February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
The Republican senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, had been shocked by the President’s Armed Ship bill request. He saw in it a transfer of war powers in violation of the Constitution, and he marshaled his forces to oppose the bill, which opened for debate on Friday, March 2. By that time he had signed up ten like-minded senators to filibuster.
For two days and nights the Senate argued over war, neutrality, and parliamentary procedure. On Sunday the morning’s New York Times called the filibuster “an evil endeavor, in which no loyal American would have engaged.” Against this, La Follette placed the opinion of his heavily German constituents, whose telegrams were running 4 to 1 against passage. At 5:00 A.M. Sunday he got an anonymous tip on pink Senate memo paper that said he would be passed over when he himself tried to speak and a vote would then be pushed through. He instructed an aide and his son, Robert, Jr., to lay in stacks of resource materials to read aloud in the event he got himself recognized by the chair.
La Follette was, in fact, passed over in favor of several long-winded colleagues—the object of a senatorial game of “keep away.” The President’s supporters were filibustering the filibuster. When he protested loudly, La Follette caused a near-riot among the Democrats.
The session had been scheduled to run out at noon on March 5, when Woodrow Wilson would take his second oath of office, and it did so with the vote successfully forestalled by La Follette and his little band. Wilson began his new term temporarily without the power to arm merchant ships, the victim of “a little group of willful men,” as he said that day. The filibuster was a setback for him, but it nearly ruined La Follette politically. “Germany has been patient with us,” he was soon quoted all over America as having said. As the war spirit set in, he survived a subsequent call for expulsion by his fellow senators and was censured by the Wisconsin state legislature. When war was finally declared, early in April, he fell in behind the President.