Way Back When... 1960
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, July 16, 2017
William Stuart Symington, Jr. spent the last decade of his life in New Canaan, but that isn’t where he made his history.
Symington, a Yale graduate, was an American businessman and politician from Missouri. He served as the first Secretary of the Air Force from 1947 to 1950 and was a Democratic United States Senator from Missouri from 1953 to 1976.
He resigned from business in 1945 to join the administration of fellow Missourian Harry S. Truman. His first positions were chairman of the Surplus Property Board (1945), administrator of the Property Administration (1945-1946) and Assistant Secretary of War for Air (1946-1947).
On Sept. 18, 1947, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force was created and Symington became the first Secretary. Symington had a stormy term as he worked to win respect for the United States Air Force, which previously had been part of the Army.
Major accomplishments during Symington's term as Secretary included the Berlin Airlift and championing the United States Air Force Academy. Symington resigned in 1950 to protest lack of funding for the Air Force after the Soviets detonated their first nuclear weapon. He remained in the administration as Chairman of the National Security Resources Board (1950-1951) and Reconstruction Finance Corporation Administrator (1951-1952).
At the urging of his father-in-law James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr., a former Republican Speaker of the New York State Assembly and U.S. Senator from New York, Symington decided to run for the U.S. Senate.
In 1952, he was elected Senator from Missouri, taking the seat previously held by Truman and scoring a win for the Democrats in a year otherwise favorable to the Republicans. He was re-elected in 1958, 1964, and 1970.
In 1954, he charged that the Department of Defense had wasted millions of dollars on outdated weapons. He became a leading critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1957-1975).
Symington was an especially vocal opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to the vexation of the latter, who nicknamed him "Sanctimonious Stu".
In 1959, Symington, then Chairman of the National Security Resources Board in Washington, D.C., was preparing to run in the 1960 presidential election and won the backing of former President and fellow Missourian Harry Truman, but eventually lost the nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy. On July 2, 1960, Truman announced that he would not be attending the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Truman was miffed that the convention was being controlled by the "overzealous" supporters of Kennedy. Announcing his decision, Truman restated his support for the candidacy of Symington and added, "I have no second choice".
Symington, unlike Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson, refused to speak to segregated audiences in the southern United States and this hurt his chances. Additionally, having concluded that the nomination would be determined by party bosses at the convention, Symington declined to enter any of the Democratic primaries, clearing the way for Kennedy to win enough primaries to be the frontrunner and probable nominee as the convention opened.
Symington retired in 1978 to his home in New Canaan, where he died on Dec. 14, 1988. He is buried in a crypt in Washington National Cathedral.