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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 558

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This is the grave of Mike Mansfield.

Born in Brooklyn in 1903, Mansfield grew up in Montana. That’s because his mother died when he was 3 and his father didn’t think he could raise the kid, so he sent him to Great Falls to be raised by an aunt and uncle. He was kind of a troubled kid. He ran away all the time and even lived at a state orphanage for about six months. In 1917, he lied about his age to join the military in World War I. You’d think a 14 year old couldn’t get away with that, but you’d be wrong in this case anyway. He actually served on several trips in the Navy on the USS Minneapolis before his real age was found out and was discharged. He then joined the Army in 1919 but only served for a year and then went to the Marines until 1922. He spent a bunch of time in the Philippines and China while in the Marines and this started a lifelong interest in Asia.

When Mansfield left the Marines in 1922, he got a job in the copper mines of Butte. Somewhere along the line here, he got his life together. Even though he never even attended high school, not to mention graduate, he managed to get into the Montana School of Mines in 1927 to become a mining engineer. But that didn’t take and he only lasted a year. But when he married a schoolteacher named Maureen Hayes, she encouraged him to finish that degree. They moved to Missoula, he got his bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in history, writing a thesis on early American diplomatic relationships with Korea. He became a professor in political science and history between 1934 and 1942 at Montana State University.

In 1940, Mansfield, a Democrat, decided to run for Congress. He lost the primary in the general election that the Republican Jeannette Rankin would win. After she cast her lone vote against World War II, she decided not to run for re-election in 1942, knowing she would lose. Mansfield won the Democratic primary that year and also won the general. His knowledge of Asia coinciding with American entry into World War II made him far more important than your average freshman representative. Since most Americans knew absolutely nothing about the entire continent, outside of Japan, his knowledge was critical. By 1944, FDR was sending Mansfield on critical diplomatic missions to China. He served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and spent five terms in the House. Generally, he was a very strong early Cold War liberal, being a big Marshall Plan proponent while also voting against Taft-Hartley and speaking out against HUAC.

In 1952, Mansfield decided to run for Senate. He defeated the incumbent Zales Ecton in a tight race that was made harder by Eisenhower leading the Republican ticket. A fast-rising leader, he was Whip under LBJ by 1957. When Johnson became VP, Mansfield took over as Majority Leader. He was known for his gentle ways, a sharp contrast to the, um, pugnacious leadership of LBJ.

Now, in his early years in the Senate, Mansfield became a huge backer of Ngo Dinh Diem. This was his greatest political error. Mansfield, like the Dulles brothers, really liked Diem for a really stupid reason–he was a Catholic. Mansfield was also a Catholic. He felt that he could relate to Diem. They both were anti-communist and they worshipped the same god. Given how little even an Asian expert such as Mansfield really knew about Vietnam at this time, Diem’s religion became a entrypoint into a strange culture at the same time that the U.S. was engaging in increasingly military and financial support of a civil war in that faraway place. That Diem was a brutal ruler in a nation that was 90 percent not Catholic–some Buddhist, some animist–and was hated in part because he was a minority religious ruler and also repressed Buddhists didn’t seem to register. But then what is the history of the U.S. in the 20th and 21st century if not a nation trying to be a big shot around the world while knowing basically nothing about the nations they are screwing up?

To his credit, Mansfield did eventually see the errors of the Vietnam War before others. As early as 1962, after visiting South Vietnam, he told Kennedy that this was a disaster in the making, that Diem was wasting all the aid the U.S. was giving, and that the U.S. should cut off all involvement with this. This makes him the first American public official to speak out against American involvement in the war. But as a good Democrat and the Majority Leader, he wasn’t going to publicly buck the president once Johnson took over and really escalated the war. But privately, he urged Johnson to take another path, writing to him that Operation Rolling Thunder would just require a huge increase in American troop mobilization, which was true.

Mansfield remained a good liberal as Majority Leader as well, but his most notable personal work was in foreign policy. He did maneuver around the reactionary leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee to have the Civil Rights Act of 1964 debated before the entire Senate. Given that Judiciary would have killed it, this was a critical move.

When Nixon took the presidency in 1969, Mansfield was able to have a relatively close working relationship with him, especially once Nixon decided to reduce troops and look for a path to the end of war, after of course committing treason in 1968 by torpedoing the peace talks to help his presidential ambitions.

Mansfield chose not to run for reelection in 1976. He was the longest serving Majority Leader in the nation’s history. In the spring of 1977, Jimmy Carter named him ambassador to Japan. Interestingly, Reagan asked him to stay on. He was in that position all the way until 1988. These were critical years in the relationship between these two nations, with the Japanese economy booming, sometimes leading to xenophobic anger in the United States about it and fears the Japanese would take over the American economy. To say the least, those fears proved to be ridiculous.

The day before Reagan left office in 1989, he granted Mansfield the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 2001.When Mansfield died, he was the last veteran of World War I who died before reaching the age of 100.

Mike Mansfield is buried on the confiscated grounds of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other Senate Majority Leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Byrd, who followed Mansfield, is in Arlington, Virginia, but not at Arlington National Cemetery. Howard Baker, who took over after Republicans took the Senate in 1981, is in Huntsville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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