Jeffrey LewisLloyd Bentsen, 1921-2006

Stephen Schwartz reminds us of a goofy comment that earned the late, great Lloyd Bentsen a footnote in nuclear history.

Lloyd M. Bentsen, who represented Texas in the House and Senate for 28 years and was also the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Bentsen’s many obituaries rightly emphasize his long history of public service, including serving as a combat pilot in Italy in the Army Air Forces during World War II, a stint as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, and, of course, his now legendary put-down of then Senator J. Danforth Quayle (R-Indiana) during the 1988 vice-presidential candidates debate.

But I will always remember Bentsen for his brief appearance in the 1982 documentary and cult classic Atomic Cafe, the splendid and irreverent review of selected Cold War-era newsreels which celebrated—and mocked—America’s fascination and obsession with nuclear weapons and nuclear war during the early decades of the Cold War.

In one news clip from mid-July 1950, a mere 18 days after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, a serious-looking 30 year-old Representative Bentsen stands in front of a House office building and, with the Capitol in the background, stares into the camera and says:

I propose the President of the United States advise the commander of the North Korean troops to with draw his forces beyond the 38th parallel within one week, or use that week to evacuate civilians from a specified list of North Korean cities that will be subjected to atomic attack by the United States Air Force…. I ask you, the American citizen, to let your Congressman know how you feel about this proposal.

In later years, as the Washington Post noted in its obituary of Bentsen “with some embarrassment, he recanted that position.”

While Bentsen remained hawkish on military matters throughout his distinguished career, he also supported arms control agreements like the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Less remembered are his remarks on that subject from the 1988 vice-presidential debate:

As I look toward our progress that’s been made toward disarmament and cutting back on nuclear weapons and see what Ronald Reagan has been able to do with the INF treaty, and I think he deserves great credit with that one, I see a situation where the Senator from Indiana has now jumped off the reservation, when we talk about building on what Ronald Reagan has done and opposes what Ronald Reagan wants to do—the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense—and says let’s go slow on further disarmament in trying to get the next treaty. I think that’s a mistake. I think that you have to deal with the Russians from strength and we have to understand that you have to have a strong modernized nuclear deterrent, but I think we can make substantial progress and we ought to take advantage. I think he’s arrived at a very dangerous judgment in the question of war and peace and it concerns me very much. Because I saw him also try to sabotage the INF treaty when it was on the floor of the United States Senate with what he was doing there. He’s listening once again to the winds of the radical right.

We’ll miss you, Senator.

Update: A clip of Bentsen making the statement is available. I don’t agree with Eric Garris that the statement—which Bentsen later recanted—is “more signifcant” than the Senator’s lifetime of public service, including support for arms control treaties like INF and ABM. I think the Senator’s ample deeds more than redeemed those few poorly chosen words.

Late Update: Eric Garris indicates that he meant “more significant” than the Jack Kennedy quote.

Even Later Upate: I understand, now, that Eric meant the one quote was more important than the other. I get it. I regret that I misread the sentence.


  1. Eric Garris (History)

    I never said the quote for more significant than his lifetime of public service. I said it was more significant than the Dan Quayle/Jack Kennedy quote. It is easy to misquote someone when you don’t provide a link:

  2. Jeffrey Lewis

    I did provide the link, genius.

  3. Judge Genius

    Yet you failed to comprehend the meaning of Garris’ words: “I remember Lloyd Bentsen for another quote – older and I think more significant…”


  4. Yale (History)

    Not that I am taking sides, (well, I am I guess..), but

    1) I think your response is a bit hostile,
    2) His meaning for “more significant” seems quite clear from his text,
    3) I have noticed, that depending on the monitor one uses, that the light blue links are easy to miss..

    leading me to my unsolicited suggestion that you color AND underline the links.


  5. Jeffrey Lewis

    My hostile mode is easily triggered these days.

    Anyway, I hope the clarification on the front page indicates that I accept that I didn’t catch Garris’ meaning as I scanned the post.