Published December 1, 1987
What if . . . ? is an endlessly fascinating historical game. What if the Confederacy had won the War between the States? If Alexander Kerensky had made reformist social democracy work after the fall of the Czar in 1917? If Woodrow Wilson had agreed to see Ho Chi Minh during the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference? If the Allies had invaded France in 1943, and World War II had ended with American and British troops in Berlin, western Poland, Prague, and Budapest?
What if, to get to the point here, Senator Henry M. Jackson had not died in September 1983?
Some things would almost certainly have been different. The U.S. Senate would have been a different place. One of Jackson’s aides remarked to your editor, some months after Scoop Jackson died, that he had never before realized the crucial function Jackson served until he had watched the Senate without him. Now, post-Scoop, the ship not only seemed to lack a rudder: the ship lacked ballast. For Henry M. Jackson was the ballast of the Senate when the debate turned to America’s role in world affairs. Combining, in his unique way, Roman gravitas and Norwegian stolidness, Scoop Jackson kept things honest by setting the boundaries of reasonable discussion on national security issues. As long as Jackson was there, things couldn’t get completely out of hand. In that respect, Jackson has never been replaced.
The Reagan administration might also have been different. In the current debate over Central America, who remembers, much less tries to implement, the “Jackson Plan” and the Kissinger Commission Report? Yet here was an effort to combine social, economic, and political reform in the region with a clear sense of the geopolitical and security issues at stake. Who, since Jackson’s death, has held both administration and congressional toes to the fire of the Kissinger Commission Report? If Jackson had been on the scene, pressing both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue toward bipartisanship, would we have suffered the nine-month debacle of the Iran/Contra affair? The odds seem long.
Surely the national Democratic Party would have been different had Henry M. Jackson been its senior statesman in 1988. The hegemony of those tribunes of the sundry liberations of the 1960s, now on display in the presidential campaign, might have been broken, and the “center” could have been in a rather different place than it now seems to be.
Staying the Course: Henry M. Jackson and National Security is a collection of essays by former Jackson staffers, edited by long-time Jackson aide Dorothy Fosdick. The book is a labor of love, but the overall tone is one of refreshing seriousness, not hagiography. Jackson, a strong-minded man if there ever was one, attracted strong-minded people to his employ.
The issues addressed run the gamut, from arms control policy (Richard Perle) to human rights (Charles Homer), China (Michel Oksenberg), and Central America (Ryan Malarkey). But it is in Homer’s essay that the gravamen of the Jackson enterprise comes into clearest focus. In the immediate wake of Scoop’s untimely death, many of his friends commented on what was probably the seminal experience of Jackson’s life: his visit, in 1945, to the recently liberated death camp at Buchenwald. Here is where the young Congressman Jackson got a bitter and lasting taste of what modem political violence and totalitarian tyranny did to human beings. Here is where Scoop Jackson became a principled anti-communist. And here, interestingly enough, was the connection between Henry Jackson, the national legislator and international figure, and Scoop, the former prosecutor in Snohomish County, Washington. Charles Homer makes the linkage:
“For as much as Jackson later came to be termed by some ‘conservative’ in his outlook, he was in fact steeped in the progressivism of the Pacific Northwest (James Parley did, after all, once refer to the 47 states and the soviet of Washington) and its particular notion that law was for the weak—weak individuals and weak nations. Indeed, the idea that law exists to restrain the strong and protect the rights of the weak was at the core of everything Jackson did in the arena of international human rights. As a young prosecutor, Jackson gained a reputation as a tough anti-fascist; as a veteran senator, he seemed just as determined that international law in the grandest sense also serve as the protector of individual liberties. In this respect, there was a line which connected the humblest county ordinance to the loftiest of United Nations pronouncements. The elaboration of the argument might become ever more sophisticated, but the living, breathing, individual human being was always the focus.”
At the time of his death, your editor wrote, borrowing from Isaiah Berlin’s famous image, that Scoop Jackson was a hedgehog in a world of political foxes. He saw one great thing, and it seized his mind and spirit; and he worked away at it, in good times and bad, when it garnered votes and when it lost them. That single-mindedness, and the ways in which he pursued it, most probably cost Henry M. Jackson the presidency—another powerful “What if …” But his steadfastness of principle is the stuff of which democracies are built, in America and around the world. Staying the Course is an aptly titled tribute to the career of a very large man, indeed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.