The Mainer at the Center of the Cold War

As a blog about Maine’s connections to the world, I would be remiss not to cover the roles individuals from the Pine Tree State have played in U.S. foreign policy. There may be no better person to start with than former Governor of Maine, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie.

Muskie was tuned to foreign policy from the very beginning of his days as a U.S. Senator. Not far into his first year in office, 1959, he took his first trip to the Soviet Union, and would return in 1965 and 1971. He proved to have a clear head about international issues, first and foremost on relations with the Soviet Union. After the 1971 visit to Moscow, a reporter asked him if he was hopeful about the relationship, and he said:

“I don’t find hope a very useful commodity. Realism is a better one, and as I said earlier I find a very positive prospect forthcoming in the first two areas [scientific and space cooperation] on the part of the Soviets. So I would like to see those pressed and in that respect you might say I feel better about those two than before I went there. But I don’t like to use words like “hope” or hold up pie in the sky with respect of the Soviets’ ultimate intentions[.] I think we just get engaged in rather useless rhetoric when we get into speculation about that.”

Muskie was an astute thinker on issues such as the arms race with the Soviet Union. In a 1969 speech, for instance, he aptly described how the push for new nuclear missile-related technologies (particularly MIRVs, which were missiles that carried multiple nuclear warheads, and anti-ballistic missile systems) would continue to escalate the nuclear arms race, making arms treaties more difficult, and ultimately worsening the security situations of both nations. The cyclical nuclear rock-paper-scissors game that played out over the following decades more or less followed the path he foresaw.

On Vietnam, Muskie struggled somewhat to find his footing, but eventually became a leading voice on the war. He got involved in the issue early on, visiting South Vietnam during his 1965 trip that included the Soviet Union and again in 1967 to monitor elections. By 1968, he found himself at the center of a raging debate. At the Democratic Convention that year, there was a major rift in the party over the war—whether to continue the fight or sue for peace. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the convention and violent clashes with police carried on for five days. The situation was tumultuous inside the convention as well, with anti-Vietnam factions trying to unseat the delegates of the opposing side. The leader and ultimate victor in the race was Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. Humphrey shared Lyndon Johnson’s view on the war, that the U.S. should continue the fight. Muskie, who would become Humphrey’s Vice Presidential running mate, was in the unenviable position of arguing the pro-Vietnam War side in a debate with another Congressman. By a little over a year later, however, he was unambiguous in his opposition to the war. In fact, he would go on to play a key role in fashioning the War Powers Resolution, which was designed to reign in the Executive Branch’s power to unilaterally carry out military action—a response to the conduct of the Vietnam War.

After two decades of playing a prominent role in the Senate on foreign policy, Muskie was appointed by Jimmy Carter as U.S. Secretary of State on May 8th, 1980. (Cyrus Vance, his predecessor, resigned in the wake of the failed rescue attempt of the U.S. hostages in Iran, which he had objected to.) Muskie was fated to only be in the role for eight months, since Carter lost his bid for reelection to Ronald Reagan that November and left office in January. Yet, in that short time, Muskie presided over more than one history-altering event.

Muskie took the post six months into the Iran hostage crisis. The Delta Force rescue attempt had ended in two crashed aircraft and eight dead troops a mere two weeks before he started. The failed rescue mission was at the top of the list of reasons Carter lost to Reagan in the 1980 election, which is ultimately what cut Muskie’s time as Secretary of State short. Yet Muskie in fact oversaw the negotiations that led to the hostages’ release:

“Six days before the resolution of the crisis, Muskie was happily bowing out of office, hinting in a sentimental address to the Maine legislature, where he began his public career, that he might end it there as well. But then the next day, just as his military jet touched down at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, a call came through from the President alerting him to a possible breakthrough in the hostage negotiations. From then until high noon of Inauguration Day, Muskie’s life was at the mercy of the mood swings of the talks in Algeria (conducted by his deputy, Warren Christopher).”

The 52 hostages (including a man who now lives in Maine), held for 444 days, were released the day of Reagan’s inauguration due to the work of negotiators in Muskie’s Department of State in the days and weeks prior.

While that proved to be the highest-profile issue Muskie dealt with as Secretary, it was not the only crisis. At the end of December 1979, five months before Muskie took office, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The State Department’s negotiations with the Soviet Union did not turn out as well as those with Iran. A meeting between Muskie and Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, soon after Muskie became Secretary of State, failed to secure the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Gromyko, aptly nicknamed “Mr. Nyet,” was unlikely to have much to offer Muskie given the state of Soviet decision making at the time; Gromyko later said that the invasion of Afghanistan was decided in part due to a drunk Brezhnev’s emotional reaction to a communist leader’s assassination in Kabul. Muskie did not have an easy job.

Moreover, on the other side of the U.S.S.R., the labor movement in Poland coalesced from a series of strikes in the summer of 1980 into the Solidarity movement by September. The movement fomented massive unrest against the communist regime, which continued off and on for another nine years and ultimately led to its fall. Back in the Middle East, Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, kicking off a brutal eight-year war that would play a major role in shaping Middle Eastern politics. These events all occurred within 10 months of each other, and Edmund Muskie became Secretary of State right in the middle of it.

The end of his time as Secretary of State when Reagan entered office proved not to be Muskie’s last role in foreign policy. Nearly seven years later, he was selected by Reagan to be a part of the Tower Commission, which was formed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. The affair—wherein, to make a long story short, senior Reagan administration officials secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran and used the money to support anti-leftist guerillas in Nicaragua—was a major scandal that seriously hurt Reagan’s perception. The Tower Commission was the first investigation into the issue, and after detailing the events that transpired, their report cast Reagan as “a confused and remote figure.” They found that he was not responsible for any criminal wrongdoing but was incompetent for not controlling the situation, which was a sharp departure from Reagan’s image at the time as a stalwart Cold War leader. Eleven administration officials were eventually convicted and later pardoned by George H. W. Bush.

Reading the history of Edmund Muskie’s public service career is a whirlwind tour through major events of the mid- to late-Cold War. He was renowned for his good sense and statesmanship throughout his time in office—a testament, hopefully, to the good things that can happen when Mainers get involved in international politics.


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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.