Tom Harkin was born in 1939 in the small Iowa town of Cumming, and grew up with five brothers and sisters in a small two-bedroom house. His father was a coal miner. His mother was a Slovenian immigrant who died when Harkin was 10. He attended Iowa State University on an ROTC scholarship, graduating in 1962 with a degree in political science and economics. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1962-67 and in the Naval Reserves in Washington, DC from 1969-72.
In 1969 Harkin began work in the office of longtime Iowa Democratic Congressman Neal Smith. To supplement his income, Harkin was given a patronage job at the U.S. Post Office Department. As a staff aide to the House Select Committee on United States Involvement in Southeast Asia, Harkin accompanied a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in 1970. As part of that mission, during a 30-minute visit to Con Son Prison he snapped photographs of Communist prisoners in “tiger cages.”
When the mission returned, Harkin declared that these photographs were “too important” to be turned over to Congress and to the House Select Committee. Instead he sold the photos, some to anti-American foreign outlets, and others to Life magazine for $10,000. (Harkin used the money to pay off his debts for his 1972 law degree from Catholic University.)
The “tiger cages” story in Life and throughout the anti-war press turned Harkin into an instant star of the left, including the establishment U.S. media. He gave an interview to the Daily World, official newspaper of the Communist Party USA, in which he made sweeping attacks on the treatment of prisoners throughout South Vietnam. His statements were exploited in Communist propaganda worldwide against the South Vietnamese government and the United States.
Harkin was befriended by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a Marxist-oriented “think tank” in Washington, DC, and by other leftist institutions and activists that continue to support his career. In 1972 these groups persuaded Harkin to run for Congress in a race that showcased Harkin’s combative style. During one of his Republican opponent’s speeches, Harkin forced his way onto the stage and shouted that the incumbent congressman was telling “a pack of lies.” In the November election, the young anti-war Harkin lost, swept away in the 49-state landslide against 1972 Democratic standard-bearer Senator George McGovern.
When Harkin ran for Congress again in 1974, the tide had turned and helped him to become one of many Democratic “Watergate babies” that this scandal swept into office. The first act of the congressional class of Watergate was to cut off all aid to the Cambodian and South Vietnamese regimes (American troops had been pulled two years previously). Four months later, the regimes fell and the Communists proceeded to slaughter two and half million Indo-Chinese who stood in the way of their Communist utopia.
Harkin served in the House of Representatives for 10 years. During his 1982 re-election campaign, his opponent documented that Harkin had always voted against foreign aid for countries friendly to the U.S., but in favor of aid packages to Communist Vietnam, Communist Cuba, Communist Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Marxist Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and other Communist nations. When this subject was raised in a broadcast debate, Harkin replied: “From now on, I am going to vote against all foreign aid.”
In 1984 Harkin won an Iowa U.S. Senate seat by falsely claiming that his pro-life, pro-death penalty Republican opponent favored the execution of women who had undergone abortions. (Harkin is a Roman Catholic who voted against a ban on “partial-birth” abortions.)
As a newly-elected Senator, in April 1985 Harkin and fellow neophyte Senator John F. Kerry (D-Massachusetts) flew to Nicaragua (on a trip arranged by Institute for Policy Studies staff member Peter Kornbluh) to give propaganda support to that country’s Marxist rulers only days before a scheduled congressional vote on President Ronald Reagan’s requested aid for Nicaragua’s anti-Communist freedom fighters. After embracing Daniel Ortega in front of news cameras, Harkin and Kerry flew back to Washington with a document signed by Ortega in which the latter claimed to be “non-aligned” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. (But years earlier, Ortega’s brother Humberto had declared: “We [Sandinistas] are anti-Yankee, we are against the bourgeoisie … we are guided by the scientific doctrine of the revolution, by Marxism-Leninism.” Humberto Ortega also had said that the Sandinistas intended to “crush” all who dissented from their rule.)
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, lobbied by Harkin and Kerry, voted against giving aid (aid that was requested by President Reagan) to the anti-Communist Contras. According to some accounts, Harkin and Kerry had been told privately in Nicaragua, but had kept secret from fellow Democrat lawmakers, that at the very moment the vote against President Reagan’s request was taking place, Daniel Ortega was aboard a Soviet airliner flying to Moscow to pledge his allegiance to the Soviet Union.
Critics claimed that Harkin and Kerry (in their aforementioned meeting with Ortega) had violated the Constitution by negotiating a treaty directly with a foreign nation — a power exclusive to the Executive, not the Legislative, branch of government. ), and that the two Senators were “cavorting with, and used by, the Communists.” Kerry said that he was “as mad as anyone” that the Sandinista leader he and Harkin had embraced days earlier had gone to Moscow.
Harkin and Kerry had been circulating a study to fellow lawmakers that purported to show 77 instances in which the Reagan Administration had misled Congress about its Central American policies. The study, which included not a single word critical of Soviet or Cuban involvement in Central America, turned out to have been written by Institute for Policy Studies analysts, at least one of whom was an agent for the Soviet secret police, the KGB.
“The IPS is the perfect intellectual front for Soviet activities which would be resisted if they were to originate openly from the KGB,” the director of the London-based Institute for the Study of Conflict Brian Crozier once said. But Tom Harkin continued his close ties and friendship with the IPS. He was one of only 14 “progressive” lawmakers who served on the IPS’s anniversary celebration committee. “I want to thank the Institute for Policy Studies,” said Harkin at an IPS reception at New Jersey’s Mott House, “and the people who have worked so hard [and] have been in my office a lot.”
Harkin, like some in American agribusiness, visited Communist Cuba, in part to promote future crop sales and to encourage the easing of trade restrictions. The Iowa Senator also, on occasion, called on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to release imprisoned dissidents. Upon returning from one trip, Harkin implicitly attributed Cuba’s brutal crackdowns on dissent to fear — of a possible U.S. invasion — that U.S. President George W. Bush had allegedly caused among Havana’s government leaders. Harkin called on the Bush Administration to calm these fears by stating that it had no intention of military action against Cuba.
During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, Harkin initially endorsed former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Two months before the general election, Harkin switched his allegiance to John Kerry, who, like Harkin, had voted to authorize a U.S. invasion of Iraq but thereafter relentlessly criticized it.
President Bush had “lied to the American people” about his National Guard service during the Vietnam War, said Harkin at a September 9, 2004 press conference. Swift Boat veterans critical of John Kerry were also liars, he claimed. And Vice President Dick Cheney, said Harkin, was “a coward, who would not serve during the Vietnam War.” Those who brought up Kerry’s anti-war activities in the United States that encouraged the North Vietnamese Communists to continue fighting instead of negotiating peace, said Harkin, represented the “right-wing kooky fringe.”
Harkin initially got elected to Congress, in part, by claiming to have served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Navy. He once told Washington Post reporter David Broder: “One year [I] was in Vietnam. I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions. I did no bombing.” But as the late Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) was first to notice, nothing in Harkin’s military service file showed that he ever served in Vietnam. Challenged by Goldwater, an Air Force General, to explain why he had been awarded neither the Vietnam Service Medal nor the Vietnam Campaign medal — decorations given to everyone who served in the Southeast Asian theater — Harkin changed his story, claiming instead that he had flown combat sorties over Cuba during the 1960s.
This was yet another Harkin lie. Harkin actually served as a ferry pilot who flew aircraft in need of repair between the Philippines and his base in Atsugi, Japan. Harkin at last acknowledged that he never had flown air patrols in Vietnam; he began describing himself in speeches as “a Vietnam era veteran.”
The establishment liberal media had never checked Harkin’s claims about serving in Vietnam because his politics paralleled those of the reporters covering him. The senator’s response to the emerging, more diverse media of conservative talk radio and the Internet, was hostile. As Australian reporter Gerard Jackson observed , Harkin in June 2004 “proudly announced that he had sneaked in an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2005 Defense Authorization bill: an amendment designed to drive the Rush Limbaugh Show off the American Forces Radio and Television Service.” Harkin’s amendment was designed to require each Armed Forces Radio station to “provide balanced representation of political viewpoints,” i.e. to balance each hour of Limbaugh with an hour of leftist commentary. As happened with the discarded “Fairness Doctrine” of the Federal Communications Commission, this vague requirement would prompt many military-program directors to avoid complaints and problems by simply removing Limbaugh’s show from their schedules.
The Marxist-oriented Institute for Policy Studies gave Harkin airtime on its own “In the Public Service” radio syndication. IPS made Harkin a board member of its Interlink Press Service.
Harkin’s wife Ruth, whom he met when both were studying law at Catholic University, moved from the powerful law firm of Vernon Jordan and Robert Strauss — Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld — in 1993 when President Bill Clinton appointed her as chairman and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). At OPIC she facilitated deals with Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.
Ruth Harkin appears to have played a role in President Clinton’s seizure of low-sulfur coal lands in Utah that gave a potential $1 trillion in assets to the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army and the Indonesia-based Lippo Industries, which control the world’s only other major deposits of this kind of coal used by U.S. power plants. These foreign entities funneled huge amounts of money to the Clintons and to the Democratic Party.
In the Spring of 2013, the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement was founded at Drake University. Its two principal objectives were to: (a) “facilitate collaborative, high-quality, nonpartisan, multi-disciplinary public policy research and analysis dedicated to the issues that defined Senator Tom Harkin’s legislative career, including labor and employment, people with disabilities, retirement security, and wellness and nutrition”; and (b) “foster active and informed citizen engagement in public decision making and public policy making through education and outreach that expands the knowledge and understanding of these issue areas among students, scholars and the public.”
On January 26, 2013, Harkin announced that he would not seek reelection to the Senate in 2014. He officially retired from politics in January 2015.
For an overview of Tom Harkin’s voting record on key bills in the U.S. Senate, click here.
Most of this profile is adapted from the article “The Bark of Tom Harkin,” written by Lowell Ponte and published by FrontPageMag.com on September 16, 2004.