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.”

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