Blogs > Liberty and Power > Henrik Shipstead Against the UN

Aug 1, 2005 1:28 pm

Henrik Shipstead Against the UN

When the U.S. Senate voted to approve U.S. membership in the new United Nations on July 28, 1945, faith in world policing was at high tide in the United States. Most Americans still had fond feelings for our wartime ally, the Soviet Union led by Josef Stalin (sometimes affectionately called “Uncle Joe”). The consensus held, and held firmly, that the UN was one of the best hopes of mankind to ensure world peace and harmony. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that even two senators, Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota and William Langer of North Dakota, risked their political careers and reputations by voting"no."

In contrast to some better known non-interventionists, such as Robert Taft, neither Shipstead nor Langer belonged to the Old Right. Both were members of an insurgent western and Midwestern Republican tradition which has once included such independent voices as William Borah, George Norris, and Hiram Johnson. While the insurgents often championed leftist domestic policies, such as heavy regulation of big business, rural electrification, and farm subsidies, they retained a streak of healthy skepticism toward centralized power. During the late 1930s, they increasingly turned against Roosevelt because of his court packing scheme and pro-war policies.

Few members of Congress in American history were more consistent of their opposition to U.S. foreign interventionism than Henrik Shipstead. Shipstead was born on a farm in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota in 1881 to Norwegian immigrant parents. Shortly after the turn of the century, he set up a dental practice and was elected president of the village council of Glenwood in neighboring Pope County. One of his friends and early political supporters was my grandfather, Gudbrand Gudbrandson Beito, a Norwegian-born Lutheran minister from nearby Terrace. What can I say? Like grandfather (at least on foreign policy), like grandson.

Shipstead started as Republican but in 1922 was elected to the U.S. Senate under the banner of the new Farmer-Labor Party. While he generally shared the party’s leftwing agenda, he rejected the extreme anti-capitalism of some members. Although he was the only Farmer-Laborite in the Senate, he won appointment to the powerful Foreign Relations Committee.

Shipstead opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations and the World Court. He called for the cancellation of German reparations which he regarded as vindictive. Unlike some of his colleagues in the Old Right, he doggedly objected to U.S. intervention in Latin America including the American occupation of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. He blamed these policies on Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1905 which had turned the United States into an arrogant “policeman of the western continent."

Shipstead did not consider himself an “isolationist," and for good reason. While he favored a policy of political non-intervention overseas, he opposed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 which he charged was “one of the greatest and most vicious isolationist policies this government has ever enacted.” He argued that high tariffs “raise prices to consumers” and make “monopolies richer and people poorer.” Affable and dignified, his adversaries generally liked him on a personal level. In words that should be taken to heart by bloggers everywhere, he concluded that “It doesn’t necessarily follow that a radical has to be a damned fool.”

Shipstead defected from the Farmer-Labor party in the late 1930s charging (accurately) that Communist pro-Stalinist elements were taking control. He won reelection to the Senate in 1940 as a Republican. All the while, few fought more tenaciously against Roosevelt’s efforts to enter the war in Europe. Although Shipstead voted for the declaration of war after Pearl Harbor, he was not about to give Roosevelt a blank check. In October 1942, for example, he took the extremely lonely stand of voting against Selective Service, just as he had in 1940.

Shipstead’s vote against the United Nations was entirely predictable to anyone who had followed his career. It was the capstone of decades of opposition to foreign entanglements. Unlike many modern UN bashers, however, he not only feared that UN would create a world superstate but also that it would be used by the major powers to dominate smaller countries. His dissenting vote was political suicide and he probably knew it. A new breed of “internationalists,” led by Governor Edward Thye and former Governor Harold Stassen, had assumed leadership of the state GOP. In 1946, they mobilized successfully to defeat Shipstead in the Republican primary. He retired to rural western Minnesota, where he died in 1960.

During the same period, by contrast, the voters of North Dakota regularly reelected the highly colorful William “Wild Bill” Langer, who continued to champion a muscular non-interventionism that no other senator could match.

For more on Shipstead’s foreign policy views, see Barbara Stuhler, Ten Men of Minnesota and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1968.

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David T. Beito - 7/28/2005

Thanks! I too want to know more about Langer and may look more closely into his contradictory attitudes toward civil rights.

The North Dakota connection is also interesting. Our own Ted Carpenter once called it the most isolationist state in the U.S. Langer's collegue for many years, for example, was none other than Gerald Nye, who chaired "The Merchants of Death" investigation during the 1930s.

Mark Brady - 7/28/2005

"Thanks! I didn't really appreciate this until I became an antiwar libertarian. Somebody should write on Langer who is also quite interesting." <a>

"an antiwar libertarian"? Is there any other sort? :) <a>

David, you've written a fascinating post. I've also enjoyed your exchange with Ralph Luker on William Langer and I look forward to reading more about the man. <a>

David Timothy Beito - 7/28/2005

Very interesting. Good catch. There seems to be very little written about this, much less on how it can be reconciled with Langer's overall record.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/28/2005

Yes, I think that the record is mixed, however. Have a look at William H. Tucker's The Funding of Scientific Racism, chapter 1.

David Timothy Beito - 7/28/2005

Based on this I would say that Langer was far ahead of his time on civil rights:

19 June 1948 Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell introduced an amendment to the Selective Service Bill being debated by Congress. Russell’s amendment "would guarantee segregated units for those draftees who wished to serve only with members of their own race." Senator William Langer of North Dakota countered with an amendment to prohibit all segregation. The draft bill passed by Congress on this date contained no special provisions on race.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/28/2005

I have to admit, David, that I'm working from memory on the African American repatriation thing and it _has_ been a long time. I'll see if I can find it. But, yes, I'm really looking forward to meeting you, too. We've waited too long for that.

David Timothy Beito - 7/28/2005

Do you a source for the Langer information? I typed in "langer" "repatriate" "bill" "william" in Google and nothing came up. Also, Robert Caro's book, Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate notes that Langer was only one of six senators to support a pro-civil rights motion by Paul Douglas. (p. 798-799). I don't know a lot about Wild Bill, and hold no brief, for him....but such a bill seems at odds with this stand. Again, I'd be interested in your source

Please note that Langer was a very early critic of McCarthy and anti-Red legislation. Your hero, Harold Stassen, by contrast, called for a ban on the Communist party in 1948 (a position that was too extreme even for GOP primary voters).

BTW, I'M looking forward to finally meeting you!

Ralph E. Luker - 7/28/2005

Very interesting post, David. I am old enough to remember Langer's time in the Senate, but not Shipstead's. If I'm not mistaken, I think that Langer was the last Senator to introduce a bill to repatriate African Americans to Africa. I'm afraid that you've touched on the point at which you and I differ here. As far as I'm concerned, the young Harold Stassen and Edward Thye were a breath of fresh air in Minnesota Republican politics.

William Marina - 7/28/2005

A very interesting piece!
Bill Marina

David T. Beito - 7/27/2005

Thanks! I didn't really appreciate this until I became an antiwar libertarian. Somebody should write on Langer who is also quite interesting.

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/27/2005

I'm very impressed, both with the post and that your grandfather had such good sense!

Certainly a person worth posting about.

Just a thought.
Just Ken