Eriksmoen: Gronna's congressional legacy overshadowed by opposition to WWI

Candidates are often elected to Congress because of issues or causes for which they become a leading spokesperson. However, unforeseen events can occur that overshadow their original priorities, causing members of Congress to become best remember...
A.J. Gronna, who served in the U.S. Senate from North Dakota. Special to The Forum

Candidates are often elected to Congress because of issues or causes for which they become a leading spokesperson. However, unforeseen events can occur that overshadow their original priorities, causing members of Congress to become best remembered for their positions in those events instead of for the issues that they had originally championed.

This was certainly the case with Asle J. Gronna, who served as a congressman from 1905 to 1911 and as a U.S. senator from 1911 to 1921. Gronna, who owned a farm near Lakota, was extremely outspoken about agricultural issues, vowing to author and push for bills that would improve the lives of North Dakota farmers.

Because he was so successful at this, he became the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Gronna also championed progressive issues, and as a congressman and senator, "he favored direct presidential primaries, popular election of United States senators, a graduated income tax, women's suffrage, the initiative and referendum, workmen's compensation, actions to curb the growth of giant monopolies, measures to clean up corrupt practices in elections and limiting contributions and expenditures."

However, he is best remembered for his vociferous opposition to American involvement in World War I, an issue that was not on his radar before he entered politics.

On Feb. 1, 1911, Gronna was elected to the U.S. Senate through a special election, defeating the incumbent William Purcell. Having served six years in the U.S. House, Gronna established a reputation for "integrity and honesty." Most of his early work as a senator involved agricultural issues, but when war broke out in Europe in 1914, Gronna and many of his supporters in North Dakota became worried that the U.S. would be dragged into it.

Confident that Gronna would fight to keep us out of that war, North Dakota citizens re-elected him to the Senate on Nov. 3. The majority of North Dakota farmers were people with German or Scandinavian backgrounds, and by and large they opposed becoming involved in a European conflict. At the outset of the war, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation of neutrality, and this was endorsed by both North Dakota senators, Gronna and Porter J. McCumber.

The U.S. may have been neutral on paper, but in reality, we held very close economic ties with Great Britain. Germany considered the waters around Great Britain a war zone, and on May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British steamer Lusitania off the Irish coast.

Of the 1,198 passengers and crew who were killed, 128 were American citizens. There was a tremendous outpouring of condemnation of Germany by Americans, and many considered this an act of war.

Feelings of outrage also existed in North Dakota, but this was largely moderated by warnings of caution. Many people in the state had deep suspicions that "eastern munitions makers" were rattling their sabers to try and drag us into Europe's war. Gronna voiced their concerns on the Senate floor when he said that "many want war to enrich the traffickers in war materials."

On Feb. 26, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm American merchant ships so the seamen could defend themselves if attacked by Germans. The House overwhelmingly passed the Armed Ship Bill by a vote of 403-13.

However, after the bill arrived in the Senate, Gronna and 11 other senators filibustered it, preventing its passage. Wilson, utilizing executive action, declared that seamen aboard merchant ships could arm themselves.

Tensions increased between Germany and the U.S., and on April 4, 1917, the Senate passed a war resolution 82-6. The six senators who voted against going to war with Germany were Gronna, three Democrats and his good Republican friends, George Norris from Nebraska and Robert La Follette from Wisconsin.

With the declaration of war, Gronna ceased giving anti-war speeches, and focused on "wartime patriotism."; After the capitulation of Germany in November 1918, President Wilson pushed for a League of Nations compact between the U.S. and other countries "to maintain world peace."

Before Wilson could move forward on this, he needed the consent of the Senate. The Senate was divided into four groups: those who supported the league; those who wanted mild alterations; those who wanted major alterations; and those who totally opposed joining the league. The latter group, which consisted of 16 senators, became known as the "irreconcilables," and Gronna was not only a member but one of the most outspoken critics of the league.

He claimed "that joining the League would be tantamount to surrendering American sovereignty." In 1919 and 1920, four different votes to join the league occurred in the Senate, but it was defeated each time.

In 1920, Gronna was up for re-election and was challenged by several candidates, including former Gov. Frank White and Edwin Ladd, president of the Agricultural College in Fargo (now North Dakota State University). At the time, the Republican Party was divided between the Nonpartisan League (NPL) and the Independent Voters Association (IVA).

In politics, as in war, Gronna hated conflict, and hoped he could get the endorsement of both groups by remaining neutral and not joining either group. Even though his voting record in Congress was closely aligned with the NPL, he refused to endorse the NPL's platform. This angered Arthur Townley, the NPL leader, and he endorsed the candidacy of Ladd.

With that development, Gronna was forced to turn to the IVA, but White was a member of that group.White had served as governor of North Dakota from 1901 to 1904, and when the U.S. entered World War I, he was put in command of the second North Dakota National Guard unit.

Because of the serious challenge from White, Gronna was forced to accept the platform of the IVA. After serious arm-twisting and cajoling, White dropped out, but it occurred too late to get his name removed from the ballot. At the primary on June 30, Ladd defeated Gronna by 3,815 votes. Since White received 5,477 votes, his name remaining on the ballot likely cost Gronna his Senate seat.

Following his defeat, Gronna was named chairman of the committee to inspect the North Dakota Mill and Elevator that was under construction. He then returned to Lakota where he died on May 4, 1922.


"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at