Brien McMahon (né James O'Brien McMahon) was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, on October 6, 1903, one of five children of William H. McMahon and Eugenie J. O'Brien McMahon. All of the children benefitted from their parents high standards of work and emphasis on education to become successful adults (two became doctors, two became teachers and Brien became a lawyer). The Bridgeport Sunday Post reported in 1946 that William McMahon began grooming Brien for politics at an early age, having him practice his elocution and perform before his father's friends. The result of such grooming was evident in Brien McMahon's legal and senatorial careers, where his debating and speaking abilities were often admired.
McMahon attended college at Fordham University, where he became involved in student government and was prophetically nicknamed "Senator." After graduating from Fordham in 1924 with a B.A., he returned to Connecticut to attend law school at Yale University. Upon graduation from law school he was hired as an associate by a local law firm in Norwalk, Keough and Candee, where he built a reputation as an exceptional trial lawyer.
While in Norwalk, McMahon became an active Democrat and built contacts that would later play a key role in his future career. It was probably through these Democratic Party contacts that he came to the attention of Connecticut's governor, Wilbur L. Cross. In 1933, impressed by McMahon's hard work and legal ability, Cross appointed him to a judgeship in the Norwalk city courts. In this position, as well as through his work in the Connecticut Democratic State Party, McMahon became known to the U.S. Attorney General, Homer S. Cummings. Cummings, also a native of Connecticut, was so greatly impressed with McMahon that he offered him a position in Washington with the Justice Department as Special Assistant to the Attorney General.
Once in Washington, McMahon continued to build upon his reputation as an extremely able and hardworking lawyer. In 1935, on Cummings recommendation, President Roosevelt appointed him Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division. At the age of 31, he was the youngest man ever appointed to such a position. As Assistant Attorney General, McMahon quickly began to gain public recognition. The newspapers ran stories of his department's work, in conjunction with the FBI, on several famous cases, including the trial of John Dillinger's lawyer, Louis Piquette (for harboring a criminal) and the trials of gangsters associated with "Baby Face" Nelson. However, the case which elevated McMahon to national renown and laid the foundation for his political career, was the Harlan County Coal Miner's case.
The Harlan County case was a landmark trial as the first effort to uphold the Wagner National Labor Relations Act, i.e., to enforce the right of labor to form unions. The case became most famous, however, not for the legal principles at stake, but for the violence and scandal that surrounded the trial. The newspapers had a field day as witnesses and defendants were threatened and murdered, McMahon and his associates were shot at, attempts were made to coerce jurors, and witnesses admitted having been paid by the defense for their testimony. Harlan County was nicknamed "Bloody Harlan" for its growing reputation for violence and McMahon's name and picture were printed in the press nationwide as the carrier of justice to the "lawless land." The trial ran for several months with the government originally trying to prosecute more than one hundred people for their actions against the miners in their attempts to unionize. In the end the government's case was whittled down to about sixty defendants, but the jury was unable (or afraid) to make a decision and a mistrial was declared with a hung jury. Despite the disappointing outcome of the case, however, the result for McMahon was a personal victory. He received wide public recognition and a reputation as a courageous and honest upholder of justice, both of which would further his political ambitions.
In 1939, McMahon left the Justice Department to set up his own private practice based in Connecticut and Washington. He continued, as always, to play an active role in the Democratic Party, particularly in regard to fund raising events, as a speaker in local and national campaigns, and in President Roosevelt's campaign organizations. In February of 1940 McMahon married the acclaimed Washington beauty, Rosemary Turner. The couple lived in Washington, maintaining their political contacts and raising their daughter Patricia.
In 1944 McMahon was approached by fellow Democrats and persuaded to run for the U.S. Senate as a representative of Connecticut against the incumbent John Danaher. As a strong supporter of Roosevelt's policies and a well known party member, McMahon easily won the Democratic nomination for the postion. In what was called one of the most active and energetic campaigns ever waged in the state, McMahon took on his Republican opponent and surpassed his efforts in every way. One of the basic themes of the campaign was the question of U.S. foreign policy. Danaher held that the United States should adopt an "isolationist" foreign policy and stay out of the affairs of other countries. McMahon, in agreement with President Roosevelt, recommended "internationalism," where the U.S. and other countries would work together to maintain peace and good relations around the world. With the support of President Roosevelt, Homer Cummings, and other leading Democrats, and by his own hard work, McMahon won the election by nearly 40,000 votes.
Having reached the Senate, McMahon continued to work with seemingly endless energy. He was well respected by his fellow senators for his knowledgeable arguments and for his eloquence. When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, McMahon was one of the first senators to react to the new and awesome power which had been revealed. After studying all available material regarding atomic energy, he recognized that the world had entered a new era and that atomic power could not be treated with a laissez-faire attitude. Basically, McMahon's first concern was to keep the development of atomic power out of military control, for fear of its use for increasingly destructive purposes. However, he did recognize its potential as a weapon for peace, i.e., as a weapon so horrible that no country would dare instigate war for fear of atomic reprisal. Once development was under the control of civilians, McMahon hoped that atomic experimentation could be directed toward humane uses.
Armed with his knowledge of atomic energy and his belief in his purpose, McMahon presented a bill before the Senate to guarantee civilian control of atomic energy. His plan called for an appointed civilian commission, with minor military representation, to oversee developments in atomic energy. It also called for a Joint Congressional Committee to monitor the civilian commmission and to investigate legislation concerning atomic energy. The bill was passed, with only minor objections from senators and congressmen who did not recognize the implications of an atomic age.
The real fight began however when it was suggested that McMahon head the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. It was unheard of to allow a freshman senator to chair a Congressional Committee. However, it was finally recognized that McMahon was the most knowledgeable member of Congress concerning atomic energy and he was selected to head the Joint Committee over the dwindling protests of some senior senators. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, McMahon worked with the same relentless energy and ability that he had shown throughout his career. He insisted that all members of the Committee should be experts on atomic energy and arranged for private evening classes to be taught concerning physics and the atom. The Committee became a highly prestigious and well respected group.
Brien McMahon was re-elected to the Senate in 1950. Besides chairing the Atomic Energy Committee, he was also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. Among his other accomplishments in the Senate, McMahon drafted a message of peace and goodwill to the Soviet Union that was sponsored by more than a quarter of the Congress and presented to the Soviet government.
In 1952 Brien McMahon decided to run for President of the United States. His campaign slogan was "The Man is McMahon" and his main platform was to insure world peace through fear of atomic weapons. The campaign was cut short however when it was discovered in June 1952 that McMahon was terminally ill with cancer. On July 27, 1952, despite that he had withdrawn his candidacy and despite his inablity to attend the Democratic National Convention the delegates from the state of Connecticut unanimously nominated McMahon as their choice for President of the United States. The following morning Brien McMahon fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter.
His death weighed heavily upon his fellow members of Congress and on the many individuals who knew and respected his governing ability. He was a man of integrity, wisdom, and idealism who clearly saw his purpose in life and used all his abilities to fulfill it. He was remembered and honored in public statements made by many of his peers after his death. President Truman issued a statement that "The nation has suffered a tremendous loss in the passing of one of its outstanding officials." The Democratic State Chairman from Connecticut, John M. Bailey, said that McMahon's death was "a tremendous loss to a troubled world which perhaps more than ever before in history is in need of men with his sincere, inspired and farsighted leadership." However the national sentiment was probably best expressed by McMahon's fellow Senator from Connecticut, William Benton, who said:
"Connecticut has lost its most distinguished and beloved son and the world one of its great citizens. The tragedy is the more stark because Senator McMahon, as one of the youngest as well as one of the most respected men in the Senate, was only starting on his great career of service to his fellow man."
Months after his death Brien McMahon was still quoted and remembered in the Senate debates recorded in The Congressional Record, particularly on issues regarding atomic energy, and his family continued to receive honors and awards in his memory. One cannot help but admire McMahon as both a man and statesman after becoming familiar with his life.