Tennessee’s senior United States senator, Kenneth D. McKellar, had declared himself solidly behind Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s plan to revise the neutrality act. McKellar had also urged President Franklin Roosevelt to call Congress into special session to consider neutrality legislation following Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. McKellar had visited with reporters while in Nashville following his return to Tennessee from a brief vacation in New England. The reporters were eager to discuss American neutrality. Senator McKellar was confident of success after the Roosevelt administration had suffered a humiliating setback during the summer. “Of course there will be opposition from Senators Borah and Nye,” McKellar acknowledged, “but the law will be passed.” William E. Borah of Idaho and Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota were both progressive Republicans and rabid isolationists. The wily McKellar was quick to point out the economic advantages of repealing the arms embargo. “There are vast surpluses of cotton, wheat and other commodities in the United States and when the foreign nations now at war start purchasing these, business will begin to boom.” As ever, Senator McKellar was acutely aware of the impact repealing the embargo would have on Tennessee. “Unemployment will disappear,” McKellar said.
On September 1, 1939, Senator McKellar urged President Roosevelt to call Congress back in special session to amend the neutrality act “in the interest of world peace.” McKellar believed “a large majority” of those members of Congress who had been opposed to the cash and carry provision advocated by Secretary of State Hull “would favor the real substance of these proposals now.” “With the present Neutrality Act in force,” McKellar insisted, “the United States is powerless to exert her powerful influence for world peace.” “Germany does not have to bother about us; Japan can ignore us and will,” Senator McKellar said. “By reason of the present laws, in world affairs our influence in the present crisis is about on parity with any minor power…” McKellar made clear his disdain for the dictators and had been a critic of both Hitler and Benito Mussolini longer than most congressmen. “I abhor war and war threateners and war-makers,” Senator McKellar said. “Apparently they are permanent fixtures in Europe today. Let us not help them by keeping on our statute books laws that give them aid and confidence.”
From Nashville, Senator McKellar traveled to Winchester, Tennessee, home of his junior colleague, Tom Stewart. The two Tennessee senators were lunching together when they received word President Roosevelt had called Congress to meet in special session. It was no coincidence that McKellar was on President Roosevelt’s list of telephone calls to make just after issuing the call for a special session of Congress.
After leaving his lunch with Senator Stewart, McKellar beamed at the news of the called session. “I will be there on September 21,” McKellar promised. “And Senator Stewart will be there, too.” Senator McKellar hurried off to Murfreesboro, Tennessee where he conferred with Congressman Albert Gore about the neutrality legislation.
Tennessee was also sending a new member of Congress to Washington for the special session. Estes Kefauver, had resigned from Governor Prentice Cooper’s Cabinet to run for the Congressional seat left vacant by the death of Sam McReynolds. Kefauver won the Democratic nomination and faced Republican Casto Dodson of Sparta, Tennessee, a former state senator. GOP Congressman J. Will Taylor traveled to the Third District to speak on Dodson’s behalf, while Senator Tom Stewart stumped the district for Kefauver. Senator McKellar made a radio address in support of Estes Kefauver, telling the people of the Third District the Democratic candidate “is conscientiously in favor of the principles and policies of the administration and just at this time the presence of a man like him to take Sam McReynolds’ place is almost imperative.”
Senator Stewart had made his own announcement in support of revising the neutrality laws on September 8, 1939, adding he would support the cash and carry provision. “This country needs the trade,” Stewart said. “That is one of the troubles with our economic system – – – we have too much surplus of commodities which other nations of the world can use.” “If we don’t sell to them,” Senator Stewart pointed out, “other nations will, so we might as well get the business.”
Stewart arrived in the Capitol for the joint session of Congress, only to turn around and leave for Atlanta hours later. The senator had been notified his wife, Helen, had been stricken with appendicitis while visiting their eldest daughter in Atlanta. Mrs. Stewart was taken to Emory hospital for an emergency surgery. Stewart intended to remain at his wife’s side before returning to Washington, D. C. Senator McKellar was at his desk in the Senate Office Building, still pleased with his tour of Tennessee. “I suppose I met more than 6,000 people in 29 counties,” McKellar told a newsman. “Every single person, with exception of one man, favored amendment of the present neutrality law.” Senator McKellar predicted, “The Senate will amend the law overwhelmingly.” The Tennessee senator added, “I want to handle the matter so as to keep us out of war. It is a dangerous mess over there.” With Senator Stewart having departed the Capitol to be with his wife, only Senator McKellar and Congressman Jere Cooper were in Washington, although Representative-elect Estes Kefauver was expected to arrive later that evening by automobile and would take the oath of office the following day.
The flurry of activity by McKellar won the senator editorial praise from the Nashville Tennessean; the Tennessean noted McKellar had “been bombarded with letters and telegrams opposing repeal of the arms embargo provision of the Neutrality Act.” The Tennessean pointed out “…Tennessee’s senior senator has the advantage of keeping in personal touch with his constituents” and only recently completed visits to the county seats of twenty-nine of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties. McKellar’s personal conversations revealed Tennesseans were in favor of repealing the arms embargo provision of the Neutrality Act. The Tennessean did not doubt for a moment Senator McKellar “accurately reflects” the “majority sentiment of his state.”
Congress convened in joint session at 1 p.m. on September 22, 1939 to hear President Roosevelt ask for repeal of the arms embargo and adopt neutrality legislation. Security was heavier than ever before for President Roosevelt’s visit to the Capitol. Kenneth Romney, the House Sergeant-At-Arms, announced no spectators would be allowed to stand in the galleries and only those bearing special admittance cards would be allowed inside the House chamber. FDR’s message was to the point and a pointed inasmuch as he directly hit at the heart of the isolationists. “Because I am wholly willing to ascribe an honorable desire for peace to those who hold different views from my own as to what those measures should be, I trust that these gentlemen will be sufficiently generous to ascribe equally lofty purposes to those with whom they disagree.” Roosevelt told Congress, “Let no man or group in any walk of life assume exclusive protectorate over the future well-being of America, because I conceive that regardless of party or section the mantle of peace and of patriotism is wide enough to cover us all. Let no group assume the exclusive label of the ‘peace bloc.’ We all belong to it.”
Despite President Roosevelt’s hope that good motives could be ascribed to every point of view, many congressmen and senators were not so generous after his speech. The press avidly collected opinion from senators and congressman immediately after the joint session. Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia snapped, “The President could have said it in a sentence: ‘Give me the power and go home.’” North Dakota’s Gerald Nye barked, “If the speech was intended to demonstrate the need for repeal of the arms embargo it was a miserable failure. There was nothing in it to indicate the need for a special session.” Arthur Capper of Kansas agreed with Senator Nye. “I don’t think the President showed any need for new legislation. I’m for the neutrality law as it stands.” Senator Tom Connally of Texas, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a supporter of the Roosevelt administration, praised the President’s address. “It was a splendid statement of international policy,” Connally said. Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York said, “It was a magnificent and impressive plea.” Tennessee’s K. D. McKellar told newsmen, “It expressed my view completely, and I believe it expressed the views of nine-tenths of the American people.”
Queried by another newsman about the President’s speech, Senator McKellar replied with but three words, saying, “Fine, excellent, splendid.” Most of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation approved of Roosevelt’s message to Congress; Congressman Wirth Courtney, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “95 per cent of the people of my district” agreed with the views of President Roosevelt. Congressman Albert Gore described the President’s talk as, “A peace message – – – very strongly so.” The newest member of Congress from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, praised Roosevelt’s message and added he had “no doubt the President will do all in his power to maintain this country’s neutrality.”
Congressmen were also divided in their opinions of the speech. Hamilton Fish was, as might be expected, less than impressed. “I was amazed to find that the President would put our unemployed back to work making war munitions for foreign nations for blood money profits,” Fish growled. “Every dollar spent by belligerents for arms and ammunitions in the United States means a dollar less for American cotton, wheat, corn, pork, and other foodstuffs.” Speaker William Bankhead said, “It was a very impressive statement of the President’s attitude. He delivered it logically and delivered it temperately.” Majority Leader Sam Rayburn said Roosevelt had given “a masterful presentation of the issue” and he believed “it voices the sentiment of an overwhelming majority of the American people.” Mary T. Norton, one of the few women to serve in Congress, said, “I hope the Senate will act on the embargo and follow through on the President’s suggestions. If it does, we stand a much better chance of keeping out of war.” Representative Caroline O’Day of New York, a personal friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and usually a strong supporter of Roosevelt, lamented, “I hate to vote against the President and I dislike being put in the position of aiding Hitler and Stalin but war to me is the sum of all iniquity and I must support the policy which seems most likely to keep us out – – – an embargo on arms.” Congressman John C. Schaefer of Wisconsin sounded the attitude of many Republicans in Congress, especially those from the Midwest where isolationist sentiment was quite strong. “I am opposed to being a rubber stamp for the President once more,” Schaefer snapped. “As for cash and carry, if these foreign governments have the cash to pay for what they buy for this war, they should begin passing the $13,000,000,000 they owe us for stuff they bought in the last war.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer collected similar statements from senators across the country. Senator Gerald Nye thundered, “Many members are now learning how their constituents back home feel in this matter. Their mail shows an overwhelming number of writers are against embargo repeal – – – and that goes for members who have not been aligned with us (meaning the noninterventionists) on this issue.” Senator Warren R. Austin, a Vermont Republican, was less strident. Austin said, “What we want is peace. In my opinion, the surest way to get it is to repeal the act. After having repealed the law Congress should sit back and look at the situation while remaining in session.” Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, whom President Roosevelt had once laughingly referred to as “an unreconstructed rebel”, simply said, “I will be for cash-and-carry.” Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin evaded the question, replying, “I am thinking and not talking these days.” Senator William Borah growled, “I’ve got at least one damn good campaign left in me.” Hiram Johnson promised, “There will be no compromise.”
Gerald Nye was right; congressmen and senators began hearing from their people back home.