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Monroe Sweetland: A lingering force in Oregon politics

June 4, 2015

Citizens and the media regularly subject American politicians’ lives to public scrutiny. We hear about scandals. We hear about philanthropic visits and awards. We hear about financial troubles and financial successes. Yet rarely do we receive a holistic portrait of such political leaders, one that covers their lives unflinchingly and honestly, yet with tact. Author and historian William G. Robbins manages to do just that. He joins us today to discuss the impetus behind his latest work, A Man for All Seasons: Monroe Sweetland and the Liberal Paradox.

 

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Monroe Sweetland’s name first emerged in a graduate seminar at the University of Oregon in the late 1960s—as I recall—associated with a romantic sounding, radical political organization, the Oregon Commonwealth Federation.  Sweetland’s name surfaced again decades later at a labor history meeting in Portland where a friend identified him as the person who asked a question from the back of the room.  In subsequent visits to Portland I would occasionally see him in the vicinity of Portland State University, white cane in hand and usually in the company of a graduate student.

 MonroeSweetland

Sweetland, who suffered from macular degeneration, had been legally blind since the early 1990s.  Then, shortly after his death in 2006, my longtime friend Steve Haycox (University of Alaska, Anchorage) urged me to write Sweetland’s biography.  “You’re the right person to do his biography,” he enthused.  I begged off, already heavily invested in a big research project on insurgent movements in the American West.  But the amorphous nature of that venture prompted me to consider something more definitive, a problem that reminded me of the Peanuts’ character, Lucy, who was reading a book—“A man was born, he lived and he died.  The End.”  

 

With that heady sentiment in mind, I contacted Steve who put me in touch with Barbara Sweetland Smith, Monroe’s oldest daughter.  A computer search of his name found page upon page of links!  What I discovered was a person who led a fascinating and multifaceted life, living through the cultural revolution of the 1920s, the radical politics of the Great Depression, the island-hopping campaign of American forces in the Pacific during the Second World War, the fear-provoking politics of the Cold War, the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the conservative swing in American politics with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Through a remarkably active life, Monroe Sweetland took part for seven decades to advance the welfare of the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, and the less fortunate.  He was truly A Man for all Seasons.1

 

Sweetland’s long public career provides a literal tour through Oregon and national history since 1930—field organizer for the socialist League for Industrial Democracy in the early 1930s, founder of the radical Oregon Commonwealth Federation in 1937, field director for the CIO War Relief Committee in 1941, two years with the Red Cross in the Pacific, publisher of Oregon weekly newspapers, 1948-1963, member of the Oregon legislature 1952-1963, journalism lecturer in Indonesia 1963-1964, and legislative director of the thirteen western states for the National Education Association (NEA), 1964-1975.  Already well known to leading national political figures, Sweetland achieved two major accomplishments with NEA—he was the principal architect of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and led the agency’s push for the age-eighteen vote, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, in 1971.

 

The always optimistic Sweetland was confident that rational liberal policies would democratize and humanize social and political institutions.  While most Americans today may not share that vision, Monroe was incapable of believing there was any erosion to America’s promise.  With his friends and associates alike, Sweetland was rooted in the real world of success and failure, of admirers and detractors, but he never lost faith that rational good will would prevail.  That mood, that sense of buoyancy, inspired others, perhaps no one more than his traveling companion with NEA, Rey Martinez, who remarked: “There is hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of Monroe.  Every fiber of his being is seared in my memory.  I never walked with a greater human being.”  At Monroe’s memorial service in September 2006, his granddaughter, Kate Sweetland-Lambird, thanked Monroe for teaching her to dance, “to debate with knowledge to back up my arguments, to have a sense of humor about life and live each day in service to others.”

 

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1A Man for all Seasons is the title of Robert Bolt’s 1966 Academy Award-winning film of Thomas More, the 16th century counsellor to England’s King Henry VIII, who refused to sanction the king’s divorce so that he could marry another woman.  For his principled stand, More was tried and executed.

 

 

William G. Robbins, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at Oregon State University from 1971 to 2002, is the author and editor of several books, including Monroe Sweetland. Following a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy, he earned a B.S. degree from Western Connecticut State University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Oregon. He is currently at work on the sesquicentennial history of Oregon State University as a land-grant institution.

 

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