On December 7, 1941, United States Senator Gerald Nye looked over his notes for a speech he was about to deliver to a packed house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Nye was a Republican, but part of a progressive element in the GOP and he was no-doubt influenced by the politics of the late Robert M. La Follette. In other words, he was a fiscal liberal in domestic matters and a fierce isolationist when it came to foreign entanglements.
So speaking before a group known informally as the “America Firsters” (sponsored by the America First Committee, of which he was a member) was a piece of cake for him and he knew the lines that would draw the biggest applause. He only wished his hero could be there: Charles A. Lindbergh.
These men were part of a highly popular movement in those days, this success being reflected in Gallup Polls showing that less than a quarter of Americans favored entering the fires of war then engulfing much of the world. This group was largely anti-Semitic (and therefore, pro-German), and was joined by other luminaries of the day, including: flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker and movie actress, Lillian Gish.
During the first days of the last month of that tense year, their present preoccupation was the potential of war with Japan. To them, this was merely an excuse to enter the war in Europe through a back door. Therefore, the headline of their then-very-popular tabloid, the America First Bulletin, on December 6, 1941 was: “BLAME FOR RIFT WITH JAPAN RESTS ON ADMINISTRATION.”
After a glowing introduction, followed by furious applause, Nye, the Senator from North Dakota, plunged into his theme. But before he had gotten very far, he noticed someone in his peripheral vision approaching him from the stage wing bearing a piece of paper. He paused and read the note, which informed him of the breaking news about a Japanese attack on our fleet at Pearl Harbor.
After fumbling and hemming and hawing for a moment he mumbled: “I can’t somehow believe this…” – and then proceeded to finish his speech. Telling the crowd about what the note said, the Senator ventured his own take, which included the predictable: “We have been maneuvered into this by the President," and the old reliable: “This was just what Britain had planned for us.”