Patrol boats and two US Navy vessels had exchanged fire. Lyndon Johnson, just months away from the biggest popular-vote victory in presidential history, wanted to expand his military effort against Vietnam’s communist North.
Some feared unforeseen consequences, but Congress was in a compliant mood. “As a citizen, I feel I must support our president,” commented one senator, “whether the discussion is right or wrong.” The House approved the so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution 416-0.
Only two senators voted no. And only one became a national symbol of opposition to a political and military disaster: Oregon’s Wayne Morse, a craggy-voiced Republican-turned-Democrat, who sounded an early alarm against the Vietnam War in August 1964. “Being in the minority never proves that you’re wrong,” Morse told a TV interview just after the vote. “In fact, history is going to record that... I voted in the interest of the American people this morning.”
At the time, the establishment rolled its collective eyes. The New York Times patronized Morse, in office since 1945, as “the Senate’s most undaunted ‘aginner.’” The Washington Post called him “reckless and querulous.”
The Wayne Morse Center hosts a discussion on Vietnam featuring Daniel Ellsberg and others,
Sept 4 at the Oregon Historical Society
Morse, however, was accustomed to lonely stands. After starting as a liberal Republican, he declared himself an independent, at one point setting up a chair in the Senate aisle, literally between the two parties. As a Democrat, he ran as a left-leaning alternative against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 primaries. And as Vietnam divided the country, the mustachioed law professor from Eugene became an unlikely harbinger of Oregon’s willingness to buck the national tide. Morse died in 1974 while running against Bob Packwood, who’d narrowly defeated him in ’68.
“To me, it’s one of the most courageous votes anyone from Oregon has ever taken in Congress,” says Don Powell, a Portland political vet who served as Morse’s last campaign manager. “By ’74, people were starting to say, hey, Morse was right all along.”