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When bipartisanship really happened

by Marc C. Johnson
| November 13, 2022 12:00 AM

Earlier this month President Joe Biden forecast a potential nuclear “Armageddon” as Russia’s leaders threatened, even boasted about the prospect of using nuclear weapons, or perhaps a radioactive “dirty bomb” against Ukraine.

The president’s dire warning represents a return to a frightening time when nuclear war was not at all unthinkable, and the Russian bluster immediately invited comparisons to a missile crisis 60 years ago when the world came as close as it ever has to nuclear holocaust.

Few historians or students of superpower politics question the seriousness of the present moment with a bellicose and unpredictable Vladimir Putin reeling from the consequences of his bloody war of choice and reportedly facing growing resistance to his leadership. And while there are clear differences between the real nuclear crisis of six decades ago and the potential nuclear crisis in central Europe today, one difference – a difference that says much about our current politics – seems particularly relevant, and not in a good way.

When President John Kennedy had to confront the Kremlin’s nuclear threat in 1962, he enjoyed, indeed solicited, bipartisan congressional support for his strategy, even to the point of insisting that the Republican leader of the United States Senate suspend his re-election campaign in order to participate in urgent consultations at the White House. In our times of fractured partisanship when Republican and Democratic congressional leaders seem barely able to talk to one another let alone offer words of encouragement and support while reasoning through a crisis together with a president, the domestic political lessons of that long ago nuclear showdown bear remembering – and emulating.

In a way that rarely happens with American politics – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 would be comparable examples – domestic political concerns virtually stopped in late October 1962, and Cuba became the focus of a worried world. By late October that year the Kennedy administration had been aware for some time that the Soviet Union had supplied Cuban leader Fidel Castro with expertise and hardware to create missile sites on the island, leaving much of North America within range of nuclear warheads that could be delivered within minutes of launch.

As Kennedy and his advisors struggled to understand Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s motives for precipitating what the Kremlin leader must have known would amount to a historic level of brinksmanship Kennedy maintained the fiction of political normalcy. He kept to a regular public schedule even while in constant private discussions over U.S. options. So as not to tip the Soviets to the fact that the U.S. had discovered the missile sites, Kennedy made a political trip to Illinois on Oct. 19, 1962 to deliver speeches in Springfield and Chicago. Kennedy offered a belated and less than fulsome endorsement of Sid Yates, a Chicago area Democratic congressman running against Everett Dirksen, a long-time power in the Senate, the Republican minority leader and a conservative who enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Kennedy.

In his remarks, the president went through the political motions of showing support for Democrat Yates, but steadfastly refused to utter a word that might antagonize or be considered criticism of Republican Dirksen. After the speeches, Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger told reporters the president would scrap the remainder of his trip and return immediately to Washington. Salinger concocted a story that Kennedy had developed a cold and slight fever and on doctor’s orders had been ordered to take to his White House bed.

“We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words,” Khrushchev would later write. “We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean, but what exactly?” Deploying missiles to Cuba was Khrushchev’s answer, and as it turned out also a stunning misreading of Kennedy, since, as historian Michael Beschloss has written, “he almost certainly did not guess that the President would risk nuclear war to get the missiles out of Cuba.”

Back in Washington on Oct. 21, Kennedy mulled unattractive options ranging from air strikes to invasion before deciding on a naval blockade of Cuba. The president then summoned congressional leaders to a White House meeting, a presidential gesture and a bipartisan congressional acceptance that seems almost impossible to contemplate today. Kennedy also prepared to deliver a speech to the nation detailing his response to what has since been known as the Cuba missile crisis.

Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader from Montana, was vacationing with his wife in Florida when the White House summons arrived requesting that he return immediately to Washington. A military helicopter took Mansfield to MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, and joined there by Florida Sen. George Smathers, an Air Force jet deliver both men to Washington. Dirksen was with his wife on the campaign trial – the minority leader was seeking his third term in the Senate – when the call came to his hotel insisting that he also return immediately to Washington.

“Well, Mrs. D.,” Dirksen told his wife Louella, “You’re taking over the campaign. That was the president. He wants me back in Washington. He’s sending a plane for me. It’s urgent.”

Scattered across the country – House GOP leader Charles Halleck of Indiana was pheasant hunting in South Dakota and House Democratic whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana was fetched by helicopter from a Gulf of Mexico fishing trip – bipartisan congressional leaders trooped into to White House Cabinet Room at 5 p.m., on Oct. 21. As the meeting began, Dirksen attempted to poke a bit of fun at the somber president.

“That was a nice little speech you gave for Sid Yates in Chicago,” Dirksen quipped. “Too bad you caught that cold making it.”

Kennedy did not reply to Dirksen’s humor but instead was all business. Following a series of briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency and the State and Defense departments, the president outlined his blockade plan, stressing he was not precisely seeking congressional advice, but was informing Mansfield, Dirksen, and the others of his intentions. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Richard Russell, a Democrat and Cold War hawk from Georgia, protested that the blockade was too timid and would invite a nuclear exchange. Surprisingly, Arkansas Democrat William Fulbright, the measured Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, agreed. Dirksen and Mansfield, however, immediately signaled their support for Kennedy’s plan, and Mansfield stayed at the White House after the leadership meeting broke up to watch Kennedy’s speech from the office of aide Lawrence O’Brien.

“Within the past week,” Kennedy told a national television and radio audience, “unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

Kennedy announced a “quarantine” of Cuba sensing that term was less provocative than “blockade” and declared, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Later that evening Mansfield issued his own statement. Kennedy’s “hand has been forced,” Mansfield said, and the president “alone had to make the decision in the light of all the facts available.”

Mansfield later told historian Gregory Olson that Kennedy was “contained” and “cool” during the crisis, and during the tense standoff with Khrushchev, Kennedy had “attained maturity.” In essence, both Dirksen and Mansfield were holding to a long established approach to presidents and foreign policy: they would offer frank advice, even disagree privately with presidents on specific issues, but would rarely, if ever, voice out and out opposition in public statements or actions. Jockeying for partisan advantage, particularly given such high stakes, was avoided. Some Republicans criticized Dirksen’s approach, which he shrugged off by referring to Kennedy as “my president.”

After more hours of tension and worry, Khrushchev ultimately agreed to a face-saving retreat. The Cuban crisis was resolved with the removal of the Soviet missiles and Kennedy’s quiet promise to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. Armageddon was averted, but with zero margin for error. Mansfield told his biographer Don Oberdorfer that when he and wife Maureen returned to Montana shortly after the missile crisis conference at the White House, he noticed that military aircraft at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls had been dispersed to civilian airports for fear of a Soviet attack. Historian Sherii Plokhy argues in his history of the crisis that Kennedy and Khrushchev made multiple and potentially fatal mistakes in October 1962, but in the end, each concluded that a nuclear war could not be won and therefore must not be fought.

Dirksen, anxious to get back to Illinois to resume campaigning, told Kennedy that with the Cuban crisis cooling down he planned to leave Washington. It was now Kennedy’s turn to joke. “What are you talking about,” he kidded Dirksen. “You’re just as good as in.”

Dirksen apparently related Kennedy’s remark to a reporter – or perhaps a reporter overheard the story – and Kennedy’s assessment of the minority leader’s re-election chances circulated widely in the days leading up to the election. Sid Yates, stunned by his treatment at the hands of fellow Democrats, called Dirksen’s remark an “outright contemptible lie.” Dirksen passed it off as a little private conversation with his wife that “somebody overheard.”

Then, the day before the election, as if to add injury to insult, Mansfield confirmed to The New York Times that he and Dirksen would soon depart together for a round-the-world tour of “trouble spots.” The newspaper reported that the White House declined to confirm the trip “from a desire not to influence tomorrow’s Senate race in Illinois,” but Mansfield clearly had no such reservations. As it turned out, Dirksen did not make the trip, but the mere suggestion that he would, in a high profile show of senatorial bipartisanship, was a final blow to Yates’ campaign.

“With the sharpest of political instincts,” historian Byron Hulsey later wrote, Dirksen “drifted between his roles as an indispensable leader of the loyal opposition to partisan critic of the administration’s liberal machinations and back again to defender of the White House in times of trouble before the closing of the polls on election day.” It was a masterful example of Dirksen’s flexibility and bipartisanship, and he won re-election by 200,000 votes.

A certain lesson of the Cuban crisis was the need to control nuclear weapons, which took a critical step forward a few months later when Mansfield and Dirksen secured bipartisan Senate support for a historic nuclear arms treaty.

“With the signing in August 1963 of the partial test ban treaty,” Plokhy wrote, “Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world a second time by drastically limiting radioactive fallout, which threatened life on this planet as we know it. If humanity is lucky enough to survive the new nuclear age and live for another thirty or forty million years, geologists of the future studying ice cores, corals, and rocks will still be able to pinpoint the time when the Kennedy-Khrushchev treaty was signed.”

Mansfield would later say the near decade he and Dirksen sat across the Senate aisle from each other, an era of bipartisan cooperation that produced landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation and created Medicare, among much else, was the result of “a dream relationship” that comes along “once in a century.” Perhaps a level of unique political magic was involved, but one suspects something else was at work – the character and decency of these leaders.

As voters reflect on the brutal American political environment of our day, the dignity and sense of duty represented by the careers of politicians like Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen can seem like ancient history, but it need not be so. Voters in Illinois and Montana bestowed four Senate terms each on Mike and Ev, not because they were constantly battling partisans putting loyalty to their party above all else, but rather because – as was the case during an October crisis 60 years ago – each man knew that political leadership requires so much more than fidelity to a party. Mansfield and Dirksen knew they had to behave like Americans first.

Marc C. Johnson is a columnist, historian and fellow at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. This essay was adapted from his forthcoming book – “Mansfield and Dirksen: Bipartisan Giants of the Senate” – that will be published next year by the University of Oklahoma Press.

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