A Lonely Voice Against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

By Norman Solomon
San Francisco Bay Guardian, September 19, 2001

On September 14, 2001, the U.S. Senate voted 98-0 for a war resolution. It states, "The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11th, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.This resolution, written as a blank check, is payable with vast quantities of human corpses.

The black-and-white TV footage is grainy and faded, but it still jumps off the screen – a portentous clash between a prominent reporter and a maverick politician. On the CBS program Face the Nation, journalist Peter Lisagor argued with a senator who stood almost alone on Capitol Hill, strongly opposing the war in Vietnam from the outset.

"Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy," Lisagor said.

"Couldn't be more wrong," Wayne Morse broke in. "You couldn't make a more unsound legal statement than the one you have just made. This is the promulgation of an old fallacy that foreign policy belongs to the president of the United States. That's nonsense."

Lisagor: "To whom does it belong then, senator?"

Morse: "It belongs to the American people.... And I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy."

Lisagor: "You know, senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy."

Morse: "Why do you say that?... I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts if you'll give them. And my charge against my government is – we're not giving the American people the facts."

In early August 1964, Morse was one of only two senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution, a resolution remarkably similar to the one the U.S. Senate just passed. It served as a green light for the Vietnam War. While reviled by much of the press in his home state of Oregon as well as nationwide, he persisted with fierce oratory for peace.

Over the next four years Oregon's senior senator was remarkable because he challenged the morality – not just the "winability" – of the war. He passionately asserted that the United States had no right to impose its will on the world. In the process, he made enemies of many fellow Democrats, including President Lyndon Johnson.

Like most heretics, Morse suffered consequences. After 24 years in the Senate he lost a race for reelection in November 1968. The winner was a slick politician named Robert Packwood, who denounced Morse's antiwar fervor.In his lifetime Morse became a media pariah. In the quarter century since his death political reporters have rarely mentioned his name.

"I don't know why we think, just because we're mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right," Morse said on national television in 1964. "And that's the American policy in Southeast Asia – just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it."

Three years later he declared: "We're going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It's an ugly reality, and we Americans don't like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American history that's going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry in Southeast Asia."

Such heresy infuriated many powerful politicians – and journalists – while Wayne Morse did all he could to block a war train speeding to catastrophe.

Now, in the autumn of 2001, there's no one stepping forward from the Senate to help block the war train. We'll need to do it ourselves. Copyright 2001 San Francisco Bay Guardian