On July 7, 1958, a decades long effort finally succeeded when President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the admission of Alaska as the 49th state. On January 3, 1959, the state was admitted to the Union. Statehood had for some time been a bit of a political football, with Democrats tending to favor the state’s admission while Republicans and Southern Democrats tended to oppose it. Efforts to combine Alaska with Hawaii statehood had been tried before and flopped in the Senate. The Republicans who opposed it believed it would be a welfare state (it kinda is) and believed, as did Democrats, that the state would produce two Democratic senators. Southern Democrats figured that Alaska’s admission would mean two more votes in the Senate for civil rights. They also knew who would get elected…the Alaska’s two leading proponents of statehood: Edward Lewis “Bob” Bartlett (1904-1968) and Ernest Gruening (1887-1974). These two men would be liberals, but they would also be independent-minded and have several significant accomplishments.
Bob Bartlett was appointed secretary of the Alaska Territory in 1939, and would from 1945 until statehood be its delegate, where he was the most active person in the territory advocating for statehood. Upon Alaska’s statehood, he and his colleague Gruening had a problem: who was to be the senior senator and who was to face reelection first? Gruening proposed to resolve the matter with a coinflip. Neither one of them got along so a discussion probably wouldn’t have accomplished much. The first toss was on who had to run for reelection first, and Bartlett lost that one, thus having to run first. However, Bartlett won the second for seniority. For the rest of his life, Bartlett would nickname Gruening “Junior” for losing the second coinflip.
Bartlett and his colleague Gruening had an active rivalry despite being much more similar than different politically. He explained his dislike for his colleague thusly, “How can you approach logically a man who distorts facts, always, to suit his own fancy and his own needs and desires? It is impossible” (Reamer). True to Bartlett’s words, Gruening, outliving him, would in his 1973 autobiography Many Battles reframe the story. He claimed that he had “offered to concede” but Bartlett insisted on the coin toss without Bartlett around to contradict the narrative (Reamer).
Bartlett, although not a particularly vocal figure, was one of the most active senators in getting legislation passed, perhaps the most in American history. One of his laws, the Bartlett Act, required handicap access in all federally-funded buildings. Even as a delegate, he authored the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act, which provided for the funding of mental institutions in the Alaska Territory. This legislation caused much controversy for its initial allowance for people from the lower 48 states to be transferred to asylums in Alaska, making people fear that this bill would essentially establish a Siberian gulag for Americans. In response to these fears, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) proposed an amended version in which the law only would serve to commit people in Alaska, and that is the version that passed unanimously. Bartlett was truly a workhorse rather than a showhorse. He was also more go-along, get-along as a senator than Gruening, who had been disliked by FDR and later by LBJ. Bartlett was a strong supporter of the Great Society and civil rights legislation.
By the late 1960s, his health was in serious decline due to a lifetime of heavy smoking and was suffering from heart disease. On December 11, 1968, Bartlett died at the Cleveland Clinic Hospital after heart surgery. His MC-Index score was a 13%. Republican Ted Stevens won the special election to succeed him and he would serve until 2009.
Ernest Gruening (1887-1974) was already an old man by the time he was elected to the Senate and had a long career in politics in the Alaska territory, serving as its governor from 1939 to 1953. He had been a trailblazer on civil rights, signing into law the Equal Rights Act of 1945, an anti-discrimination statute. In 1955, Gruening delivered a notable speech titled, “Let Us End American Colonialism!”, comparing Alaska to a colony and argued that statehood was due for Alaska, quoting Dwight Eisenhower declaring back in 1950, “Quick admission of Alaska and Hawaii to statehood will show the world that America practices what it preaches” (Gruening). Although a liberal, Gruening would prove a major pain for the Democratic leadership because of his siding with Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) in his newfound opposition to foreign aid as an ineffective way to fight communism. He also voted against ratifying the Consular Treaty in 1967, which had been signed by the Johnson Administration in 1964, joining senators who feared that the Soviets would have better opportunities to spy on the United States. He also sided with him in his vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which earned him the enmity of LBJ.
Morse and Gruening would be among the leading critics of the Vietnam War. He would write in his autobiography, Many Battles (1973), “I detailed my objections to the resolution on the second day of the debate, and again on the third. But the resolution was adopted by eighty-eight yeas to two nays, that of Senator Morse and mine… What none of the senators and representatives knew, however, was that they had been misled about the Tonkin Gulf incident. The facts would not be fully revealed until four years later when, on February 20, 1968, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reopened an investigation into what actually had or had not happened in the Tonkin Gulf. But even before these subsequent disclosures, Senator Fulbright publicly and repeatedly expressed regret for his sponsorship and support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. He said he had been deceived. The Congress had been bamboozled into giving the President the unlimited power he sought to wage war in Southeast Asia. Had the Congress not been misinformed by the executive branch, the resolution would never have been adopted” (Simkin). Like Bartlett, Gruening was supportive of the Great Society, but he was known foremost for his Vietnam War opposition.
Despite his advanced age of 81, Gruening felt up to another term. The Democratic Party establishment supported him for another term, but Democratic primary voters disagreed and picked Mike Gravel. Gruening’s MC-Index score was 15%. Gruening tried for an independent write-in campaign for another term, but write-in campaigns are not often successful and his started only three weeks before the election. In retirement, he successfully completed his autobiography, Many Battles (1973). Gruening died on June 26, 1974, the same year as Wayne Morse, the other senator who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Gruening, E. (1955, November 9). “Let Us End American Colonialism!” Keynote Address to Alaska Constitutional Convention.
Haycox, S. (2018, December 21). Alaska’s first U.S. senator did more for the state than Alaskans remember. Anchorage Daily News.
Reamer, D. (2021, October 31). For Alaska’s first senators, an epic battle of ego came down to a coin flip. Anchorage Daily News.
Simkin, J. (1997, September). Ernest Gruening. Spartacus Educational.