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William Proxmire and the Genocide Treaty

January 11, 1967

“I serve notice today,” proclaimed Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin on January 11, 1967, “that … I intend to speak day after day in this body to remind the Senate of our failure to act and of the necessity for prompt action” on the Genocide Treaty. During his 32 years in the U.S. Senate, Bill Proxmire earned a number of nicknames: maverick, tightwad, iconoclast. Perhaps the one that suits him best is “bulldog.” Proxmire “clamps his prominent jaws hard on the edge of an issue,” wrote a reporter, “and simply refuses to let go until his colleagues shake him loose—either by voting for or against the cause in question.” It was Proxmire’s dogged support for the Genocide Treaty that eventually led to its approval, an achievement 19 years in the making.

Born Edward William Proxmire on November 11, 1915, his childhood admiration for silver screen cowboy William S. Hart led him to drop his first name. After graduating from Yale and Harvard, Proxmire served in military intelligence during World War II, then settled in Wisconsin. His political career got off to an uneven start. Following his one term in the Wisconsin state assembly, he lost three successive gubernatorial races, but in 1957 he prevailed in a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant upon Joseph McCarthy’s death.

In the Senate, Proxmire served on the Banking and Appropriations Committees, where he developed a reputation as an expert on fiscal policy. To draw attention to what he considered to be wasteful government spending, Proxmire issued monthly “Golden Fleece Awards.” Recipients included an $84,000 National Science Foundation study of why people fall in love and a $57,800 FAA program to record the physical measurements of some 400 airline stewardesses. “Intense and uncompromising,” noted one journalist, Proxmire’s “penny-pinching” became legendary. At least one award recipient sued Proxmire for libel and slander.

Nothing defined his legacy, however, as much as his relentless support for the Genocide Treaty. Following World War II, the Truman administration became a chief proponent of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. After its unanimous approval by the UN General Assembly in 1948, President Harry Truman dutifully submitted the treaty to the Senate, calling for its swift ratification. “We have established before the world our first and clear policy toward [the] crime” of genocide, Truman wrote. The convention’s approval by the United States, he insisted, would demonstrate to the world “the establishment of principles of law and justice.”

Despite Truman’s impassioned plea, the treaty’s Senate critics kept it bottled up in committee where it languished until Proxmire made it his signature issue. The treaty included provisions to make genocide an international crime, “outlaw human slavery,” and “guarantee the political rights of women.” The Senate’s failure to approve it, Proxmire declared, was a “national shame.” And so he delivered speeches in support of the treaty every day that the Senate was in session. Weeks, months, and years passed. “I thought we could get [the treaty approved] in a year or two,” he later confessed. Over time his speeches convinced colleagues such as Foreign Relations’ ranking member Jacob Javits of New York and Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to join him in his effort. Nineteen years and more than 3,000 speeches later, Proxmire’s persistence finally paid off. On February 19, 1986, following the Senate’s 93-1 approval of the treaty, Proxmire delivered his final address on the subject. What would become of those daily speeches, everyone wanted to know. With a sly grin, the bulldog explained to one reporter, “I’m going to look around for something else.”