Robert Marion "Young Bob" La Follette Jr. (February 6, 1895 – February 24, 1953) was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1925 to 1947. As an outspoken son of Representative, Senator, and Wisconsin Governor Robert M. La Follette Sr., co-founder of the Progressive Party and ally of the Farmer-Labor Party in adjacent Minnesota, La Follette kept the Progressive Party alive in the US Senate until his defeat by Joe McCarthy in 1946.
La Follette was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of Robert M. La Follette Sr. and Belle Case La Follette. He attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1913 to 1917 but he did not graduate because of illness. (He received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1938.) The same illness kept him out the military during World War I. La Follette served as his father's private secretary between 1919 and 1925. He married Rachel Wilson Young in 1930; they had two children, Joseph Oden La Follette and Bronson Cutting La Follette. La Follette had two siblings, Philip La Follette and Fola La Follette.
La Follette was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate on September 29, 1925, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of his father. "Young Bob," as he was called, was a champion of organized labor. He gained national prominence between 1936 and 1940 as chairman of a special Senate investigating committee, commonly called the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, that exposed the surveillance, physical intimidation, and other techniques used by large employers to prevent workers from organizing.
He was chairman of the Committee on Manufactures in the 71st and 72nd Congresses. He supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and most New Deal legislation until the passage of the 1938 naval expansion bill.
He was re-elected as a Republican in 1928. With his brother Philip, he formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party in 1934, and for a time the party was dominant in Wisconsin. He was reelected with the Progressive Party in 1934 and 1940.
In April 1943 a confidential analysis by English researcher Isaiah Berlin for the British Foreign Office stated that La Follette was the:
son of the celebrated Governor and brother of ex-Governor Philip La Follette of that State. Intimately tied with the very peculiar "progressive" Wisconsin political organisation, who started as an Isolationist New Dealer and by degrees has turned into a confused anti-administration Nationalist. He is a very eccentric and unpredictable political figure who continues to be radical in internal issues and obscurantist in foreign affairs. He is said to be prepared to approve of Britain after she had expiated her past errors by more suffering than she had already endured. He is entirely independent of business interests and pressure groups, and his strength comes from the traditional place occupied by his family in Wisconsin. On the whole an ally of the Isolationists.
The Wisconsin Progressive Party dissolved, and La Follette returned to the Republican Party in 1946. La Follette was one of the Senate's leading isolationists and helped found the America First Committee in 1940. He helped to draft and win passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 that modernized the legislative process in Congress.
La Follette was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection as a Republican in 1946. He ran an isolationist campaign against the United Nations and was critical of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin but ended up narrowly losing to Joseph McCarthy in the Republican primary, 207,935 votes to 202,557. While La Follette initially started with a large lead in the polls, that lead gradually dwindled, and on the primary election day, the results of the final county to report polls tipped the scales in McCarthy's favor. La Follette sent a one-word telegram saying "Congratulations" to McCarthy.
La Follette made several decisions that hurt his primary campaign. Disbanding the Progressive Party and seeking election on the Republican ticket that same year cost him the support of many progressive supporters that belonged to the former, while the more conservative Republicans were also suspicious of La Follette, as he had previously run against them. Being initially confident of victory, he further hurt his chances by staying on in Washington to draft and win passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 rather than returning to Wisconsin to campaign for re-election.
La Follette faced an aggressive campaign by McCarthy and failed to refute the latter's charges, several of which were false. McCarthy attacked La Follette for not enlisting during the war, although La Follette had been 46 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and would have been too old to be accepted. McCarthy played up his own wartime service, using his wartime nickname, "Tail-Gunner Joe," and the slogan "Congress needs a tail-gunner". McCarthy also claimed La Follette had made huge profits from investments while he had been away fighting for his country; the suggestion that La Follette had been guilty of war profiteering was deeply damaging. (In fact, McCarthy had invested in the stock market himself during the war, netting a profit of $42,000 in 1943. La Follette's investments consisted of partial interest in a radio station, which earned him a profit of $47,000 over two years.)
Arnold Beichman later stated that McCarthy "was elected to his first term in the Senate with support from the Communist-controlled United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, CIO", which preferred McCarthy to the anti-communist Robert M. La Follette. This charge, however, has never been proved.
Later life and suicide
La Follette (left) and Jesse P. Wolcott (right) receiving the Collier's Congressional Award from President Harry S. Truman (April 17, 1947)
After his defeat by McCarthy, La Follette was a foreign aid advisor to the Truman administration.
In a February 8, 1947, Collier's Weekly article, La Follette reported infiltration of Communists onto Congressional committee staffs. The Venona project materials revealed that four agents of Soviet intelligence had served on La Follette's Civil Liberties Subcommittee, including the chief counsel, John Abt.
On February 24, 1953, La Follette was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Washington, D.C. On September 9, 1953, John Lautner testified before McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, revealing the existence of Communists that had served on La Follette's subcommittee. Some historians believe that La Follette killed himself out of fear of being exposed by McCarthy; others believe he succumbed to anxiety and depression that had plagued him for much of his life.
La Follette was interred at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin, and was survived by his sons, Bronson La Follette, who served as Wisconsin's attorney general 1965–69 and 1975–87, and the late Joseph Oden LaFollette who spent his career working at IBM.
Awards and honors
The University of Wisconsin awarded La Follette an honorary LL.D. degree in 1938. He also received Collier's Magazine award for outstanding public service in 1947.