An American Shero of 1941

The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 5, Reading 6

By Colman McCarthy

Washington – For those feeling glutted with Pearl Harbor tales and left cold by them – I’m freezing-the worthier anniversary is on Dec. 8. On that day in 1941, Rep. Jeannette Rankin, brave and defiantly sensible, stood alone in Congress to vote against America’s entry into World War II.

The Montana Republican, 61 at the time and a lifelong pacifist, went to the House floor believing that “you can no more win a war than win an earthquake.” The vote was 338-1.

Miss Rankin was hissed. Colleagues asked her to reconsider and make the vote unanimous. After declining, she left the House floor and avoided assault from power zealots by hiding in a phone booth.

Miss Rankin would later explain her vote: “There can be n0o compromise with war, it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense, for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.”

Were Jeanette Rankin a member of Congress in modern times, she would have joined the minority who opposed American militarism in Grenada, Libya, Panama, and Iraq, as she did in 1969 when leading a peace march in Washington to protest the Vietnam War.

She would be vocal, too, about current preparations for America’s next war against whoever dares cross it. Miss Rankin’s stand in 1941 had the strength of consistency. On April 6, 1917, she had voted against U.S. involvement in World War I, saying, “We cannot settle disputes by eliminating human beings.”

That was the first vote of the first woman in Congress. For defying the military ethic, A New York Times editorialist saw Miss Rankin as “almost final proof of feminine incapacity for straight reasoning.”

A majority of Montanans apparently agreed. They gave her only one term in 1917 and only one after that 1941 vote. Both times, Miss Rankin found the rejections as bothersome as pebbles in her shoe. She marched ahead, combining her pacifism with the feminism she had championed in her first term when introducing suffrage legislation that would give federal voting rights to women in the 19th amendment.

Between the two wars, Miss Rankin fortified her ideals by a life of study and service. She moved to Georgia, living near Athens in Thoreau-like simplicity in a cabin with no phone, electricity, or running water but plenty of books.

She founded the Georgia Peace Society and taught “peace habits” to local children. For her toil, she received a high honor from the Atlanta post of the American Legion: The old boys called her a Communist.

Neither Jeanette Rankin nor her politics has wafted off into obscurity. On May 1, 1985, 500 Montanans, historians, politicians, and a few pacifists gathered in the rotunda of the Capitol for the unveiling of a bronze likeness of Miss Rankin.

In a speech, Rep. Pat Williams, the Montana Democrat who represents the congresswoman’s old district, offered a memorable line: Miss Rankin “realized and brought us to understand the meaning of the power and influence of an individual in this democracy carrying out her conscience.”

The following year, some Rankinites in Missoula, the congresswoman’s hometown, organized to form the Jeanette Rankin Peace Resource Center. In five years, it has become nationally known for carrying on the kind of educational, social justice, and conflict resolution programs that Miss Rankin believed in. At a ceremony last April, the center reminded the citizens of Missoula County what it cost them to live in militaristic America: $344,284 a day – the Pentagon’s share of the local federal tax haul.

The event prompted the chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana to state the most obvious political reality of our day: Military spending is the “crushing burden that has substantially decreased our ability to take care of our basic needs.” Pure Rankin, pure truth.

Internationally, knowledge of this American hero grows. The Japanese have been reading the 1989 book A Single Dissenting Voice: The Life of Jeanette Rankin. Its author, Yunosuke Ohkura of the Tokyo Broadcasting Co., was in Washington in May 1973 and read the obituary of Miss Rankin who died at 93. He was astonished to read of her stand in 1941.

“We are a nation of unity,” Yonosuke Ohkura, now a professor at Tokyo University, told Montanan magazine last year. “I’ve never heard of a single dissenting vote in Japanese life. But in the United States, even after this powerful attack, there was a person against the war. I was amazed.”

Professor Ohkura’s book, soon to be translated into English, will join two other biographies of Miss Rankin. More are needed — as are more of her kind in Congress when war hysteria nest arises.

From Washington Post, December 6, 1991

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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