Ernest Gruening, Class of 1903, is recognized as "the father of Alaska statehood," having served Alaska as both Territorial Governor and as a U.S. Senator. But he was likely best known for being one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
A 1912 graduate of Harvard Medical School, Gruening never practiced medicine. It was his work in journalism that provided the forum for his early crusades. After landing a job with the Boston American, he waged one of his first battles when an assignment took him to the Chicopee Manufacturing Company. He discovered that employees with long service could retire with half-pay for life, but the fact that the employee must have worked 50 years to be eligible was not publicized. He then wrote about the plight of the Life Saving Service Employees (later known as the U.S. Coast Guard) and the fact that when employees reached retirement age, or if they were disabled in the line of duty, they received no compensation or benefits. Through his publicizing of their situation, legislation was passed to help these workers.
Gruening worked at other newspapers over the next few years and covered many events, including a rally held on the Boston Common in protest of the overcrowded and filthy mills and mill-owned tenements. As managing editor of the Traveler in 1914, he made one of his first directives to his staff - a memo addressing racial equality by banning reference to race within a story unless it was relevant to the story. He wrote an editorial criticizing a Massachusetts statute concerning a court case prosecuting the distribution of birth control literature, which was at the time a criminal offense. Believing that population control was a way to help eliminate poverty, he was a fervent supporter of Margaret Sanger's crusade to legalize birth control. Later, when he was in Congress, Gruening proposed legislation to establish the Presidential Committee on Population; eventually, the Family Planning Service and Population Research Act were passed.
In 1917 Gruening took a job at the Boston Journal. He supported U.S. involvement in World War I through his editorials, but he opposed Woodrow Wilson's efforts to censor the press. The Journal generally supported the draft, but objected to the drafting of married men with children and to the draft form itself, where it required the registrants' determination of color and race.
With a growing interest in politics, Gruening became editor of The Nation in 1920. There, he first questioned the policy of gunboat diplomacy for Latin America. He addressed the exploitation of the economies of small nations, including Caribbean and Central American Republics, under the Wilson administration and waged a fierce battle for withdrawal of the military and for ending the financial occupation of Haiti and Santo Domingo. The Nation covered the treatment of minorities, addressing the fact that Japanese residents of California were deprived of the right to own land. The paper covered common segregation and discrimination practices and the many unfair court cases that resulted in the lynching of often-innocent black men accused of trivial offenses. Gruening was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his sister was, in fact, one of the founders.
By the early 1930s, Gruening's career changed course. Having become well-versed in Latin American affairs, he was asked by President Roosevelt to join the administration, and was appointed Director of Division Territories and Island Possessions for the Department of the Interior. One of his first assignments exposed problems with transferring settlers to the Alaska Territory. There were no budgeted appropriations from the Interior Department for this, so Gruening contacted the Federal Relief Administrator, Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had the funds but would only allow them to be used if he, himself, ran the program. In this post-Depression era, many thousands of people thought that a move to Alaska could mean a new life, and the White House, the Interior Department, and the Relief Administration received thousands of letters of interest from every state. Yet Hopkins would only consider settlers from three states, and many of the people chosen by social workers were problematic or criminals, and they had to be sent back.
Gruening's boss was Harold Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior. In organizing his department, he had his first run-in with Ickes; there would be many more. An assignment took him to St. Thomas, where other than a handful of tourist ships, the island had little support for its economy. The onset of prohibition had ruined the island's chief industry and source of revenue, rum production. The Red Cross was feeding 25 percent of the islanders, and most of the laborers were out of work. Better health services were needed, as were housing and a public works program. Gruening tried to address these issues and also proposed the establishment of a craft cooperative to provide people with a place to sell their wares. Still, it would take years for political liberties and economic improvements to set in.
Puerto Rico had different types of issues, and Ernest Gruening became quite familiar with them. By 1935, he would be appointed administrator of Puerto Rico's Reconstruction. He proposed and encouraged self-government and economic development for the Island. The political whims of Washington would continue to play a part in Puerto Rico's affairs, but Gruening had laid the foundation that would eventually result in sweeping social and economic improvements. Mainland industries were eventually attracted, and by 1968 the Island was flourishing.
As an expert on U.S. territories, Gruening visited Alaska, learning about the territory, its needs, and its problems. U.S. territories were faced with many issues uncommon to the states. Mail was censored in the State of Washington. Absentee control of the territory was an enormous problem - individuals with salmon and gold interests hoped to retain this control. Living was difficult, and travel within the territory was extremely limited because of the utter lack of roads and highways. There were ridiculous tolls on some existing roads, though they were often flooded and impassable. Train travel was limited, and dog sled was a common way to travel inland. Discrimination towards the native people, Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos ran rampant. Gruening recognized that the depletion of the fisheries had to be stopped by transfer from Federal to Alaskan management. He would also fight for financial support for the University of Alaska, just as he had for support for the University in Puerto Rico, and for a defense program, but his biggest battle would be for statehood for the territory; it would take years to achieve.
Gruening recognized the beauty and the magnificence of Alaska, yet the serious problems seemed, at times, insurmountable. He traveled extensively through the territory and spoke with the people, discussing their problems with the heads of every federal and territorial agency he could find. "I learned that the territory was not without serious problems, problems that I would have to work to solve in Washington. But I had also learned that Alaska's people were its greatest asset - honest, straightforward, unaffected by caste or class, unafraid of hard work. They represented a kind of democracy that has long since vanished from many other parts of our country."
The Congress refused to allow the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916 to help the Territory, even though residents of Alaska were required to pay a federal gas tax; so, travel limitations remained one of the most frustrating obstacles. Eighty-eight years of colonialism resulted in only 3,500 miles of highway for an area one-fifth as large as the 48 states. Gruening fought for landing strips and improved rail travel, and in 1938, he was appointed to Alaska's International Highway Commission. He recognized that increased tourism would be a most critical component of a healthy economy, and in order for that to happen, there would need to be transportation.
In 1939, President Roosevelt named Gruening Governor of the Territory of Alaska. He was at first reluctant to accept, but the appointment went through, and for over a decade, he served. Gruening would argue time and time again against the absenteeism and the discrimination of American Colonialism, and the oppression of the political and economic disadvantages that went along with it. With fortitude and resoluteness, Gruening challenged unfair terminal charges on Alaska freight, rail export, and import tariffs that penalized only Alaska, and the general taxation without representation. He noted that the people were subject to military service, and he questioned maritime legislation directed only against Alaska.
The issues were both numerous and complex, but on January 3, 1959, with a vote of 64 yeas and 20 nays, Alaska became the 49th state of the union; the stars on the flag were staggered for the first time in its history. Ernest Gruening was now a Senator, yet even with the achievement of statehood for the territory, his toughest battle was still ahead. The 86th Congress convened on January 7, 1959, with 14 new Democrats, including Senator Ernest Gruening. President Eisenhower's State of the Union message focused on the need to fight inflation. Three days later, the Federal Maritime Board approved a 10-percent increase in freight rates to the Alaskan Steamship Company, followed by a 15-percent increase, for a total of a 25-percent increase in two years. Senator Gruening found this ironic, and while funding for domestic needs was deficient and heavily scrutinized, the huge amount of foreign aid expenditures was not; they were often secret.
The new senator would continue to dispute foreign and military aid spending, and he revealed some double standards in Washington. Eisenhower vetoed a pollution control bill that would have enabled states to build sewage disposal and treatment plants - greatly reducing pollution in the coming years; yet a water and sewage disposal plant in Pakistan received $3,795,000 in American dollars. There were many other examples of deficient domestic support and lavish foreign-aid funding. Libya, for instance, was a federation of three provinces ruled by a king who insisted on maintaining three capitals, and the government was moved back and forth among the three. The U.S. Mission was forced to continually move its personnel to keep up with the government. Palaces were built for each member of the royal family. The U.S. aid program gave Libya millions of dollars for projects, yet the funds and the projects were inefficiently managed, and Libyan officials exhibited a total lack of fiscal responsibility. Gruening would offer an amendment to end aid to colonies such as French and British Guiana and British Honduras, which had their own mother countries, and he questioned giving military assistance in the amount of $900 million to 13 prospering European countries, with another $67 million in military aid going to Japan.
The optimism felt by many Democrats with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy was beginning to fade. Gruening was disappointed that domestic initiatives such as civil rights and tax legislation were not enacted in the 88th Congress's first session. Defense and foreign aid remained important priorities, and though there had not been much talk about Vietnam in earlier sessions of Congress, U.S. involvement would escalate greatly over the next few years. Gruening knew that President Kennedy had inherited the situation, but he disagreed completely with United States intervention. In his first discussion of Vietnam on the Senate floor on October 7, 1963, the Senator said, "We have been and are heavily engaged in Vietnam to the extent of 12,000 'advisors.' They are supposedly 'technicians,' but of course they are troops, and it is sheer hypocrisy to pretend they are anything else. It is only costing us a million dollars a day, but far more serious, it has cost us the lives of 100 American young men."
The Congressional Record showed that Ernest Gruening argued against American intervention in the Vietnamese civil war, and he further argued that a united Vietnam, even under communist control, would be better than the corrupt regime that the U.S. was supporting. He was both consistent and tireless in his arguments, and he took his case to his colleagues in the Congress and to the people at every opportunity. His book, Vietnam Folly, documented his views, as he pushed for reevaluation and for a reversal in policy separating him from his party leaders. Yet Ernest Gruening, along with the entire nation, was deeply saddened by the tragic events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. President Kennedy would never have the opportunity to focus on domestic initiatives, and he did not live to see the casualties approach some 60,000 American lives in a war half a world away.
Soon after the President's assassination, with 200 American casualties and $2.5 billion already spent, Senator Gruening appealed to now-President Lyndon B. Johnson to seize the opportunity to reverse policy and bring the troops home, but Johnson was listening to the counsel of Dean Rusk, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense. Gruening reiterated his views in a speech to the Senate in March 1964 entitled, "The United States Should Get Out of Vietnam." Gruening argued that despite massive economic and military aid, the situation was deteriorating. On August 4, 1964, things escalated when President Johnson announced on national television that the destroyer, Maddox, was involved in an unprovoked attack in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. A joint resolution was drafted and received and adopted by both houses; the resolution would empower the President to use U.S. forces anywhere in Southeast Asia. In the Senate, the vote was 88 yeas to two nays, with only Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening voting no. Four years later, it was revealed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the executive branch had misinformed the Congress - the true facts about the Gulf of Tonkin incident became known.
The dissension of the American people was mounting, and Gruening continued to denounce the war from the floor of the Senate, through television appearances, in newspapers and magazines, and on college campuses. Others joined the voices of Morse and Gruening, yet the atrocities of war had already been inflicted.
In 1968, Ernest Gruening lost his battle for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Some time later, his friend and colleague, Wayne Morse, said, "When historians in the years ahead finish their documented evaluations of the public service record of Ernest Gruening, he is certain to be ranked among the list of greatest champions of the nation's welfare ever to serve in the United States Senate." On the occasion of his 87th birthday, he returned to the Senate, this time as an invited guest. Senators George McGovern, Mark Hatfield, and Frank Church posted a letter to the Nobel Committee that day, recommending that Senator Gruening be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They asked for unanimous consent that a copy of the letter be printed in the Senate Record; there were no objections. The man who had dedicated his life to no single cause died on June 26, 1974.
*Note: Since 2007, when we began the Alum of the Month feature, the honor has occasionally been extended posthumously. In that spirit, this month's installment recognizes one of the School's most revered graduates, 115 years after Ernest Gruening's graduation from Hotchkiss.