Tuesday, May 27, 2008

WAYNE L. MORSE (1900-1974)

Wayne Morse came to political life from academe: he had been a professor and dean of the University of Oregon Law School. One of the foremost arbitrators of labor disputes in the country, he had rendered distinguished service on the War Labor Board during World War II, but had resigned in protest over what he deemed an unwarranted preferential award to John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers. Earlier he had breathed in the passion of politics in the Wisconsin of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, for he had been born near Madison and done his undergraduate work at the University there.

In 1944, despite his New Deal leanings, he was elected to the United State Senate as a Republican from Oregon. He was re-elected as a Republican in 1950, became an Independent in 1952, won re-election as a Democrat in 1956 and 1962, losing at last in 1968 to Republican Bob Packwood. All told, he served 24 years in the Senate without losing an election, a tribute to the constancy of the Oregon electorate and its prizing his independence.

Morse conceived his role to be “as a Senator from Oregon for the Nation.” Indeed, much of his legislative career focused on national and international issues. So varied and important were his contributions during this long career that one can only set forth some of the highlights. “A true liberal can’t limit himself to a few areas,” Morse once declared, “He must be on guard everywhere, ready to pounce on evil whenever it raises its ugly head.”

Opposing Taft-Hartley

Morse’s first major break with the leadership of his party came in 1947. Robert Taft of Ohio, the Senate Majority Leader, had set out to redress the balance of power between labor and employers, which, in his view, the Wagner Act had tipped too far in labor’s favor. Taft’s bill, which eventually emerged from Congress as the Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act, loosened some of the restrictions on employers and outlawed certain union practices, such as jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts. Morse, an acknowledged expert in labor law, fought successfully in committee to blunt Taft’s measures, only to see the Leader, having the votes at his command, restore his provisions by amendment when the bill reached the floor. Morse only succeeded in salvaging labor’s right to industry-wide bargaining.

Gung Ho on Korea

On June 27, 1950, President Truman announced to Congress that he had ordered American forces to resist an unprovoked attack by Communist North Korea on South Korea. Although he did not ask for a declaration of war, Congress responded with overwhelming support, authorizing a one-year extension of the draft and call-up of reservists. Truman’s action, taken as commander-in chief of the armed forces, without a Congressional declaration of war, set a precedent that every American president has since followed, and that has become increasingly controversial. Morse, never doubting the need to repel the Communist aggression, enthusiastically supported the president, and that day delivered on the floor a statement that these days would warm the heart of George W. Bush:
Those of us who have studied constitutional law know that the so-called Commander-in-Chief powers of the President of the United States as referred to in the Constitution have yet to be defined fully in the decisions of the Supreme Court. In my opinion, they are very broad powers in time of emergency and national crisis.
He was to amend that opinion some years later, when American involvement in the Vietnam struggle evolved over time, rather than in response to a sudden crisis.

Facing up to McCarthy

The 1950s also saw Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin launch his wild-swinging campaign to rid the Administration, the State Department and the Army of the Communists that he charged had infiltrated them. With most of the country and his fellow Senators cowed into silence by the climate of fear that McCarthy had stirred up, Morse joined Margaret Chase Smith of Maine in being first to boldly challenge his reckless tactics, and to do so in the Senate, the fount and cover of his frightening power. In a powerful speech on the floor in support of her Declaration of Conscience, which he had signed, he thundered, “I’m still waiting for the first case which Senator McCarthy can establish his burden of proof. I want proof – not accusations; I want proof, not smear: I want proof – not character assassination.” That early challenge was to lead over time to Senate censure of McCarthy and to his downfall. Early in his 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney has Murrow’s CBS staffers, in a program conference, note that Morse is to speak on McCarthy in the Senate the next day.

One for the Books

Morse was a believer in filibusters to delay, rather than thwart, action by the Senate, to assure that the public has time to pay attention to important matters and make their thoughts known to their Senators. So, in April 1953, he gave the longest continuous speech in the history of the Senate, 22 hours and 26 minutes, in a futile attempt to prevent passage of a bill, favored by the Republican Administration, to transfer to the coastal states title to their tideland waters. The point was to permit these states, principally California, Texas and Louisiana, to open the waters to offshore oil drilling. Morse opposed giving to the coastal states a resource that he felt belonged to all. But on May 6th, after five weeks of debate, the Senate passed the bill, 56-35, without significant modification.

At the United Nations

In 1960, now a Democrat, Morse was at low ebb politically and temperamentally, having suffered a discouraging response to his intimation that he might seek the presidency. At this low point, President Eisenhower, whom he’d attacked time and again, threw him a lifeline, to the bewilderment of all: appointment as the Democratic Congressional delegate to the United Nations. Morse was now a minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, by custom of seniority in line for the appointment, but Eisenhower could have by-passed him. Morse regarded the appointment as “probably the greatest honor and opportunity for public service that has come to me since I have been in the Senate.” But he soon became disillusioned. He chafed at having to speak and vote as instructed by the State Department, despite reservations that he might harbor. So he sought – unsuccessfully – the right for the UN ambassador to appeal unwelcome instructions directly to the President. Free to write frankly in his final report to the Senate, he set down his reservations about the influence of the military on foreign policy:
Our policy makers in the Pentagon Building are not sufficiently sensitive about the politics and practices of some of the colonial powers in respect to human rights of the indigenous people whom they rule and dominate. In the name of military defense, the United States has spent huge sums of money for bases and military installations in dictator countries, resulting in great economic benefit to colonial powers and dictatorships. It is very doubtful that the over-all effect of many of these military installations has been to strengthen the security of the United States … The Department of State has seemed to lack the necessary disposition either to question the military need for such requirements or to balance their importance properly against other policy objectives. Once the Joint Chiefs of Staff have spoken, that tends to end the discussion.
The report had little impact on the Senators or the Administration of his day, but it is in the records and lies ready to hand to inspire latter-day Senators concerned at the proliferation of American military installations throughout the globe; perhaps the Pentagon still exercises the powerful influence over American foreign policy that troubled Morse so many years ago.

Aiding Education

Morse’s greatest positive achievement was his guiding into law in 1961 the first federal aid to education act since World War II. As chairman of the subcommittee on education of the Senate Committee on Labor and Education, he sheparded the bill through the Senate, deftly turning aside proposed amendments to provide loans to private schools and that would have prevented withholding funds from states that practiced segregation, amendments that could have sunk the bill. The Senate passed the bill 49-34, only to have it stymied by the House Rules Committee, then rescued by President Lyndon Johnson’s intervention with House leaders. Morse received kudos for his role in its passage.

Against the Vietnam War

Morse is, of course, best remembered for his implacable opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His U.N. experience had made him wary of the United States siding with colonial powers in their relations with their dependent peoples, and as early as 1961 he began to speak against the Administration sending military advisers to the South Vietnamese government that the French, the former colonial power, had abandoned. As U.S. involvement escalated, so did Morse’s vocal opposition. He and Ernest Gruening of Alaska called for the Vietnamese dispute to be referred to the U.N. As American military presence in Southeast Asia increased, Morse, in a July 1964 speech, stated his belief that the Administration would soon need “an incident” to justify that presence. The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the pretext, if not the justification. The Joint Resolution of August 7, 1964, authorized the president “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” Morse and Gruening were the only two Senators to vote against it.

Morse continued to stump the country, condemning our involvement in the war, giving aid and comfort to the growing opposition in the country until the humiliating denouement. Biographer Anna Kasten Nelson has written that “His entire career seemed to have been preparation for his stance in this wrenching turning point in American history.”


Morse had no illusions about his role in the Senate: “I know my place in politics. I am a political irritant.” But, as biographer F. Ross Peterson described him, “no muzzle could restrain him from speaking his mind. The mustachioed Morse searched for truth at the expense of his own popularity, guided by an unequivocal conscience and integrity; candor and honesty were the result.” The Nation called him one of history’s great senators, adding that “Few men in public life in our time have served the best interest of the American people with more courage, intelligence, consistency and distinction.”

To download a complete copy of A Modest Proposal, click here.

Monday, May 5, 2008

BURTON K. WHEELER (1882-1975)

Burton Wheeler, a New Englander transplanted to Montana, is an enigma: a populist early in his political career, tilting against big business, a Democratic maverick in Congress, he ended as a right-wing conservative lawyer for interests that he had attacked most of his political life. But throughout, he left no doubt that he was always his own man.

As a young Democratic lawyer in Montana he courageously fought the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which dominated business and politics in the state, including the Democratic Party. Though elected to the state legislature in 1910, Anaconda opposition led to defeats in 1912, when he ran for state attorney general, and in 1920, when he ran for governor on both the Democratic and Nonpartisan League tickets. In this last campaign he was mercilessly red-baited, and had a rival Democratic opponent entered against him. In 1922, however, with the Democrats now united behind him, he won election to the U.S. Senate, then under Republican control. He was to win re-election to four more successive six-year terms.

Upsetting the Lodge

Wheeler immediately challenged long-standing custom. Committee assignments having been set by the majority and minority leadership, Henry Cabot Lodge, the majority leader, on December 10, 1923 in time-honored practice, asked for Senate approval by “unanimous consent”, without a vote. The presiding officer then traditionally calls, “Without objection, so ordered.” But this time Wheeler, the new freshman, objected loudly, creating a stalemate that was to last thirty days. Wheeler objected because Albert B. Cummins of Iowa, the President pro-tem, who presided over the Senate whenever the Vice President, the Constitutionally-designated presiding officer, was absent – which was often – was also in line to chair the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Wheeler, whose main legislative interest at the time was control of the rates that the railroads charged farmers, objected to Cummins, “the man who championed the cause of the railroads” , holding two such important posts. Cummins refused to give up the presiding office, and it took until January 9, 1924 for the Republican Old Guard and Progressives and the Democrats to sort things out. When the sorting was over, “Cotton Ed” Smith, a Democrat of South Carolina, had been elected Chairman of the Committee, in a Senate with a Republican majority!

Upsetting an Attorney General

A little over a month later, the still green freshman took the floor to deliver what he considered “the most important speech of (his) career” , in support of his resolution calling for a select committee to investigate the failure of Harry M. Daugherty, President Harding’s crony and Attorney General to prosecute those accused in the Teapot Dome oil lease scandal and other fraud cases. The Senate having approved, Wheeler conducted the inquiry, presenting evidence which led President Coolidge, who had become president on Harding’s death, to force Daugherty’s resignation. The freshman had become a national figure.

A LaFollette Progressive

Before 1924, a presidential election year, was out, Wheeler made more national headlines. A Democrat, he had nevertheless agreed to run as candidate for the vice presidency on “Fighting Bob” LaFollette’s Progressive Party ticket, which, despite a vigorous campaign, suffered the defeat that most third parties suffer in presidential races. The Progressives, though polling over 4,800,000 votes, carried only Wisconsin, LaFollette’s home state, and its thirteen electoral votes.

The New Dealer

Wheeler was the first prominent Democrat outside New York State to endorse Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1932. He supported most New Deal legislation, although he was to break seriously with FDR on two very crucial issues.

As Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he performed an extraordinary service for FDR in 1935 when he managed through the Senate and a conference committee with the House, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. He did so against ferocious pressure from the industry. The complex bill, carefully drafted by Administration lawyers, was aimed at the pyramiding of non-operating holding companies above operating utilities, leading to overcapitalization and concentration of control in fewer hands that translated into what Wheeler called “outrageous prices on light, gas, water and power consumers.” This was a basic pocketbook issue for households and businesses throughout the country. In the 1930s thirteen holding company groups controlled 75% of the privately-owned electric utility industry, and the three largest controlled some 40% themselves.

The Senate bill contained a provision, which the industry PR people called a “death sentence”, that required all holding companies not part of geographically and economically integrated systems to dissolve or reorganize themselves by January 1, 1938. On this provision the industry concentrated its formidable fire. It unleashed an onslaught whose fury is difficult to imagine. After it was over, a Senate committee headed by Hugo Black of Alabama, investigating the industry lobbying that went on, reported that the utilities had spent about $1,500,000 – a huge sum at the time – to stimulate protests against the bill, financing a campaign of 200,000 telegrams and 5,000,000 letters to Capitol Hill. The Scripps-Howard newspapers reported that the industry had marshaled an army of 660 lobbyists to pressure 527 members of Congress. They came very close to swaying Congress to their will.

Wheeler, wielding a handwritten note that he’d personally coaxed from FDR saying that the President wanted the “death sentence” kept in the bill, just managed to get it through the Senate by one vote, 45-44; the House knocked it out in their version. There were even indications that, in the face of the pressure, FDR was shying away from actively rallying the troops. With the House conferees threatening to kill the “death sentence” in conference, Wheeler persuaded the President to sign a note, delivered to Speaker Rayburn, stating that he wanted the “death sentence” in the final bill. That did the trick. The House conferees backed off, and the Administration bill was passed by both Houses and signed into law by FDR on August 26, 1935.

Saving the High Court

The first serious break with the President occurred in 1937 when Wheeler, “flabbergasted”, as he said, by FDR’s bombshell announcement of his Court Packing Plan, resolved that he “would have to do everything (he) could to fight the plan.”

The Supreme Court, taking a constricted view of the reach of Congress’s power over interstate commerce and of its power to assign discretionary functions to administrative agencies, had been throwing roadblocks in the path of the New Deal’s efforts to deal with the Depression: it had declared unconstitutional the National Industrial Recovery Act and the first Agricultural Adjustment Act. Chafing in frustration, Roosevelt, flushed with his landslide victory in the recent election – and apparently without consulting his leaders in Congress – announced his plan calling for the authority to appoint one new Supreme Court justice for every judge who refused to retire after his seventieth birthday (Federal judges have lifetime appointments!). His purpose was transparent: to pack the Court with justices with a more expansive view of Congress’s powers under the Constitution, who could outvote the more obstructive of the “nine old men.” Wheeler would have none of it.

After alerting his wife to the political risk that he was about to run in opposing a President at the height of his popularity, he released a statement to the press opposing the plan. Throughout, he remained one of the leaders of the fight against the plan. He resolutely declined invitations to dine with FDR, avoiding the spell of the President’s charm. He repelled a constant flow of Democratic leaders, beginning with Vice President Garner, urging him to back off or compromise. In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee he said that although he disagreed with many decisions of the Court, he opposed in principle “tinkering” with the composition of the Court; that “age has (nothing) to do with liberalism” , and that it was a serious reflection on the Court to say that it was behind in its work. He trumped the contentions of the proponents of the bill by drawing from his pocket a letter that he had received from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and signed by liberal Justice Louis D. Brandeis and conservative Justice Willis VanDevanter, refuting point by point the Administration’s position. The letter caused a sensation and was instantly seized upon by the media. It decisively turned the tide and set it running against the bill, which was voted down 70-20 in the Senate.

In the end, the Court Packing struggle turned out to be a win-win affair: Wheeler won the battle, but FDR – and Wheeler – won the war. Even as the battle raged, the Supreme Court altered course and held the Wagner National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act constitutional. Some of the “nine old men” began retiring, making way for more congenial presidential appointments. When Justice VanDevanter retired that same year, FDR appointed Senator Hugo Black of Alabama to the vacant seat, rewarding his ardent support. To the next vacancy he appointed Senator Sherman Minton of Indiana for the same reason.

The American Firster

Wheeler’s other break with the President came over the war in Europe. He was implacably against American involvement. After the death of Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, he became the leading isolationist in Congress. He actively opposed every measure that might lead to intervention, often going to excess. Distorting a slogan of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, he called the Lend-Lease bill in aid of beleaguered Britain “the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy – it will plow under every fourth American boy,” a remark which FDR called “the most untruthful … most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has been said in public life in my generation.”

With Charles A. Lindbergh, Wheeler became one of the leaders of the America First Committee, dedicated to keeping America out of the war, and one of its principal speakers. In April 1941, he joined Lindbergh in proclaiming Britain defeated and calling for negotiated peace with Hitler. Wheeler went further; in July he called a press conference to announce that the United States was about to occupy Iceland, doing so before the troops had departed or before the Administration was to make its announcement. Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he released to the press a classified War Department Victory Plan, leaked to him by a disgruntled Army Air Corps officer, outlining steps to be taken by the Untied States in the event it entered the war.

The attack on Pearl Harbor effectively ended his insurgency, and he thereafter supported the war effort. This did not save him from defeat when he ran for re-election in 1946. So prominent an America Firster had he been, that Philip Roth cast him as Lindbergh’s fictional Vice President in his terrifying 2004 novel, The Plot against America.


Wheeler took positions and said and did things from time to time that even objective observers would consider discreditable. However, in all his public acts he was his own man, beholden to his conscience alone, following his own moral compass. He also did much good. Although a loner for most of his political life, he left a profound mark on Congressional and American history. In his autobiography, Wheeler wrote:
I felt then and I feel now that the office of United States Senator is the finest there is – if you are a free man. By this I mean free from dictation by political bosses and control by corporations, labor or other pressure groups. A Senator as fortunately situated as I was in Montana could disagree with a President who was in his own party when he believed the President was wrong. To be beholden to any individual or group would have made the Senate a stultifying experience for me.
It would be hard to find more encouraging words for nonpartisans.

To download a complete copy of A Modest Proposal, click here.