Henry M. Jackson, one of the most prominent and influential American legislators of the 20th century, was born to Norwegian immigrants in Everett, Washington in 1912. As a boy, his sister nicknamed him “Scoop” after a cartoon character, and it was this name that would later echo in the halls of Congress for more than four decades.
Bright and ambitious, he attended Stanford University and the University of Washington School of Law, after which he served as a prosecuting attorney. Politics soon beckoned, and in 1941, the same year in which the United States entered the Second World War, Jackson took his seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat. At first, he shared the isolationism of his constituents, but as the year wore on, and evidence of Japanese aggression mounted, he began to support greater American involvement in foreign affairs. Determined to fight, he flew to the colors, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that Members of Congress stay in their political posts. Jackson held his seat for a dozen years, a loyal soldier in Roosevelt’s New Deal army.
He then sailed into the Senate, defeating a Republican incumbent in the 1952 election, and taking office just before the inauguration of the Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The hawkish Jackson, uncowed by Eisenhower’s martial reputation, encouraged the Administration to increase military funding. A devoted Cold Warrior, and a Senator from a state with a burgeoning defense industry, Jackson was driven by both principle and political expediency to support an aggressive stance against the Soviet Union. An impressed Senate colleague, John F. Kennedy, fixed on winning the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, favored Jackson as a running mate, before ultimately choosing another Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson.
By losing out to Johnson, Jackson also lost his surest ticket to the White House, with incalculable effects on the course of American history. But his presidential ambition was unquenched; in 1972 and 1976 he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination. He lost the first attempt to his left-wing Senate colleague, George McGovern, who went on to lose to the incumbent President Richard M. Nixon in the largest landslide in American history. The second pitted him against Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, whose public piety and outsider status appealed to a scandal-weary electorate.
Jackson was handicapped by his lack of charisma, and for all the passion of his beliefs he was stiff and wooden before the cameras. Though a lifelong politician, he found the endless handshaking and backslapping while campaigning a chore. Jackson occupied a rare and rather lonely position in American politics: he was a devoted Cold Warrior and firm supporter of American military might who was also a committed liberal in domestic affairs, suspicious of untrammeled free markets, a dedicated conservationist, and a passionate believer in the welfare state.
He opposed Nixon’s and Ford’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union; when Ford refused to meet with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, in deference to Soviet sensibilities, Jackson welcomed the great writer and dissident to the Senate. His amendment to a major trade bill forced the Soviet Union to allow its citizens to emigrate. The Soviet Jewish author and refusenik Natan Sharansky later observed, “For many Jews in the Soviet Union Jackson became the savior of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of Jews could join their people in freedom. Thousands of non-Jews who wanted to live in freedom and not in the Soviet Union could do it.”
Later, Jackson thought Carter’s selective emphasis on human rights in foreign policy was naïve; to Jackson, anticommunism was the greatest human rights campaign of all.
Jackson assembled a bright team of aides on his Senate staff, that included Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz, “neoconservatives” who would all go on to serve in Republican administrations and come to be known as the architects of the controversial Iraq war.
His death in 1983 at the age of 71, just eight months after beginning his fifth Senate term, was tragic and sudden, but somehow fitting–he spent the last moments of his public life at a press conference condemning the barbaric Soviet missile attack on Korean Airlines 007, before being felled by an aortic aneurysm.
The following year, Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presenting it to his widow, Helen. Acknowledging the debt he and his party owed to Jackson, he observed:
Scoop Jackson was convinced that there’s no place for partisanship in foreign and defense policy. He used to say, ‘In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics.’ His sense of bipartisanship was not only natural and complete; it was courageous. He wanted to be President, but I think he must have known that his outspoken ideas on the security of the Nation would deprive him of the chance to be his party’s nominee in 1972 and ’76. Still, he would not cut his convictions to fit the prevailing style. I’m deeply proud, as he would have been, to have Jackson Democrats serve in my administration. I’m proud that some of them have found a home here.
He left a legion of admirers, from the conservative columnist, George F. Will, who thought him “the finest public servant I have known”, to his biographer Robert C. Kaufman, who provided ample evidence that Jackson “personified integrity and decency in all aspects of his life.” Societies and foundations in the United States and abroad bear his name and continue his work. Scoop Jackson never reached the White House, but his legacy is greater and more lasting than many who did.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.