As we weigh an attack on Iraq, we need someone like the Vietnam era’s Wayne Morse.
As prominent senators consider the wisdom of making war on Iraq, truly independent thinking seems to stop at the water’s edge. But I keep recalling a very different scene: On Feb. 27, 1968, I sat in a small room on Capitol Hill. Around a long table, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was in session, taking testimony from an administration official. I remember a man with a push-broom mustache and a voice like sandpaper, raspy and urgent.
Wayne Morse, the senior senator from Oregon, did not resort to euphemism. He spoke of the “tyranny that American boys are being killed in South Vietnam to maintain in power.” Moments before the hearing adjourned, Morse said he did not “intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.”
It’s hard to imagine the late senator going along with claims today that the U.S. government has a right to attack Iraq because of the doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense.”
A fierce advocate of international law, Morse had no patience for double standards. In 1964 he told a national TV audience: “I don’t know why we think, just because we’re mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right. And that’s the American policy in Southeast Asia–just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it.”
Nor was Morse at all tolerant of pronouncements about the necessity of saving face. He bristled at the kind of logic advanced the other day by a top Pentagon advisor, James R. Schlesinger, who asserted that “given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity of regime change in Iraq … our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place.”
Members of Congress are apt to focus on the efficacy of taking military action, the hazards of getting bogged down, the need for a clear exit strategy. But such discussions did not preoccupy Morse. He directly challenged the morality–not just the “winnability”–of the war in Vietnam. And from the outset he insisted that democracy requires substantial public knowledge and real congressional oversight rather than acquiescence to presidential manipulation.
Appearing on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Morse objected when journalist Peter Lisagor said, “Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy.” The senator responded sharply: “Couldn’t be more wrong. 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.”
When Lisagor prodded him (“To whom does it belong then, senator?”), Morse did not miss a beat: “It belongs to the American people…. And I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy.”
When his questioner persisted–“You know, senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy”–Morse became indignant. “Why do you say that?” he demanded. “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.”
Today there are ample reasons for similar concerns.
During the early years of the Vietnam War, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee functioned as a crucial venue for dissenting perspectives, but in its current incarnation the panel is notably less independent. The witness list for this week’s hearings about Iraq prompted Scott Ritter, an ex-Marine and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, to charge that Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and most of the congressional leadership “have preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”
Transfixed with tactical issues, none of the senators on television in recent days would dream of acknowledging the current relevance of a statement made by Morse a third of a century ago: “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.”
With war and peace hanging in the balance, I miss Wayne Morse. He insisted on asking tough questions. He fully utilized a keen intellect. And he spoke fearlessly from the heart without worrying about the political consequences.