Vt declares war

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(HOST) Although the sixty-fifth anniversary of Pearl Harbor isn’t until December 7th, commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us that Vermont got a bit of a jump start on World War II.

(HENNINGSEN) You may remember the old farmer warning his neighbors: “Watch out! If the United States goes to war, pretty soon Vermont will be in it too.”

In fact, on September 16th 1941 Vermont got there first – essentially “declaring war” on Nazi Germany four months before Pearl Harbor.

This had to do with the legislature’s desire to pay a bonus to Vermonters called into the army after the re-institution of the draft in 1940.

Those men and their families made a significant sacrifice and lawmakers felt they deserved extra support. Unfortunately, they couldn’t pay the soldiers a peacetime bonus. That required a new tax. But legislators found a loophole: they could vote a bonus without new taxation if they did so in a time of “armed conflict.”

Of course in September 1941 most of the world was already at war. Although the U.S. was officially neutral, it increasingly looked as if we’d get swept up too. Things were so tense in the North Atlantic that only five days earlier, on September 11th, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the Navy to shoot first if it encountered German warships entering American defensive waters.

Vermont lawmakers seized upon Roosevelt’s order and defined “armed conflict” as a state of national emergency where the President orders the use of armed force to protect lives or property which may be endangered by the hostile action of any foreign power.

Having developed this convenient definition, the legislature appropriated $500,000 to pay a ten dollar monthly bonus to Vermonters who had been drafted.

Ten dollars a month may not sound like much, but in 1941 a copy of the Burlington Free Press cost three cents; you could buy a man’s suit for $12.50, a woman’s dress for $7.95, and a pair of jeans for eighty-nine cents. To families still emerging from the Depression, ten dollars made a real difference.

The resolution itself didn’t start a fight with anyone. It simply stated that the U.S. was engaged in “armed conflict”, as defined by the Vermont legislature, permitting it to vote a bonus without new taxes. But Governor William Wills made headlines by saying he hadn’t expected the legislature to “declare war.”

That got national attention. One newspaper editorialized – quote – “The rest of the nation, perhaps, may be satisfied by assurances and euphemisms of our national leaders to the effect that we are not at war and have no intention of entering upon a shooting war with the Nazis or their Axis henchmen. But not so Vermont.”

“Vermont,” it went on, “sees things clearly and is willing to pay for its vision.” – end quote.

From the days of Ethan Allen to today’s war in Iraq, Vermonters have served and sacrificed in numbers well out of proportion to our state’s small population. Today we commemorate the fact that the state looked out for those called to go. To do that, legislators called things as they saw them – and they were right.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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