Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 214

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 214


This is the grave of Frank Church.

Born in 1924 in Boise to a conservative Catholic family, Church was an academic star in high school and enrolled at Stanford because he won the American Legion’s National Oratorical Contest in high school, which paid for four years of tuition at the college of the winner’s choice. I guess some people are just born to be leading senators. Anyway, this was just before the nation entered World War II. He enlisted in 1942 but wasn’t called up until the following year. Identified as officer material (his brother became a colonel in the Marines and he was closely related to several admirals, including Albert T. Church III, who wrote the Church Report of 2004 investigating abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay), he was commissioned at a lieutenant in 1944 and served as a military intelligence officer in the China-India-Burma sector of the war. He was soon a rising star in the world of Democratic politics, marrying Bethine Clark, the daughter of former governor Chase Clark in 1947. He went to Harvard Law for a year and then transferred to Stanford Law. The reason wasn’t that the west coast is obviously superior to New England, even though it is. It’s that he was struggling with what he thought was a back issue that he felt the cold was bothering. Turns out though that it was testicular cancer. That nearly killed him; in fact, he got a diagnosis that he had left than a year to live. Luckily, that was wrong.

In 1952, Church ran for state legislature in Idaho. He lost, but he was still considered a rising star and in 1956, he defeated Glen Taylor, best known as the singing cowboy who Henry Wallace chose as his VP candidate in 1948, for the Democratic nomination for the Senate. He then took out the incumbent Herman Welker and won the office. He was only 32 and was at the time the 5th youngest person to ever serve in the Senate. At first, he did what any young senator should not do–he pissed off Lyndon Johnson by defying his wishes on a vote. That led to LBJ completely isolating and ignoring Church for the next six months, until Church got back into his graces by working hard to round up the votes to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957. LBJ was so impressed that he made Church his protege. Church loved the legendary Idaho senator William Borah and LBJ allowed him to be the next star from Idaho, giving him a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That didn’t mean they always agreed. Church warned now President Johnson after the Gulf of Tonkin, “In a democracy you cannot expect the people, whose sons are being killed and who will be killed, to exercise their judgment if the truth is concealed from them.” Of course, Church voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution anyway. He also was a big supporter of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the USSR.

Foreign policy and the environment became Church’s two areas of expertise. He turned against LBJ’s actions in Vietnam early and while he wasn’t quite as brave as Wayne Morse in opposing the war, he was still one of the first influential senators to oppose it. By 1970, he co-sponsored a bill to ban the deployment of American troops in Cambodia. He was also lauding the fact that the anti-war “doves” had won the battle over the future of the war and he urged them to keep up the pressure on Richard Nixon to end the war, saying:

So the last service the doves can perform for their country, is to insist that President Nixon’s withdrawal program truly leads to a “Vietnamization” of the war. It must not become a device for lowering—and then perpetuating—an American military presence in South Vietnam for the indefinite future. Our long ordeal in this mistaken war must end. The gathering crisis in our own land, the deepening divisions among our people, the festering, unattended problems here at home, bear far more importantly on the future of our Republic than anything we ever had at stake in Indochina.

He achieved his greatest fame by heading the Church Committee, which looked into NSA, FBI, and IRS abuses at home and CIA operations in the developing world, which had led to many, many, many horrible things that even today, most Americans are completely clueless about. So much easier to blame Iran on those crazy Muslims hating us and not us overthrowing Mossadegh in the early 50s. Among the activities the Church Committee examined was the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Allan Dulles’ plan to use the Sicilian Mafia to kill Fidel Castro, and the killings of the Diem brothers in South Vietnam. Church himself was shocked at all the horrible things he discovered, especially from NSA operations and files on leading liberals collected by it.

Church was also one of the Senate’s leading environmentalists, which is what I best know him for. He was a senator at a time when one could be a senator from a fundamentally conservative intermountain West state dependent on natural resource production and still be a strong environmentalist while maintaining political popularity. He sponsored the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. He led the fight against shipping the Northwest’s water to California, an absolutely ridiculous idea that nonetheless had major political winds behind it in the 1960s. He played the biggest role in establishing the Sawtooth Wilderness and National Recreation Area in 1972, a contentious process that led to a lot of local opposition, particularly against the proposed national park in the Sawtooths. Church’s bill was something of a compromise position. He also pushed hard for the creation of the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. By the end of his career, these moves were harder for him to make. With the decline of the timber industry for complex reasons, withdrawals of forest from production infuriated loggers who found it easier to blame environmentalists for their problems than their employers or the trajectory of corporate capitalism and economic policy. There was however one position that no Idaho politician could take and that was supporting gun control. I have seen that with other liberal Idaho politicians of the era too. At least in that state, the aggressive politics of guns are nothing new.

Church ran for president in 1976. He did OK in the primaries but really just started his campaign too late to gain the necessary traction. He won Oregon, Nebraska, Idaho, and Montana, but Carter won the nomination and of course Church supported him. Church was initially seen to be a leading candidate for the VP slot and he really wanted it. But Carter found Church too publicity seeking and wanted someone who would be quieter and more of a trooper for his own ends. So he picked Walter Mondale.

It was Church’s continued progressive foreign policy more than the environmentalism, although that also contributed, that finally did him in. First, he had met with Fidel Castro in Havana, trying to broker more peaceful relations between the two nations and which led to 84 American citizens and their families being allowed to leave Cuba for the U.S. Second, he was the lead supporter in the Senate of the treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama. It’s incredible to me that this issue caused so much consternation in the country, but it sure did. He knew he was going to face a hard reelection fight and tacked right, demanding that Soviet troops leave Cuba before the SALT treaty was passed. Carter was furious for Church revealing that classified information, but the senator wanted to bolster his conservative credentials. It did not work, as it really never does. Steve Symms defeated Church in 1980 and while Cecil Andrus would remain a leading Democrat in Idaho, the Gem State was now well on its way to being the home of right-wing extremism that it is today.

Church died in 1984 of pancreatic cancer, a horrible way to go. His wife Bethine, also buried here and who I have also done a little bit of research on, spent the rest of her life promoting Frank’s environmental legacy, led some environmental organizations in the state in the 1980s and 1990s to work toward this task. She herself was very politically active behind the scenes. Many encouraged her to run for political office herself, especially for what was her husband’ Senate seat in 1986, but she declined. Until her last years though, she was a major player in internal Idaho Democratic politics, as enervated as that became by 2000.

Frank Church is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho.

If you would like to see this series discuss other interesting senators of the 1960s and 1970s, you can donate to offset the required travel here. Visits to Sam Erwin or Gaylord Nelson would be of interest. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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