Stennis, John Cornelius
Stennis, John Cornelius
(b. 3 August 1901 in Kemper County, Mississippi; d. 23 April 1995 in Madison, Mississippi), United States senator from 1947 to 1989 who was the Senate’s president pro tempore and who chaired the Senate Committee on Armed Services, the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and the Senate Select Committee on Standards and Conduct.
Stennis was the youngest of seven children of Hampton Howell, a farmer and merchant, and Cornelia Adams Stennis. He began his education in a one-room school at Kipling Crossroad and graduated from the Kemper County Agricultural High School in 1919. He attended Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College from 1919 to 1923, where he attained membership in Phi Beta Kappa and earned a B.S. degree. Stennis enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in 1923 and earned an LL.B. degree in 1928. On 24 December 1929 he married Coy Hines. They had a son and a daughter.
In 1928 Stennis was admitted to the bar, began practicing law in the town of De Kalb, Mississippi, and was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives from Kemper County. During his four-year term as a representative, he was chosen in 1931 as district attorney for the Sixteenth Judicial District. Four years later, he was renamed to the post without opposition. He was appointed circuit judge of the district in 1937 to fill a vacancy, was first elected in 1938, and was reelected in 1942 and 1946. In a special election held on 4 November 1947 to choose the successor to the late U.S. senator Theodore G. Bilbo, Stennis captured twenty-seven percent of the vote to prevail over four other Democratic candidates. Stennis stressed agricultural issues, avoided demagoguery on the race question, and promised Mississippians that “I will plough a straight furrow right down to the end of my row.” This perennial slogan used in his six successful Senate campaigns captured the Presbyterian Stennis’s Calvinistic devotion to duty, a dedication that propelled his senatorial career.
During the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower presidential administrations, Stennis joined conservative southern Democrats in opposing liberal domestic policies and civil rights legislation. In 1956 Stennis helped author the “Southern Manifesto,” which vowed resistance to the United States Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision of 1954. He also voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.
A courtly and dignified man, Stennis gained a reputation for integrity that transcended party affiliation or the positions he took on particular issues. In 1954 he was made a member of the select committee to study censure charges against Republican senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin and became the first Democratic senator to call for McCarthy’s censure.
Stennis’s rise to prominence as a spokesman on defense issues began with his appointment to the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 1951. Although a staunch anti-Communist who supported a strong national defense, he warned President Eisenhower against sending United States military support to the French in Indochina in 1954. Committee chairman Richard B. Russell placed Stennis on key subcommittees on manpower, military personnel, pay, and promotions that gave the junior senator the opportunity to develop expertise on a wide range of national defense matters. Stennis’s Subcommittee on Real Estate and Military Construction discovered duplication and waste in the nation’s developing missile defense program. Inspired by Stennis’s detailed review of Pentagon weapons programs, Senator Russell attached an amendment to the Military Construction Act of 1959 requiring Congress to authorize selected weapons programs prior to appropriating funds. This initial authorization requirement was expanded over the next two decades to include the entire defense budget and became the most important means for Congress to oversee national defense programs and policies.
Stennis’s reputation among his Senate colleagues for fairness, integrity, and thoroughness continued to grow during the 1960s. After succeeding Lyndon B. Johnson as chairman of the powerful Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, he conducted an investigation of the Pentagon’s control over the public statements of military officers, a response to politically explosive charges that the Kennedy administration was “muzzling” anti-Communist military officers. In 1965 Stennis became the first chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct, and as chairman wrote the Senate’s first code of ethics. In 1967 Stennis’s committee investigated charges that Democratic senator Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut had diverted campaign funds for personal use, and recommended that the Senate censure Dodd.
Stennis was a powerful ally of the building up of conventional military forces supported by presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Although skeptical of American military commitment to Vietnam, Stennis strongly supported approval of Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which served as the basis for further military action against North Vietnam. He also backed Johnson’s deployment of ground forces to South Vietnam in the spring of 1965. Although Stennis supported vigorous action in Vietnam, he believed that the war there was weakening United States military strength worldwide and questioned the nation’s ability to back up its various alliances and obligations. In the summer of 1967 Stennis jolted the White House by holding hearings critical of the administration’s policy of restrictions and gradualism in its conduct of the air war. Although Stennis seemed to be pressuring President Johnson to escalate the conflict, he never broke publicly with the administration. When Johnson halted the bombing to pursue a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam in 1968, Stennis reluctantly supported the president.
Stennis was chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1969 to 1981. Although inclined to support the major defense policies of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, he subjected Pentagon budgets and policies to scrutiny and critical examination. He expanded the scope of Congress’s annual defense authorization requirement, built an expert committee staff, and developed procedures to monitor the progress of major weapons programs. Stennis was a master at maneuvering defense bills through the committee and was such a commanding presence on the floor of the Senate that a hush fell over the chamber when he spoke on defense matters. Despite a series of powerful challenges in the Senate to cut the defense budget and eliminate weapons, Stennis never lost a floor fight on a major weapons program during the 1970s. Although he defended the Nixon administration’s Southeast Asia policy, he became increasingly concerned that Congress’s constitutional power to declare war had eroded. He became a principal sponsor of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which set limits on the president’s ability to commit troops abroad without congressional sanction.
On 30 January 1973 Stennis was shot twice and sustained near-fatal injuries during a holdup in front of his Washington, D.C., residence. The shooting removed him from the Senate until his seventy-second birthday on August 3. He made a remarkable physical comeback, but he never fully regained his energies. During the Watergate crisis that year, President Nixon sought refuge in the high esteem that Stennis enjoyed among his Senate colleagues, proposing that the senator authenticate the White House transcripts of tape recordings rather than submit them to the special prosecutor. Stennis agreed initially, but the plan collapsed from lack of widespread support.
After the Republicans gained a majority in the Senate in the 1980s, Stennis’s power in the Senate waned. In 1982 he faced his first serious election challenge since 1947, and in the same year he supported civil rights legislation for the first time when he voted for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. When Democrats regained control of the Senate in the election of 1986, Stennis became chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and was president pro tempore from 1987 to 1989.
When he left office on 3 January 1989, Stennis moved to the Mississippi State University campus at Starkville, where the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service are located. The John C. Stennis Space Center at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) laboratory near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the Navy aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis are also named after him. At the age of ninety-three, Stennis died of complications of pneumonia and is buried in De Kalb Cemetery in De Kalb, Mississippi.
Stennis became the preeminent voice on defense matters in the U.S. Senate during the 1970s and helped sustain the nation’s military policies during the cold war. Although critics regarded him as too friendly to the Pentagon, Stennis did more than any senator in the twentieth century to establish the processes, procedures, and conditions for effective congressional scrutiny and oversight of the Department of Defense.
The John C. Stennis Papers are located at the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University. Information on Stennis’s role in defense issues can be found in the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, Center for Legislative Archives, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. With fellow senator J. William Fulbright, Stennis wrote The Role of Congress in Foreign Policy (1971). Also useful is Michael S. Downs, “Advise and Consent: John Stennis and the Vietnam War, 1954–1973,” Journal of Mississippi History (1993): 87-114. An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Apr. 1995).
Richard T. McCulley