Hispanic Americans in Congress and the Cold War

Dennis Chavez of New Mexico and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_40_mccarthy_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Dennis Chavez of New Mexico was one of a handful of U.S. Senators who denounced the tactics of their red-baiting, anticommunist colleague Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin—pictured at the right of the photo. The full Senate eventually censured McCarthy for abusing his powers and bringing the Senate into “dishonor and disrepute.”
The pressure to live up to the rhetoric about spreading democratic principles abroad increased during the Cold War, and the defense of human rights was an even larger concern for the Harry S. Truman administration. According to one scholar, President Truman shared three goals with later Cold War Presidents: countering Soviet propaganda about U.S. hypocrisy regarding racial equality; convincing nonaligned nations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia of the United States’ belief in racial egalitarianism; and leveraging the civil rights movement to enact domestic reforms.227

With the escalation of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, Hispanic-American Members of Congress pursued their legislative interests in an era of decolonization abroad, anti-communist sentiment at home, and conflicts designed to contain communist expansion in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Senator Dennis Chavez held a particularly powerful position early in the Cold War era; as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in the late 1950s, Chavez wielded great influence over the Eisenhower administration’s defense spending. He opposed the President’s attempt to cut national security outlays with the New Look program and viewed any reduction in the country’s military preparedness as unwise in the wake of the inconclusive resolution of the Korean War in 1953.228 Military buildups were the foundation for Chavez’s domestic Cold War agenda, and he believed no amount of money was too great for national security. His New Mexico constituency benefited greatly from the arms race. The country’s sophisticated military infrastructure created new jobs, which Chavez directed to the Southwest.229

Chavez’s anti-communism had its limits, however, and he resented the state of public discourse in the early 1950s. As the Senate investigated accusations by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin that communists had infiltrated the State Department, Chavez tried to reorient the chamber’s moral—and constitutional—compass. He was one of McCarthy’s earliest critics. At great personal risk, Chavez spoke out against McCarthy’s accusations, telling the Senate he felt obligated to “step out and sound the alarm.”230 The rampant claims of treason, most without substantive evidence, noted New Mexico’s Senator, “[bred] hysteria and confusion—a course so dangerous that few dare to oppose the drift lest they be the next marked for destruction.”231

But anti-communist rhetoric cut both ways. During his 1962 House campaign, Joseph Montoya outlined his hard-line bona fides and the value of his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. In a speech to constituents, he reminded voters that he “consistently voted against seating Communist China in the United Nations” and “supported the authorization of funds to carry on the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee.” He adamantly opposed aid to countries like India, which remained neutral in the struggle between the superpowers; supported anti-communist authoritarian regimes abroad; and sought to strengthen U.S. ties with Latin America. When reactionaries at home accused Montoya of harboring communist sympathies, he pointed to his foreign policy commitments abroad as evidence to the contrary.232

Cuban Missile Crisis/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_41_cuban_refugees_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Cuban refugees in New York City watch President John Kennedy’s televised October 1962 speech in which he announces a naval “quarantine” of the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cold War conflicts in Latin America created new waves of immigrants to the U.S. and increasingly diverse Latino communities.

Hispanic politicians had varied responses to the Vietnam War. Those who were initially patient became vehemently critical by the time President Richard Nixon assumed control. In 1971 Montoya submitted an amendment seeking the immediate withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam. In May of the same year, Edward Roybal joined a lawsuit with 27 other Democratic lawmakers demanding an immediate end to the war. According to the Los Angeles Times, Roybal’s affidavit was one of 15 filed in U.S. district court proclaiming “that military appropriations and authorization bills should not be taken as a form of war declaration.”233Herman Badillo, who also entered Congress in 1971, made no secret of his opposition to the Vietnam War, publicly criticizing the Nixon administration’s approach to ending the conflict and supporting many of the antiwar amendments and bills considered by the House. “We … should be reasserting the responsibility of Congress to shape our foreign and military policy by bringing the war to an end—now,” he said.234Kika de la Garza had a different opinion. He described public antiwar demonstrations as an “insult to our servicemen and their families” and “a continuing attempt to wreck the American Government and to bring anarchy to our country.”235 As the representative of a district that sent a significant number of constituents to fight in the war, de la Garza supported the Nixon administration’s strategy for a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam. “If you become involved in a military conflict you go out and win, using all the resources at your command,” he said, describing his support for the President as a patriotic duty.236

The Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners had a range of opinions concerning the struggle against communism. While rector of the Universidad de Puerto Rico from 1941 to 1966, future Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez omitted political affiliation from the hiring process to ensure academic freedom.237 As a result, he frequently risked his own reputation to protect professors from charges of communism by insular and federal authorities.238 In March 1966, Resident Commissioner Santiago Polanco-Abreu submitted a concurrent resolution expressing the Puerto Rican legislature’s support for the Vietnam War. Polanco-Abreu said the resolution “condemns all actions tending to weaken the efforts of the United States in its struggle to preserve peace and democratic justice in the world, as now in Vietnam, and to check Communist aggression.”239 His successor, Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz, made no remarks about the Vietnam War on the House Floor, but he publicly disputed Herman Badillo’s contention that a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans had served in Vietnam.240

Next Section


227Skrentny, Minority Rights Revolution: 28–33.

228Philip Potter, “Defense,” 22 June 1956, Baltimore Sun: 1; Allen Drury, “Senators Weigh Cut in Military,” 4 April 1955, New York Times: 17; George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 659. The “New Look” program was the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s strategy to contain communist expansion while controlling the U.S. defense budget.

229Díaz, “El Senador”: 285–287.

230Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (12 May 1950): 6969. See also “New Senate Drive to Fight M’Carthy,” 15 May 1950, New York Times: 51; William S. White, “Budenz Uses Catholic Church as a ‘Shield,’ Chavez Says,” 13 May 1950, New York Times: 1; “Ten Senators Urge Repeal of Red Law,” 2 October 1950, New York Times: 7; Diaz, “El Senador”: 242–303.

231Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (12 May 1950): 6969.

232Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 1st sess., (16 July 1959): 13925–13926. See also Untitled campaign speech, “1962 file?-5 min. TV,” Box 64, Folder 1, Montoya Papers-CSWR; Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 44–45.

233“Roybal Again Facing Cavnar in 30th District,” 26 October 1970, Los Angeles Times: C2; “13 Congressmen Seek Injunction to Halt War,” 26 May 1971, Los Angeles Times: A4.

234Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (24 March 1971): 7912.

235Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (6 November 1969): 33259.

236Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (10 February 1970): 3195–3196.

237Carmen Hilda Sanjurjo, “The Educational Thought of Jaime Benítez, Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico from 1942 to 1966,” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia Teachers College, 1986): 80.

238The U.S. House of Representatives’ Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies, Jr., of Texas, was among the groups looking into the political sympathies of university faculty. “Benítez Opposed in Puerto Rico,” 1 November 1942, New York Times: 34; “Lovett Appointment Defended by Puerto Rico University Head,” 4 April 1944, Chicago Daily Tribune: 11; “Defends Naming Lovett,” 4 April 1944, New York Times: 10.

239Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1966): 4814–4815.

240For Badillo’s and Córdova-Díaz’s statements, see Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (4 May 1971): 13343–13349. For Córdova-Díaz’s rebuttal of Badillo’s statements about Puerto Rican participation in the Vietnam War, see Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (5 May 1971): 13580.