Commentary Magazine

Henry M. Jackson by Robert G. Kaufman

Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics
by Robert G. Kaufman
University of Washington. 548 pp. $30.00

Not long after he became President in 1981, Ronald Reagan launched a frontal ideological assault on the USSR. A decade later, the cold war was over and the Soviet Union was no more. Though Reagan and his team deserve immense credit for difficult decisions taken in the face of considerable risk and even more considerable ridicule, a figure who played a no less essential role in the successful prosecution of the decades-long struggle with Soviet Communism was Senator Henry M. Jackson.

The contribution made by Jackson is illuminated in this skillfully written and thoroughly researched biography by Robert Kaufman, who teaches political science at the University of Vermont. But even aside from his role in the twilight struggle with the USSR, Jackson was also unquestionably one of the most important political figures of the postwar era. A towering figure in the U.S. Senate, a near vice-presidential choice of John F. Kennedy in 1960, he was a presidential candidate in his own right in two consecutive elections in the 1970’s. More broadly, his life is the story of the political franchise known as cold-war liberalism that not long ago dominated the American scene but has now entirely disappeared.



Henry Jackson was born in 1912 in the smallish industrial city of Everett, Washington to Norwegian immigrant parents. With the exception of a brief stint in private legal practice, he spent his entire adult life as an elected public official. In 1940, having already served a term as county prosecutor, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1952, he navigated a course to the Senate, where he remained until his death, consistently winning elections by margins that made him the most successful vote-getter in the history of the state of Washington.

Though his family did not suffer privation during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Jackson came to political maturity in the midst of that era’s ubiquitous unemployment and poverty. He became a liberal of the New Deal-Fair Deal school, and in particular an advocate of federal spending for highways, hydroelectric projects, and other public works. In foreign policy he inclined, like the majority of his district’s constituents in the prewar years, to isolationism, and even the Nazi invasion of his parents’ beloved Norway in March 1941 did not sway him from this stance.

But further devastating blows in Europe and the Pacific did. During World War II, serving in Congress, Jackson was indelibly marked by the experience of watching firsthand as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill waged the struggle to rescue civilization. Indeed, Kaufman reminds us, Jackson’s most fundamental beliefs about foreign policy derived from the lessons of World War II: “the folly of isolationism and appeasement, the importance of democracies remaining militarily strong and standing firm against totalitarianism, and the need for the United States to accept and sustain its pivotal role as a world power.”

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Jackson emerged in the early days of the cold war as a consistent supporter of the Truman administration’s policy of containing the USSR. But he went a step further than most of his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate, immersing himself in the intricacies of weapons systems and nuclear strategy to become a leading expert on war in the atomic age. By the mid1950’s, he had made a name for himself as a trenchant critic of the Eisenhower administration’s policy of massive retaliation, arguing instead that reliance on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional armed strength lacked credibility as a strategy and therefore courted real danger.

As the 1960’s rolled in, Jackson had become the quintessential cold-war liberal—at home a supporter of civil rights, organized labor, and activist government, abroad a supporter of a strong military and of the readiness to intervene in order to check Communist expansionism. But the early 1960’s were also to prove the high-water mark for this particular strain of politics. As the decade progressed, the Vietnam war and domestic radicalism combined to tear the Democrats asunder, and by its close the party’s leading lights were advocating an isolationism that veered into outright anti-Americanism, attacking the U.S. military and demanding an immediate withdrawal from Southeast Asia that would leave the South Vietnamese people to their fate.

Jackson was a lone dissenter, the sole non-Southern Democrat to give consistent support to President Richard Nixon’s defense budgets and his efforts to bring American troops home from Vietnam without simply turning tail. And where many of his liberal colleagues were now citing the desirability of reaching an accommodation with the USSR, and criticizing Nixon for moving too slowly with the newly unveiled policy of detente, Jackson warned that accommodation was a chimera, and that America’s foreign-policy confusions and retreats were only augmenting the danger posed by the totalitarian dictators in Moscow.

Paradoxically, at the moment when Jackson was most isolated in his own party, he also rose to the apex of his power. As chairman of two key Senate subcommittees, and as a master of the legislative process who was also blessed with a ferociously loyal and effective staff, Jackson fought the left-wing drift among the Democrats while simultaneously working to stop the Nixon administration’s Soviet policy from sliding from one of strategic retreat into one of outright appeasement.

Along the way, Jackson was instrumental in blocking what he saw as one-sided U.S. concessions in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. By raising the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration in the context of human rights, he was also able to put the Nixon administration (not to mention the Kremlin itself) on the defensive. The Jackson-Vanik amendment—linking a relaxation of trade restrictions with permission for Soviet Jews to emigrate—dealt a hard blow to the policy of détente while at the same time encouraging those within the USSR who, against seemingly impossible odds, were pressing for an end to autocracy.



Jackson’s foreign-policy successes, predicated on his formidable ability to build coalitions of disparate supporters, led him to seek the presidency twice in the 1970’s. Neither attempt fared well. In 1972, he was not yet the household name he was to become as the decade wore on, and his campaign, ignored by the press, failed to get off the ground. He made greater headway in 1976, winning primaries in Massachusetts and New York before petering out and losing to Jimmy Carter.

In both 1972 and 1976, Jackson was hobbled by two ineluctable circumstances: the leftward shift in the Democratic party, which had deprived him of support among the party’s elite, and his style as a campaigner, which (to put it gently) was ill-suited to the television age. As Kaufman makes clear, Jackson may have been one of the most principled and upright men ever to walk across the stage of American politics, but he was also one of the least charismatic.

Jackson’s failure to win his party’s nomination signaled the real terminus of the cold-war liberalism that he, virtually alone among national figures, still embodied at the end of the 70’s. Nor was it only in the realm of foreign policy that the Democratic party had made a deep left turn. Even the tax-and-spend liberalism that Jackson hewed to so faithfully had run its course, at least in its traditional guise, having been supplanted—or, more properly, supplemented—by a new-age politics that substituted racial preferences for equal rights, multiculturalism for assimilation, and radical environmental regulation for conservation.

Jackson had thus arrived at a political cul-de-sac. Although theoretically he could have drawn closer to the Republicans or even switched parties, he remained, as Kaufman shows, a loyal Democrat to the end, albeit of the old school. (His ineradicable suspicion of the marketplace was very much on display during the energy crisis of the 1970’s, when, writes Kaufman, Jackson “made matters worse by pushing for such counterproductive measures as price controls on oil and gas.”) Still, there were limits beyond which he would not go. In 1980, for example, under pressure to endorse Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term, Jackson waited until the last possible moment and even then spoke up with palpable reluctance. After Carter lost, he gave his blessing to members and former members of his staff, among them Elliott Abrams, Charles Horner, and Richard Perle, who went to work in the Reagan administration.

Jackson died of heart failure in 1983. Although, unlike his staffers, he thus did not play a role in the final drama of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he had been crucially responsible for shoring up the very foundations of America’s postwar foreign policy in the years when that policy was coming under fierce assault from protesters and elected officials alike. In the words of former Senator Howard Baker, Jackson “made sure we did not lose the cold war during the 1970’s so that Ronald Reagan could win it in the 1980’s.” Robert Kaufman’s very useful and much needed biography demonstrates conclusively the truth of Baker’s tribute.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.