By Carl Solberg
1984, Norton & Norton, New York
Borealis Books edition, 2003
The Vietnam Project began with a simple desire to know what happened during the Vietnam War. By the time I got around to writing this blogh, to formalizing it as a ‘project’, my interest had run riot to include the entire history of the region, and I felt morally obligated to counter-balance the events of 1965-1975 not only with the immediate context of French and Japanese colonialism, but with Vietnam’s history. So I have been posting reviews of books that relate the history of the region from pre-historic times. This requires a multifaceted approach, for the Vietnam of 900AD is not the Vietnam of 1425, 1787, 1805 or 1945.
That said, I am still fascinated by the American War, and The Vietnam Project includes as one of its panels a political and cultural history of the United States from 1960-1975 or so. For if Vietnam has fascinated me so has the presidencies it so strongly marked, those of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. If a war that killed millions of people and crippled (perhaps terminally) a superpower can be said to have single victims (and of course, morally, it only has single victims), then one of the saddest stories is that of Hubert Horatio Humphrey.
Hubert Humphrey was a hero in my family, of sorts. I was too young to understand that his position on the war had ruined his reputation. I just knew he wasn’t Richard Nixon, and that my uncle was his friend and associate. On November 22nd, 1963, Humphrey and Mondale were at my uncle’s house plotting DFL [Democratic-Farm-Labor Party] politics. And another uncle, a stalwart CPA member in good standing, tells me that Humphrey once said, ‘there will always be room for Communists in the DFL.’ In 1968 I went to school on election day with a hand-lettered cardboard sign for Humphrey. On election night I stayed up past midnight in my parents’ bed watching the returns. Humphrey’s loss was shattering. I had followed the race since the spring, been for RFK despite my mother’s McCarthy for President straw hat and my father’s inexplicable dislike of the Kennedys. I hated George Wallace. By the fall, even to an 8 year old, it seemed like the world was ending, and Richard Nixon was the final disaster.
Hubert Humphrey is best known for his soaring and triumphant speech in favor of Civil Rights at the 1948 Democratic Convention. He was the 37 year-old mayor of Minneapolis and a rising star in the Democratic Party. His politicking and rhetoric resulted in the adoption of a minority, pro-civil rights plank in the party platform, which set the course for Democrats for decades to come. That year he became the Democratic senator from Minnesota.
He is also notorious for his purge of Communists from the Farm-Labor Party, which he then merged with the Democratic Party, and for introducing a bill in 1954 outlawing the Communist Party. His bill was merged with another bill and passed as The Communist Control Act of 1954. Even J. Edgar Hoover opposed it.
Humphrey’s struggle with the Communist Party dates back to the 1940s when he was mayor of Minneapolis and a fiery progressive. At that time the Republican Party dominated Minnesota politics. Its main rival for power was not the Democrats but the Farm-Labor Party, a radical progressive party with a strong and militant Communist membership. In the thirties, Communist dominated labor unions waged pitched battles with police on the streets of Minneapolis, with the tacit support of the colourful, brilliant Farm-Labor governor of the state, Floyd Olson. Olson was elected in 1930. To Farm Labor Delegates he said, “I am not a liberal, I am…a radical….I want a definite change in the system.” His party’s platform began with the statement: “We declare that capitalism has failed.” Soldberg writes of Olson, “[he] could deliver stump speeches in Yiddish as well as Swedish and Norwegian…” Olson passed an income tax, mortgage moratorium and food relief. He formed an alliance with Roosevelt.
One of the virtues of Solberg’s biography is that it reminds the reader how close to the radical left Democratic politics was in this country in the 30’s and 40’s, before Truman and the Cold War ‘consensus’ decisively divorced the two. Like Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey’s father was a Progressive, deeply involved in politics, and a Socialist, at least in orientation, if not affiliation. The Minneapolis truckers’ strike of 1934 was led by the Dunne Brothers, former Wobblies who had become Communists and sided with the Trotskeyites when they split from Stalin. They were opposed by The Citizen’s Alliance, financed by Republican millionaires, the Pillsburys among others. Some of the agri-business interests would later finance Humphrey. There was at the time a Silver Shirts group of fascists, associated with Republicans. These were the contenders for political power in the upper Midwest in the 1930s. Elected officials, union bosses, gangsters, business men, workers and farmers were waging political war and the whole ideological rainbow of that time was unabashedly on display.
Humphrey never lost his connection to the left, despite his Anti-Communist passions. In the fifties he was a member of a group of Euro-Socialists, with whom he had much in common. If he opposed Communists he was on easy terms with them. His meetings with Kurschev and other Soviet officials make fascinating reading. In domestic policy he favoured a form of liberalism that is all but dead in this country. Though few bills appeared with his name on them he was instrumental in the passage of every piece of major social legislation during his time in the senate, including especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicaire, and Food Stamps. He was in favor of arms control agreements and initially opposed Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. That opposition cost him dearly. Johnson froze him out of all policy decision for a year as a result and it was only through self-abasement that he crawled back into Johnson’s lap. Johnson pinned Humphrey down and Humphrey allowed it, seemed to crave it. His relationship with Johnson is so disturbing it makes me question what kind of president he would actually have been.
Humphrey grew up not in poverty as LBJ had, but on the edge of it. His father was a pharmacist (as was my grandfather) and Humphrey acquired his extraordinary gift of gab and listening working the counter of a drugstore from childhood through his twenties. He had to struggle to go to school, and like Nixon might have made a fine professor. But his talent for speech making was evident to everyone who met him. Unlike Nixon he craved the approval and company of others. He lacked Johnson’s paranoia and Machiavellian instincts. Like Brutus he trusted the integrity of others far too much. He was disorganized and didn’t stand a chance against the Kennedys. Humphrey’s appeal was always that he understood the ordinary working man, the farmer, the union worker in a factory. There is a famous story that in West Virginia an old coal miner said to JFK, “They say you were born a rich a man and never did a hard day of work in your life.” JFK had to admit that this was true. “Well,” the man said, “you didn’t miss a thing.”
Against Nixon he might have won had he had the ability to oppose Johnson earlier. When Humphrey first started running for president he did so by entering primaries. It was his only chance to rack up enough delegates to prove himself to the party hacks who would pick a candidate. Humphrey knew the back room as well the stump. It is an unfortunate irony that by 1968 he was reduced to running the insider’s campaign. McCarthy and RFK battled it out in primaries while Humphrey sought the endorsements of Mayor Daley and the likes of Mr. Crandall from Erie County. Humphrey was a dinosaur, but never as bad as the left made him out to be. Today Tom Hayden says the left’s biggest error in the 60’s was sitting out the ’68 election. But Humphrey’s brand of politics in 1968 was badly out-dated. Today Humphrey’s politics would be impossible. A man who knows the difference between a Stalinist, a Trotskeyite and a Socialist has to pretend he’s an idiot if he wants to be elected. Our professor president has not taken the time to explain the differences to the morons who call him a ‘Communist Fascist’. It wouldn’t be worth it. He would be crucified.
Humphrey died at the age of 67, of bladder and stomach cancer. Seeing him thin and wasted by illness was striking and sad. What America lost we seem to have lost for good. The Cold War and Cold War politics eventually defeated the progressive left political tradition in this country. Humphrey and Johnson had roots in the 19th century. Their game of being international hawks and domestic liberals failed. It would be Wallace and Nixon and Reagan who would map out the political future of America, and the fruit is the GOP of today, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay, as well as the losers: Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry. It seems at least possible that RFK had a different map. Certainly the McGovern/McCarthy map was a losing one. Humphrey’s life brings up all the ‘might have beens’. What if Humphrey had won in 1968? Could RFK have won?
Humphrey’s proteges included George McGovern, Fritz Mondale and Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy and McGovern both stabbed him in the back, as many of his friends had done. Humphrey never held it against any of them, including Johnson.
Johnson died at the age of 64. JFK was 46. Nixon out-lived them all.