MISSOULA — On May 22, 1970, a Carroll College graduate sat down with pen and paper and considered the draft, his future at Notre Dame and his reluctance to serve in the Vietnam War. He directed his letter to U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, asking for help, and waited for a response.
Six days later Mansfield replied. He expressed his apologies for the situation in which the young man found himself, and vowed to continue his fight to end the draft and the war in Vietnam.
“For my part, as you know, I voted against the extension of the draft but it is, nevertheless, the law of the land,” Mansfield wrote. “I am also working, too, to try to help to limit and to end the involvement in Southeast Asia by legislation.”
The correspondence is one of thousands of papers held in the Mike Mansfield collection at the University of Montana. A portion of the collection, including that exchange between Mansfield and Carroll College graduate Michael Lopach, was recently digitized in a new web-based exhibit dedicated to the senator’s legacy.
The university’s collection has garnered international attention, particularly among scholars studying political strategy — how Mansfield, as the Senate majority leader, helped guide the nation through weighty times and yet rose above partisan politics to earn the distinction as an honored statesman.
But while the university has held the collection for years, the documents weren’t always accessible online to outside audiences. People from around the world arrive at the university to research Mansfield’s past in hopes of improving the present.
“People want to know how the Senate majority leader responded to an international situation, whether it was the war in Vietnam or legislation around nuclear weapons,” said Donna McCrea, head of UM Archives and Special Collections. “It’s looking at how people at the top level of politics reacted to the situation at the time.”
Those who maintain the vast collection welcome international inquiries, and they’ve digitized 1,600 files and placed them online to simplify global research. But they also hope to spark interest among younger Montana students who, they believe, are generationally disconnected from Mansfield’s life and times.
“This generation of current students don’t know Mansfield’s legacy,” said McCrea, who pulled out a letter written by Jeannette Rankin to Mansfield, praising him on his efforts to end the bombing in Vietnam. “By doing the digitization and creating the website, we’re hoping students will find Mansfield and his legacy a little more accessible.”
Mansfield served Montana in the U.S. Congress from 1942 to 1977, and his accomplishments are now a lasting legacy. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him the U.S. Delegate to the United Nations in 1958, and President John Kennedy directed his appointment as the Senate majority leader in 1961.
In 1965, President Richard Nixon offered Mansfield a foreign policy assignment to Southeast Asia. President Jimmy Carter would appoint him Ambassador to Japan in 1977, followed by President Ronald Reagan’s reappointment years later.
While Mansfield remains the longest-serving Senate majority leader in American history, his years in office proved challenging. The times were saddled by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Debates simmered over Civil Rights, the voting age and the hydrogen bomb.
Despite the controversies, Mansfield worked with a steady hand. The archives recount his efforts to reach across party lines and thank his colleagues for their honest work, even when opinions differed.
“Mansfield is widely recognized for his integrity and his moral authority in public life,” said Deena Mansour, associate director of the Mansfield Center. “His life is an extraordinary reminder of how we can work together for the common good.”
Mansfield’s collection contains 5,000 boxes stacked floor to ceiling on the fourth floor of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at UM. Each box contains several folders stuffed with dozens, if not hundreds, of papers representing Mansfield’s letters, speeches, press releases, photos, interviews and broadcasts.
McCrea, along with archive specialist Carlie Magill and others, began pulling Mansfield’s most revealing speeches in the spring of 2012. Over the course of months, they digitized nearly 1,600 files for the online collection, making them accessible to a wider audience.
“We focused on this first project by doing his speeches and interviews, things that were typed,” McCrea said. “We wanted them to be keyword searchable. That excluded handwritten letters. We focused on the things that were typed and picked the speeches with an audience in mind.”
The new online exhibit was launched last month, and it’s been received with wide curiosity and praise. New additions to the exhibit include his 1957 memo on the “Middle Eastern Situation,” his speech on the “H-Bomb,” and his view on “Graduates in the 20th Century World.”
But McCrea notes that tens of thousands of files remain offline. They’re tucked away in boxes stored in the university’s vast archives waiting for rediscovery.
“We have people who come from around the world to look at these papers,” McCrea said. “The next step would be to build on this project. The next set of materials that should be made available is Mansfield’s leadership files.”