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Senate Leaders

Mike Mansfield by Aaron Shikler

Mike Mansfield
Quiet Leadership in Troubled Times

On March 24, 1998, Mike Mansfield returned to the Senate to deliver the first Leader's Lecture in the Old Senate Chamber, which had been restored during his long tenure as Senate majority leader. Many of the senators who attended had not served with Mansfield. He was 95 years old, but stood straight and spoke forthrightly. In reflecting on Senate leadership, he chose to deliver a speech that he had planned to give on November 22, 1963, but instead had simply inserted into the Congressional Record following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That speech aptly captured his philosophy of leadership and understanding of the Senate.

Mike Mansfield was born in New York City in 1903, the son of Irish immigrants. His mother died while he was a child and he was sent to live with relatives in Great Falls, Montana. At the age of 14 he dropped out of school and enlisted in the navy during World War I. He had gone on several convoys across the Atlantic before the navy discovered his real age and discharged him. Mansfield promptly joined the army and then went into the Marine Corps. The marines sent him to the Philippines, Japan, and China, which kindled Mansfield's lifelong interest in Asian affairs.

When Mansfield returned to Montana, he worked in the copper mines and studied to be a mining engineer. Then his life took a dramatically different course when he met school teacher Maureen Hayes, who persuaded him to complete his high school education through correspondence courses and go to the University of Montana. She cashed in an insurance policy to help pay his tuition. They married in 1932 and had one daughter, Ann. Mansfield got his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Montana, where he taught Far Eastern and Latin American history and political science. He also started on a PhD, but politics intervened.

An internationalist in a state with strong isolationist sentiments, Mansfield lost a race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940. Two years later, however, after the United States had entered World War II, he won the seat. He served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and went to China on a special mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1952 Mansfield ran for the Senate against incumbent Zales Ecton. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy came to Montana to campaign for Ecton and to question Mansfield's patriotism. Mansfield eked out a narrow victory. When he arrived in the Senate, Senator McCarthy greeted him by asking how things were in Montana. "Much better since you left, sir," Mansfield replied.

Mansfield was appointed to the Foreign Relations Committee and became the Senate's leading authority on Southeast Asian affairs, working closely with the Eisenhower administration and traveling frequently to the region. In 1957 Democratic Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson tapped Mansfield as his whip.  Despite his liberal voting record, Mansfield was popular among the southern conservatives who chaired the most powerful committees. His quiet and modest style also balanced Johnson's overpowering personality. When Johnson was elected vice president, Mansfield reluctantly agreed to become majority leader and was elected without opposition.

The Kennedy administration often clashed with Congress, and much of the president's ambitious domestic agenda stalled in the legislative machinery. Some senators voiced regret that Mansfield did not exert more forceful leadership in the Johnson mode. Mansfield, however, believed that the Senate operated best by accommodation, respect, and mutual restraint. He distributed power and perks among all senators, insisting that they must equally bear the legislative burden. By spreading responsibilities among the junior senators, he sought to reduce the influence of the powerful committee chairmen. He quietly abolished most patronage positions to establish a professional staff, assigned office space by seniority rather than as favors, and refrained from handing out committee assignments in return for senators' support.  

When Lyndon Johnson entered the White House, the legislative logjam broke, beginning when cloture was invoked to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mansfield's style proved perfectly suited to handle the rush of legislation that encompassed Johnson's "Great Society" program. "I had never seen so much activity in my life around here!" said Stewart McClure, chief clerk of the Senate Education and Labor Committee. "We were passing major bills every week. It was unbelievable."

While he loyally supported President Johnson in public, behind the scenes Mansfield vigorously dissented from the president's policies in Vietnam. Mansfield, who had continued to travel to Vietnam to assess the situation personally, sent Johnson a series of memoranda that urged a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the war. When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, Mansfield made an extraordinary offer as a leader of the opposition party: If the president withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam, Mansfield would publicly declare it the "best possible end of a bad war." President Nixon recognized that by rejecting this offer, he would turn Kennedy and Johnson's war into his own. Still he declined, not wanting to lose the war. Senator Mansfield then took a more open role by sponsoring bills to prohibit sending U.S. troops to Laos and Thailand and setting a date to remove U.S. forces from Cambodia.          

Following the Watergate burglary in 1972, Senator Mansfield set up the Watergate Committee, chaired by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin. To help reassert congressional authority, he also cosponsored the War Powers Act of 1973. Under his leadership in the 1970s, the Senate also adopted a series of institutional reforms, from the "sunshine" requirements for opening committee meetings to public scrutiny to reducing the number of votes needed to invoke cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths.

After a record-setting 16 years as majority leader, Mansfield retired from the Senate in 1977. President Jimmy Carter appointed him U.S. ambassador to Japan, a post he continued under President Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, he advised President Bill Clinton on normalizing relations with Vietnam. Mansfield died at the age of 98 in 2001 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.