Karl Mundt was probably the most powerful senator ever to come from South Dakota. The source his incredible influence has been attributed to his vice-chairmanship of the “McCarthy Committee,” close relationship with former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, or perhaps his incredible ability to be convincing as a speaker. He made a great difference in using his influence when necessary for South Dakota businesses—including , on occasion, the one for which I was president.
In 1967, the book, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, by Arthur D. Morse was published. An excerpt from the book appeared in Look Magazine, discussing the then congressman from South Dakota’s opposition to the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill. FDR and his anti-Semitic Secretary of State Cordell Hull needed a republican to oppose a bill which was offered by Senator Wagner from New York with a pledge for national support—if necessary—from the Catholic Diocese of New York. Karl had been a member of the German American Bund and a committed isolationist and his opposition to the bill played a significant role in its defeat.
In reading the article, I saw that the source of Mundt’s power began with the refusal to save 20,000 Jewish children’s lives.
After reading the Look Magazine article I asked the then executive director of the Republican State Party if there had been any reaction to, what I called, “South Dakota’s dishonorable mention.” He asked me what I meant and I responded that the article mentioned a strange press release from the senator’s office. The press release discussed how the senator had been, “part of the “isolationist camp,” before the Second World War, but had become much a leader in international cooperation by the United States and discussed some of the specific organizations with which the senator was affiliated.
Shortly after the article appeared, the senator had a severe stroke. While he was very well aware of what was going on around him, could read, and had obvious signs of knowledge—he could not speak.
His family insisted that he not resign and his chief of staff, the very brilliant Robert McCaughey, continued to use the senator’s positions on committees to affect legislation.
Gradually, the senator’s inability to appear in the Senate and act on his own part or personally express positions resulted in his influence disappearing and his positions on committees ending. Why did it happen that the outstanding public speaker in the United States, co-founder of the National Forensics League (in which most high schools in South Dakota are involved as well as most others throughout the county) and rendered him speechless and prevented him from resigning in dignity and caused him to watch his significant influence and power disappear before his eyes?