Monday, October 29, 2007

Flashback: The Bay of Pigs Debacle Leads to Worsening Relations Between Hubert and Gene: Their Bitter Words Never Healed with Gene. The Chasm Widens as Gene Moves Close to the Oil Depletion Allowance Boys from Texas.

[More than 50 years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

The Bay of Pigs.

Hubert Humphrey’s assumption of the majority whip post in the Senate meant for this loyalist that he was on board with the Kennedy administration and was morally bound to defend it against its enemies—no matter what he thought privately. That’s the usual burden of political leadership and Humphrey desperately wanted to be recognized as an administration insider.

This came to a crucial test on the morning of April 15, 1961 when three flights of B-026B Invader light bomber aircraft displaying Cuban markings bombed and strafed Cuban airfields of San Antonio de Los Banos, Antonio Maceo International airport and the field at Ciudad Libertad. It was the first strike laying the ground for an invasion at Bahia de Cochinos—known as the Bay of Pigs. Earlier, on March 17, 1960 the Eisenhower administration agreed with the CIA that it should equip and drill Cuban exiles for an attack against the government of Fidel Castro. The CIA was confident…even cocky…that it could overthrow Castro since it had had good results earlier, in Iran of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and President Jacobo Guzman of Guatemala in 1954. There is no need to go over the details of the abortive invasion except to say that for its success it depended on a resolute White House. That resoluteness failed and a second air attack was canceled by Kennedy. Adlai Stevenson, the UN ambassador, had been lied to by the White House when Stevenson asked if it had been involved—and so Stevenson went out and misinformed the world.

The loss of nerve by Kennedy spelled the doom of the effort. Kennedy’s apologists later said he cancelled the second strike because of his opposition to overt action—but it is clear this was a blurring of the facts. It is supposed that Kennedy didn’t know—but those in the White House knew so he must have. Privately, Hubert felt Kennedy shouldn’t have scrubbed the second strike: he was much more of a hawk than the JFK advisers were. When the fighting ended, on April 21, sixty-eight exiles were dead and 1,209 put on trial. A few were executed but most were sentenced to imprisonment for 30 years. After 20 months of negotiation with the U. S., Cuba released the exiles in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine. As result of the failure, CIA director Allen Dulles and deputy directors Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell were all forced to resign.

Gene McCarthy was angered because Stevenson had been lied to. Hubert unwisely took up the cudgel of defending the administration’s motives for lying (to protect lives). McCarthy thought that answer was a pro-administration sop. “Well, that’s the difference between us,” said Hubert curtly. “You don’t see any obligation to defend anybody beyond yourself, Eugene—and it shows.” To which McCarthy said: “You feel an obligation to defend liars and it also shows.” In the Senate, McCarthy introduced a bill to set up a watchdog committee over the CIA. Hubert stifled the bill although public opinion seemed to agree with McCarthy.

McCarthy kept his seat on Finance but had to give up Public Works in order to join Agriculture—taking Humphrey’s place. The fact that McCarthy was the only Democrat from the Great Lakes states would seem to be important—but not to McCarthy. He pro-forma supported high price supports and the programs sponsored by JFK’s agriculture secretary Orville Freeman but the committee’s work was not high on Gene’s priority list. Once when Secretary Freeman went to see the Agriculture chairman, Allen Ellender of Louisiana, asking that Ellender support the administration, Ellender responded: “Mr. Secretary, I’ll support it and I’ll see that senators supporting this measure get there—but you see that McCarthy gets there.” That should have been easy since Freeman was a former Minnesota governor and Gene was the Minnesota senator on Ag—but it wasn’t. “I went to McCarthy many times and asked him to cooperate with us—at least show up. He said he would but he failed to do so. Let’s say he was totally unresponsive.”

One of the mysteries of the contemporary Senate was why McCarthy, a liberal, lined up sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly with the big oil barons such as Oklahoma’s Bob Kerr and supporters of the oil barons such as Virginia’s Harry Byrd. At first glance there was nothing similar about them in interest or in habits—McCarthy an abstemious intellectual and Kerr a big, hearty, bluff hand-shaker and self made multi-millionaire, the founder of Kerr-McGee and the Senate’s chief watchdog over oil and natural gas interests. But McCarthy knew that in order to move ahead in politics he would have to be on the side of powerful economic interests. So in picking and choosing, he decided he would favor oil and natural gas. But he played it carefully. He arranged an understanding with Kerr and Byrd that there would be some formalistic votes where he could register opposition to their interests to keep the record straight and protect him from attacks.

McCarthy’s basic point was that he would be absent often when a vote to repeal the oil depletion allowance would come up. The battle was a longstanding one by liberals to abolish the 27-1/2% depletion allowance that exempts oil and gas companies from paying any taxes on that percentage of their total oil income. McCarthy made a point to vote to “reduce” the depletion allowance in committee but would fail to vote when it would come up on the floor. Illinois’ Paul Douglas, a strong adherent of ending or (in compromise) to reduce the depletion allowance admitted that he was gulled when McCarthy joined the Finance committee, saying that in retrospect it was clear that McCarthy was placed there as a shill for the oil companies by Lyndon Johnson. Carefully and cautiously the big oil people saw to it that McCarthy was well funded—though their contributions were brilliantly shielded in opaque giving. He knew where the money was coming from and at St. John’s Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB did, too. Once McCarthy took the Benedictine theologian to Brainerd, Minnesota where old Bob Kerr had a secret estate, in cool northern Minnesota where he escaped the hot sun of Oklahoma. Godfrey who loved to sniff the “inside” was entranced to see a billionaire with his sleeves rolled up chomping a cigar, drinking scotch and playing poker with his staff.

If he carefully hid his votes on oil depletion—either to vote to reduce it when it wasn’t going to pass or not show up in order to show his solidarity with Kerr and Byrd—McCarthy was fore-square for Minnesota industry. He was a champion of Minnesota’s iron ore processors and for the big Minnesota-based mutual fund, Investors Diversified Services, Inc. (IDS). Once he sat by idly thinking to himself while Albert Gore, Sr. (father of the former vice president) lectured an executive of 3M that its highway billboards were cluttering up the nation’s roadsides.

“Most of the billboards I’ve seen advertise no products,” said Gore. “It just seems that they try to popularize a name—3M, 3M, 3M. What does 3M stand for anyhow?”

McCarthy murmured: “It stands for a lot in Minnesota.”

The committee roared with laughter.

The Humphrey-McCarthy alliance grew tattered, although their voting records compared side by side didn’t show it. They had almost identical voting records, differing only twice on major issues…McCarthy, of course, voting against reducing the oil depletion allowance and when McCarthy voted to take away research powers from the new Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Humphrey sponsored. But their differing styles chafed both. While they agreed on issues involving Minnesota, McCarthy felt Hubert’s style with machine-gun rapidity of press releases was not his. For Hubert’s side, he often called McCarthy’s office “Sleepy Hollow.” There were times when Gene’s office didn’t know where he was, which was inconceivable with Hubert’s whirlwind ever-present energy. “A couple of years after Gene came, we kind of gave up on his office for any kind of help,”Hubert explained later. “Hell, our office was running things pretty much anyhow—but it would have been better if Gene was a little more of a dynamo.”

Gene hated roll-calls and didn’t like it when he was criticized for missing some. He had a point. A Republican senator from Iowa named Jack Miller was a CPA and grammarian. He would amend language in bills to add semi-colons and take out commas. Each time a Miller amendment would come up, to add a semicolon and remove a comma, elderly Margaret Chase Smith of Maine who wanted a 100% record, had to hustle through the corridors to vote on these semicolons. She finally said the hell with it—because of Jack Miller. Hip surgery required her to stop her perfect voting record at 2,941. “Damn Jack Miller,” said McCarthy. “I told Margaret it was no good at all to break her neck voting for semicolons.”


  1. As one who first became aware of politics as a boy in early 60s Minnesota (HHH is still my political hero) I love these stories about him and Gene McCarthy. I also loved your stories a couple years ago about Minnesota Republicans you knew in this era and back into the '50s.

  2. Perhaps Gene McCarthy suffered from the "Irish Alzheimer's."

    The victim gradually forgets everything except the grudges.