Senator Mark O. Hatfield, 1922-2011: Champion of the Nuclear Freeze

 In Nuclear Weapons, Peace Action West News

On August 7th Mark O. Hatfield, former Senator from Oregon, passed away at the age of 89. Exactly 66 years and 1 day earlier, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hatfield was stationed in Japan as a young naval officer. About a month later he was among the first American servicemen to arrive in the devastated city:

When I entered Hiroshima, the charred bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble. The horror that I experienced burned a lasting impression in my conscience. To this day, it serves as a philosophical anchor – my beacon of clarity in a political arena that turns a deaf ear to those who do not speak the exotic language of megatons, kill probability ratios and other terms that desensitize us to the true nature of nuclear war.

For 8 years I was involved in progressive politics in Oregon, where Hatfield’s service as a senator and a governor was much admired, and I was saddened to learn of his death. It is surprising to newcomers to Oregon that so many on the left side of the aisle think so highly of Hatfield and his legacy. Because Senator Hatfield was a Republican.

The Senator consistently reached across the aisle to find common ground with Democrats, and felt it was important to act according to his own sense of right and wrong, even if it meant taking a position that was in conflict with the Republican Party line. As John Isaacs with Council for a Livable World put it:

Indeed, Hatfield represented a brand of Republican moderation that has largely been obliterated in United States politics.

In my work with communities across the state, I found that Oregonians of a variety backgrounds, perspectives and political stripes are proud of the bipartisan heritage that Senator Hatfield represents. When calling voters for the Jeff Merkley campaign in 2008 I spoke to one gentleman from Pendleton, in Eastern Oregon, a rural and historically conservative area. I started telling him about Jeff’s positions on various issues when he cut me off to ask, “is he going to do what he says he’s going to do?” Agreeing with a politician on every issue wasn’t as important to this gentleman as whether his senator had integrity and was going to do what he thought was right.

Senator Hatfield became one of the US Senate’s foremost leaders opposing the use of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race, never forgetting his experience in Hiroshima. The concept of an arms moratorium was originated by Senator Hatfield in 1979, and became what we now know as the nuclear weapons freeze. In a prime example of his bipartisanship, he partnered with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to sponsor a Senate resolution endorsing a mutual and verifiable nuclear weapons freeze. Although their resolution was never adopted, it was a groundbreaking proposal that paved the way for bipartisan efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons and led to last year’s successful ratification of the New START Treaty.

And the fact that the United States has not explosively tested any nuclear weapons in 20 years is a direct result of Senator Hatfield’s work. He led the fight to impose a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992, again partnering with a Democrat, Sen. Jim Exon (D-NE), to introduce an amendment that called for a moratorium on US testing, and required the US to begin negotiations on a multinational test ban. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has been signed by 182 nations, is the continuing legacy of Senator Hatfield and his experience witnessing first-hand the “incredible human suffering” caused by nuclear bombs.

We must urge our senators to put aside party divisions and vote to ratify the CTBT so that a complete ban on all nuclear testing becomes law, and finish the work that Senator Hatfield began when he stepped off that boat 66 years ago.

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