(February 3, 1879–March 3, 1973)
–U.S. senator and Democratic political leader—was born on a farm near Cherokee, Iowa; attended local schools; and enlisted for service in the local National Guard company at the age of 14. He was a sergeant when the Spanish-American War began in 1898. Disorganized and decimated by typhoid and other diseases, the company made it only to Georgia and returned to Iowa without firing a shot.
Gillette earned a law degree from Drake University in 1900 and began a practice in Cherokee. He married schoolteacher Rose Freeman in 1907; the couple eventually had one son. He intermittently took various political offices, including city attorney, county prosecutor, and state senator, before he served in France during World War I as a captain in the U.S. Army. He lost a race for State Auditor in 1918, and left his political career to operate a farm near Cherokee.
Gillette returned to politics in 1932 with election to the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the Democratic landslide led by Franklin Roosevelt. After two terms, he won a special election to fill a vacancy in the Senate. Although he generally supported the New Deal, Gillette became a thorn in the administration's side by aggressively challenging President Roosevelt's efforts to "pack" the Supreme Court with six new associate justices. In addition, Gillette opposed the antilynching bill, the new wage and hours bill, a new farm bill, and aspects of the new Social Security system, thus establishing a reputation as somewhat of a maverick politician.
As a consequence, Harry Hopkins and other advisers to President Roosevelt led an effort to replace Gillette with a more loyal Democrat. In Iowa's 1938 primary, administration officials supported the candidacy of Congressman Otha Wearin, but Gillette's connections with mainstream Iowa Democrats allowed him to defeat Wearin and then prevail over the Republican nominee, L. J. Dickinson.
Returned to the Senate, Gillette continued his nonconformist tendencies. In 1940 he opposed the renomination of President Roosevelt for a third term since he believed that the tradition of the two-term presidency should be preserved. At that time, he allied himself with isolationist politicians, and thus opposed Lend-Lease, draft extensions, and other bills that the president called for. After the United States entered the war, however, Gillette quickly became more of an internationalist.
In 1942 he gained considerable national attention for his work as chairman of the subcommittee of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. Commonly known as the Gillette Committee, this body aggressively challenged the shortfalls in the nation's preparedness for war. In particular, the Gillette Committee established that the administration had not prepared for Japan's seizure of virtually all American rubber imports, and that it had hastily begun to invest in synthetic rubber from expensive and unproven technologies that used petroleum as the raw material. In contrast, Gillette and his colleagues demonstrated that surplus grains such as wheat and corn could be turned into synthetic rubber through methods that were sustainable, renewable, and potentially less expensive. In fact, much of the American synthetic rubber produced during the war did derive from farm products.
Gillette also gained national attention during the war when he led the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Arguing that the time was right, in particular because of American women's contributions to the war effort, Gillette's call for equal rights made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee but did not get through the Congress as a whole. Gillette also led an effort to amend the Constitution's requirement for a two-thirds majority to ratify any treaty, but that, too, failed to pass. Some floated Gillette's name as a possible opponent to President Roosevelt on the Republican ticket. Although Gillette opposed Roosevelt's fourth nomination as the Democratic candidate, he remained a Democrat. He lost his seat in the 1944 general election to Republican Bourke Hickenlooper.
Gillette then became president of the American League for a Free Palestine (ALFP), a group that aggressively championed the cause of Jewish refugees. In that role, Gillette stood near the center of debates over the future of the Middle East. The ALFP lobbied for a "democratic" Palestine in which both Jewish and Arab interests would be represented, and thus it came into conflict with positions advocated by other American, British, and Zionist politicians. In any case, Gillette's work helped accelerate the British departure from Palestine, contributed to the creation of the nation of Israel, and brought international attention to the plight of the displaced Palestinians.
Gillette again ran for the Senate in 1948 and defeated incumbent George Wilson. In that term, Gillette lobbied for American farmers. and their adjustment to postwar circumstances, and continued to broaden his involvement in foreign policy and international trade matters. He again gained national attention in 1951, when his Senate Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections launched an investigation of Senator Joseph McCarthy's financial entanglements and campaign practices. Gillette's work contributed to McCarthy's eventual censure and brought broader reforms to the electoral process. Republican Thomas Martin defeated Gillette in his campaign for reelection in 1954. Gillette served as a Washington lawyer until 1961, when he retired and returned to his farm near Cherokee. He died at age 94.
Sources The best source for Gillette's personal papers, especially for the last decade of his public career, is the Del Stelck Collection of the Papers of Guy M. Gillette, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also that library's Iowa League of Women Voters Papers, some of which are available online, and the Palestine Statehood Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Libraries, New Haven, Connecticut. Useful secondary sources include W. Ardell Stark, "Sgt. Guy Gillette and Cherokee's 'Gallant Co. M.' in the Spanish American War," Annals of Iowa 40 (1971), 561–76; Jerry Harrington, "Senator Guy Gillette Foils the Execution Committee," Palimpsest 62 (1981), 170–80; Current Biography, 1946; and the Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 9 (1994).
Mark R. Finlay
Finlay, Mark R. "Gillette, Guy Mark" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web.
24 April 2014