If you fly to Las Vegas for a long weekend of drinking, partying, and gambling, you will arrive at its airport, McCarran International. Not many people focus on the name as they are interested in having a good time, but its named after a controversial figure in the state’s history who helped make the state become what it is and who was for a short period of time the Senate’s most powerful and influential member.
A prominent lawyer in Nevada, Pat McCarran (1876-1954) often had a soft spot for sinners in his early career, representing bank robbers and abortionists. As a politician, however, he was never one to go along with the tides and crafted his own path. From 1913 until his defeat for reelection in 1918, McCarran was an associate justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, subsequently serving as President of the Nevada Bar Association and briefly as Vice President of the American Bar Association. Throughout the 1920s the state Democratic Party leadership, a group he managed to anger for his uncompromising maverick tendencies, managed to block him from gaining any positions of power and he was stuck in limbo. In 1926, McCarran attempted to gain the Democratic nomination for the Senate, but to no avail. However, the onset of the Great Depression brought about change in his fortunes.
The Rise of McCarran and His Policies
In 1932, popular incumbent Republican Senator Tasker Oddie was running for reelection, and the Democrats thought so little of their chances that none of their preferred people wanted to run. They permitted McCarran to be nominated, believing fully that he would lose. The 1932 election was better for Democrats than they thought, and he won in an upset. All those years in the political wilderness taught McCarran to be ruthless in his accumulation of power. He backed some of FDR’s New Deal legislation, particularly legislation that helped unions, but he also sometimes opposed. This, of course, didn’t endear Roosevelt to him. Although McCarran’s health was often precarious in the 1930s due to his obesity, he was still able to have legislative accomplishments, including the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which regulated and fostered the development of the airline industry. He also advocated the separation of the Air Force from the Army and sponsored the Federal Airport Act of 1945, which provided grants to states and localities for airport construction. His legacy in this area of policy is one of the reasons that Las Vegas’s airport is named after McCarran.
By Serving in “Death Battalion”, McCarran Becomes Politically Invincible
In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, fresh from one of the most epic Electoral College victories in American history, had a lot of political capital and intended to spend it. At the start of the year, he proposed what was called the “court packing plan”. This plan would increase the number of justices from 9 to 15, which was in response to numerous decisions ruling New Deal legislation unconstitutional. Initially McCarran supported Roosevelt’s plan, but after talking with people in his state and reading his mail, he found his constituents were overwhelmingly against it. He turned against the plan as well.
On July 10, 1937, McCarran delivered a speech called the “Death Battalion” speech. Although this wasn’t his best or best delivered speech it was his most memorable and significant. McCarran’s health was still frail and he looked and sounded ill. Yet, he had gone to the Senate floor to speak against it, contrary to doctor’s orders. The most notable line in the speech was, “I think this cause in which we have enlisted, and in which I say without hesitancy we constitute a battalion of death, to the end that the Constitution of the Untied States shall prevail, is worthy of the effort” (Edwards, 78).
This speech resulted in laudatory headlines and press, including a headline from the Nevada State Journal: “McCarran in Death Battalion – Senator Ready to Give Life to Defend Constitution” and made him quite popular with not only Democrats, but Republicans as well (Edwards, 79). Although FDR tried to get him ousted in the primary, the effort didn’t go terribly far. This also wrecked former Senator Tasker Oddie’s chances at making a comeback. McCarran was now electorally unbeatable in Nevada and had only one major source of competition left for power in the state: Key Pittman.
Key Pittman and Pat McCarran didn’t get along well and actively competed for patronage, with McCarran often besting Pittman. Pittman was an establishment Democrat who had been in office since 1913 and carried some significance as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, but McCarran had a hunger for power that wasn’t to be satiated. Fortunately for McCarran, developments would soon allow him to gain much more.
McCarran Rules Nevada
On November 5, 1940, Key Pittman had won reelection, but what the voters weren’t aware of was that doctors had told his aides that his death was imminent. Just before the election, Pittman, who had issues with alcohol, had been on a drinking binge that caused a massive heart attack. Although he survived the heart attack itself, his heart was so badly damaged as a result that he was beyond recovery. Pittman died five days after he was reelected. With no more competition for patronage, McCarran consolidated power and became THE power of the state. He always remembered friends and foes alike, being sure to help his friends and, in equal measure, punish his foes.
In 1945, McCarran sponsored with Senator Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.) a bill exempting insurance from anti-trust laws while requiring states to regulate insurance. This law was recently amended so as to remove health insurance from the exemption list. In 1947, McCarran himself suffered a massive heart attack and his condition appeared so dire that oddsmakers in Vegas were betting 8 to 1 on his demise. Unfortunately for the gamblers as well as all those who abandoned McCarran at his time of peril, he recovered and managed to ruin the political careers of all the minions who left him in the seven more years he lived.
After Harry S. Truman winning a term in 1948, McCarran became the most powerful senator. He sponsored two major pieces of legislation that became law over Truman’s veto: The McCarran Internal Security Act and the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. The former was a comprehensive anti-communist bill that included the communist registration provisions from the proposed Mundt-Nixon Bill and the latter was a bill that strengthened the national origins quota system, blocked people from immigrating based on communist ideology, and abolished race as a criterion for denial of citizenship.
While many people associate Joseph McCarthy with the anti-communism of the early 1950s, they don’t know that Pat McCarran was also launching investigations into communists in the government, and he was more careful and effective than McCarthy. McCarran counted himself as a supporter of McCarthy and had he been able to vote on his censure, he not only would have voted against, but he likely would have convinced some Democrats to join him as well.
McCarran and Foreign Policy
In the foreign policy debates in the two years preceding America’s involvement in World War II, McCarran was a consistent non-interventionist, voting against Lend Lease and repealing neutrality laws. He feared a bloodbath for American soldiers if they were to get involved in World War II. Although there may have been another, under the surface reasoning for his stance here, this will be covered a little later. McCarran remained a thorn in Democratic foreign policy under President Truman, as although he backed both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, he insisted on his “Watchdog Committee”, which actively monitored Marshall Plan spending and more importantly, he stood against Truman on how to address a certain foreign leader: Francisco Franco. Franco could count McCarran among his personal friends and he fought for him receiving Marshall Plan aid to counteract communist influence. Truman personally despised Franco for his dictatorial rule of Spain as well as his pseudo-neutrality during World War II (he unofficially favored the Axis). But, McCarran ultimately got his way and Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, recognized Franco as an ally in the struggle against international communism.
McCarran and Prejudice
Although McCarran didn’t ever directly speak out against Jews, he was privately an anti-Semite, and such views influenced his perspective on immigration as well as federal nominations. On immigration, he was one of the leading opponents of legislation that would result in the United States taking in a significant number of Jewish refugees from Europe after World War II. He would invoke fears of influence from New York City in his campaigns but privately admitted that the purpose of such campaigning was to get people to worry about Jews without ever using the word. For federal nominations, when FDR nominated Jews, McCarran did his best to block them. No other connection appeared to exist between them aside from their Judaism. On civil rights for blacks, McCarran’s record was more mixed: he opposed legislation forming a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee but voted against efforts to cripple Truman’s desegregation order for the U.S. Army.
The Casino Boycott – McCarran Throws His Weight Around Against Hank Greenspun
Hank Greenspun of the Las Vegas Sun was one of the few journalists, and the most prominent one in the state, to be anti-McCarran. In 1952, McCarran had finally had it with him after his favored candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, Alan Bible, lost the Democratic primary. Soon the Las Vegas Sun was receiving calls from all but one of the major casino owners that they would no longer advertise in the paper. Greenspun investigated and found that they had all received calls from McCarran, who had been successful in keeping Washington off their backs. As casino owner and mobster Moe Dalitz put it to Greenspun, “You know as well as I that we have to do what he tells us. You know he got us our licenses. If we don’t go along, you know what will happen to us” (Newton, 152). He in turn sued McCarran and forty casino executives for conspiracy to ruin his newspaper and sought $1 million in damages. The case ended with Greenspun accepting a settlement of $80,500 in cash and an agreement that no more efforts would be made to influence editorial policy.
McCarran’s Pique = Loss of Power
Many at-risk Senate Republicans were up for reelection in 1952. One of them was McCarran’s colleague, George Malone. Although he sometimes gets quoted on the internet by people who profess to oppose globalism, his time in the Senate was most marked by his staunch cultural conservatism, his unwavering support of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and his remarkable ability to bore other senators to tears. Although McCarran was not particularly impressed with Malone, he was also not hostile to him, which couldn’t be said for the Democrat running against him. McCarran had groomed a successor in Alan Bible, but the Democratic voters were not having him. A staunchly anti-McCarran liberal Democrat, Thomas Mechling, managed to win the primary.
McCarran was so incensed by this repudiation that he surreptitiously aided the Malone campaign by lending his own staff to help him. The result was Malone’s victory while other vulnerable Republican senators who had been elected in 1946 such as James Kem of Missouri, Zales Ecton of Montana, and Harry Cain of Washington lost reelection. Republicans won control of the chamber in the 1952 election by…you guessed it…one vote! Although McCarran had eliminated a threat to his power in Mechling, he was now in the minority party. In 1954, he gave a speech that urged Democratic Party unity in the elections, but this was apparently too much for the fiercely independent 78-year old, who dropped dead of a heart attack right after finishing the speech. McCarran would ultimately get his way regarding his protégé: Alan Bible would serve in the Senate from 1954 to 1974. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 54%, with his most conservative period being after the 80th Congress.
It is true that Pat McCarran was instrumental in the development of modern-day Nevada as well as the airline industry and was without doubt the state’s most significant legislator of the 20th century. But, it is also true that he isn’t representative of the values of modern-day Nevadans. Thus, the call for removing his name from Las Vegas’s airport. However, advocates for the removal of McCarran’s name on account of the controversial aspects of his legacy have something greater to overcome: the removal of his statue from the U.S. Capitol Hall of Statues, that have two figures from each state. McCarran’s is there along with that of Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute author, activist, and educator.
Edit, 1/3/22: McCarran’s MC-Index score has been added and Key Pittman had served in the Senate since 1913, not 1917 as mistakenly written.
Edwards, J.E. (1982). Pat McCarran: Political Boss of Nevada. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
Edwards, J. (2010, September 8). Patrick Anthony McCarran. Online Nevada Encyclopedia.
Newton, M. (2007). Mr. Mob: The life and crimes of Moe Dalitz. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc.