Mike Mansfield

Mike Mansfield

Michael Mansfield, the son of poor Irish immigrants, was born in New York City on 16th March, 1903. His mother died three years later and his father sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Great Falls, Montana. At the age of 14 Mansfield left home to join the United States Navy. He completed several Atlantic crossings in the crew of a troopship before the authorities found him out and discharged him.

After the First World War Mansfield served in the United States Army (1919-1920) and the United States Marines (1920-1922). He then worked as a miner in Butte, Montana before enrolling in the Montana School of Mines (1927-28). Mansfield graduated from Montana State University at Missoula in 1933 and spent two years at the University of California before teaching Latin American and East Asian history at the University of Montana.

A member of the Democratic Party, Mansfield was elected to the 78th Congress in 1942. At the end of the Second World War President Harry S. Truman consulted Mansfield about the possible terms for a Japanese surrender. Truman took Mansfield advice that Emperor Hirohito should remain on the throne in order to avert a massive popular resistance to American occupation.

After the war Mansfield's liberal views made him a target of Joseph McCarthy. However, Mansfield was extremely popular in Montana and he was able to survive the senator's smear campaign.

Ten years later he was a successful candidate for the Senate. He was Democratic whip (1957-61) before replacing Lyndon B. Johnson as majority leader in 1961. He served under President John F. Kennedy and was sent to Indochina on a fact-finding mission. He advise to Kennedy to curb U.S. involvement in Vietnam was ignored.

Mansfield played an important role in the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). He also emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. On one occasion J complained to Mansfield about not receiving better support in the Senate from "my majority leader". Mansfield replied: "I'm not your majority leader. I'm the Senate's majority leader."

Mansfield was not a candidate for the Senate in 1976 and the following year President Jimmy Carter appointed him Ambassador to Japan, a post he held until 1988. In his final years he was senior advisor to Goldman, Sachs & Company. Mike Mansfield died of a heart attack in Washington on 5th October, 2001.

Primary Sources

(1) I. F. Stone, I. F. Stone's Weekly (30th September, 1963)

It's not so much the killings as the lack of contrition. The morning after the Birmingham bombing, the Senate in its expansive fashion filled thirty-five pages of the Congressional Record with remarks on diverse matters before resuming debate on the nuclear test ban treaty. But the speeches on the bombing in Birmingham filled barely a single page. Of 100 ordinarily loquacious Senators, only four felt moved to speak. Javits of New York and Kuchel of California expressed outrage. The Majority Leader, Mansfield, also spoke up, but half his time was devoted to defending J. Edgar Hoover from charges of indifference to racial bombings. His speech was remarkable only for its inane phrasing. "There can be no excuse for an occurrence of that kind," Mansfield said of the bombing, in which four little girls at Sunday School were killed, "under any possible circumstances." Negroes might otherwise have supposed that states' rights or the doctrine of interposition or the failure of the Minister that morning to say 'Sir' to a passing white man might be regarded as a mitigating circumstance. Even so Mansfield's proposition was too radical for his Southern colleagues. Only Fulbright rose to associate himself with Mansfield's remarks and to express condemnation.

(2) Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Times (10th June, 2001)

Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving Senate majority leader, who shepherded landmark legislation in the 1960s and '70s on issues from civil rights to political reform and set a standard for civility in a lawmaking arena now often consumed by partisan vitriol, died Friday. He was 98.

Mansfield, who underwent surgery on Sept. 7 to have a pacemaker implanted in his chest, died at Walter Reed Army Hospital, said Charles Ferris, his attorney and one-time Senate aide.

After he left the Senate in 1977, Mansfield was named US ambassador to Japan and wielded significant influence in Tokyo for more than 11 years as the emissary of presidents of both major parties. No one before or since has served longer in that post.

But it was his 34 years in Congress, including 24 in the Senate, that secured the Montana Democrat a place in 20th century political history. In 16 years as Senate majority leader, from President Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 to President Ford's exit in 1977, Mansfield guided a remarkably productive upper house of Congress during a turbulent political era.

The nation in that time made war on poverty, put men on the moon and, belatedly, embraced civil rights a century after the emancipation of slaves. It also confronted the failure of the Vietnam War, Cold War crises and the Watergate political scandal.

Ironically, Mansfield was a pivotal figure through those years in part because he - unlike so many leading politicians then and now - was content to share or even cede the legislative stage.

Many historians regard Mansfield as the antithesis of the majority leader who preceded him, Lyndon B. Johnson. While Johnson as the Senate leader and then as president was a personality who dominated the legislative agenda in a way that few ever have, Mansfield was a self-effacing figure whose stated goal was simply to let the Senate work its will.

(3) Washington Post (6th October, 2001)

Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat and longest-serving Senate majority leader, who died yesterday morning at 98, was one of the upstanding congressional leaders of the 20th century. His career as majority leader spanned the presidencies and tumultuous times of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He served under two presidents - Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - as a highly respected American ambassador to Japan. And throughout, the characteristics of his public service were the same: a soft voice, self-effacement, reverence for the institutions he served and rock-solid integrity.

At every step of the way during the most momentous events of the 1960s and '70s, Mike Mansfield was there, playing a quiet but pivotal role. He held the Senate together at the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, became an early and influential critic of the Vietnam War, helped see the nation through the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and unrest in cities and campuses, prodded the Senate forward to investigate Watergate and guided the transition from Nixon to Ford, all the while molding the Senate into an institution that did more of the public's business in the public's full sight.

(4) Harold Jackson, The Guardian (8th October, 2001)

Late in 1962, President John Kennedy asked one of his closest congressional friends, the man he had hand-picked as majority leader of the US Senate, to assess the uncertain political situation in South Vietnam. As a former professor of far eastern history, Senator Mike Mansfield, who has died aged 98, knew the country and its leaders well.

In a confidential report to Kennedy, Mansfield said he saw little point in America continuing to support President Diem's tottering regime. Kennedy, publicly committed to such support, was furious.

When the two men met on the presidential yacht to discuss the assessment, he berated Mansfield for his pessimism. "You asked me to go there," Mansfield responded and stuck to his guns.

Within a year both Diem and Kennedy had been assassinated, successive governments in Vietnam had grown ever more remote from reality, and President Lyndon Johnson had embarked on his disastrous military intervention. Had Mansfield's advice been heeded, America might have avoided one of the most traumatic episodes in its history.

It was, however, typical of the senator that, although he vigorously sustained his opposition to the war and to many more of Johnson's foreign policies, he lent his considerable clout to getting the president's domestic legislation on to the statute book. Without Mansfield's low-key but persistent efforts, neither the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, nor many of the other measures that transformed American life would have passed into law as effectively as they did.

Last updated: 8th September, 2002