Nelson: From Burdick to Young, North Dakota led the fight for neutrality

"The principle of neutrality didn't go down without a fight," details InForum columnist Ross Nelson. "North Dakota led the way, being the most anti-interventionist state of all."

Ross Nelson.jpg
Ross Nelson is a resident of Casselton, N.D. and InForum opinion columnist.

"Powerful and armed, neutral in the midst of madness, we might have held the whole world's balance and stood like a mountain in a wind. We were misled and took sides. We have chosen to share the crime and the punishment." Robinson Jeffers, “Shine, Empire”

Neutrality, that is, non-interventionism, was no fad of early America. Warmongers argue that neutrality was the reaction of a newborn, vulnerable America but irrelevant soon afterward. Later Presidents' statements belie this assertion. In 1837, Martin Van Buren rejected alliances as “adverse to our peace,” arguing for a continued strict neutrality and avoiding meddling in other countries' disputes. Years later Zachary Taylor and James Buchanan echoed George Washington's warning about interfering. Buchanan was so bold as to say that non-interference was a wisdom no one would dispute.

Neutrality was presidential policy up through Grover Cleveland's 1885 inaugural address, which stated that we shouldn't depart from what was critical to the Republic's history and prosperity. It was echoed by most presidents all the way through Calvin Coolidge, well into the 20th century.

Except for William McKinley that is, father of American interventionism who cleared the stage for even worse under Woodrow Wilson. After intervening in Cuba to liberate it from Spain, McKinley claimed America was responsible for the island's reconstruction and making it a properly run, lawful and free country. Our war on the Philippines immediately followed. America was well on its way to interventionism for the supposed good and reformation of other countries.

The principle of neutrality didn't go down without a fight. North Dakota led the way, being the most anti-interventionist state of all. North Dakotan politicians such as Usher Burdick, Gerald Nye, William Langer, Lynn Frazier and Milton Young pushed back against meddling in foreign affairs. Congressman Burdick — no conservative he — was against involvement in the Korean War and dead set against membership in the United Nations. He wasn't keen on foreign aid either.


Storied William “Wild Bill” Langer, also no conservative (the neutrality principle being faction-free), blasted NATO as a military alliance meant to immerse America into Europe's endless woes and voted against joining the U.N. Surprisingly, he also considered himself a constitutionalist (unlike many “conservatives”): “We believe in the Constitution out here, and we bitterly resist any invasion by any...self-loving hypocritical patriots, or any other enemy of constitutional government.”

These North Dakotans were joined by politicians of other states as well: William Borah, Henrik Shipstead, Eugene Siler, Wheeler Burton, the La Follette father and son politicians, Hiram Johnson and more. Their stands against empire and involvement in wars not germane to American security cost many of them dearly in terms of reputation and elected offices.

Novelist Kathleen T. Norris remarked, “I believe in the preservation of this republic. Embroiled again in European affairs, we shall lose it. We shall be destroying the heritage our fathers fought for and sacrificed to leave us.” But the American spirit of the age, inspired by fear, pride, arrogance and rejection of what America stood for, swept the country nearly clean of neutralism.

But I stand with the neutralists. That they were right is borne out in daily headlines.

Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion page. Email him at .

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

Opinion by Ross Nelson
Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum's opinion pages.
What To Read Next
Get Local