Vietnam War: Only Two Senators Opposed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
An overwhelming majority in the Senate rushed to approve a massive military incursion founded on a fabricated provocation. Obviously, America hasn’t learned a thing since — the nation’s capitol is still manned by insensate military-corporate mannequins in three-piece suits with no respect for human life who wrap dangerous lies in blood-drenched flags … – AC
Lonesome Doves: Morse and Gruening Lone Senate Tonkin Gulf Opponents
In 1964, only two Senators opposed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that would launch America firmly and unstoppably into the Vietnam War.
Backgroundwise, Oregon’s Wayne Morse and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening would seem like the last two men to be paired together by history in perpetuity, as both came from very different backgrounds. Morse was a Baptist who grew up in a rural farming family. Gruening was a Jewish kid from Manhattan who studied medicine at Harvard before becoming a reporter. But by the end of their careers, both were institutions in their respective states who found Robert LaFollette an inspiration. Both were surprise second fiddles, and neither completely accepted the verdicts without taking another look back. Most importantly, neither turned back and thus were able to see their once lonely positions vindicated well before they died a month apart in 1974, as the terms they would have won were about to end.
Morse was a durable figure in Oregon . He may be the only person in history to serve in the upper chamber as a Republican, Independent, and Democrat. was elected to the Senate in 1944 as a Republican.
Morse actually grew up in Lafollette country, in Wisconsin, one of 10 siblings. The family was very much into Progressivism. Initially educated in a one room school, he was sent to the Madison school system. By 1928, he had his law degree and moved west. And he would find success. He would be the dean of the University of Oregon Law School at the age of 31, the youngest of anyone at that time in the nation. During the war, he became a labor arbitrator. Benjamin Robert Dore in a piece about Morse noted that “deeply committed to fairness and justice, he was popular with both unions and employees.”
Morse won his seat on the first try, in a 1944 Republican primary by knocking off the incumbent. In the Senate, Morse’s gift for oratory became legendary early on. Morse’s 22 hour, 26 minute filibuster protesting the Tideland’s Oil designation was the longest at that time, and remains second only to Strom Thurmond’s in 1957.
While Morse was always a Republican, he was also a Progressive. In fact, more Progressive than most Democrats. Morse was said to have left the Republican Party over Nixon’s selection as vice-president. He didn’t become a Democrat. He was an Independent and firmly had his seat planted in the middle of the Senate chamber. In 1952, that didn’t impact the make-up of the Senate and Morse lost his committee assignments. But in 1954, Republicans had a one vote margin and it was Morse’s call. LBJ, who would be Majority Leader, dangled the prospect of a committee assignment (of Morse’s choosing), and Morse, who had been stripped when he bolted the GOP, opted for Johnson. By the end of 1955, Morse had become a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Morse became a master of civil liberties protection and signed the Declaration of Conscience against Joe McCarthy. In 1960, Morse briefly sought the Presidential nomination, and Kennedy forces, despite not believing that Morse was a “serious candidate” sent Rose and Ted Kennedy to stump for JFK.
On the Senate floor, Morse asked for 2 hours of debate. Some thing a longer filibuster may have changed more minds. Morse didn’t think “and the killing of a single American in South Vietnam is a justifiable killing.” He said ‘the place to settle the controversy is not on the battlefield but around the conference table.” He closed with the words, “I am satisfied that history will render a final verdict in opposition to the joint resolution today.”
The FBI apparently investigated Morse at the height of the opposition.
Morse had once said “Lyndon Johnson represents Lyndon Johnson.” Yet when Johnson announced his surprise retirement in 1968, Morse was in the room with Humphrey and, nearly in tears, called it a “sad day.” Merle Miller in the book “Lyndon” called Morse a “sorehead and a malcontent.”
As Morse continued his crusade against the war, more and more Senators saw his side. But he wouldn’t be there much longer to say I told you so. A young State Representative named Bob Packwood. Though the two debated aggressively, Morse did not go hard after Packwood. The debate was telecast live in Portland, and those viewing saw the 36-year- old Packwood clearly get the best of the four-term, 68-year-old incumbent. Perhaps that was a mistake. Packwood’s 3,500 vote win was not affirmed for weeks.
In an election that close, anything could have made the difference. But it was said that loyalists of Democratic ex-Congressman Robert Duncan had either voted for Packwood, or simply not voted at all. Duncan was the standard bearer against Mark Hatfield in 1966, but Morse backed the Republican over Vietnam.
Morse and Mark Hatfield had a tremendous relationship and, despite being separated by party (hardly at all by philosophy), displayed genuine public affection for one another. Hatfield as a State Senator had said Eisenhower should pick Morse as his running-mate in 1952. When Morse came up for re-election two years later, Hatfield clearly wanted to return the favor to his colleague, particularly since Packwood (whom Morse had once taught, similar to Morse’s having taught his fellow Democratic colleague, Richard Neubauer) supported the war. But one article noted that Hatfield was dismissive of his fellow Republican’s chances, so in the interest of party unity and not wanting to anger a base that already found him to be an anathema, Hatfield did unity events for Packwood. Did that factor in to Morse’s decision to challenge Hatfield. Maybe not. It’s likely that he simply wanted back in the game. And ironically, Morse would beat Duncan in the primary, who this time vowed to assist him in the general.
At any rate, Morse saw a six percent deficit in the polls climb back to 20% by the end of the summer. The Eugene Register wrote “Morse constantly expresses his support for George McGovern in contrast to Hatfield, who downplays his support of Richard Nixon. Indeed, Oregon was changing and McGovern had feint hopes of taking the state. and Hatfield ultimately prevailed 54-46%.
But Morse needed one last hurrah, which came in 1974. Morse had manged to win the 1974 Senate nomination to take on Packwood in a spirited primary that focused on his age. But two months later, he was hospitalized. He was dead days later of kidney failure at 73.
Bill Fulbright would write in his book, the Price of Empire that Morse “was suspicious and he was willing as few individuals are, to be aggressive and abrasive to his colleagues on to President’s when he believed the people’s interests require it.” Fulbright also called him “a great debater, a gifted practitioner of an art form now in decline – and he retained an old-fashioned faith in government and the place for that discussion was on the Senate floor.”
Gruening’s time in the Senate was foreordained to be short, not only because Alaska did not become a state until 1959, but because he was 72 at the time he became a Senator. But he had actually been on his state’s political scene even longer than Morse in Oregon, and was, Alaska’s patrician.
But he was only a natural Senator because he had already given a lifetime of service to Alaska as a territory. He was it’s territorial Governor for 14 years, from 1937 to 1951 and stayed there even when his term ended. His was a case of an Easterner migrating out to the Last Frontier.’ But he was intrigued with Alaska becoming a state and was determined to see it through, so much so that he became “Mr. Alaska .” Gruening’s backround is colorful. Jewish, he was a medical student, editor of the Boston American, followed by a copy Editor for the Boston Evening Herald. He later became editor of The Nation. Indeed, Gruening had some fame as early as 1918, when the New York Times profiled him and he had a number of posts for the territory under FDR. He began lobbying for statehood in 1954 and created a flag with 50 stars.
Gruening easily won a Senate seat when Alaska entered the union. But by 1968, he faced a challenge from within, not because of Vietnam but because of his age. Mike Gravel even said age was the only reason he took on Gruening. It didn’t hurt that the New York Times referred to as a “dark, good-looking, 38 year old challenger,” named Mike Gravel. Gravel had done a documentary about his life which may have cost as much as $1,000 a week before the primary. It aired all over Alaska (it was not called the “Undefeated”). He carried Juneau where Gruening lived and ran barely behind in Fairbanks, which the Times said was “considered to be a Gruening strong hold.” Gruening at first said he was “not prepared to admit defeat,” but conceded a few days later, 2,000 votes behind. Gravel called him “more in the American thought on Vietnam .” Gruening remained in the race by launching a write0in bid for the seat and did garner an impressive 18%. But it was no where near enough.
Gruening’s grandson Clark returned the favor, ousting Gravel in the 1980 primary. In the fall, he seemed to be leading but lost the general election to Frank Murkowski.
But he continued his crusade. “The mess in Vietnam was inherited by President Johnson.” That holds true for President Nixon today; he is under no more obligation than was President Johnson to perpetuate his predecessor’s policies.
In 1970, about a year and a half after Morse and Gruening had left the Senate, they sat down separately for interviews, which was reproduced by google as it appeared in the Toledo Blade. Both remained in Washington, Morse residing at the Watergate ironically enough. Despite their advancing ages, both maintained a vigorous speaking schedule and Gruening returned to the helm of The Nation. When asked why Congress gave LBJ the authorization, Morse said “because they were gutless wonders. That’s why. They told me, ‘Don’t commit political suicide, Wayne. They were politically afraid. The doves cooed a good game but they didn’t vote the way they thought.” Gruening called “some of the so-called doves sympathetic but a majority of the Congress were simply hawks who swallowed the idea that we must stop communism everywhere.”
“The mood then was that papa knew best, that we didn’t have information the President had.”
Gruening, who spent most of his retirement working on his autobiography, was a little more charitable, calling one of “the glories of the Senate. that you can disagree with your colleagues without a loss of respect or cordiality. No one minds if you vote alone.”
Overpopulation was also a top Gruening concern. His death in 1974 of cancer at 87 was unexpected. He had been on the lecture circuit five weeks before his death from cancer at the age of 87. At that time, Morse saluted his comrade as having “personified complete honesty and courage as a public official and private citizen.” In little more than a month, he would be gone as well.