Few would argue that the events of December 8, 1941 match in significance the catastrophic events of the previous day but it’s worth recalling that this was the day Congress actually voted to declare war on Japan. Though the vote was all but a foregone conclusion, there was yet a lone voice of dissent to which Milton Halsey Thomas, then curator of Columbiana at Columbia University, makes brief reference in his diary:
The Senate voted unanimously, and in the House there was only one nay — that of Jeannette Rankin, an old maid pacifist who had voted against World War I in 1917. She had tried to get the floor, but the speaker did not “see” her.
As Thomas’ tone intimates, it may strike you how wildly unpopular casting the single vote against the war must have been, and indeed, Rankin incurred immediate virtiol. It was severe enough that she required a police escort out of the building and her prospects of future reelection were dashed.
It may also strike you as noteworthy that Rankin was a woman member of Congress. A native of Montana, Rankin had played a role in the suffrage movement before taking a stab at politics. In 1916, she blazed a trail for women after successfully running on the Republican ticket for a seat in the House of Representatives. Yet Thomas also recalls how her pacifism soon gained her notoriety when she voted against American involvement in the first World War, an act which surely presaged her nay vote in 1941.
Without a doubt, Rankin’s December 8 vote, in particular, would remain unpopular today, even among the less strident supporters of armed conflict. Still, her enduring belief in a peaceful course, despite the groundswell of support for war, is remarkable. She reportedly commented that “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Journalist William Allen White provided what was perhaps the most thoughtful response to her dissent amid the uproar which followed. He referenced the act as “folly” but went on to commend her commitment to her beliefs, saying that her name would be “written in monumental bronze not for what she did but for the way she did it.”
The Allies’ successful defeat of Japan and the Axis powers may magnify criticism of Rankin’s “folly” but, if so, it also highlights the boldness of her act. At the very least, her vote itself is an example of the democratic process at work where, regardless of how unpopular, even a dissenting voice is granted a role.