(b. Amherst, Massachusetts, 26 June 1901; d. New Canaan, Connecticut, 14 Dec. 1988)
US; Secretary of the Air Force 1947–50, US Senator 1953–76 Symington was born the son of an academic who later changed career to become a judge in Baltimore. After brief service in the First World War, Symington attended Yale but left without finishing his degree. He embarked on a successful business career and in 1939 he became chairman of the Emerson Electric Manufacturing Co. in St Louis.
Symington held a series of government positions in the Truman administration: he was successively chairman of the Surplus Property Board, Assistant Secretary of War for Air, and the First Secretary of the Air Force. Symington was a powerful advocate for increased defence spending both within the Truman administration (when he resigned over cuts in the air force budget) and later in the Senate, where he criticized the Eisenhower administration's defence spending cuts.
Symington was first elected to the Senate in 1952 when he defeated a candidate backed by Truman in the primary. Although Eisenhower carried Missouri in 1952, Symington easily beat the Republican candidate. He was part of a new group of Senate Democrats—liberal in outlook and wedded to the New Deal and Fair Deal platforms. Symington won re-election three more times.
In the Senate his major interests were foreign affairs, military issues, and defence policy. His early career in the Senate was marked by conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a member of the Subcommittee on Investigations, Symington played a key role in deflating McCarthy's reputation during the army-McCarthy hearings.
Although a supporter of enhanced military expenditure, Symington was always conscious of the need to reconcile military imperatives with the requirements of a constitutional democracy. Originally supportive of American intervention in Vietnam, he became highly critical of the Nixon administration's handling of the Vietnam War and especially its expansion into Laos and Cambodia. Part of his objection centred on the secrecy surrounding the Nixon administration's policy and he was an important influence in changing opinion in the Senate on the issue. He also came to believe that the United States was overcommitted in the world and that it should curtail its military and economic involvement.
On domestic issues he was a liberal, advocating enhanced welfare spending and measures such as gun control and a woman's right to an abortion.
Symington ran for President twice—in 1956 and in 1960 when he was also a strong contender for the vice-presidential slot. He retired from Congress in 1975.