As Good As They Come

Many Battles: The Autobiography of Ernest Gruening

by Ernest Gruening
Liveright, 564 pp., $12.95

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…

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