“I feel,” Nebraska Senator George Norris warned a century ago, “that we are about to put the dollar sign on the American flag.” Decrying the advocacy by munitions merchants, speculators, and stockbrokers for legislation that would further involve the United States in the European conflict that would come to be known as World War I, Norris thundered:
We are taking a step today that is fraught with untold danger. We are going into war upon the command of gold. We are going to run the risk of sacrificing millions of our countrymen’s lives in order that other countrymen may coin their lifeblood into money. And even if we do not cross the Atlantic and go into the trenches, we are going to pile up a debt that the toiling masses that shall come many generations after us will have to pay. Unborn millions will bend their backs in toil in order to pay for the terrible step we are now about to take.
Along with a handful of allies that included Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, Norris argued that the United States need not entangle itself in a distant war between the armies of kings and kaisers. The Nebraskan suggested that cynical appeals to patriotic sentiment by advocates for war cloaked the self-serving economic agenda of wealthy elites. “We are about to do the bidding of wealth’s terrible mandate,” Norris said of congressional action that steered the country toward war:
By our act we will make millions of our countrymen suffer, and the consequences of it may well be that millions of our brethren must shed their lifeblood, millions of brokenhearted women must weep, millions of children must suffer with cold, and millions of babes must die from hunger, and all because we want to preserve the commercial right of American citizens to deliver munitions of war to belligerent nations.
Norris, La Follette and the courageous foes of US involvement in World War I—most of them Midwestern progressive populists—recognized the profound danger that arose when US foreign policy became intertwined with the pecuniary demands of plutocrats and profiteers.
It is not just in matters of war and peace that those dangers arise, of course. When CEOs are calling the shots, everything from trade policy to energy policy and responses to climate change are warped by unenlightened self-interest. The potential for the corruption of America’s foreign policy expands dramatically when businessmen with international interests assume positions of power. This is one of the reasons Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, and 21 of their colleagues, in December, urged President-elect Donald Trump to follow the advice of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics and divest from his business holdings before taking office.