It was a chilling moment on a split-screen of history. While the Senate debated the Iraq war on the night of July 17, a long-dead senator again renounced a chronic lie about congressional options and presidential power.
The Senate was in the final hours of another failure to impede the momentum of war. As the New York Times was to report, President Bush “essentially won the added time he said he needed to demonstrate that his troop buildup was succeeding.”
Meanwhile, inside a movie theater on the opposite coast, the thunderous voice of Senator Wayne Morse spoke to 140 people at an event organized by the activist group Sacramento for Democracy. The extraordinary senator was speaking in May 1964 -- and in July 2007.
A typical dash of media conventional wisdom had set him off. The moderator of the CBS program Face the Nation, journalist Peter Lisagor, told the guest: “Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy.”
“Couldn’t be more wrong,” Morse shot back. “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 sounded a bit exasperated: “To whom does it belong, then, Senator?”
Again, Morse didn’t hesitate. “It belongs to the American people,” the senator fired back. And he added: “What I’m saying is -- under our Constitution all the president is, is the administrator of the people’s foreign policy, those are his prerogatives, and I’m pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy --”
“You know, Senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy --”
“Why do you say that? Why, you’re a man of little faith in democracy if you make that kind of comment,” Morse retorted. “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.”
As Wayne Morse spoke, applause pulsed through the theater. I’ve seen the same thing happen many times this summer -- whether in New York or D.C. or San Luis Obispo or Sacramento -- with audiences suddenly bursting into loud applause when they hear Morse near the end of the documentary film (War Made Easy, based on my book of the same name).
Even most antiwar activists don’t seem to know anything about Wayne Morse. Whited out of political memory and media history, he was long ago banished to an Orwellian vacuum tube.
Compared to Morse -- even today, more than four years into the horrendous Iraq war -- almost every “antiwar” member of the U.S. Senate is restrained and unduly deferential to presidential war-making power. If you doubt that, consider the Senate’s 97-0 vote in mid-July that laid a flagstone on a path toward military confrontation with yet another country: warning Iran that it would be held accountable for an alleged role in attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Morse’s exchange with the Face the Nation host on May 24, 1964, occurred more than two months before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution sailed through Congress on the basis of presidential lies about a supposed unprovoked attack on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. Morse was one of only two members of the entire Congress to vote against that resolution, which served as a green light for massive escalation of the Vietnam War.
As the years of carnage went by, Senator Morse never let up. And so, when a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee neared a close on February 27, 1968, Morse said -- on the record -- that he did not “intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.”
A big media lie is that members of Congress are doing all they can when they try and fail to pass measures that would impose a schedule for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The Constitution gives Congress the power to pay for war -- and to stop a war by refusing to appropriate money for it. Every vote to pay for more war is soaked with blood.
Wayne Morse knew that truth -- and said it out loud. Today, few senators come close.