Last Thursday, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, as part of its year-long celebration of the centennial of Hubert HumphreyâÄôs birth, showed the documentary “Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible.” The Institute promotes it as a “no-holds-barred documentary.”
The film, which will air Thursday on Twin Cities Public Television, focuses primarily on two aspects of HumphreyâÄôs career: his civil rights record and the war in Vietnam. On the former, it describes his remarkable âÄî and I believe courageous âÄî speech supporting a stronger civil rights platform plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention and his shepherding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the Senate.
But there is no mention of Humphrey being selected âÄî precisely because he was so widely respected in the African-American community âÄî to bring the administrationâÄôs wholly inadequate “compromise” proposal to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention. The “compromise” was immediately rejected.
This “no-holds-barred documentary” also fails to mention HumphreyâÄôs record on civil rights for dissidents. In lockstep with the anti-communist fervor of the times âÄî which he previously used to purge the progressives and leftists from the DFL in its early years âÄî Humphrey was an author of the portion of the Internal Security Act of 1950 that created detention centers for holding “subversives” without trial whenever the president declared an “internal security emergency.”
Humphrey also proposed provisions in the 1954 Communist Control Act that even the House of Representatives rejected as being unconstitutional. Many believe it was HumphreyâÄôs 1952 Senate hearing on unions that set the stage for the subsequent ousting of progressives and Communists from unions. But today it is almost unthinkable that the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy took their lead in this area from Humphrey. So of course it goes unmentioned in this film.
It was this intense anti-communism that would inevitably lead Vice President Humphrey to become the Lyndon Johnson administrationâÄôs most ardent public spokesperson for the war in Vietnam. The film includes a few of the iconic images of the horrors of that war. And a couple of anti-war activists are indeed quoted in the film, one saying many people think Humphrey sold his soul for power. But on the whole, it portrays Humphrey as a sympathetic figure who initially counseled against the war and who was seduced by loyalty and ambition to become the chief proponent of the war policy.
But Humphrey was not the victim. No objective description of the U.S. role in that war would omit the phrase “war crime.” This film does.
The rules of engagement that allowed “free-fire zones,” the weapons that included napalm and anti-personnel fragmentation bombs, the Phoenix Program that resulted in the assassination of 20,000 people, the massive defoliation of South Vietnam and herbicidal warfare aimed at crops. All of these violated clear rules of war enshrined in treaties we had signed and ratified.
As the administrationâÄôs main public advocate of that policy, Humphrey could arguably, if not plausibly, be called a war criminal. You wonâÄôt hear those words in this documentary.
This film falls far short of providing a complete and accurate portrayal of Humphrey. His 1948 civil rights speech may indeed have been one of the great speeches of the 20th century, but his anti-communism âÄî coupled with his loyalty and thirst for power âÄî led the “Happy Warrior” down the path of becoming a war criminal.
To paraphrase George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past and those who re-write it are condemned to repeat it.
Chuck Turchick is a University of Minnesota alumnus. Please send comments
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