The Enduring Spirit of a Dissident Senator
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.
Thirty-five years ago, 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, which 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. It would have been much easier to acquiesce to the media's war fever. But Morse was not the silent type, especially in matters of conscience.
On Feb. 27, 1968, I sat in a small room at the Capitol to watch a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Six members of the panel were seated around a long table. Most of all, I remember Morse's voice, raspy and urgent.
"My views are no longer lonely," he noted at one point, adding: "You have millions of people who are not going to support this tyranny that American boys are being killed in South Vietnam to maintain in power."
Morse summed up his position on negotiations between the U.S. government and its Vietnamese adversaries: "Who are we to say there have to be two Vietnams? They are not going to do it and they shouldn't do it. There isn't any reason in the world why the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong should ever come to a negotiating table on the basis that there must be two Vietnams."
Moments before the hearing adjourned, Morse said that he did not "intend to put the blood of this war on my hands."
At the time, 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 re-election in November 1968. The winner was a slick politician named Robert Packwood, who denounced Morse's anti-war fervor.
In his lifetime, Morse became a media pariah. In the quarter-century since his death, political reporters have rarely mentioned his name.
But a vivid new documentary, premiering this fall, will allow viewers to see and hear for themselves. Produced by independent filmmakers Christopher Houser and Robert Millis, "The Last Angry Man" chronicles the extraordinary efforts and intrepid spirit of Wayne Morse.
The one-hour movie (summarized at www.squaredeal.net) includes stunning excerpts from speeches and interviews that convey the fortitude and courage of a senator who put principle above politics.
"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.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."