Harmon’s Histories: Mansfield’s counsel to build ‘a more peaceful and satisfactory house for the human family’

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“Speaking for myself, I must confess in all honesty, that I could do with a little less change and a little slower pace. But that is a kind of wishful thinking. There is no stopping the world, even if we would want to get off.”

It was May 1963 and Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Montana, was reflecting on the many changes in his lifetime. 

He had come to the conclusion that change was the only constant in life. He recalled President Kennedy remarking that “everything changes but change itself,” and Heraclitus’s words millennia ago, “There is nothing permanent except change.” 

The Senate majority leader was preparing a speech to be delivered to the 439 graduating seniors at Missoula County High School’s 56th commencement, Wednesday night, June 5, 1963.

Mansfield had experienced massive changes in his own lifetime. “(H)alf a century ago, there were a total of about 500,000 motor vehicles in the United States (and) … today there are 75 million.”

There has been, he said, a “scientific and technical revolution in transportation and communications. We are now – in this state – in almost simultaneous communication with every other part of the nation and world. Indeed, if there were radio receivers – as we know them – on Venus, we could communicate with that planet.”

Mike Mansfield on the steps of the U.S. Capitol

The Montana senator, two of his righthand fingers still wrapped from a much-publicized incident (“Believe it or not, I was cooking dinner for my wife and got my hands in the bacon grease,” he had told reporters in May), pointed out not all change was good. 

World population was exploding, straining the environment – something, he said, that required cooperation at every level, from individuals to nations.

An even larger concern in Mansfield’s view was the “increase in human hostility” brought on by population growth.

“Whatever the compound of fear, lack of understanding, aggressiveness and arrogance which has produced this hostility, it is a most dangerous phenomenon,” because “science and technology have developed, in response to it, military weapons  of quick and overwhelming devastation.”

Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield with President John F. Kennedy

The reality of 1963 was that Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls was “equipped with devices that can carry immense destruction thousands of miles in a matter of minutes,” said Mansfield. They were there, he reminded, because “there are similar devices, aimed in this direction, which are perfectly capable of destroying most of the life in Montana in a matter of minutes.”

Mansfield told the graduates it wasn’t his intent to frighten them, but to be both frank and encouraging. “I have every confidence,” he said, “that in this future which now belongs largely to you, you will be able to grasp this situation and deal effectively with it.

“It is the way of our civilization to pass on to each succeeding generation not only its accumulated achievements but also the accumulated errors and mistakes. We do so with the hope and conviction that the successors will be able to rectify some of them and leave the world a better place in which to live.”

Mansfield encouraged the graduates to continue their education “in college or whatever else may be suitable,” in order to gain a broader perspective of the evolving, “complex and difficult world which has closed in on us all.”

With that perspective, he told them, “you will have what you need to shape your own lives successfully and contribute your share to the building of a more peaceful and satisfactory house for the human family in this community and state, in the nation and in the world.”

“A more peaceful and satisfactory house for the human family …” Wow.

What a speech. What a time in history. What it must have been like to have been among the class of ‘63 and hear those words from one of the most prominent leaders of the day.

Were you there? How did it impact your life? It would be wonderful to hear from you.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.