La Follette and the 1917 Filibuster

Robert La Follette reserve

1917 Feb. 23 Fri. - In a caucus of Senate Republicans, Henry Cabot Lodge and his prowar group agreed joined with Robert La Follette and his pacifist group to prolong debate on a revenue bill in order to force a special session, so Congress would not give Wilson nine free months to act while Congress was adjourned.

Feb. 24 Sat. - Secretary of State Robert Lansing showed Wilson the Zimmermann telegram that evening. The telegram was decoded by Room 40 the day after it was sent Jan. 16 from Berlin on American cable in Washington to German minister Eckhardt in Mexico. British kept it secret, but decided to give the telegram to Ambassador Walter Hines Page Feb. 23 who transmitted it to Lansing. Wilson was aware that the Senate was planning a filibuster, so he kept the telegram secret at first, and planned to make it public to defeat the filibuster.

Feb. 25 Sun. - Wilson wrote a speech for the Armed Ship Bill.

Feb. 26 Mon. - At 1 pm Wilson delivered his speech to a joint session of Congress in person, asked Congress for authority to arm merchant ships "to safeguard the rights of peoples at peace". During his speech, news came on telegraph tickers that Laconia was sunk with loss of 2 Americans, and the word spread among the Congress as Wilson was still speaking.

Feb. 27 Tues. - La Follette gained the support of 10 Senators for a filibuster against the Armed Ship Bill.

Feb. 28 Wed. - Wilson decided to release the Zimmerman telegram. Democratic Sen. William Stone of Missouri sent word to Wilson that he declined to lead the Armed Ship Bill through Congress, nor would Democratic Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska. At 4 pm, Lansing showed the telegram to Hitchcock at the State Dept., and Hitchcock was shocked, called it a "dastardly plot" and agreed to sponsor the Armed Ship Bill. At 6 pm, Lansing released the Zimmerman telegram to the AP.

Mar. 1 Thurs. - The morning newspapers carried the Zimmerman telegram story. That day, the House passed the Armed Ship Bill 403-13. In the Senate, Lodge introduced a resolution that demanded Wilson provide proof of the authenticity of the telegram. This set off a round of debate and speeches by pro-war and anti-war senators. At 6 pm the Senate passed the Lodge Resolution, amended to ask Wilson for all information about the telegram that he could safely provide. Wilson immediately sent a report back to the Senate that was received at 8 pm.

Mar. 2 Fri. - While Wilson met with his Cabinet, 11 senators supporting La Follette began the filibuster, with 45 hours remaining in the Congressional session. Wilson denounced the filibuster: "A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible."

Mar. 3 Sat. - Zimmerman admitted he was the author of the telegram, to the "profound amazement and relief" of the White House, according to Robert Lansing.

Mar. 4 Sun. - Congress ended its session without passing the Armed Ship Bill. An extra session was scheduled Apr. 16.

Roland Kirby cartoon March 7

Mar. 8 - Senate passed "cloture" whereby 16 senators could end a debate if their motion was approved by 2/3 of those voting.

Mar. 9 - Wilson announced he was arming merchant ships by authority of an 1891 piracy statute.

Mar. 18 - 3 U.S. ships were sunk without warning.

Mar. 19 - A revolution in Russia overthrew the Czar, established the Kerensky government.

Mar. 20 - Wilson met with his Cabinet, and the Cabinet unanimously favored war, but Wilson did not state his position, but apparently made up his mind that night.

Mar. 21 - Wilson reconvened Congress for Apr. 2 for a message on "grave matters of national policy."

April 2 - Wilson delivered war message to Congress.

April 4 - Declaration of war passed by Senate 82-6. The Six who did not vote for war were Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Asla J. Gronna of North Dakota, George W. Norris of Nebraska, Harry Lane of Oregon, William J. Stone of Missouri, James K. Vardaman of Mississippi.

April 6 - Declaration of war passed by House 373-50 and signed by Wilson.

The filibuster record of 18 hours by a single Senator was set by Robert La Follette in 1908 against the Aldrich currency bill (fortified by frequent glasses of eggnog, but refused to drink from one glass poisoned with ptomaine), and this record held until 1953 when Wayne Morse spoke for 22 hours against Tidelands Oil legislation. The current record of 24 hours and 18 minutes was set by Strom Thurmond in 1957. In 1975 the Senate changed the cloture rule to a 3/5 majority, or 60 of today's 100 senators.




revised 11/26/06 by Steven Schoenherr | WWI Timeline | Links | Topics | Maps | Reserve