Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson was a congressman and then senator from Washington state from 1941 until his death in 1983. Jackson was a traditional Democrat: liberal on domestic policy, strongly tied to the labor movement, and a hawk on national security matters. He was very much in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, with all of whom he worked closely—as he did with George Meany and Lane Kirkland at the AFL-CIO, who were also Cold War hawks. That tradition began dying after the Johnson presidency, as the party’s nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 (and Barack Obama in 2008) demonstrated. Perhaps a better proof was the fate of Joseph Lieberman, the last of the “Jackson Democrats,” who was his party’s nominee for vice president in 2000 but could not get renominated for his Senate seat in 2006.
I first met Scoop Jackson in 1971, and while a law student volunteered on his 1972 presidential campaign. We stayed in touch, and I told him that if he ran again I’d like to be a full-time part of his staff. In March 1975 I moved to Washington and worked for his Senate staff until the end of 1976. From the day I met him in 1971, I was proud to be considered one of “Scoop’s Troops.”
In the 1970s and 1980s there were many of us Jackson Democrats and many references to the “Jackson wing” of the party. The meaning was clear: Democrats who cared deeply about defense issues and were hawks. They believed in military superiority for the United States, and supported big defense budgets. More important, they believed that American power was a great force for good in the world, which was not the view taken by the “McGovern wing” of the party—whose heir Barack Obama seems to be.
They were of course reviled. Jackson was called a militarist, a racist, “the Senator from Boeing,” “a man with a military-industrial complex,” a “Dr. Strangelove,” and so on. The insults rarely fazed Scoop, though in fact, if ever a man were a moderate by temperament and in policy matters, it was he. One of his favorite words was “prudent,” and his view of Lebanon was a good example: Almost alone among senators in the 1970s, he paid very close attention to developments there and cared deeply about its fragile democracy, but he opposed the Reagan administration’s decision to send American troops there in 1982.
He did not think sending a small peacekeeping force was the right role for a superpower, he thought they would be a target, and he worried what would happen if they were killed—exactly what happened in 1983. The idea that Jackson was a mindless hawk, rather than a careful proponent of American power, is and always was ridiculous.
Why the history lesson? Because several weeks ago the columnist David Ignatius enlisted Jackson to support his own views of national security policy, and to attack Senator John McCain. Now it happens that McCain and Jackson knew and admired each other. After returning from prison in North Vietnam, McCain became the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, and in that position spent many hours at Jackson’s side, accompanying him on foreign trips.
The year was 1980. The Iranian revolution had toppled the shah’s regime, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the United States’ president, Jimmy Carter, was widely perceived as a weak leader. Looking for a sharp-edged evaluation of the situation, I decided to interview Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a leading hawk.
What Jackson (D-Wash.) said was surprising, even at a distance of nearly 35 years. Rather than demanding tougher statements or more saber-rattling, he said he worried about “overreaction” to events: “We appear to be going from one crisis to another,” with Washington dispensing “red-hot rhetoric at least once a week about the dire consequences of this or that or something else.”
“We need to be prudent,” said Jackson, who was perhaps the most prominent Cold Warrior of his day. “There is a need for the U.S. to make careful decisions, stand by those decisions, and avoid sending false or conflicting signals” to U.S. allies or the Russians. Jackson’s message, in essence, was “cool it.”
Now, the condescension in Ignatius’s comments is offensive (even at a distance of 35 years). He was amazed that Jackson did not match the stereotype the media had created of Scoop the militarist who would be screaming and demanding bombing whenever a crisis arose. My God, he was “sharp edged” and a hawk, yet thoughtful and reasonable. Only a journalist who bought the stereotype about Jackson could have been surprised. Jackson was always careful, believed the United States should never bluff, and believed we needed to have strong, reliable policies if we wanted to have strong, reliable allies.
Read that quote from Jackson again—“There is a need for the U.S. to make careful decisions, stand by those decisions, and avoid sending false or conflicting signals”—and what of course comes to mind is Obama and his Syria red line. There, Obama made an off-the-cuff threat about what we would do if chemical weapons were used, told allies we would move to enforce the threat, and then backed off at the last minute. It’s exactly what Jackson was warning against.
But Ignatius does not use that quote against Obama; he dredges it up to target Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. His column began this way: “As the Ukraine crisis deepened, Sen. John McCain responded by criticizing President Obama’s ‘feckless’ foreign policy, while Sen. Lindsey Graham called Obama ‘a weak and indecisive president [who] invites aggression.’ ” So the juxtaposition is the prudent Jackson, versus the careless, hawkish, thoughtless Graham and McCain.
This is nonsense on stilts. Jackson opposed the kind of policies that are central to this administration, and would have been appalled by the massive cuts in the defense budget, the imprudent (there’s that word again) rush to the exits in Iraq and Afghanistan, the effort to engage American enemies without reinforcing American power, and very clearly by the story of the Syrian red line. As to the current Ukraine crisis, an old line of Scoop’s from the height of the Cold War comes to mind: “the Russians are like a burglar going down a hotel corridor, trying all the doors. When they find one that’s unlocked, they go in.” Jackson strongly opposed the world view that calls for American weakness and withdrawal, and was the leading opponent of the Nixon-Kissinger version of détente—in good part because he thought weakness would invite aggression, which is just what Lindsey Graham said.
Ignatius is of course entitled to his views, including his views of Ukraine, Obama, McCain, and Graham. But he’s not entitled to turn the late Scoop Jackson into a critic of McCain and Graham when all the evidence of Jackson’s long career suggests he would be standing arm in arm with them, worried about American strength and American reliability—and about that Russian hotel burglar.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.