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Humphrey, Hubert Horatiolocked

(27 May 1911–13 January 1978)
  • Mary T. Curtin

Hubert H. Humphrey

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105626 ).

Humphrey, Hubert Horatio (27 May 1911–13 January 1978), thirty-eighth vice president of the United States and U.S. senator from Minnesota, was born in Wallace, South Dakota, the son of Hubert H. Humphrey, Sr., a druggist, and Christine Sannes. He left college in 1931 to help in his father’s store in Huron, South Dakota, where he became a registered pharmacist in 1933 and later met and married Muriel Buck in 1936; they had four children. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in June 1939 and earned a master’s degree from Louisiana State University in 1940. He returned to Minnesota for a doctoral program but soon left to work in a federal workers’ education program.

Minneapolis labor leaders whom he met on the job convinced Humphrey to run for mayor in 1943. His oratory and prolabor stance won him a surprising second place. His political appetite whetted, he played a key role in the 1944 merger of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL) by convincing the recalcitrant on both sides to accept the inevitable. With labor support, and promises of reform and new leadership, Humphrey was elected mayor of Minneapolis in June 1945. He had little real power but used his popularity and the force of his personality to resolve labor disputes, to form citizens groups to combat racism and anti-Semitism, and to create a fair employment practices process.

After his easy reelection in June 1947, Humphrey turned his attention to wresting control of the DFL from its left-wing leaders. In a battle mirroring the split between progressives and anti-Communist liberals nationwide, Humphrey and his allies took control of the DFL in June 1948, and Humphrey won the party’s senatorial nomination. He shot to national attention in July with his call for the party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights,” rallying delegates at the Democratic National Convention to buck party leaders and pass a strong civil rights plank. In the November elections, Humphrey easily unseated Republican senator Joseph Ball, a cosponsor of the restrictive Taft-Hartley Labor Act.

Humphrey interpreted his own and President Harry S. Truman’s electoral victories as a mandate for liberal change and was shocked to discover the hold that southerners and conservative Republicans had on Congress. In 1949 he joined futile attempts to change Senate filibuster rules and push civil rights legislation. His unskillful efforts to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act left it unchanged. Humphrey was at first ostracized by southerners for his civil rights stance and ignorance of Senate rules. An irrepressible speaker, throughout the 1950s he denounced Republican red-baiters, including, at first, Joseph R. McCarthy, in heated arguments. On the defensive, he and other liberals sponsored in 1950 an amendment to an omnibus internal security bill to give the president authority to detain subversives in time of national emergency, a vote Humphrey immediately regretted. Nonetheless, in 1954 he lobbied for passage of an even more stringent measure, the Communist Control Act.

Stung by his early defeats, Humphrey made a determined effort to get to know the Senate leaders and in time dropped his all-or-nothing approach. “I’m not looking for miracles,” he told a journalist, but rather “at least inch by inch progress every month” (W. McNeil Lowry, “The Education of a Senator,” The Progressive, May 1951, pp. 21–23). In search of this progress he took an interest in almost every issue on the liberal agenda. He sponsored or cosponsored dozens of bills every session on civil rights, labor, immigration, health care, education, housing, social security, and tax reform, and he talked them up to whomever would listen. When some progress in any field seemed possible, he accepted compromise, as when he opposed an antidiscrimination amendment to the 1954 Housing Act that would have lost southern supporters and killed the whole program. He pressed Dwight D. Eisenhower constantly for executive action on ending segregation.

Humphrey focused increasingly on the issue of primary concern to his largely rural constituency—Eisenhower’s reduction of farm price support payments. He tried incessantly to restore high price supports and proposed reducing surpluses through a domestic food stamp system and foreign emergency food aid program. His proposal for the purchase of surplus grain for foreign food aid, which became known as P.L. 480 and later Food for Peace, became law in 1954.

Humphrey supported much of Eisenhower’s foreign policy, especially growing involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he criticized reductions in troop strength and growing reliance on nuclear weapons. He also was dismayed at Eisenhower’s failure to criticize Joseph McCarthy. In August 1954, however, with his own reelection campaign approaching, Humphrey tried to preempt Republican red-baiting with a proposal to outlaw the Communist party, which passed easily. This enraged many liberals but had little effect on his bid for reelection; he won easily.

By this time Humphrey was accepted by the Democratic southern leadership, with whom he allied on agriculture bills, and had become majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson’s bridge to the Senate liberals but still kept up pressure for liberal legislation. He made a critical contribution to the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which created the Civil Rights Commission, with his compromise proposal to make it a civil (rather than criminal) offense to violate federal court orders enforcing voting rights.

He also broadened his foreign policy interests and stepped up pressure for more emphasis on economic assistance in foreign aid. In 1955 he was named chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disarmament, whose creation he had urged, and in 1956 and 1958 held hearings that engendered support for an atmospheric nuclear test ban. He represented the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly in 1956 and to UNESCO in 1958. In this capacity he visited the Soviet Union in December 1958 and there spent eight hours in a private meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, earning a splash of media coverage.

This kind of attention encouraged Humphrey to make a run for president in 1960. He had long harbored ambitions for higher office, mounting a favorite son candidacy for president in 1952 and a more serious bid for the vice presidency in 1956. He was encouraged by labor and liberal colleagues, but his campaign was poorly organized, and he could not overcome the well-financed Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. Humphrey pulled out of the race after losing to Kennedy in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries. After the convention he threw his efforts into his own Senate reelection campaign and into ensuring Kennedy’s success in the November elections.

Humphrey was elected Senate Majority Whip in January 1961, a position that gave him the opportunity to steer through the Senate a variety of administration bills for programs he had been advocating for years, including the Job Corps and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. His idea of creating a volunteer peace corps to foster international understanding became law in June 1961. Humphrey’s advocacy also led to the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the fall of 1961 and advanced the signing and ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

After Kennedy was assassinated, Humphrey convinced President Johnson to push ahead with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in schools and public accommodations. As floor leader, and working closely with the president, Humphrey organized the defeat of the southerners’ three-month filibuster and convinced Republican leaders to support the bill. Through good organization, constant pressure, and his powers of persuasion, Humphrey managed to see the bill passed with little substantive change. It was his most significant legislative achievement.

This success and his good relationship with Johnson rekindled Humphrey’s hopes for higher office. With the vice presidency vacant, Johnson kept Humphrey dangling until the last minute. When Johnson finally asked him to be his running mate in 1964, Humphrey eagerly accepted. He and Johnson swept to victory in November.

Humphrey understood that Johnson wanted loyalty from his vice president, but he was not prepared for the complete subservience Johnson demanded. Humphrey had a busy schedule but no freedom to advance his own programs. A loyal vice president, he was nonetheless often berated for talking about administration bills before Johnson had announced them. He worked with the congressional leadership to ensure passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Medicare law but played nowhere near as prominent a role as when he was a liberal Senate advocate.

In early 1965, after Humphrey had disagreed with Johnson in a National Security Council meeting over the proposed bombing of North Vietnam, an enraged Johnson excluded him from all discussions of the issue. Humphrey publicly defended Johnson’s decision to bomb, which returned him to Johnson’s good graces and earned him a trip to the Philippines in December 1965 and then to South Vietnam in February 1966. What Humphrey saw and heard there convinced him that the president’s policy was correct. Once converted he became one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the war, shocking his increasingly antiwar liberal friends. They believed that Humphrey was voicing his support only out of loyalty and tried to convince him to break with the president, but Humphrey insisted that he genuinely supported the war. Indeed, Humphrey’s support for the war and loyalty to Johnson overwhelmed all else. He was shouted down by increasingly militant antiwar students during college campus appearances to promote Johnson’s domestic programs. He was also criticized by conservatives for remarking that if he lived as did slum dwellers he might have “enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt … ” (Minneapolis Tribune, 21 July 1966). Later, however, he was rebuked by Johnson when he called for a “Marshall Plan” for American cities in the wake of widespread rioting in 1967.

The growing antiwar sentiment opened for Humphrey another chance at the presidency when Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek reelection. Humphrey announced his candidacy in April. He avoided the remaining primaries and focused on states where delegates were picked at caucuses and party conventions, while antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy exploited popular opposition to the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s leadership style by focusing on states with primaries. By this time Humphrey too questioned the bombing of North Vietnam, but his loyalty to Johnson prevented him from publicly disagreeing. Humphrey’s caution angered antiwar Democrats, but his standing with party regulars eventually earned him the nomination. His victory at the August Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by charges that he had won through undemocratic methods and by a party deeply divided by the acrimonious debate over the war. As he celebrated his nomination, antiwar demonstrators were being tear-gassed and clubbed by police on the streets below.

Humphrey emerged from the convention far behind Richard Nixon and losing blue collar support to third-party candidate Alabama governor George Wallace. His campaign foundered until 30 September, when Humphrey said that if elected he would halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and his labor union allies won back blue collar support from Wallace. The Democratic campaign strategy of exploiting questions about the competence of Nixon’s running mate, combined with President Johnson’s bombing halt announcement in October, transformed Humphrey’s sagging campaign. He seemed to come alive, campaigning with the exuberance that had been his trademark. He gained steadily in opinion polls throughout October, but the surge came too late. Humphrey lost narrowly, defeated by a growing conservative tide in reaction to urban race riots and violent student-led antiwar demonstrations but also by his own ambivalence over the war and reluctance to break openly with Johnson.

Humphrey’s return to Minnesota to teach at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota lasted only until 1970, when fellow Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy decided not to seek reelection. Humphrey ran for the seat and easily defeated Nixon ally Clark MacGregor. As before in the Senate, his incredible energy encompassed a broad range of issues: he led the fight to limit development of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system and to counter President Nixon’s refusal to spend appropriated funds on social programs.

Humphrey still had the presidential bug and in January 1972 announced his candidacy, but once again his campaign lacked the organization and financing of his rivals. In the primaries Humphrey lost to George Wallace in Florida and to South Dakota senator George McGovern in Wisconsin and California. In a desperate bid, he challenged California’s winner-take-all rules in a damaging credentials fight at the Democratic National Convention. Nonetheless he rallied to McGovern’s campaign, but Nixon won reelection in a massive landslide.

Despite these disappointments, Humphrey remained a leading national spokesman for the liberal program. He became chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. In 1975 he introduced the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which required the government to take action to bring about full employment. Although praised by unions and traditional liberals, the idea was the type of liberal spending program that was coming under increasing attack even from within the Democratic party. Humphrey only flirted with the idea of a presidential bid in 1976 and instead won an easy reelection to the Senate. He was given the post of deputy president pro tempore, created to make him part of the official Democratic leadership.

By the time of his very public death at his home in Waverly, Minnesota, from cancer, Humphrey was seen by critics and admirers alike as the personification of postwar liberalism. In the twenty-six years since he had first come to the Senate, Humphrey had, by his persistence, incredible energy, and legislative skill, contributed significantly to the often incremental but sometimes dramatic expansion of civil rights, social welfare, and foreign aid legislation. He brought to his work an exuberance that was the source of his success, but also of his greatest political problems. He left his stamp on an institution and an era with a body of ideas and laws that affected the lives of millions of Americans.

Bibliography

Humphrey’s papers are at the Minnesota Historical Society. Hubert H. Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (1976), are his memoirs. The most complete biography is Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (1984). Dan Cohen, Undefeated: The Life of Hubert H. Humphrey (1978), is also useful. Campaign biographies such as Michael Amrine, This Is Humphrey: The Story of the Senator (1960), and Winthrop Griffith, Humphrey: A Candid Biography (1965), give favorable assessments, while Robert Sherrill and Harry W. Ernst, The Drugstore Liberal (1968), and Allan Ryskind, Hubert: An Unauthorized Biography of the Vice President (1968), provide strong criticisms from the left and right. An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Jan. 1978.