A tribute to Senator Mark Hatfield

Former Sen. Mark Hatfield, a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, died Aug. 7.

A young Mark Hatfield, a naval officer who commanded landing craft in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, entered Hiroshima shortly after the city had been incinerated by an atomic bomb.  As he recalled it:

When I entered Hiroshima, the charred bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble. The horror that I experienced burned a lasting impression in my conscience. To this day, it serves as a philosophical anchor – my beacon of clarity in a political arena that turns a deaf ear to those who do not speak the exotic language of megatons, kill probability ratios and other terms that desensitize us to the true nature of nuclear war.

This experience led to Sen. Mark Hatfield’s long opposition to war and to the nuclear arms race. He was a man of conscience, and possessed a sense of right and wrong which overrode party loyalty.

He served five terms from 1967 to 1997, the longest tenured U.S. Senator in Oregon history. Council for a Livable World was proud to support him throughout his Senate career. Indeed, Hatfield represented a brand of Republican moderation that has largely been obliterated in United States politics.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he launched a massive military buildup and abandoned the SALT II nuclear arms treaty. Sen. Mark Hatfield was the only Republican senator to oppose the enormous Reagan military expansion.

In 1989, he delivered an eloquent speech in which he argued that peace through strength – the watchword of the Reaganites – was a fallacy.  He argued:

There is no ethical dimension to the arms race – to our abuse of our natural and human resources, to our waste of scientific genius, to the bankrupting of the Federal Treasury to pay for weapons of mass destruction.

Hatfield and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., were the prime sponsors of a Senate resolution endorsing a mutual and verifiable nuclear weapons freeze (Hatfield originated the concept of an arms moratorium in 1979 which became the freeze). While the freeze was never adopted, it mobilized a generation of anti-nuclear weapons activists that helped to limit the Reagan nuclear build up.

Hatfield also led the fight against neutron weapons. In 1984, as chairman of the subcommittee that funded Department of Energy warhead production, he killed the plan to produce 155 mm neutron artillery shells. He was active in the fight against the MX missile, in fact offering the first amendment to kill the new system in 1979 when few were concerned about the issue.

Then there was the fight against the production of deadly new nerve gas weapons requested by President Reagan.  Working with Sen. David Pryor (D-AR) and a bipartisan pair in the House, the two Senators fought the Reagan Administration to a draw for several years. Indeed, there were not one, not two, but three Senate tie votes on a chemical weapons convention that had to be broken each time by then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. It was the same Bush who as President negotiated and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning all production or possession of chemical weapons.

In 1992, Hatfield helped lead the fight that stopped United States nuclear testing. His amendment with Sen. Jim Exon (D-NE) calling for a nine-month U.S. testing moratorium was approved 55 – 40. After President George H.W. Bush signed the legislation, the United States ended nuclear explosive testing.  The moratorium has been in place for nearly 20 years.

Hatfield usually opposed military intervention abroad. Indeed, he was anti-war before he arrived in the U.S. Senate.  At a National Governors Association meeting in 1965, he opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s military build up in Vietnam. At that time, there were few Democrats or Republicans who were willing to speak out. There were only two Governors who opposed a resolution supporting the war; George Romney of Michigan, Mitt Romney’s father, was the other.

One of his first acts in Congress was to join with Senator George McGovern (D-SD) in the McGovern-Hatfield amendments to stop the Vietnam War. He opposed military intervention in Central American and the first Gulf War as well, one of only two Republicans to vote against going to war in the Persian Gulf.

I disagreed with Senator Hatfield on the issue of abortion. He was firmly in the anti-abortion camp.  But I admired what could be described as his pro-life consistency based on firm religious principles: he opposed abortion, he opposed the death penalty and he opposed war. There may not be another Senator who had held this straight line position.

When he first ran for Senate in 1966, his anti-war stance became an issue as his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Duncan, vigorously supported the war. Duncan argued that the U.S. had to fight the Communists in the buffalo grass of Vietnam rather than the rye grass of Oregon. But Hatfield was supported by the staunchly anti-war Democrat Wayne Morse, and won a narrow 52%-48% victory.

Mark Hatfield was always a model of courtliness and unfailingly gracious with his colleagues and constituents. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word who could work well with colleagues despite their antithetical views. He represented honesty and integrity at their best.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who once served as a Hatfield intern, remarked on Hatfield’s death,  “He inspired many to public service, encouraging them to work to do what is right rather than what is convenient or popular.”

John Isaacs is executive director of Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. This article is reposted from the CLW blog with permission of the author. Photo: Steve Morgan/Wikipedia