘I cannot vote for war’

It had been easier the first time. In 1917, she was one of 56 Members of Congress who voted against the resolution to declare war on Germany.

By April 1917, the clamour for the United States to enter the war had reached a fever pitch. Unrestricted submarine warfare sank millions of tonnes of American shipping. The indiscriminate naval conflict had seen the Kriegsmarine target passenger liners. The most infamous incident involved RMS Lusitania. Hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat, she sank in 1915, with almost 1,200 civilians killed.

Jeannette Rankin By Matzene, Chicago [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then there were clumsy German attempts to create local difficulties. In January 1917, Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, sent a telegram to Mexico. In the telegram, he invited Mexico to join in a war against the United States. The British intercepted the telegram and passed its explosive contents to the Americans.

The final straw was a Germany declaration on 31 January 1917. It announced that it would target neutral shipping in a designated war zone. In the following three months, U-Boats sank five US merchant ships. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

Six Senators and 49 other Representatives joined Congresswoman Rankin to vote against war. Some were like-minded pacifists. Others had strong non-interventionist stances.

In casting her vote, she said: ‘I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.’ This group did not represent the majority opinion of either House. The resolution passed by 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives.

The situation was quite different in 1941. America had just suffered a calamitous and jolting attack from the sky. Her prize naval base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbour, was a twisted mass of smoking metal. Flames still rose up from disabled ships. Bodies still floated in the water.

The USS Arizona in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941

In Washington D.C., the political class reacted with shock and disbelief. Finally, a terrible fury was born fuelled by righteous indignation. An America predisposed to isolationism was difficult to rouse. Once her blood was up, however, nothing could satisfy her but victory.

NPR retold the story of how she cast her vote and the immediate aftermath:

‘In a clear, steady voice, Rankin voted “No”.The final vote for the U.S. entering the war was 388-1. Rankin was the only member of Congress who voted against the war.’

She was thanked with boos and hisses from the public galleries and press.

Explaining her vote, she said: “as a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else”. Her stance killed any chances of being re-elected. She paid for her dissension in other ways. She received hate mail from across the country, and, in the House, she became a pariah.

The Jeannette Rankin Brigade

Rankin would have earned a place in history regardless of her stand against the two world wars. She was the first woman elected to Congress. She pushed legislation that would become the 19th amendment to the US Constitution.

Her vote in 1941 was not her last stand against American involvement in war. She campaigned against the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. On 15 January 1968, at the age of 87, she led a protest of 5,000 women to the foot of Capitol Hill. They campaigned against the US involvement in Vietnam as the ‘Jeannette Rankin Brigade’.

Statue of Jeannette Rankin in the National Statuary Hall Collection

After her death in 1973, her home state of Montana sent a statue depicting Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. Capitol. On the plinth are the words that accompanied her lonely 1941 vote: “I cannot vote for war.”