McGee, Gale William

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McGee, Gale William

(b. 17 March 1915 in Lincoln, Nebraska; d. 9 April 1992 in Bethesda, Maryland), U.S. senator from Wyoming who, in his later post as ambassador to the Organization of American States, was an architect of the Panama Canal Treaty of 1978.

McGee was one of three sons of Garton Wilson McGee, an automobile salesman, and Frances Alice McCoy, a homemaker. In 1919 the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, where McGee attended public schools, graduating from Norfolk High School in 1932. Active in student government, debate, and public speaking, he graduated from Nebraska State Teachers College (now Wayne State University) in 1936. After teaching high school in Crofton and Kearney, Nebraska, McGee received an M.A. degree in history from the University of Colorado in 1939 and began a career as a university history professor, teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University (1940-1943), Iowa State College (now Iowa State University, 1943-1944), and the University of Notre Dame (1944-1945). While teaching at Notre Dame, a Selective Service physical exam disclosed that he had diabetes, making him ineligible for active duty during World War II. In 1947 McGee received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, where his studies had concentrated on U.S.—Latin American relations. Meanwhile, in 1946, McGee had accepted a teaching position in the department of history at the University of Wyoming. He married Loraine Baker on 11 June 1939, and they had four children.

At the University of Wyoming, McGee quickly became a popular teacher whose lectures were renowned for their substance, humor, and flamboyant style—he spoke at length on complex issues without ever using a note. McGee also headed the university’s Institute for International Affairs, a post he used to bring such figures as Henry Kissinger to the relatively isolated campus. Although still an un-tenured junior faculty member, he assumed a leadership role in a 1951 faculty dispute with the conservative University of Wyoming board of trustees over the issue of academic freedom.

In 1951 he directed The Struggle for Men’s Minds, a series of broadcasts for Voice of America. From 1952 to 1953 McGee took a leave of absence to work with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City to study the Soviet Union, and his brief tenure with the council placed him in contact with prominent national and world leaders. Upon his return to Wyoming, McGee and his wife organized a study tour of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1954, and McGee soon found himself in demand throughout the state and across the country as a public speaker on international issues. He was briefly involved with a weekly radio program, History Behind the Headlines, and both he and Loraine wrote newspaper articles about their trips abroad. Reluctantly, because of suspicions about his political ambitions, the university trustees granted McGee a leave of absence in 1955-1956 to serve as a legislative assistant to Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney of Wyoming, a popular New Deal Democrat.

In his first attempt to secure an elected office, McGee narrowly defeated the incumbent U.S. senator, Republican Frank A. Barratt, in 1958. In the election 3,000 former students served as McGee’s core supporters while the history professor campaigned against the “isolationist mindset” represented by his opponent. McGee’s campaign was aided by endorsements from O’Mahoney, the American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL—CIO), and former president Harry S. Truman, who visited the state to campaign for him. McGee advocated federal aid to education, the development of the West’s mineral resources, and the banning of state right-to-work laws.

In a state in which blacks comprised less than 1 percent of the electorate, McGee was a moderate on civil rights issues and integration. Offered a seat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations following his election victory, McGee declined, noting that such an assignment would be “political suicide” in a state where his opponents accused him of knowing “more about the world than he does about Wyoming.” Instead, he accepted Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson’s appointment to the Appropriations committee (the sole freshman senator to be so honored), and for the next eighteen years McGee skillfully used his influence on this committee to secure federal funding for Wyoming. Only after winning reelection in 1964 did McGee feel comfortable taking a place on the Foreign Relations committee, the last member of the Senate to hold positions on both the Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees. McGee also served on the Commerce committee and the Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee, and he chaired the Post Office and Civil Service committee, where he authored the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which created an independent U.S. Postal Service. In 1960 McGee was selected by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate as one of two “young” men with great potential. The other was Senator John F. Kennedy.

McGee supported the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, including the Office of Equal Opportunity, the expansion of Social Security benefits, and open housing legislation. His liberalism on domestic issues, moderate stand on civil rights issues, and opposition to state “right to work” laws put him at odds with his generally conservative Wyoming constituency. He also supported conservation measures, including the banning of clear-cutting timber in the national forests and the imposition of fuel conservation measures. McGee favored beef import quotas, the “oil depletion allowance,” and unrestricted access to firearms, all issues dear to most Wyomingites.

His support of the Vietnam War and huge Department of Defense appropriations earned McGee a reputation as one of the Senate’s leading “hawks.” He viewed the war in Vietnam as a test of American resolve in a key cold-war battleground. He authored The Responsibilities of World Power (1968) and argued that a strong military and a tough stand against the expansion of communism were required for world leadership. He stated that “events of World War II placed us in a position of leadership. This was not sought after, but since it fell upon us, we must fulfill the responsibilities of this leadership.” McGee supported U.S. foreign aid, American involvement in the United Nations, and assistance to Israel. He urged caution and moderation during the Watergate hearings and impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon in the early 1970s. McGee’s brand of moderate liberalism and his attention to bread-and-butter issues in his home state enabled him to win reelection in 1964 and 1970. In both races his opponent was John Wold, a mineral-industry entrepreneur and one-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

McGee was defeated in his 1976 bid for a fourth term in the Senate by the conservative Republican Malcolm Wallop. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed McGee to serve as ambassador to the Organization of American States, where he labored successfully to secure Senate approval of a new and more equitable Panama Canal Treaty, which called for the eventual transfer of the canal to Panama. In 1978 McGee accompanied President Carter to Panama for the signing of the controversial treaty. Although reappointed ambassador to the OAS by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, McGee left government service to establish a consulting firm later that year specializing in international affairs. From 1987 to 1989 he was a senior consultant at Hill and Knowlton in Washington, D.C.

McGee was an avid fly fisherman and bird hunter. A gifted and forceful public speaker, he was known for his rugged good looks, charm, and taste for bright neckties and flashy sport coats. Following a brain aneurysm in 1991, he died of pneumonia in Bethesda. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

McGee was one of the most influential senators to ever represent the “Cowboy State.” An articulate and well-informed spokesman for a strong military and assertive foreign policy during the height of the Cold War, McGee was enthusiastic in his advocacy for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, much to the consternation of many of his former colleagues in the academe. As a proponent of a liberal domestic agenda, McGee earned the support of conservative Wyomingites through his relentless support of the oil and mineral industries. His election defeat in 1976 after three terms came as a result of a growing conservatism in his home state and an adverse reaction to his support of the Vietnam War on the part of his Democratic constituents.

McGee’s papers are located in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, which has also published Mark S. Shelstad, ed., The Gale McGee Papers: A Guide (1997). See also Ann Kelly, Gale W. McGee (Ralph Nader Congress Report, 1972), and “A Freshman’s Washington Merry-Go-Round,” Pageant (May 1959). Obituaries are in the New York(Times, Washington Post, and Casper, Wyoming, Star Tribune (all 10 Apr. 1992).

Michael J. Devine