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The Day When We Almost Lost the Army
Debate over America's involvement in World War II came to a head in July 1941 as the Senate argued over a draft extension bill. The decision would have profound consequences for the nation.
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
The jowly, white-haired, and avuncular Usher L. Burdick (R-ND) scoffed at the suggestion that the nation faced imminent danger. “Germany has not yet been able to swim the English Channel,” Burdick noted of the long-expected Nazi invasion of Britain after France’s fall. “It is nothing but a pipe dream to think that Germany could land troops in the United States.” The Oregon Republican Congressman James W. Mott called conscription “the method which has long been employed by Hitler, by Mussolini, by Stalin and by the totalitarians who control the Japanese government.” Congressman Robert E. Thomason (D-TX) shot back that Germany “now dominates and has in enslavement over 200 million people. We are not getting nearer to war. War is getting nearer to us.”
The session dragged into its tenth hour, offering no break for lunch or dinner. Bleary-eyed members ducked into the Speaker’s lobby, the one place where, amid the clatter of the Associated Press and United Press news tickers, they could smoke. Rayburn’s head count revealed that he still lacked the votes to pass the measure. Sol Bloom (D-NY), the diminutive, feisty chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, walked to the cloakroom and lit a cigar to calm his nerves. There a colleague mentioned that he intended to switch his vote from “yea” to “nay.” According to Bloom, the chairman blocked the man, threatening, “you’ll have to knock me through the doorway if you want to return to the floor. I’m going to stand right here.”
Replacing Chairman May, Rayburn resumed the rostrum. “The question is on the passage of the bill,” he called out. Initially it appeared that the bill had passed 204 to 201, with 27 abstentions. But New York Congressman Andrew L. Somers changed his mind, leaving only a one-vote edge. Missouri Rep. Dewey Short, a Republican opponent of the measure, a former minister, and a member of the isolationist Committee to Keep America Out of the War, seized on a stratagem by calling for a “recapitulation,” which required the clerk to have all House members repeat their original vote—a move that Rayburn genially allowed, recognizing that Short had made a mistake. Had the congressman called for a “reconsideration,” instead of a “recapitulation,” members could have changed their votes. An electric hush gripped the chamber during the 45 minutes it took to call the roll. In the end, the vote held 203 to 202. With the whack of his gavel, Rayburn announced that “No correction in the vote stands, and the bill is passed.” The clock above his rostrum showed 8:39 p.m. A cacophony of applause, boos, cheers, jeers, clapping, and hissing erupted from the gallery. The Senate had already passed a similar bill by the more comfortable margin of 45 to 30.
The next day the New York Times editorialized that the extension meant draftees will “give their time in order that an unprepared American Army may not be butchered by its own weakness.” Six days later, on August 18, FDR, back in Washington and flush with success after a secret meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Argentia, Newfoundland, signed the draft extension into law. Less than four months later, the bombs came down on Pearl Harbor.