Cooper, John Sherman

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Cooper, John Sherman

(b. 23 August 1901 in Somerset, Kentucky; d. 21 February 1991 in Washington, D.C.), U.S. senator, ambassador to India and East Germany, and member of the Warren commission.

The second of seven children of John Sherman Cooper, Sr., and Helen Gertrude Tartar, Cooper grew to maturity in a politically oriented family. His mother’s father and brother had long been active in Republican politics; his father followed both farming and the law but also served as a bank president and county judge, the chief executive position in the county. His mother was a schoolteacher before his birth and again later on, but was a homemaker when her children were born. Cooper received his early education at home but graduated in 1918 from Somerset High School, where he was named class president and class poet. In the fall of that year he entered Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, but transferred to Yale University a year later. Cooper became a member of the exclusive Skull and Bones secret society, captained the basketball team, and was named “best liked” by his class of 1923. He then entered Harvard Law School, but his father’s illness caused him to leave before graduation.

Back in Somerset, Cooper soon entered the political arena himself. In 1928 he passed his bar exam (even though he had not graduated), opened a law office, and won election to the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he served one term. With the support of his powerful uncle, Roscoe Tartar, Cooper won election in 1929 as county judge. When he took office in 1930, at age twenty-eight, he was said to be the youngest county judge in the state. Unfortunately, the two terms he served, from 1930 to 1938, coincided with the depths of the Great Depression. Burdened by debt, he nevertheless served without pay several times due to budget issues. Yet he received accolades for his work and cooperated closely with New Deal agencies. Still, the pressure of the office took its toll, and in 1938, suffering from deep depression, Cooper had a nervous breakdown and spent time in several hospitals. That would never be an issue, however, in any of his subsequent races.

Fully recovered by 1939, Cooper sought the Republican nomination for governor, running against a former gubernatorial candidate, King Swope of Lexington. Not well known outside his region despite service on the University of Kentucky board of trustees from 1935 to 1946, Cooper had little chance against the experienced Swope and lost with only 36 percent of the vote. With the coming of World War II the forty-one-year-old Cooper left his law practice and on 14 September 1942 volunteered for the army as a private. Commissioned an officer the next year, he served with General George Patton’s Third Army in France, Luxembourg, and Germany. In 1944, Cooper wed Evelyn Pfaff, a young widowed nurse with a daughter; the marriage would barely survive the war, however, ending in divorce in 1947. They had no children.

Awarded a Bronze Star for his wartime work, Cooper was discharged as a captain. In Europe after the conflict ended, he helped reorganize Bavaria’s judicial system and worked with displaced refugees. While engaged in those activities, he was elected a circuit judge back home, and he returned to Kentucky to begin that term in January 1946.

Cooper’s judicial duties did not last long, however. In 1946, A. B. “Happy” Chandler left his senate seat to become commissioner of baseball. Democrats nominated former congressman John Y. Brown, Sr., and Republicans chose Cooper, who won the election by some 41,000 votes. Serving the rest of Chandler’s term from November 1946 until January 1949, Cooper voted with his party only 51 percent of the time, demonstrating an independence that would mark his voting record for the rest of his career. In a state that usually voted Democratic, such actions did not injure him. Still, in 1948 he faced a difficult reelection race, for the vice presidential candidate on the national ticket that year was Kentucky Democrat Alben Barkley. Cooper’s Democratic opponent for senator, Virgil Chapman, rode those coattails to victory, although Cooper won many Democratic votes. In 1949 he joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Gardner, Morison, and Rogers. Later that year he was appointed by President Harry Truman as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He served as an alternate delegate in 1950-1951, and again in 1968 and 1981.

The death of Senator Chapman in 1952 created another senate vacancy. Republicans again put forth Cooper, who defeated the short-term Democratic appointee Tom Underwood by some 28,000 votes. Cooper’s service as senator ran from November 1952 until a virtually unbeatable Barkley defeated Cooper in the 1954 race. On 17 March 1955 Cooper married a well-known Washington socialite, Lorraine Rowan Shevlin, and their union would continue until her death on 3 February 1985. They had no children.

In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower rewarded Cooper with an appointment as ambassador to India. Very popular there at a time when America generally was not, Cooper served until 1956, when politics beckoned again. At the personal request of Eisenhower, Cooper returned for yet another senatorial race to fill an unexpired term, this time that of Alben Barkley, who had died. Although a loyal Republican, Cooper usually attracted support from the Democratic faction led by Happy Chandler, who had returned from baseball to become governor. With that support as well as Eisenhower’s in a presidential election year, Cooper won easily over former Democratic governor Lawrence Wetherby. Four years later, for the first time in the state’s history, a Republican won reelection to the Senate when Cooper defeated another former governor, Keen Johnson, by almost 200,000 votes. In 1966 the incumbent Cooper handily won over John Y. Brown, Sr., but he decided not to seek reelection in 1972.

During his years in the Senate, Cooper was a respected man who often served behind the scenes. In 1960 a NewsweeK poll of correspondents named him the ablest Republican senator. He supported civil rights legislation, environmental bills, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and opposed the antiballistic-missile program and attempts to restrict tobacco supports. Cooper cosponsored the Appalachian Regional Development Act and very early became a critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as chiefly demonstrated by the 1970 Cooper-Church amendment, which prohibited funding for the use of U.S. ground forces in Cambodia. One of his most distressing duties came when he accepted appointment to the Warren commission to investigate the death of his friend John F. Kennedy.

After leaving the Senate in January 1973 Cooper joined the Washington, D.C., firm of Covington and Burling. He interrupted that work to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) from 1974 to late 1976, then returned to the law firm, where he remained until his retirement in 1989. He died quietly, at age eighty-nine, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Tall, handsome, and distinguished-looking, Cooper looked the political part he played. Yet his success came through an unusual route, for he was a poor campaigner. He mumbled his speeches, displayed a poor memory, seemed always tardy, and stated matters bluntly. Yet, in a Democratic state, he won election after election, revitalizing the Republican Party. People voted for his integrity, sincerity, and conscience; they trusted him to do right. In the Senate, his lack of partisanship won him respect in both parties. Cooper led quietly, but he led.

The John Sherman Cooper Collection and the John Sherman Cooper Oral History Project, both at the University of Kentucky Library, provide a wealth of primary materials. The best introduction to the spirit of Cooper is Bill Cooper, “John Sherman Cooper: A Senator and His Constituents,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (1986) (hereinafter Register). Richard C. Smoot has written numerous studies: “John Sherman Cooper: The Paradox of a Liberal Republican in Kentucky Politics” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1988); “John Sherman Cooper: The Early Years, 1901-1927,” Register (1995); and “The Gavel and the Sword: Experiences Shaping the Life of John Sherman Cooper,” in John David Smith and Thomas H. Appleton, Jr., eds., A Mythic Land Apart: Reassessing Southerners and their History (1997). A detailed look at one facet of Cooper’s career is Douglas A. Franklin, “The Politician as Diplomat: Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper in India, 1955-1956,” Register (1984). Books include Robert Schulman, John Sherman Cooper: The Global Kentuckian (1976), and Clarice James Mitchiner, Senator John Sherman Cooper: Consummate Statesman (1982). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Feb. 1991).

James C. Klotter

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