Ernest Gruening '03 *

Ernest Gruening '03 *

Profession: Governor and U.S. Senator, Alaska; one of two senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam
Field: Government

On the occasion of Ernest Gruening's 87th birthday, he returned to the United States Senate where he had served for 11 years, 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.

Yet there were many objections indeed years earlier against Senator Gruening's position on U.S. involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, a war he strongly opposed. Senators Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse stood alone and were the only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; it was a stand that would propel Ernest Gruening into the history books.

Gruening was a man of conscience and conviction, and though he never was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was a proponent of peace and a hero in the eyes of many. Gruening dedicated his life to the many causes he believed in.

A 1912 graduate of Harvard Medical School, Ernest Gruening never practiced medicine. It was journalism that provided the forum for his early crusades. He landed a job with the Hearst-owned Boston American, and it was at the American that he waged one of his first battles - for workers' compensation. An assignment took Gruening to the Chicopee Manufacturing Company, and during an interview with the general manager, he revealed the unfair and deficient company pension system. Employees who had served the company for a number of years could retire with half-pay for life. The fact that the employee must have worked 50 years to be eligible was not publicized. Only one woman met the criteria and she received $3.00 a week. Gruening reported the conversation, but most facts were deleted from his story. The lack of a retirement system for both private industry and government workers continued to concern Gruening. He wrote about the plight of the Life Saving Service Employees (later known as the U.S. Coast Guard) and the fact that when these men reached retirement age, or if they were disabled in the line of duty, they received no compensation or benefits. By publicizing their situation, legislation was eventually passed to help these workers.

Over the next few years, Gruening worked at several other newspapers. While at the Herald, he covered many stories, including a rally held on the Boston Common in protest of the overcrowded and filthy mills and mill-owned tenements. He moved on to become managing editor of the Traveler in 1914 where he discovered more inadequacies with workers' compensation. One of his first directives to his staff was a memo addressing racial equality by banning reference to race within a story unless it was relevant to the story; he advised his staff that "Negroes" were to be treated with the same fairness as other racial groups.

Gruening wrote an editorial criticizing a Massachusetts statue concerning a court case prosecuting the distribution of birth control literature; it was, at the time, a criminal offense for a physician to impart information about birth control. He was a strong advocate of population control and believed it was a way to help eliminate poverty. In 1921, Gruening attended a conference sponsored by Margaret Sanger. He was a fervent supporter of her crusade to legalize birth control and he would continue his efforts to legalize birth control throughout his career. When he got to Congress he proposed legislation to establish the Presidential Committee on Population, and eventually, The Family Planning Service and Population Research Act was passed.

Gruening ended up resigning from the Traveler to stay true to his principals, and took a job at the Boston Journal. The year was 1917 and the war in Europe was taking its toll. Through his editorials, Gruening supported U.S. involvement in World War I, yet he opposed Woodrow Wilson's efforts to censor the press. The Journal supported the draft in general terms, but objected to the drafting of married men with children and to the draft form where it required the registrants' determination of color and race. The Journal covered the battle for equal suffrage as well, another controversial topic of the time, yet Gruening's good journalistic work would not save the ailing paper, even with increased circulation numbers.

Through journalism, Gruening's interest in politics grew. In 1920, he became editor of The Nation, and it was there that he first questioned the gunboat diplomacy for Latin America. The Nation provided the platform for him to address the exploitation of the economies of small nations including Haiti, other Caribbean nations, and Central American Republics under the Wilson administration. Gruening waged a tireless battle for withdrawal of the military and the financial occupation of Haiti and Santo Domingo. Under his leadership, The Nation covered other injustices as well, such as the treatment of minorities. His editorials addressed the fact that Japanese residents of California were deprived the right to own land, and 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. Ernest 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 of the organization.

By the early 1930s, Gruening's career changed course. He was becoming well versed in Latin American affairs through his coverage of the issues for The Nation and he had worked as an advisor at Montevideo, Uruguay. 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 ran the program. In this post Depression era, many thousands of people thought that a move to Alaska could be the opportunity for 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. As he sought to organize his department, he had his first run-in with Ickes; there would be many more differences between the two. Gruening's next assignment took him to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. 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 was housing and a public works program. Gruening tried to address these issues and also proposed the establishment of a craft cooperative to provide the people 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 all. By 1935, he would be appointed administrator of Puerto Rico's Reconstruction. Gruening 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 - socially, economically, and spiritually.

Ernest Gruening was now somewhat of an expert on U.S. territories, and in this guise traveled to Alaska. He learned more and more about the territory and its needs, and he became keenly aware of the numerous problems there. U.S. territories were faced with many issues uncommon to the states. Mail to Alaska 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 in Alaska, 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 sometimes impassable. There was limited train travel, 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 it.

The Director of Division Territories and Island Possessions recognized the beauty and the magnificence of Alaska, yet the serious problems facing her 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. Upon his departure from one trip he said, "I had 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 had 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 Alaska Territory even though residents of Alaska were required to pay a federal gas tax, so travel limitations remained one of the most frustrating and serious 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 (as there was only one railroad), 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 Ernest Gruening Governor of the territory of Alaska. Gruening was at first reluctant to accept, but the appointment went through and for over a decade, he served as territorial Governor. He 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 which penalized only Alaska, and general taxation without representation. He noted that the people were subject to military service and he questioned maritime legislation directed against only 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 forty-ninth 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 Eighty-sixth Congress convened on January 7, 1959, with 14 new Democrats including Senator Ernest Gruening. President Eisenhower's State of the Union Message to the Eighty-sixth Congress focused on the need to fight inflation. Three days later, the Federal Maritime Board approved a ten percent increase in freight rates to the Alaskan Steamship Company. This increase followed 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 were 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 which would have enabled states to build sewage disposal and treatment plants – which would have greatly reduced 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 with their own mother countries, and he questioned giving military assistance in the amount of $900 million to thirteen 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 Eighty-eighth 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, we would soon be involved in the longest war in our Nation's history. Gruening knew that President Kennedy had inherited the situation in Vietnam, 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 against U.S. involvement in this war, 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. His views separated him from his party leaders, Kennedy and Johnson. Yet Ernest Gruening, along with the entire Nation, was deeply saddened by the tragic events in Dallas on November 23, 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 thousand American lives in a war half a world away.

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. 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 not only bleak; it was deteriorating. On August 4, 1964, the situation 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 were now 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. Other voices 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." The man that had dedicated his life to no single cause died on June 26, 1974.

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