Congressman and historian Ken Hechler was born on Long Island, New York, September 20, 1914. He graduated from Swarthmore College, later earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Columbia University. He taught at Columbia and Barnard College and helped edit the Franklin D. Roosevelt papers.
In 1942, Hechler was drafted as an infantry private, later graduating from officer candidate school and serving in Europe as a combat historian. He was awarded the bronze star and five battle stars, and after V-E Day interviewed Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders. From 1947 to 1949, he taught at Princeton University and served on President Harry Truman’s staff from 1949 to 1953. The American Political Science Association made him its associate director in 1953, and in 1956 he joined the campaign staff of presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson.
In 1957, Hechler moved to West Virginia to teach at Marshall College (now Marshall University) and the following year he defeated Republican Congressman Will E. Neal. He served 18 years in the House of Representatives, specializing in coal mine health and safety and protection of the environment. His leadership following the Farmington mine disaster enabled passage of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Hechler crusaded for the abolition of strip mining and led the fight to preserve the New River. He actively supported Joseph ‘‘Jock’’ Yablonski’s campaign to replace corrupt United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle. Hechler was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 in Selma, Alabama.
In 1976, Hechler ran unsuccessfully for governor. Later attempts to regain his seat in Congress failed, and he returned to teaching at Marshall and at the University of Charleston. In 1984, he was elected West Virginia’s secretary of state and was reelected in 1988, 1992, and 1996. He used the secretary of state’s office as a pulpit for liberal reform. Hechler ran for Congress again in 2000, but was unsuccessful in the Democratic primary. In 2002, he received the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award in Independence, Missouri. In 2004, Hechler ran again for secretary of state and was defeated by Republican Betty Ireland. In 2010, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Robert C. Byrd, but he was defeated in the primary by Governor Joe Manchin. Hechler, who was 95 at the time of the election, said he was running to draw attention to the issue of mountaintop removal.
Hechler’s books include The Bridge at Remagen (made into a 1969 motion picture starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn); Working with Truman; Hero of the Rhine: The Karl Timmermann Story; Super Marine: The Buddy Jones Story, Soldier of the Union, and Goering and His Gang: My Interrogation of Nazi Germany’s Top Officials.
This Article was written by Dan B. Fleming
Last Revised on November 30, 2012
Hechler, Ken. The Bridge at Remagen. New York: Ballantine Books, 1957.
Hechler, Ken. Working with Truman. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
Moffat, Charles H. Ken Hechler: Maverick Public Servant. Charleston: Mountain State Press, 1987.