To mark the 100th anniversary of the state Capitol building, WFPL and Kentucky Public Radio are spotlighting some of the top statesmen and women of the past century, influential politicians who served the commonwealth in Frankfort or Washington — or both.
In this report, Kentucky Public Radio’s Charles Compton profiles the late U.S. Senator John Sherman Cooper.
In the century following the Civil War, Republicans were nearly excluded from Kentucky’s political life. It was Senator John Sherman Cooper, native of Pulaski County, who sparked the G-O-P’s emergence in the Commonwealth. And, between the ends of the World War Two and the Vietnam War, Cooper was also an effective “Cold Warrior.”
Not many politicians can claim teenage fans, but, John Sherman Cooper did. With some breaks, the Somerset Republican represented Kentucky in the U-S Senate from the end of World War Two until the war ended in Vietnam. As a Republican serving in a region dominated by southern Democrats, Cooper became a role model.
“We had moved from the Deep South, where there were no elected Republicans, at all, in that era, and I noticed him because he won (laughs),” said U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
After graduating from the University of Louisville, McConnell went to work as an intern for Cooper. With Cooper’s guidance, McConnell watched as the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“So I had an opportunity to witness the first great man I ever knew as a young man and he became someone I looked up to and hope to maybe follow into the Senate someday. And, interestingly enough, 20 years later, I was elected to the same seat that he held,” McConnell said.
John Sherman Cooper’s political career began during the Great Depression, when he served as Pulaski County Judge. It was there, according to Cooper, where he learned regular people deserve government assistance.
That lesson was applied after World War two when, as an American soldier, he met thousands of refugees displaced by war. Cooper was helping the U-S Army manage the occupation of Germany. Upon his return to America, Cooper found them homes in the United States.
“When I got back home to the United States, I was elected to the United States Senate. I introduced a bill which wouldn’t be too popular today because they’ve been passing laws to keep out immigrants, but, I introduced a bill that allowed 2000 of them to come in…of these displaced persons,” Cooper said in a 1980 interview preserved by the University of Kentucky.
Cooper said that law was one of his proudest achievements.
In 1946, Cooper replaced Happy Chandler, who became commissioner of baseball. The Republican lost his re-election bid, but, returned to the Senate in 1952. Another attempt at re-election failed when Cooper lost to Alben Barkley. When Barkley died, Cooper went back to the U-S Senate….and stayed until 1973. Cooper was establishing a reputation as a liberal Republican who would do business with Democrats…
“I just didn’t want to attack someone in the other party because they happened to be a Democrat or an Independent. I meet the issues the best I could,” Cooper said.
Brigham Young University historian Andrew Johns, who’s writing a biography on Cooper, doubts he could get elected today. Cooper, who was always willing to work with Democrats, would be too liberal for most of Kentucky’s Republicans.
Johns says the Senator opposed Republican hawks who wanted to warm-up the Cold War. Instead, Cooper willingly negotiated with the Soviets. He spoke out publicly against fellow Republic Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Kentucky Senator worked behind the scenes to end U-S military action in Southeast Asia.
“I think if you’re going to create some sort of hierarchy, absolutely. His opposition to Vietnam, his
consistent efforts to bring the war to a negotiated end, I think, stands out to me, as his most important contribution,” Johns said.
Surprising to some, Cooper had impressive diplomatic credentials. He was appointed ambassador to India when the newly independent nation was wooed by both the United States and the Soviet Union. And, Cooper was the first American ambassador to East Germany.
“You look at his time as ambassador to India, you look at his time as ambassador to East Germany, the first US ambassador to that country during détente, where he plays a very important role, you look at his role in the foreign aid debates in the 1950s and 1960s when he’s in the Senate. You look at his opposition to the ABM treaty in the late-1960s. I mean he is in the center of so many of these important episodes in the Cold War. I mean this is a man whose career is profoundly important and that I think for most people is a complete blank,” Johns said.
John Sherman Cooper ended his career practicing law in Washington, D-C, while maintaining a residence in Somerset. As a soldier, senator, and statesman, Cooper earned a place for himself at Arlington National Cemetery.