U.S. Senator Harley Martin Kilgore (January 11, 1893-February 28, 1956) was born in rural Harrison County. He was the only son and the elder of two children of Quimby Hugh Kilgore, an oil well driller and contractor, and Laura Jo Kilgore. The family moved to Mannington when Harley was young, and he graduated from Mannington High School in 1910. In 1914, Kilgore earned his law degree from West Virginia University and was admitted to the bar. He taught school in 1914–15, and was a principal in Raleigh County for one term. He then turned to the practice of law. Kilgore joined the army during World War I, where he was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1917. Upon promotion to captain he served as a company commander.
On May 10, 1921, Kilgore married Lois Elaine Lilly in Huntington. Living in Beckley, he held a number of political positions, including city recorder and prosecuting attorney; in 1932, he was elected judge of the Criminal Court for Raleigh County. A merciful judge, he believed that criminals should be rehabilitated if possible.
In 1940, a struggle for control of the Democratic Party pulled Kilgore into the state’s political spotlight. To ensure that the party ran a liberal for governor, Matthew M. Neely gave up his seat in the U.S. Senate to run for governor himself. Soon after Neely’s announcement, Kilgore, also a liberal, announced that he would run for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, opposing fellow Democrats Rush D. Holt and Herman Guy Kump in the primary. With labor’s support Kilgore won both the primary and general elections. In an unusual set of circumstances, he became the senior senator from West Virginia, due to a squabble over the seating of Neely’s successor.
When he arrived in Washington, Kilgore made a friend of Sen. Harry Truman, who along with Kilgore was concerned with the inefficiency of the government procurement system. When the Truman Committee examined World War II expenditures, Kilgore headed up a number of the investigations, which led to exposure of fraud and incompetence. As chairman of a military subcommittee on war mobilization, Kilgore led an investigation of the scientific and organizational weaknesses in the war effort. This led to the establishment of the Office of War Mobilization. Ultimately, Kilgore initiated a debate over the establishment of the National Science Foundation, which was created in 1950. Kilgore investigated international cartels and how foreign companies used their business relations, before, during, and after World War II to advance their cause to the detriment of the U.S. national interest. Despite attempts to link him to communism, Kilgore was easily reelected in 1952, the first West Virginian elected to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
After the war, Kilgore supported Truman’s Fair Deal and foreign policies, influenced the appointment of Clarksburg native Louis A. Johnson as secretary of defense, authored the liberalized Displaced Persons Act and Youth Corrections Act, and continued to examine the problem of monopolies. He died in office of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
This Article was written by Robert Franklin Maddox
Last Revised on November 05, 2012
Maddox, Robert Franklin. The War Within World War II: The U.S. and International Cartels. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
Maddox, Robert Franklin. The Senatorial Career of Harley Martin Kilgore. New York: Garland, 1981.
Memorial Services Held in the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, Together with Remarks Presented in Eulogy of Harley Martin Kilgore, a Late Senator from West Virginia. 84th Congress, 2nd Session: 1956.