Commentary Magazine


In Memoriam: Henry M. Jackson

When Senator Henry M. Jackson died last September at the age of seventy-one, much else died with him.

Henry Martin Jackson, born in Everett, Washington, on May 31, 1912, earned his nickname, “Scoop,” from a cartoon character in the local newspaper; as a newsboy, he delivered a record 74,880 copies without a single complaint from his customers. Elected first as county prosecutor and, beginning in 1940 at age twenty-eight, as Congressman for six terms, Jackson won his sixth election as Senator in 1982 with 69 percent of the vote. He represented his constituents in Washington, D.C., for forty-three years. At his death, no one in the U.S. Senate had cast as many votes (over 11,000). As his bequest to the nation, Jackson left an enduring monument of legislation.

Jackson was an almost perfect expression of the ideals of the labor movement. In domestic policy he exemplified the New Deal. From the first, he distinguished himself in labor legislation, in Truman’s efforts to continue New Deal programs, in Hubert Humphrey’s efforts to make the cause of civil rights central to the Democratic party. In environmental matters, few were his peers. As a member of the Senate Interior Committee (now Energy and Natural Resources), he helped establish the National Environmental Policy Act, and was responsible for the National Wilderness Act, the National Seashore Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Alaska Lands Bill, and major additions to the National Parks system. He was also an architect of the Youth Conservation Corps.

Jackson was a major advocate of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and commissioned the first study to look at energy in a strategic context. With Hyman Rickover, he is properly regarded as the father of the nuclear navy. Together, the two men led the fight for the Polaris and Poseidon programs. It was altogether fitting that, after his death, the newest Trident submarine to splash into the water at the Groton navy yard should be christened the U.S.S. Henry M. Jackson.

It was fitting also because in defense and foreign policy Jackson embodied the spirit of vigorous Democratic internationalism, perhaps the first requirement of which is an unremitting realism about the Soviet Union. In the SALT negotiations, Jackson was a clear-eyed watchdog and a strong critic of Henry Kissinger for agreeing, in Jackson’s view, to surrender the U.S. advantage. The entire detente policy, he told the Senate in 1974, “has gone from a dream to an incantation.”

Jackson’s internationalism was best expressed through his efforts as the architect of the new emphasis on human rights in American foreign policy, a project that became explicit in the Jackson-Vanik resolution of 1974. Jackson worked tirelessly in behalf of a human-rights policy, pressing Jimmy Carter on it heavily in September 1976, and both Carter and Reagan in 1980. Under his leadership, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), founded in 1973, made human rights central to U.S. foreign policy well before Carter did, and in a more realistic way.

Through Jackson’s efforts, more than 250,000 Jews were enabled to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He helped the AFL-CIO give Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a forum in New York and Washington, and he took part faithfully in award ceremonies to refugees from Communism sponsored by CDM. At one such ceremony, a man who had recently been in a Soviet prison said that Henry Jackson’s name was famous throughout the Gulag. He told a story making the rounds of his prison. The Soviet authorities, one man was telling another, were about to raise the price of vodka. “They can’t do that,” the other said. “Why not?” replied the first. “Senator Jackson won’t let them.” Andrei Sakharov once told Ben Wattenberg, chairman of CDM: “Jackson knows how to make things happen. He is our champion.”

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I first met Senator Jackson face-to-face in April 1976 during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. In the Vietnam years, I had opposed the Senator as a “hawk,” but watching later events in Vietnam I came eventually to believe he had been more prescient than I. Though I was not sure I would like him, I was disturbed by the Carter candidacy and wished to help Jackson defeat it.

In Pennsylvania, Jackson listened as labor officials promised him all-out support on primary day, which he knew they could not deliver. He felt early that he would lose Pennsylvania, although the issue was close. Though he was an intensely religious man, he nevertheless refused to signal this in any form to gain political advantage, and had very little regard for the way Carter “wore his religion on his sleeve.” He grew to dislike Carter’s rhetorical flourishes about “bosses”—labor bosses and party bosses. He valued the vocation of politics far too much to feel anything but contempt for anti-political rhetoric.

In the closing days of the campaign, because of a temporary hold on federal financing, both candidates were strapped for funds. Carter mortgaged his home for a final burst of television. Jackson refused to put his wife and young children at risk by doing so. He was not a rich man, and besides, for years his speaking fees had gone into a scholarship fund for the needy. He also kept a strong wall between his political life and his family life; the latter was private, to be protected. Anticipating defeat in Pennsylvania, the Senator remained amazingly serene and kindly, not only in public but even in private conversation.

During television interviews (I remember one, particularly, in the small airport V.I.P. lounge in Johnstown), Jackson insisted on being himself, which meant all but ignoring the camera, lights, and unseen audience, and engaging the people near him. He seemed determined to be the same person whether he was talking on television, to legislative colleagues, to Presidents, to constituents, to Soviet delegations, to dissidents. He was never on stage. The result was that his television appearances struck many as dull; they showed, rather, his loathing for the artificial.

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Prompted, Jackson liked to talk about his Norwegian forebears. He admired the hardness, the industry, the stubbornness of their lives, those of his parents and grandparents. He liked to think he was as stubborn, and as willing to travel to new worlds. Although one would not immediately think of Scoop Jackson as an “ethnic” politician, he had an instinctive respect for every form of traditional virtue. He responded to an older way of seeing things—people, not processes; real power, not show; effects, not symbols.

In this respect, his attitude toward the Soviets was far from “ideological” (as was often said); his sense of them was concrete, real, factual, down to earth. They were people who put Shcharansky in prison, beat Sakharov with fists, injected General Grigorenko with serums, shot down an airliner with 269 terrified passengers left to fall dizzily for twelve minutes from 35,000 feet. He came to regard the Soviets as cautious burglars, hotel burglars who try every door: when one is locked, they move away; when another is open, they feel obliged to strip the room bare. They understand power, he used to say, only power. Against them, he concluded, in what may be an epitaph for his life, the key is steady, firm, long-term resistance.

It was his sense for the concrete and for the historical that also led Jackson to be a lifelong friend to Israel, a land whose people are committed to realizing a society based on values similar to our own. Jackson understood the Israelis’ sense of belonging, and roots, and family ties, and he understood the necessary uses of power to defend them.

But if—contrary to what was often charged—Jackson was not misled by ideology in foreign affairs, in domestic affairs, ideology did play a role in his political life. He was always, reflexively, against the big interests, including big business. (Ironically, he was accused of being the “Senator from Boeing,” but in Seattle Boeing meant not only jobs but the main industrial base of the city—and a crucial aspect of national defense.) It was this Jackson who took out, in what seemed to me then a demagogic spirit, after the oil companies in 1972.

In general, however, demagogy was foreign to his nature; judiciousness was his strong suit. He gloried in legislative compromise, prudence. In this sense, pragmatist was to him a title of honor. He worked tirelessly in the Senate—doing his homework methodically, spending long hours that would have made his forebears proud—to achieve legislative consensus. He pressed very hard for the priorities he established for himself, but he believed in being a team player. And he was always as good as his word.

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Recently, a liberal Democratic Senator observed privately that the death of Henry Jackson leaves a yawning gap in the Democratic party when it comes to defense and foreign policy. “Without Jackson,” he said, “we campaign for the Presidency on a platform from which we cannot govern.” He meant that the suppositions embodied, cumulatively, in the nuclear freeze; in calls for cuts in defense spending; in opposition to the B-1, the “stealth” bomber, and the MX missile; and in demands for a “negotiated settlement” in Central America will not work for any responsible U.S. government. Yet these are the suppositions of today’s Democrats, held hostage by their left wing.

The problem is a familiar one. In Germany, Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democratic party was hamstrung by the Left throughout his chancellorship, and is crippled even more badly now that it is not charged with the responsibilities of government. In Britain, the Left has torn the Labor party apart at the seams. Similar tensions afflict the Socialist party of François Mitterrand in France, not only in its relations with the Communist party but within its own ranks.

Henry Jackson was not vulnerable to the illusory, “idealistic” appeal of the Left. He always managed to fuse his ideals about the good society with a realistic judgment of facts, interests, and powers. He was not tempted to believe that our enemies are like us, or that all visions of life are morally equal. He fought Joseph McCarthy’s brand of pseudo-anti-Communism, but he never became, as many did, an anti-anti-Communist.

Jackson saw that Communism is more than a political or economic program; it is a way of perceiving and of acting. Its materialism, its emphasis on brute force, the murderous righteousness of its Gulag and psychiatric hospitals, its predilection for stealth and terror, its singleminded concentration on police and military power—were in Jackson’s eyes not abstract doctrines but exhibited behaviors. To be an anti-Communist Democrat was not, then, to be blinded by ideology; it was to refuse to avert one’s eyes from facts.

Ever since the campaign of George McGovern in 1972, the Center of the Democratic party has moved away from its earlier anti-Communist realism. The rituals remain, of course (they were in evidence in the speeches of Walter Mondale and John Glenn at a forum sponsored by CDM in Jackson’s memory last November), but at its heart the party no longer seems to believe in them. We shall see. Too many Democrats advocate that, in the words of Senator Christopher Dodd, we “move with the tide of history rather than stand against it.” They regard “power politics” (and especially military power) as loathsome and out of date.

That is why Jackson embarrassed so many in his own party; to them, he was an anachronism, a “hawk,” a disturber of their peaceful hopes for accommodation and appeasement. To be sure, they could not press him into the mold of Joseph McCarthy, or show that he was out of tune with Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Hubert Humphrey, but they could and did say that he was out of touch with the post-Vietnam world. Worse still, his very name came to be used by many as a term of contempt. The Carter administration effectively barred every Jackson Democrat from its service.

For such reasons, the institutional legacy of Henry Jackson remains in doubt, even though reality itself has come to vindicate his vision day by day. By 1980, indeed, a chastened Jimmy Carter—surprised that Gromyko had lied to him, shocked by Iran, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua—was driven closer to Jackson than he had permitted himself to be since 1977. The Senate itself upheld Jackson in his fight against the ratification of SALT II. Carter, at last, raised the military budget for 1981, called for a Rapid Deployment Force, resumed (modest) arms shipments to El Salvador, cancelled both U.S. participation in the Olympics and grain sales to the USSR.

It was, however, too late. The advent of a Republican President with the wit to draw upon the Democratic legacy of which Jackson was the main heir seems to have driven the Democratic candidates of 1984 back into the direction of 1972. Most of the Democratic candidates, who must know better, pander to the illusions of the freeze movement, call for reduced defense spending, and shove one another aside trying to capture “the peace issue.”

But peace is not, Jackson chided the enthusiasts of our age a year ago, “a process of conversion: it is a political accomplishment.” Nor is peace enough: what we want is “a peace with justice and individual liberty,” and “if America is to be the instrument” for establishing such a peace, “we need to create a mature patriotism—one that is not overwhelmed with guilt at our national shortcomings and seeks to withdraw from the world and, on the other hand, one that is not stridently jingoistic in its sense of an American ‘messianic’ role in the world.” To enforce this point, he quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “There has never been a scheme of justice in history which did not have a balance of power at its foundation. If the democratic nations fail, their failure must be partly attributed to the faulty strategy of ‘idealists’ who have too many illusions when they face realists who have too little conscience.”

These are the beliefs that Senator Jackson carried into the hurricane of work he liked to give his staff every day. They are the beliefs that made his life and works one of the great legacies of the post-World War II era. They inspired many to become “Jackson Democrats.” Who remains within the Democratic party to lead the Jackson Democrats, and where, now, will they find a home?

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