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What would these two Gulf of Tonkin dissenters say about Congress today?

57 years after Senators Gruening and Morse made their lonely stand, lawmakers are still passively ceding war powers to the president.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The House voted last month to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and more recently it voted to scrap leftover authorizations from 1957 and 1991 related to the Eisenhower Doctrine and the Gulf War, respectively. The great prize in reasserting Congress’ role in war powers, however, is still the repeal of the 2001 AUMF that has provided the legal cover for an ever-expanding number of military actions around the world. 

The 2001 AUMF is a perfect example of what U.S. Senator Wayne Morse once condemned as a “predated declaration of war” that the president could use to embroil the United States in armed conflict at his discretion. Since it was passed, it has been stretched beyond recognition to justify military operations everywhere from Afghanistan to the Sahel, and the number of potential targets has only grown with time. 

The use and abuse of that authority is a cautionary tale that shows why Congress must never again grant the president open-ended power to wage war. To help us avoid making that mistake again, we need to remember some of the earliest opponents of presidential overreach, Sens. Morse and Ernest Gruening, the only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.

Congressional abdication of its constitutional responsibilities in matters of war dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War, and these two courageous dissenters deserve to be remembered for their principled opposition to an unnecessary and illegal war when that was still a very unpopular position to take. Morse, a Democrat from Oregon, was the more relentless of the two in his criticism of ceding war powers to the executive. Each time there was a debate on a resolution giving the president blanket authority in different parts of the world, Morse could be counted on to speak against the measure. He was one of only three to vote against the “Formosa Resolution” that gave the president wide latitude to use the armed forces to protect the island — now Taiwan — from mainland Chinese attack. He was just one of 19 to vote against the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine resolution that led to intervention in Lebanon the following year. 

Speaking about these fights late in his life, according to his biographer Mason Drukman, Morse said, 

“Many people seem to think that because the Senate passes something, that makes it constitutional. Well, the Senate can’t make something constitutional which is unconstitutional in fact. The authority they sought to give the president in the Formosa Resolution and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Middle East Resolution… is just an unconstitutional act on the part of the Congress as well as on the part of the President.” 

Rubber stamping the president’s unconstitutional usurpation of war powers does not make that usurpation legitimate, but simply implicates Congress in the violation. It is necessary for Congress to debate and vote on matters of war, and they must retain their authority and not hand it over to the president as they have done so many times with these authorization resolutions.

When Gruening, a Democrat from Alaska, and Morse cast their dissenting votes in the lopsided 88-2 roll call, they did not know the extent to which President Johnson had lied to Congress and the public about the supposed incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. Morse suspected that administration officials were not telling him the truth, but he didn’t realize just how deceitful they were being. The senators still voted against the resolution because they understood far better than their colleagues and most of their countrymen at the time that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was both wrong and illegal. Morse stated, “Our government has no right to send American boys to their death in any battlefield in the absence of a declaration of war, and Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution vests the prerogative of declaring war in the Congress of the United States. And no war has been declared in Southeast Asia, and until a war is declared, it is unconstitutional to send American boys to their death in South Vietnam, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia.” They saw with remarkable clarity what a tragic and destructive waste a U.S. war in Southeast Asia would be, and they were certain that Congress should not roll over and give the president a blank check to wage that war. 

Gruening wrote in defense of his vote against the resolution in his autobiography, “Many Battles”:

“I had no alternative. I was convinced of the folly of our military involvement in Southeast Asia, and having declared my opposition to it nearly five months earlier and having reiterated it subsequently, I could only view the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as a blank check to the President to escalate and widen that involvement. Moreover, the text of the resolution, apart from its misrepresentation of what happened in the Tonkin Gulf, embodied three falsities which aggravated the whole deception. The action authorized was not, as the resolution declared, consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations, nor was it in accordance with our obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Treaty. Article I, Section Eight, of the Constitution does not permit the President to wage war at his own discretion. The Charter of the United Nations specifically forbids the action authorized by the resolution and proposes wholly different alternatives. And so does the Southeast Asia Collective Treaty.”

One of the interesting details from the arguments that Gruening and Morse made against intervention is that they framed going to war in Vietnam as a violation of international law and the U.N. Charter. It is almost unheard of today for senators to invoke the authority of the Charter when it comes to American wars, but Morse and Gruening were genuine internationalists that believed that the U.S. was obliged to respect the Charter’s prohibition on the use of force except in self-defense. They could see that war in Vietnam had nothing to do with defending the United States, and they refused to budge. 

Following the vote, Morse said, “History is going to record that Sen. Gruening and I voted in the interests of the American people this morning when we voted against this resolution. And I’d have the American people remember what this resolution really is. It’s a resolution which seeks to give the President of the United States the power to make war without a declaration of war.”

Morse and Gruening appealed to the national interest, moral conscience, and constitutional and international law in their opposition to the resolution and the ensuing war. They were overwhelmingly outnumbered at first, but within just a few years they were vindicated. Their example should be an inspiration to advocates of peace and restraint today. 

Today Congress must not only insist on having a say in whether the U.S. goes to war, but it must also wrest back the authority that presidents have been claiming for themselves since the start of the Korean War. In practice, that means that Congress should refuse to pass authorizations that hand the president unchecked power to wage war. Congress must serve as a check and a brake on presidential warmaking, and it should never again serve as its willing enabler. 

President Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as congressional leaders look on, August 10, 1964. (National Archives)
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