October 7, 1963, was the date that Ernest Gruening first attacked the Vietnam war from the Senate floor. A few months later he did it again, saying on March 10, 1964, all that needed to be said: “I consider the life of one American boy worth more than this putrid mess. I consider every additional life that is sacrificed in this forlorn venture a tragedy. Someday…if this sacrificing is continued it will be denounced as a crime.”
Later he and Senator Wayne Morse cast the only two votes in either house of Congress against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Thus, from the start of the Liberals’ War, the war that wrecked liberalism both as a name and as a political philosophy, the conflict was opposed by a prototypical, New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, pragmatic liberal.
Most of our dissenters are dispatched to the land of the forgotten. Who remembers senators like William E. Mason of Illinois and Richard F. Pettigrew of South Dakota for their opposition to our putting down the Philippine insurrection in the same manner we did in Vietnam? Yet if Gruening is elevated from the footnotes into the body of the text of our history, those who write it will not find the smallest smidgeon of radicalism in the man or his autobiography. As governor of Alaska, he worked as hard as the next politician to make his state prosperous with military installations.
We’ve forgotten about the type, but he is the good liberal, undistracted by theoretical formulations, relying on the government’s power to translate justice, sympathy, and decency into programs that make men’s lives happier. A good man, a courageous man and steadfast, he is the flexible liberal, untouched by the planner’s arrogance, yet often so taken up by good causes that he sometimes cannot see their bad effects.
In 1915 as a Boston newspaper editor he was so disturbed by the racism of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that he tried to get Mayor James Michael Curley to suppress the picture or at least censor it. Curley said he’d like to but he lacked the power, so Gruening had a law introduced and passed by the state legislature creating a Board of Censors. The mayor promptly used his new powers to forbid Anna Pavlova from making an indecent spectacle of herself by dancing barefoot.
Unlike most politicians, conservative or liberal, Gruening learned from the experience and developed a greater appreciation for the joys and protections afforded by the First Amendment. Four decades later, this helped him decide to vote with the South for the preservation of the filibuster when the Northern liberals were trying to abolish it to pass the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s.
The Birth of a Nation incident tells us that Vietnam wasn’t the first issue Gruening took up long before it was popular. Every liberal cause on the list had his support early. He was so active in the field of racial justice that in 1917—or fifty years before the founding of the Black Panthers—he was offered the job of Executive Secretary of the NAACP.
Yet his interest, his disappointments, and his frequent horror over the treatment of blacks never brought him to doubt the country’s essential substance or its basic legal arrangements. Notions embodied in such terms as “institutional racism” are alien to Ernest Gruening. For him this is a good country, the very best, it always was and it always will be, and it’ll be better yet if we can retire a few rotten eggs to private life. He doesn’t use expressions like rotten eggs, not even when talking about Richard Nixon. Thus he ends his long book, the narrative of a life that began in 1887, with a call for impeachment but also an exhortation to be brave, to be free, and to follow in the spirit of our fathers. No major structural changes are necessary.
By his account Ernest Gruening did follow in his father’s spirit. Emil Gruening left East Prussia to avoid being drafted in the King’s army. After serving in the Union Army, he became a noted physician and the head of an upper-middle-class family of morals, learning, and independent pride.
Ernest never rebelled against his father unless you want to call rebellion his decision not to go into practice after his graduation from Harvard Medical School. Newspaper work and journalism were apparently too much fun and excitement, although in writing about his early manhood he talks about his professional struggles and not about whatever kicks he must have gotten out of them. In any event, he was successful at his calling, serving as either managing editor or editor of the Boston Herald, the Portland (Maine) Evening News, the New York Sun, The New York Post, The New York Tribune and The Nation magazine.
He was happy in several of these positions, but he was fired from the Tribune because of his German name, although he was an enthusiastic supporter of Woodrow Wilson’s war policy. He quit several of the other papers because the management insisted on business considerations controlling news policy. Hence, he left the Post when its owner, J. David Stern, killed a story exposing Vincent Astor as a slum lord.
At least in retrospect, these partings over principle took place with a minimum of moral outrage or self-righteousness. “There were other such incidents,” he writes with the most forebearing mildness, “and I felt that despite Stern’s reputation as a liberal, which he had demonstrated conspicuously in various ways, our views on the conduct of a newspaper were not compatible. He shared that view and we agreed to part company.”
Poof! and he was gone. Today such resignations are customarily followed by three months of mutual recriminations as with Willie Morris’s heavily publicized exit from Harper’s Magazine. Perhaps age has brought Gruening to think better of the men he opposed so many years ago, but at least one man who served with him in the Senate says that’s the way he is, fiery in public debate but even-tempered in his personal relations.
Today journalists who break with meretricious bosses are prone to agitate for some change in the system of control like the election of editors. If such ideas entered Gruening’s head, he doesn’t mention them. For him, the good man does what he thinks is right and takes the consequences without monkeying around with the established order.
It’s a hero’s way of looking at the world. Not that Gruening expects others to act heroically, particularly if the others are poorer and less privileged than he. True liberal that he is, Gruening ascribes crime, antisocial behavior, disease, and shiftlessness to poverty and discrimination, and he sets out to correct that without deviating from his faith in our institutions.
An outlook on life in which you’re harder on yourself than you are on anybody or anything else was perhaps the way the great liberals of the beginning of the century reconciled what they knew with what they could do about it. Quite early in Gruening’s career, he had an opportunity to see American imperialism in its most heavy-handed form in Mexico and the Caribbean. These were the days when we didn’t use communism as an excuse to land the marines in Mexico or Santo Domingo. We just said right out that we were going in to collect the money owed First National City Bank.
Both as a journalist and as a staff member of a Senate investigating committee he saw those occupations first hand, and he reacted by writing about them and working to influence American policy. In part as a result of his efforts in collaborating with Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the Western Hemisphere got “The Good Neighbor Policy,” the abrogation of the Platt Amendment and the renunciation of our right to intervene in the domestic affairs of our neighbors.
Given our recent record in Chile, Hispaniola, and half a dozen other Latin countries, people may ascribe a case of classic liberal fatuity to Gruening for taking credit for anything we’ve done in those climes. But you can argue it would have been worse without men like him, and that argument is not without merit considering that between 1900 and FDR’s assuming office our armed forces were used thirty-three times, that is an average of once a year, against one country or another south of the border.
Yet, appointed by Roosevelt as head of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions, Gruening, with his liberal’s sensitivity to the demand for self-rule, got the job of putting down the Puerto Rican nationalist movement which was then engaged in trying to assassinate the island’s American administrators. Led by fellow Harvard College alumnus Pedro Albizu Campos, that phase of Puerto Rican nationalism peaked on March 27, 1937, with “the Ponce Massacre” and the killing of nineteen people.
The important question for Gruening is “who fired first?” The Nationalistas, he answers, but in his discussion of that bloody day, he writes, “Subsequently, Arthur Garfield Hays, of the American Civil Liberties Union, made a study of the affair and of the whole question of civil liberties in Puerto Rico. He produced what seemed to me a biased report which evaded the reality that it was the Nationalists with their campaign of assassinations and terrorism who were the real foes of civil liberties.”
It is amazing that the man who was chiefly responsible for our running of the island could have written those words and then gone on to be the first senator to oppose Vietnam. It’s not his inconsistency that is amazing—inconsistency is the only constant in politics—but that the incident didn’t turn Gruening into the kind of bitter hard-liner who advertises himself as a liberal years after he’s gone sharp right.
At the same time, there is no discussion of the recurring liberal dilemma of which the Ponce Massacre provides a textbook example. The picture he draws of himself in Puerto Rico isn’t unrecognizably different from the picture we would have of the CIA liberals in Vietnam thirty-five years later. Here he is busy with housing projects, land reform, sugar mills, upgrading the schools, fighting for medical facilities, and every native Spanish-speaking group from the Catholic Church through the Muñoz Marin liberals to the Nationalist radicals is after his hide, but Gruening goes on doing his best.
What he did is defensible if he cared to defend it, which he doesn’t. The book remains rigidly narrative, heavy with discussions about railroad lines in the Klondike and the reasons for naming certain Alaskan mountain peaks after men whose fame never reached the bottom forty-eight during their lifetimes. Between descriptions of worthy but tedious projects for human betterment there is good stuff, but few readers will hang in long enough to get to the part about how Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, had 1,800 pounds of equipment so he could secretly record his visitors’ conversations. Too many pages are devoted to the minutiae of the Alaskan governor’s office where FDR sent him as his appointee:
Of the doubts, ambiguities, and fuzzed-over uncertainties which are the staple of so much of our writing, Gruening has none, and that makes his story flat for modern readers. He writes like a man of action—first I did this and then I did that. No poking around the secrets of the soul. A Teddy Roosevelt type of book. Two of his sons die, one by disease in childhood, another by his own hand, and Gruening tells us he was sad, but he can’t convey it.
That he wrote a book about himself without guile, hesitation, or apology, without rancor or regret, but also without mystery and contemplation, is probably because that’s the way he is. The best of a certain sort of man who did his best in a certain sort of time. If a reviewer cannot recommend reading his story of his life, we can honor him for having lived it.
March 7, 1974