(b. 6 February 1887 in New York City; d. 26 June 1974 in Washington, D.C.), U.S. senator from Alaska (1959–1969) and ardent opponent of U.S. policies in Vietnam.
The son of Emil Gruening, a German-born eye and ear surgeon, and Phebe Fridenberg, Gruening was educated in various New York City schools, and at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. He graduated from Harvard College in 1907 and Harvard Medical School in 1912, but gave up medicine in order to become a newspaper journalist. He reported for Boston American in 1912, and for several other Boston newspapers, before moving on to become managing editor of the New York Tribune (later the New York Herald Tribune) in 1917. In 1918 Gruening entered the U.S. Army, and briefly served in the field artillery corps, but was discharged after World War I ended later that year. Gruening married Dorothy Elisabeth Smith on 19 November 1914; they had two sons.
Throughout the 1920s Gruening worked as a journalist, and opposed what he saw as U.S. imperialism. Writing for The Nation from 1920 to 1923, he criticized U.S. intervention in Haiti and Central America. This opposition to U.S. adventurism abroad was a central theme to which he would frequently return throughout his life.
From 1934 to 1939 Gruening directed the territories and island possessions division of the U.S. Department of the Interior and from 1935 to 1937 headed the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him governor of the territory of Alaska. Reappointed twice, Gruening served until 1953.
Known as "the father of Alaska statehood," Gruening earned this title by arguing that in a country claiming to be a democracy, Alaska should become a state simply because the majority of its inhabitants wished it. Furthermore, Alaska as a state would serve to strengthen the Union, and in a post–World War II era in which U.S. foreign policy focused on preventing the spread of Communism around the globe, Alaska would serve as a bulwark of defense, especially considering its location directly opposite Soviet Russia.
In 1959 Alaska became a state, and Gruening, a Democrat, went to the U.S. Senate as one of its first two senators. He served as senator until 1969. Gruening was notable for his passionate stance against the Vietnam War, which began in October 1963 when he launched his first wave of attacks, criticizing President John F. Kennedy for sending so-called advisers to support the army of South Vietnam. His dissent joined with that of Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who also criticized the administration, claiming that U.S. intervention had violated international law and defied the constitution. According to Gruening and Morse, the United Nations, not the United States, should serve to arbitrate this dispute in Southeast Asia.
On 10 March 1964 Gruening delivered his first full-length speech in the Senate, "The United States Should Get Out of Vietnam." Urging the withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, he called it absurd to "persist in seeking to prevent what is ultimately inevitable, in impossible terrain, for people who care not." To his dismay, his speech was largely ignored.
On 7 August 1964 the Senate voted 88 to 2 to approve a resolution granting President Lyndon B. Johnson blanket authority to respond to two North Vietnamese attacks against U.S. patrol vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. In opposing this Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Gruening stated that he did so because "That means sending our boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated." In short, he said, "I am opposed to sacrificing a single American boy in this venture." However, the only other senator to agree with Gruening was Morse. Although Gruening and Morse displayed outspoken opposition to the escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a direct result of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, administration officials considered the two to be too weak in the Senate to threaten the executive branch's freedom of action. They became the first of a long list of opponents to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In later years Gruening claimed that he had not been a pacifist; rather, "I just think that this war was so completely without justification that we should never have been in it." After all, he stated, Gruening had fought in World War I. In addition, Gruening and some of his colleagues believed that anticommunism had too frequently justified aid to dictatorial right-wing regimes. Throughout his life, Gruening constantly argued that the United States, founded by revolution and the ideals of democracy and a participatory system of government, must adopt a foreign policy friendly to reformers overseas. Thus he proposed in the early 1960s to restore democracy in the Dominican Republic, where the Johnson administration had supported a dictatorship with troops, by "whatever steps are necessary"—including the use of the U.S. military. It was in Latin America, Gruening said in the mid-1960s, that the United States could return to a foreign policy faithful to the country's traditional ideals. By the same token, Gruening proposed to decrease U.S. military aid to Europe and other areas, thus reverting to his anti-U.S. imperialist stance of the 1920s.
Gruening, though less famous for domestic issues once he entered the U.S. Senate, was also concerned with clean air, water pollution, overpopulation, and the need for birth control, and visited numerous times with President Johnson to discuss these issues.
Nevertheless, Gruening would always revert to the issue of Vietnam. In an interview given in 1974 shortly before his death, he called the Vietnam War an "inexcusable and unjustified war." He went on to say, "It wasn't our war; we had no business there … the vital interest of the United States wasn't in jeopardy; we hadn't been attacked as we had been by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor."
Gruening left the Senate in 1969, after a defeat in the 1968 primary. Before his death of cancer in 1974, he wrote his autobiography, gave lectures, and worked as a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Gruening never let up in his outspoken fight against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Declaring all acts of resistance against the Vietnam War justifiable, he advocated clemency to all who had resisted.
Gruening's autobiography is Many Battles: The Autobiography of Ernest Gruening (1973). Works on Gruening include Robert David Johnson, Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 June 1974). The transcript of the 1974 interview with Gruening by Joe B. Frantz is in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas at Austin.