Of the 20th century’s senators from New Hampshire, probably the most impactful one was Henry Styles Bridges (1898-1961). Bridges’ career got off to an early start, his first public office having been sitting on the New Hampshire Public Service Commission, and this gave him a springboard to run for governor in 1934, which he won at the age of 36. Republicans had little in good news in 1934, but Bridges was a bright spot. As governor, he enacted measures that helped needy mothers and children, unemployment insurance legislation was signed into law, and the first woman was appointed to the judiciary (National Governors Association).
In 1936, Bridges was considered as a vice presidential candidate by nominee Alf Landon, another 1934 success, until aides pointed out that the Democrats could use “Landon Bridges falling down” as a campaign slogan (Mieczkowski, 27). Instead of running as VP, Bridges ran for the Senate to succeed the retiring Henry Keyes. He won the nomination over former Senator George Moses and defeated Democratic Congressman William Rogers. Bridges ran ahead of FDR, who won the state by less than two points.
On domestic policy, he was a staunch partisan, opposing the New Deal at practically every turn. However, Bridges proved sympathetic to FDR’s foreign policy, voting for the peacetime draft in 1940 and Lend-Lease in 1941. He did keep his anti-communism in mind while doing so; he also voted to prohibit Lend-Lease aid to the USSR. Bridges’ stance on foreign policy placed him, if briefly, slightly to the left of his colleague Charles Tobey, who was a staunch non-interventionist. In 1940, Bridges initially ran for the Republican nomination for president but he wasn’t a contender by the time of the Republican National Convention, and there he received two votes for the vice presidential nomination, behind Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary of Oregon and Congressman Dewey Short of Missouri.
Rise to Power
In the Senate, Bridges secured a position on the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he became ranking Republican. There he was able to wield power with money. As the ranking member, he was one of the few legislators who was in the know about the development of the atomic bomb and with Appropriations Chairman Kenneth McKellar (D-Tenn.) helped conceal the funding from other members. Not even Harry S. Truman knew about it until he became president. In 1947, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately urged Bridges to back a preemptive nuclear strike on Moscow, the idea being to wipe out the Kremlin, and then address Russia from there (Maier).
As might be expected, Bridges voted for Greek-Turkish Aid as well as the Marshall Plan. He also supported more admissions for displaced persons and even voted against Senator Cain’s (R-Wash.) motion to kill public housing in 1948. However, on other subjects he proved staunchly conservative, including backing tax reduction, voting for the Taft-Hartley Act, and opposing the confirmation of David Lilienthal as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. His support for foreign aid was also not unlimited; he opposed Point IV aid to poor nations in 1950. He was also mindful of the depth of U.S. commitments abroad, and on April 2, 1951, he voted for Senator John McClellan’s (D-Ark.) amendment, restricting the number of troops the president could send to Europe under NATO at four divisions…more would have to be authorized by Congress.
In 1950, Bridges took the unusual step of endorsing primary challenger Wesley Powell, his administrative assistant, against fellow Republican Senator Charles W. Tobey. Tobey had moved considerably away from conservatism since 1944 and the two were on such poor terms personally they hardly spoke with each other (U.S. Senate). Bridges wanted both a colleague he had better relations with and a more ideologically reliable senator, but Tobey was able to fend off this challenge. He would later get what he wanted after Tobey died in 1953 with the election of Congressman Norris Cotton.
Bridges and Civil Rights
During his career, Bridges was largely supportive of civil rights. In 1946, he served on the special committee to investigate Senator Theodore Bilbo, which investigated violence and intimidation to suppress the black vote in the 1946 election and Bilbo’s role. The committee, however, was split 3-2 with the majority Democrats all being from the South or Border states, and was chaired by segregationist Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana. The committee’s majority report exonerated Bilbo even though he had publicly called for “any means” to prevent blacks voting and said days before the Democratic primary, “You know and I know what’s the best way to keep the niggers from voting. You do it the night before the election. I don’t have to tell you any more than that. Red-blooded men know what I mean” (Kurlander). Bridges and his fellow Republican Bourke B. Hickenlooper of Iowa weren’t buying it, and wrote in their minority report that Bilbo had directly incited election violence and intimidation and had committed multiple crimes. Ultimately Senator Bilbo would not be seated in the 80th Congress and die before another investigation on him concluded.
On civil rights legislation, Bridges voted for the Wagner Amendment prohibiting discrimination in enlistments in 1940, for the Langer Amendment prohibiting racial discrimination in an education bill in 1943, retaining Fair Employment Practices Committee funding in 1945, and for the Civil Rights Act of 1960. However, he voted against ending debate on a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1946 and 1950.
Bridges and Ike
Senator Bridges was a friend and supporter of President Eisenhower and would often give him backing on foreign aid, but they had some differences over the budget, with Bridges, being chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for the first two years of his presidency, being staunch on cutting. One agency he went after frequently was the United States Information Agency, and Eisenhower appointed Bridges’ brother to a leading position in the agency to temper his efforts.
The Lester Hunt Incident
On June 19, 1954, popular Senator Lester C. Hunt (D-Wyo.), who had announced his retirement only ten days prior, shot himself at his Senate desk. Reporting at the time attributed his death to depression over ill health. It was true that Hunt ultimately announced that he would not run for reelection the day after a June 8th visit to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. However, journalist Drew Pearson, who wrote the Washington Merry-Go-Round column, had a different story to tell. Per Pearson, Hunt had taken his own life because of an unrelenting pressure campaign for him to resign the Senate with threats to publicize his son’s arrest (including a specific threat to distribute 25,000 pamphlets across Wyoming about the story) and conviction for soliciting an undercover policeman in Washington D.C. the previous year by Senators Herman Welker (R-Idaho) and Bridges. The allegation was also made that Bridges had pressured Roy Blick of the D.C. police’s morals division to prosecute despite not normally doing so for first-time offenses of this nature and threatened his job if he didn’t (Boston Globe). Hunt had ultimately been convicted and fined $100. Although Bridges and Welker denied that they had threatened Blick’s job and Blick produced an affidavit affirming this, it was left unexplained why he had pursued the morals charge and the nature of three meetings that Bridges had with him in his Senate office. Given that this was in the days before the internet, Wyoming voters relied on their newspapers.
There were two political motives for Hunt to be ousted. The first is that the Republicans had only a one seat cushion for their majority in the Senate, and the second is that Hunt was an outspoken critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), a figure who Bridges and especially Welker supported. Also, the day before Hunt’s suicide, McCarthy spoke on the Senate floor of an unnamed senator who had engaged in “just plain wrong doing” (probably referring to Hunt), although Pearson didn’t believe that this statement factored into Hunt’s suicide (Pearson, 323). While every Wyoming paper had declined to publish the story regarding Hunt’s son, The Washington Times-Herald, a conservative publication, reported the story. The Washington Post had reported Hunt Jr.’s conviction, but it didn’t get a lot of publicity. The Hunt suicide was one of the factors that contributed to the sinking of McCarthy’s popularity. Both Bridges and Welker would vote against his censure.
After the Republicans’ defeat in the 1960 election, Bridges, as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, sought to cultivate Rockefeller Republicans as a practical measure…he likely saw it as better for them to have a real shot at winning office in areas that were leaning Democrat than running staunch conservatives and losing. He, however, didn’t have long to implement this strategy. On September 21, 1961, Bridges suffered a heart attack that was described by his physician as “moderately severe” and a second heart attack would kill him on November 26th (The New York Times). He was 63 years old. His protege, Powell, is governor by this time. It is widely expected that he will either pick Bridges’ widow, Doloris, or himself for the role. However, Powell instead picks Maurice J. Murphy Jr., who had been New Hampshire’s Attorney General for only a month. This enrages the chief editor and owner of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, who wanted Doloris to get the nomination and he turns on Powell. Loeb proves a bad figure to cross as not only does his pick of Murphy lose the nomination for the full term in 1962 (moderate Congressman Perkins Bass gets it and loses), but Powell loses renomination that year as well. Both offices go to Democrats, as the powerhouse of Styles Bridges is no more. By contrast, Bridges had won reelection in 1960 by over 20 points.
Dexter, D. Review of Styles Bridges, Yankee Senator. New Hampshire Commentary.
Gov. Henry Styles Bridges. National Governors Association.
Kurlander, D. (2021, October 28). ‘A Disgrace to the Senate’: The Fall of Theodore Bilbo and the Long Fight for Voting Equality. CAFE.
Maier, T. (2014, October 27). Churchill Urged US to ‘Wipe Out’ Moscow With A-Bomb. International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Mieczkowski, Y. (2013). Eisenhower’s Sputnik moment: the race for space and world prestige. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
N.H. should reassess legacy of Senator Styles Bridges. (2012, December 29). Boston Globe.
Overwork Makes the Senate Surly. U.S. Senate.
Pearson, D. (1974). Abell, T. (ed.). Diaries, 1949-1959. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Senator Bridges is Ill; His Condition Serious After a Moderately Severe Coronary. (1961, September 22). The New York Times.
Senator Lester Hunt’s Decision. U.S. Senate.
Styles Bridges: Ten Fun Facts. New England Historical Society.