Public memory is a perishable good. Within a decade, we forget important names and historic events. I hate to think what a pollster would find if he asked Oregonians if they recognized the name of Wayne Morse, Oregon's iconoclastic U.S. senator from 1945 to 1968.
Oregon Quarterly, the University of Oregon's glossy magazine, has done justice to Morse's memory. Writing in the current issue, Ron Manuto and Sean Patrick O'Rourke summarize the drama and meaning of Morse's vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the summer of 1964. Morse and Alaska's Sen. Ernest Gruening were the lone "no" votes.
The Tonkin Resolution gave President Lyndon Johnson a virtual blank check to run the Vietnam War. Within two years of the vote, troop strength would increase dramatically.
History has vindicated Morse and Gruening for their lonely stand. So have the tapes of President Johnson's telephone conversations. In recorded dialogues with Sen. Richard Russell and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, it is abundantly clear that Vietnam was a quagmire that stymied our national leaders. Johnson talked publicly about "a light at the ending of the tunnel," but privately complained of having no options, to win or to get out.
The example of Morse's leadership is relevant to America's predicament in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Senate contains no one of Morse's intellect. His command of constitutional law and foreign policy was peerless, and he was a feared debater.
Listen to what Morse argued in 1968 and apply it to Iraq. "We can always get a surrender if we continue to kill enough people and destroy enough property. But that will not bring peace. It will bring a truce, but we will not be able to bring any troops home from there. They will have to be left there to enforce the truce, while the Asians dig in deeper and deeper, in hatred of the United States and her venture until eventually they drive us out."
It is relatively easy to look back on an era and see it clearly. Some would say that the choices presented by the Vietnam war were well defined in 1964 or in 1968. For some Americans, perhaps it was. But for many others, it was murky. In the run-up to war, glands always trump brains.Manuto and O'Rourke note that Morse could not persuade Sen. J. William Fulbright to hold hearings on the Vietnam War in advance of the Senate's consideration of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Years hence, Fulbright would join Morse as an outspoken critic of the war.
As a freshman senator in 1967, Mark Hatfield of Oregon opposed the war along with Frank Church of Idaho and George McGovern of South Dakota. Years later, Congress would pull the financial plug on the war.
In the context of the 2004 presidential campaign, we are reliving those discussions of some 30 years ago. Some veterans have attacked John Kerry for having spoken out against the war after he had returned from Vietnam. Kerry was not alone in his anger at a war that appeared hopeless. Moreover, it took courage for a veteran to speak the truth about that misbegotten war.
I remember a moment in my Vietnam tour as a U.S. Marine. I was on perimeter guard duty in Dong Ha in 1967. Two senior noncommissioned officers were having a discussion about why we were in Vietnam. In a nutshell, they didn't know the answer to that question. It occurred to me that if those guys, whom we called "lifers," didn't have a conviction about the war's purpose, it would be hard to expect anyone else to.
The most important question in 2004 is "What have we learned?" Are we any smarter than Americans were in 1964 when LBJ tricked them? In the run-up to a war, glands always trump brains. That's why Vice President Dick Cheney continues to scare us to death.
The most important questions are: "What has President George W. Bush learned?" And "What has John Kerry learned."
Only the most committed spinmeister can believe that the Iraq War is going well or that it is a good thing. President Bush has talked boldly this week about how well things are going. Perhaps he is saying that only for effect. Or perhaps he really believes it.
History tells us that the next president must find a way out of this mess. And that it will be ugly.