I used to hate Hubert Humphrey. Fifty years ago, the only part of this once-renowned liberal’s career that mattered to me was his unflinching support for the despicable war in Vietnam. In late August of 1968, I traveled to the Democratic Convention in Chicago to protest his nomination for president. That fall, with other radicals, I organized a demonstration urging everyone to boycott the election. “Vote with your feet, vote in the streets!” we shouted as we marched up to the State House in Boston.
In my small, disruptive fashion, I probably helped elect a president who made American politics a whole lot worse. Under Richard Nixon, the nation began to move rightward, a shift from which we are still struggling to recover. And Mr. Watergate took four years to withdraw our troops from Vietnam, after another 20,000 US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians had died. So I struggle with the question of whether leftists like myself, and anti-war liberals as well, should have stopped chanting “Dump the Hump” and did what we could to defeat that greater evil and perhaps manage to preserve the New Deal order for at least a few more years.
Arnold Offner’s new biography, Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country, helps to clarify why that question remains a devilishly challenging one. The author, whose previous books concerned diplomatic history, supplies all the evidence one could want to prove that Humphrey played a major role in leading his party—and, to a degree, his country—to reject Jim Crow and embrace a number of social-democratic policies. Yet Humphrey’s decision to become the most prominent Democratic cheerleader for the US atrocity in Indochina also turned his life of liberal achievement into a tragedy. Not everything he did in politics before the 1960s was virtuous. But when Humphrey devoted himself to selling President Lyndon Johnson’s war, he suffered a dual defeat: He failed to convince the public, and he sabotaged his chance to become president—the ambition that had, for the most part, spurred his hawkishness in the first place. Far more significant, however, was what his defeat represented: the end of an era when liberal Democrats were the dominant force in US politics.
The Humphrey tragedy can be divided into four acts. The first begins with his birth in 1911 and ends with the nationally broadcast speech in 1948 that made him a liberal hero.
Humphrey grew up in the upper Midwest, the fertile seedbed for such progressive stalwarts as Jane Addams, Robert La Follette, Eugene Debs, and William Jennings Bryan. His father, Hubert Sr., owned a drugstore in Doland, South Dakota—a town so small that it contained only a dozen businesses. Hubert Sr. also found time to teach Sunday-school classes imbued with the Social Gospel and to serve as mayor of his hamlet and then as a member of the State Assembly. Raised as a Republican, the political home of most Midwestern Protestants since the Civil War, Humphrey’s father bolted for the opposition party after hearing a Bryan speech, and he never looked back.
Unlike his father, Hubert Jr. had no intention of dividing his time between politics and pharmaceuticals. After excelling in classes and debate at the University of Minnesota, he considered becoming an academic. But during World War II, he leapt into that state’s New Deal politics and began a climb to a leadership role in the Democratic Party.
In 1944, Minnesota’s Democratic Party merged with its left-wing Farmer-Labor Party, which had run the state during part of the 1930s and whose leaders wanted to transcend corporate capitalism. The alliance was an uneasy one at first, but Humphrey managed to please both sides enough to get elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1945, at the age of just 34. In City Hall, his aggressive efforts to build housing for war veterans, negotiate fair settlements in local labor disputes, and root out corruption in the police department made him a favorite for higher office.
Most Americans outside of Minnesota first heard of Humphrey in 1948. At that year’s Democratic Convention, he played a major role in writing a section of the platform that committed the party, for the first time in its history, to enacting a federal civil-rights bill. On the last day of the convention, the young mayor stood at the podium and declared, “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People—human beings—this is the issue of the 20th century.”
Delegates from two Southern states walked out in protest and began to organize the States’ Rights (or “Dixiecrat”) party. But Humphrey’s eloquent stand, heard by millions on the radio and by others on the new medium of television, made him an idol to all those Americans who wanted to “march down the high road of progressive democracy” with him. That fall, Humphrey swept into the US Senate, following a campaign in which he gave some 700 speeches and had the strong backing of organized labor.
Humphrey’s second act began in Washington and lacked the heroism of the first. He first served in the Senate for 16 years, maneuvering consistently, if not effectively, to enhance his own presidential prospects. Often, both his ambition and his principles led him to take positions that backed up his 1957 statement that he was “a liberal without apology.” Humphrey tried to scrap the prevailing immigration law that discriminated against anyone not from Western Europe. In 1954, he initiated what became the Food for Peace program and kept fighting for civil-rights legislation throughout that decade. Outside the South, most Democratic activists were hungry for candidates who could bring back the kinds of passion and programs that had energized the New Deal, and the senator from Minnesota was eager to lead the revival.
But when it came to the Cold War, Humphrey took pains to show that he could be as unbending in his belligerence as any right-wing Republican. In 1954, adding a red-hunter line to his résumé, he sponsored a nasty piece of legislation that outlawed membership in the Communist Party. Civil libertarians condemned it, as did many liberal lawmakers in both parties. “We do not have to abdicate the Constitution to catch Communists,” remarked Estes Kefauver, an influential Democratic senator from Tennessee. The act passed that year but was rarely invoked or tested in court. Ominously, that same year, Humphrey also denounced the State Department for giving away “half of Vietnam” to the communists after Ho Chi Minh’s forces defeated the French.
His well-publicized record as a Cold War liberal was not enough to win him the presidential nomination in 1960. Humphrey’s race against John F. Kennedy, who had money to burn and glamour to spare, was like a sturdy plow horse attempting to best a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby. That May, JFK won a crushing victory in the West Virginia primary—where pundits thought his Catholicism would work against him—and the nag from the Plains immediately withdrew from the race. Humphrey returned to the Senate, where he took the lead in making the Peace Corps permanent and ratifying the treaty to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere.
In 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination, Humphrey took a different path to the White House, and the third, climactic act of his life began. He reasoned, writes Offner, that “as a poor man from a small state and without rich friends,” he would first have to be elected vice president. So, throughout that spring and summer, Humphrey worked relentlessly to gain Johnson’s favor.
Together with GOP Senate leader Everett Dirksen, he led the effort to kill a Southern filibuster against LBJ’s landmark Civil Rights Act, which passed in July 1964. To prove his fealty to Johnson, who feared losing the entire South, Humphrey then squelched an attempt by the biracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at that year’s national convention instead of the racists who made up the state’s official delegation. Fannie Lou Hamer, the charismatic MFDP activist, scolded Humphrey for worrying about his own future instead of the rights of black Americans. “I’m going to pray to Jesus for you,” she told him.
By thwarting the MFDP’s challenge, Humphrey managed to get his own prayers answered: LBJ chose him as his running mate. Privately, Johnson let it be known that any man he picked for the job would have to abandon the last shred of independence—or, in his vivid vernacular, “I want his pecker to be in my pocket.” By the time Humphrey took the oath of office, he had performed the metaphorical excision required.
Offner’s lengthy account of his subject’s years as vice president will make many readers cringe. Although Humphrey first doubted the wisdom of LBJ’s escalation of the war, he soon became its most ardent promoter. The vice president, according to a cabinet member and close friend, was determined to be “a good boy at all times.” He praised Johnson for offering the Vietnamese enemy “an Asian New Deal” and compared the US commitment to the Saigon government with that of Franklin Roosevelt to Churchill’s Britain during the Second World War. In The New York Times, columnist Tom Wicker quipped that the vice president’s relentless flacking had earned him “a place at the White House table, just above the salt.”
The war undid LBJ’s administration. After winning 61 percent of the vote in 1964, Johnson nearly lost the New Hampshire primary four years later and decided to pull out of the presidential race.
During his own run for the White House in 1968, Humphrey worried that a break with Johnson would destroy his chances, although LBJ did little to help his campaign and may even have hoped that Nixon would win. The vice president delayed issuing his own peace plan until it was too late to have an effect on the race. “You know,” Humphrey confessed to an aide, “I’ve eaten so much of Johnson’s shit in this job that I’ve grown to like the taste of it.” His nearly four years of unprincipled groveling at the most critical time of his career almost made me wonder whether Offner meant the subtitle of his book—“The Conscience of the Country”—as a joke.
In his fourth and final act, Humphrey attempted to rebuild the progressive reputation he had squandered as LBJ’s lackey and as a Cold War hawk. After being reelected to the Senate in 1970, he introduced a bill to extend health insurance to every citizen. He also co-wrote, with Augustus Hawkins, a black congressman from Los Angeles, an act that guaranteed a job at a decent wage to every American able to work. The health bill failed to pass, and the Humphrey-Hawkins Act got watered down into a promise with no plan or resources to carry it out. But it did mark Humphrey’s return to his earlier passion for social and economic change.
In 1972, the erstwhile hero, having turned against the war, ran for president again. However, most liberal Democrats understandably preferred George McGovern, the South Dakota senator who had once been Humphrey’s protégé yet had strongly opposed the war in Vietnam when the vice president was defending it. With labor support, Humphrey battled for the party’s nomination all the way to the convention, but McGovern won on the first ballot. After this defeat, Humphrey spent the rest of his life in the Senate, returning to the domestic liberalism that had made him both famous and popular.
Besides the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, he crusaded for full employment and a higher minimum wage and introduced a bill to guarantee every American child the right to nutritious food. Early in 1976, Gallup reported that most Democrats again wanted the Minnesota senator to be their nominee for president. But after agonizing for months, Humphrey decided that he had neither the funds nor the passion to go through the ordeal again. He told New York Times columnist James Reston that he would look “ridiculous” if he ran a fourth campaign that managed only to divide his party and hand the election to the incumbent, Gerald Ford.
Diagnosed with cancer midway through 1977, Humphrey died early the next year. By order of President Jimmy Carter, his body lay in state under the dome of the Capitol, where thousands came to view it on a frigid winter day. The postmortem plaudits from his colleagues were lavish and sincere. “He was never elected president,” remarked Senator Edward Muskie, his running mate in 1968, “but now he’s being honored like one. He’d like that.” As much as any reform he’d advocated or won, Humphrey’s unrequited desire to grab the brass ring of state defined him to the end.
Humphrey’s personal tragedy was also a key episode in the very public tragedy of American liberalism. Liberals could not have avoided engaging in the Cold War. Stalin and his successors were enemies of democracy and individual freedom, and they also posed a threat to American interests abroad, competing for the allegiance of peoples and governments around the world. But in creating a vast empire of American bases and allies that spanned the globe, liberals like Humphrey didn’t help matters, falling prey to their own delusions about American beneficence. They also came to believe that any inhabitant of a poor, exploited land who fought for “national liberation,” whether they were inspired by Marxism-Leninism or not, was somehow part of a conspiracy hatched by the Kremlin, Mao, or Castro. As Carl Oglesby, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, explained in 1965, Cold War liberalism
depicts our presence in other lands not as a coercion, but a protection. It allows us even to say that the napalm in Vietnam is only another aspect of our humanitarian love—like those exorcisms in the Middle Ages that so often killed the patient. So we say to the Vietnamese peasant, the Cuban intellectual, the Peruvian worker: “You are better dead than Red. If it hurts or if you don’t understand why—sorry about that.”
As a result, the war in Vietnam became a liberal one—led by liberals, justified by liberal rhetoric, and caused by liberal misunderstandings of national liberation struggles—and it was liberals who rightly got the blame when it ended in ignominy and defeat.
By the 1980s, that debacle, together with the failure of Democrats in the White House and Congress to address stagflation and the energy crisis, helped turn a majority of Americans against candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whom Humphrey had once scorned as “George Wallace sprinkled with eau de cologne,” voters rejected the vision of a larger and more generous welfare state that Humphrey advocated and worked for, even if such achievements as the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and federal aid to schools and colleges remained popular. The platform that Humphrey had run on in 1968 included grand promises to make the income tax more progressive, to secure health care and housing as a right of every citizen, to strengthen labor unions, and to extend the anti-poverty program. But those worthy ideas were preceded by a vow to keep fighting in Vietnam so that the “aggression and subversion” of communists would not “succeed.” Not surprisingly, the Democratic campaign could not draw the media’s attention to any other issue.
Half a century later, I do regret that I could not see Humphrey as anything but a stooge for a policy that I abhor, in retrospect, just as much as I did then. But in its sobriety, a historical perspective can also minimize or ignore the importance of the moral resolve to shout “there is some shit I will not eat,” as E.E. Cummings famously wrote in a poem about a conscientious objector during World War I. It’s a shame of substantial consequence that, as vice president and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968, Humphrey was unwilling to tell the truth about Vietnam. He might have become, at that decisive moment, the true conscience of his country—a badge of political courage that might have vaulted him into the White House after all.
An earlier version of this article referred to Humphrey’s 1968 running mate as Edward Muskie; his first name, in fact, was Edmund. The Nation regrets the error.