Burton Kendall Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts on 27th February, 1882. He was admitted to the bar after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1905 and worked as a lawyer in Silver Bow County, Montana.
A member of the Democratic Party, Wheeler was elected to the Montana house of representatives (1910-1912) and was district attorney for Montana (1913-1918). Wheeler was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Montana in 1920 but was elected to the Senate two years later.
In 1924 Wheeler and Robert LaFollette became the candidates of the Progressive Party in the 1924 presidential election. Although they gained support from trade unions, the Socialist Party and the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, La Follette and Wheeler, only won one-sixth of the votes.
Returning to the Democratic Party Wheeler was elected to the Senate for Montana in 1928, 1934 and 1940. In September 1940, Wheeler helped Charles A. Lindbergh and Norman Thomas to form the America First Committee (AFC). I t soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad. In one speech he argued: "You can't put your shirt tail into a clothes wringer and pull it out suddenly when the wringer keeps turning."
On 17th December, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech to the American public: "In the present world situation of course there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of a very overwhelming number of Americans that the best immediate defence of the United States is the success of Great Britain in defending itself; and that, therefore, quite aside from our historic and current interest in the survival of democracy in the world as a whole, it is equally important, from a selfish point of view of American defence, that we should do everything to help the British Empire to defend itself... In other words, if you lend certain munitions and get the munitions back at the end of the war, if they are intact - haven't been hurt - you are all right; if they have been damaged or have deteriorated or have been lost completely, it seems to me you come out pretty well if you have them replaced by the fellow to whom you have lent them."
Isolationists like Wheeler, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Thomas Connally of Texas argued that this legislation would lead to American involvement in the Second World War. In early February 1941 a poll by the George H. Gallup organisation revealed that only 22 percent were unqualifiedly against the President's proposal. It has been argued by Thomas E. Mahl, the author of Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (1998), has argued that the Gallup organization had been infiltrated by the British Security Coordination (BSC).
Hadley Cantril, a member of the faculty of Princeton University Department of Psychology, had used a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to establish the Office of Public Opinion Research. A supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and intervention in the Second World War he was also an agent for the British Security Coordination and did work for the anti-isolationist group, Fight for Freedom. Cantril was of the opinion that Roosevelt needed "an improving body of public opinion to sustain him in each measure of assistance to Britain and the USSR." Cantril was also an advisor to George H. Gallup and worked closely with David Ogilvy, who was employed by Gallup and was also an agent for BSC.
Another BSC agent, Sanford Griffith, established a company Market Analysts Incorporated and was initially commissioned to carry out polls for the anti-isolationist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Griffith's assistant, Francis Adams Henson, a long time activist against the Nazi Germany government, later recalled: "My job was to use the results of our polls, taken among their constituents, to convince on-the-fence Congressmen and Senators that they should favor more aid to Britain."
As Richard W. Steele has pointed out: "public opinion polls had become a political weapon that could be used to inform the views of the doubtful, weaken the commitment of opponents, and strengthen the conviction of supporters." William Stephenson later admitted: "Great care was taken beforehand to make certain the poll results would turn out as desired. The questions were to steer opinion toward the support of Britain and the war... Public Opinion was manipulated through what seemed an objective poll."
Wheeler gave the most passionate speech against the proposed legislation: "Never before have the American people been asked or compelled to give so bounteously and so completely of their tax dollars to any foreign nation. Never before has the Congress of the United States been asked by any President to violate international law. Never before has this nation resorted to duplicity in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Never before has the United States given to one man the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate. If the American people want a dictatorship - if they want a totalitarian form of government and if they want war - this bill should be steam-rollered through Congress, as is the wont of President Roosevelt. Approval of this legislation means war, open and complete warfare. I, therefore, ask the American people before they supinely accept it: Was the last World War worthwhile?"
The major surprise of the debate was that Arthur Vandenberg announced on the floor of the Senate that he had finally decided to support the loan. He warned his colleagues: "If we do not lead some other great and powerful nation will capitalize our failure and we shall pay the price of our default." Richard N. Gardner, the author of Sterling Dollar Diplomacy in Current Perspective (1980), has argued that Vandenberg's speech was the "turning point in the Senate Debate" with sixteen other Republicans voting in favour of the bill.
The AFC influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year had over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941.
Burton Kendall Wheeler died in Washington, on 6th January, 1975.