The Ghost of Hubert Humphrey
He was one of the most acclaimed—and ultimately destructive—liberal icons in American history. Four decades after his death, Democratic politicians rarely mention his name. Yet Hubert H. Humphrey haunts the Democratic Party.
The ghost of HHH is hovering over a party led by people who support endless war abroad while claiming to be champions of humane policies at home.
Fifty years ago, Humphrey was a major cog in the U.S. war machine as it inflicted mass carnage in Vietnam. Today, he’s a prototype for conformist Democratic politicians who go along to get along with the warfare state.
“I did not become vice president with Lyndon Johnson to cause him trouble,” Humphrey said in 1965, shortly after reaching the nation’s second-highest office. Expediency and party unity were top priorities. Decency was gone. And escalation of the war in Vietnam went on … and on … and on.
Like countless Democratic officeholders since then, Humphrey relied on his image to induce the party faithful to cut him some slack. After all, he was known to be a real good guy.
Of course, Humphrey tried to coast on his reputation. He had spoken out for civil rights before it was popular, while exuding an avuncular devotion to progressive social change. From the time of his stirring speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention—telling the party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” infuriating Dixiecrats in the process—Hubert Humphrey seemed to personify the virtues of American liberalism.
HHH was a beacon of that liberalism in the U.S. Senate from 1949 to 1964. And then, after the landslide triumph of the Johnson-Humphrey ticket, he soon became a beacon of craven ambition. At the start of the 1960s, he’d represented the best of the Democratic Party. Midway through it, he was well on his way to representing the worst.
Humphrey could not, would not get off the war train. His party loyalty and ambition were too great. He had plenty of company in Washington. Year after year, hundreds of Democrats in Congress, along with Republicans, kept selling their souls to aid the slaughter of the Vietnamese people.
Today, in the Senate, there are many Democrats akin to Hubert Humphrey. They can be heard demanding protection of civil rights and calling for more funds on behalf of social programs, safety nets, education and housing. The routine is to tout support for such domestic programs while fueling militarism.
So, in September, when the Senate voted 89-8 for a $700 billion military budget, boosting largesse for the Pentagon by $80 billion, only four Democrats—Kirsten Gillibrand, Patrick Leahy, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden—joined with independent Bernie Sanders and three Republicans to vote against the measure. Little attention went to the fact that such lavish spending could instead be applied to actually helping people instead of further revving up the United States’ killing engines.
Perpetual war—like its twin, mass surveillance—became normalized as bipartisan during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Even the strongest anti-war voices in Congress among Democrats tended to tamp down the outrage while one of their own was in the Oval Office. Most, in effect, were echoing the Hubert Humphrey of 1965. They were not in the Senate or House under party leader Barack Obama “to cause him trouble.”
Very few congressional Democrats have stood up to the pro-war avalanche from the mass media. The ritual is to go with the kind of hand-wringing statements favored by the likes of The New York Times editorial board (which Adam Johnson deconstructed in a piece for the media watchdog group FAIR, headlined “NYT Laments ‘Forever Wars’ Its Editorials Helped Create”).
Throughout the mid-1960s and even later, members of Congress willing to raise their voices unequivocally against the Vietnam War were scarce, and the same was true of the mass media. The submissive moral cowardice of politicians and journalists mirrored each other. A survey conducted by The Boston Globe in early 1968 found that—out of 39 major American daily newspapers—not a single one had editorially called for U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam.
Now, few members of Congress are willing to clearly speak out against the self-perpetuating madness of the “war on terror.” And this year, one of the most overwhelming—and dangerous—party lines among Democrats on Capitol Hill has been the vilification of Russia. The corrosive conformity is stunning.
Even the brave congresswoman who was the only member of Congress to vote against the blank-check war resolution three days after 9/11, Barbara Lee of California, drifted with the partisan anti-Russia tide. While she has rightly joined with other Democrats in calling for the U.S. government to negotiate rather than escalate with North Korea, she has voiced condemnation instead of encouragement for top-level diplomacy between the United States and Russia—countries that both have arsenals with several thousand nuclear weapons.
From the era of Hubert Humphrey’s avid support for the U.S. war on Vietnam to the current era of diffuse U.S. warfare on several continents, much has changed. And yet, a timeworn truism applies: History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes an awful lot.
A recently released report, “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis” (which I co-wrote as part of a task force), includes a section on “War and the Party.” It points out:
Given that the all-volunteer U.S. military gains recruits in a social context of extreme income inequality, a de facto “economic draft” puts the heaviest burdens of war on the working class. Those burdens have largely worn out their welcome. Yet Democratic Party leaders have rarely made an issue out of the spiraling military costs or the long-term consequences of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism.” While frequently invoking the legacy of Dr. King, the Democratic leadership has had no use for his cogent warnings about the home-front ravages of war. In a landmark 1967 speech at New York’s Riverside Church, Dr. King deplored the priorities of a bipartisan establishment demonstrating its “hostility to the poor”—appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”
Fifty years later, the vast majority of Democratic leaders go along with such warfare-state priorities. Hubert Humphrey wanted to pretend that war abroad could be compatible with a great society at home. Today, at the top of the Democratic Party, the pretense is similar, as if continual U.S. warfare overseas can coexist with some kind of decent social policy at home. The mix of delusion and deception continues to cause vast human suffering.