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Transcript: #41-99 War Stories: The Gulf of Tonkin and Wayne Morse
October 13, 1999

Program description, guest contact information and audio files at

Phillip Babich: This week on Making Contact...

Peter Lisagor: Senator, the Constitution gives to the President of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy...

Wayne Morse: ...couldn't be more wrong, you couldn't make a more unsound legal statement than the one you have just made...

Norman Solomon: Morse was only one of two Senators, the other was Ernest Gruening of Alaska, to vote against the Tonkin resolution. It was kind of an invitation to stand up and salute the flag, and anybody who refused to do so was attacked as a, was essentially treated as, a pariah, attacked as somebody who lacked requisite patriotism and military resolve...

Phillip Babich: Thirty-five years ago, the Gulf of Tonkin incident led, days later, to Congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave President Lyndon Johnson backing to launch military strikes against North Vietnam. Only two senators dissented. One of them was Oregon Senator Wayne Morse. On this program we take a look at Morse's role in opposing the Vietnam war. We'll also examine what his legacy means today, as the U.S. government continues to plan for wars and work with the mass media to win-over public opinion.

I'm Phillip Babich, your host this week on Making Contact an international radio program seeking to make create connections between people, vital ideas, and important information.

On August 5, 1964, a headline on the front page of the Washington Post declared: "American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression." That same day the front page of the New York Times reported: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin." As it turned out, however, there was no "second attack" or "renewed attacks against American destroyers." But public perception of the events that actually took place in the Gulf of Tonkin was skewed by the mass media, and days later, on August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

No official declaration of war was ever made with regard to U.S. military action in Vietnam.

Peter Lisagor: Senator Morse, what do you mean when you call our participation in the South Vietnam war unconstitutional and illegal?

Wayne Morse: 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. 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. It's just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it.

Phillip Babich: Senator Wayne Morse, a Republican-turned-Democrat who served in the Senate for 24 years, was one of the only senators to speak out consistently against the Vietnam War from the very beginning. In a new documentary film, "The Last Angry Man," producers Robert Millis and Christopher Houser examine the life and career of Senator Morse, an unyielding advocate for what he termed "clean government." Robert Millis spoke with Making Contact about Morse's vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Robert Millis: When the Gulf of Tonkin incident came around, Wayne Morse's was one of two votes against the resolution, and some believe that he may have had inside information from the Pentagon and private sources that he was close to. But regardless of that, he saw something very specific legally in that, as a lawyer, being able to see that in violation of, actually, the Constitution. The Congress was abdicating its responsibility. And so he stood with Senator Gruening, of Alaska, against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution primarily on that principal. It did turn out that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. So with that in mind, he was then proved right. But no one in the country would find that out for several years.

Phillip Babich: There must have been some interesting bits of information you came across while researching this moment. I mean, what were some of the more interesting things you came across while looking into what Wayne Morse might have known at the time, when he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Robert Millis: Well, actually approaching this years later as someone who did not live through the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in that time period. I have all kinds of preconceived notions about what went on. And actually, some of the most compelling things that struck me were people's perspectives saying that actually there was good reason to believe this is happening, that there was good reason to support Johnson in that. And that it was not so simple as we see it now. And in some ways I find that to be one of the most important elements... it is that I think the anti-war movement, and in fact, on any issue, in any case, needs to recognize what they're up against as far as the media influence and the political influence over the voters. Because at that time there was enough evidence, and there was enough historical precedence to convince most of Congress that they did, in fact, have to back Johnson.

Wayne Morse: Why, not give the president a vote of confidence? This was the lingo of the reservationists: We've got to back our president. Since when do we have to back our President, or should we, when the president is proposing an unconstitutional act? And so these reservationists said that although I'm going to back my president, I want to show him I have confidence in him. I want to warn him I'm not giving him a blank check. This doesn't mean that I don't expect him to consult me in the future. This doesn't mean that the president can go ahead and send additional troops over there without consulting me, a senator of the United States. And you know, I most respectfully, but used language that they understood, said that's just nonsense. I want to say to my colleagues in the Senate, you're being consulted right now.

Robert Millis: One of the interesting things too is that Morse stood alone before that, which distanced him from a lot of his colleagues, and it became very difficult for them to be convinced during the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and during its passing. Because he'd already lambasted them on the floor, he'd already ridiculed them or mocked them or harassed them, and very publicly, as well.

Phillip Babich: So he already had a reputation as being somewhat of a troublemaker, or muckraker, in the Senate?

Robert Millis: Exactly. In fact, early on he was calling for the impeachment of Eisenhower and Dulles, long before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution came around.

Phillip Babich: What do you believe Wayne Morse actually knew when he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution? Do you think he knew that the Gulf of Tonkin never happened, the incident never happened?

Robert Millis: I think there may have been, from the interviews we've done, I feel pretty confident saying yes, he probably did know that it never happened. However, at the same time he may have doubted some of that information too. It's hard for me to say.

Phillip Babich: ...the newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times were reporting this did happen. It would be tough to say it didn't happen.

Robert Millis: Exactly.

Phillip Babich: And what does that reveal about Wayne Morse , in his career, that he might have known the incident didn't actually happen, but he respected the fact that the information was classified, or that maybe it was just too much to bring out to the American public. What does it say about Wayne Morse?

Robert Millis: I think in some ways it says one that he still had such a firm basis in every belief in law. And as a lawyer, as an incredible legal scholar, his main faith, I think, fell in the law and in the Constitution of the United States. And that was his priority. And if it was classified, he would not betray it. And consistently, throughout the war in Vietnam, they were getting classified information on a regular basis. And he knew that he could not divulge this information. And he never did. However, a few years later, it would come out, and he would be proven correct, and it would then bolster his position once again, and bring supporters even more strongly behind him. And I think that had some influence, too, in getting the anti-war movement behind him. Because in '64 and '65 Vietnam was just another peripheral war. We had had several wars like this...we had been involved here and there for a long time. But to find out a few years later that we'd been lied to consistently and constantly, and then find out that there was one man who knew this, who was not willing to betray anything that might harm the United States and our policy, but at the same time was willing to stand out and speak frankly about this...I think that actually got a lot of young people motivated behind him.

Phillip Babich: I was going to say, it must have energized the movement quite a bit. Here's a senator who's speaking forthrightly opposing the war and had this information. He must have been quite powerful then.

Robert Millis: Absolutely. I think...and also one of the things too which Ken Kesey becomes very clear about in our interview with him is that this was the only guy they had. The anti-war movement didn't have very many friends in the Establishment. And to have a U.S. senator calling for increased demonstrations and telling college kids to get out there in the streets, that's quite something. He of course would temper that by mentioning that you shouldn't do this in violation of the law. That you need to, in fact, obey the law. But dissent is a vital precious right and that it needs to be exercised, and that we are in a crisis.

Phillip Babich: You mention Ken Kesey, the author, writer, leader of the Merry Pranksters. What's Ken Kesey's relationship with Wayne Morse?

Robert Millis: Ken Kesey grew up...well, Wayne Morse lived nearby...Wayne Morse and Ken Kesey's father were close friends, both of them farmers, and they apparently grew to be very close in a lot of ways. I think probably more as neighbors than anything else. And Morse would show up when Kesey was wrestling as a kid. So he met Morse a few different times as a child, and later on met him as an activist. And he actually hosted an event where Morse gave one of his last speeches, which was the Bend in the River Conference in 1974. And, as Kesey told us, this was sort of a rowdy crew, a bunch of hippies, at an environmental conference. Morse, though, was willing to come out and speak to them, because he respected what they were doing. Even though, I'm sure the hippies were not his cup of tea. He was a very conservative personality. But he was very willing to come out and speak with people who might be strange bedfellows at times.

Phillip Babich: I'll give you some poetic license to answer this question: If Wayne Morse was alive today, and was a senator, given the situation that we experienced in the summer of 1999 in Yugoslavia, what do you think Wayne Morse would be doing right now as senator?

Robert Millis: I think Morse would be coming out, in some ways similar to the way Ramsey Clark a former attorney general, coming out very powerfully against what he sees as major violations of the U.S. Constitution, and of the public's role in foreign policy. I do think that Wayne Morse would be following pretty consistently behind that, with different arguments, perhaps, but in Yugoslavia I think Wayne Morse would come out frighteningly close to the way he did against Vietnam.

Phillip Babich: Is there anything there a Wayne Morse legacy within Oregon politics today?

Robert Millis: I think there is, in the sense that a lot of people who are in office now certainly look up to him. And a lot of people in various elements of politics in Oregon and across the country look up to him. Ron Weiden, actually, our current U.S. senator who sits in the senior seat that Morse held...he actually was Morse's driver during the last campaign, got to know him very well. And when he first came to Oregon, Morse was one of the great inspirations, so he actually had Morse in his mind and his blood, so to speak, for several years since he was really just out of school.

And likewise, Pete DeFazio, who we also interviewed, who was not featured in the documentary, but did a wonderful job of illuminating things. Representative Pete DeFazio has a plaque next to his television set, so when he watches C-SPAN, he's got this quote from Morse just next to him, that he can refer to. But there are also a number of people, of public leaders, civic leaders who greatly revere Morse, and I think seek to implement the same sort of thinking and independent resolve throughout the communities.

Phillip Babich: I've been speaking with Robert Millis. Robert, thanks for joining us at Making Contact.

Robert Millis: Thank you.

Stephanie Welch: You're listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you'd like to get in touch with us, we'll be giving out our toll free number at the end of this broadcast.

Phillip Babich: Although 35 years have passed since the Gulf of Tonkin incident, it still has bearing on current history. The United States continues to engage in military action in various regions of the world without officially declaring war. Take for example: The U.S.-led bombing onslaught in Yugoslavia in the Spring of 1999; and, continued U.S. bombing raids against Iraq. Joining us now on Making Contact is syndicated columnist and author Norman Solomon. His most recent book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." He's also Making Contact's senior advisor. Thanks for joining us, Norman.

Norman Solomon: My pleasure.

Phillip Babich: Well, first off, about the Gulf of Tonkin incident What do we know about what actually took place in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 2nd, 1964?

Norman Solomon: Well, for sure what took place is a propaganda offensive in the U.S. media that was a green light for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which happened just a couple of days later, almost unanimously passed by the U.S. congress. Which in turn was the closest that the U.S. ever came to declaring war on Vietnam, so it really opened what we might call the bloody floodgates to more than a decade of massacres and bloodshed. Not only in Vietnam but throughout Southeast Asia, mostly paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Phillip Babich: There were U.S. Naval ships in the area in the Gulf of Tonkin, of which the Western part of that is connected to North Vietnam. The U.S. media reported that there were renewed attacks against those boats. What were the inaccuracies in reporting in the Washington Post and the New York Times did on that incident?

Norman Solomon: Quite literally what happened is that there was apparently some shelling of U.S. ships by the North Vietnamese, but what was not reported in the U.S. media at the time was that this attack was not unprovoked. If you go back and look at the microfilm, there is repeated reference to unprovoked attacks. In fact, the South Vietnamese military, the navy, with orders coming from Saigon, basically funded by and supported by the US government, had been shelling the North Vietnamese coast.

So that was known even at that time. There were little news items that went out, and essentially rather than being unprovoked, it was very much explicitly provoked by the U.S. client state, the South Vietnamese government. As for the second reported Gulf of Tonkin incident, it's now clear that it never really happened. As a matter of fact, the next year Lyndon Johnson said, "For all we know our boys were shooting at whales out there." When you look at the microfilm, it's very chilling. Because the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post declared without attribution, just as fact, that these attacks had happened unprovoked. Another said the second reported attack never really happened. This was really the signal event that allowed President Johnson to get, with a couple of dissenters in the senate, entire congressional approval for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Phillip Babich: What did that media coverage do for public perception of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam?

Norman Solomon: Well, I remember at the time as a thirteen year-old, I guess I was, it pretty much made it an open and shut case. There were very few people, certainly precious few in the news media or in congress, who raised any question whatsoever. It was routinely reported as North Vietnamese aggression. In retrospect we know it was a hoodwinking job that was implemented by the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon, to try to justify what would come later. And as we know now, what came later was half a million U.S. troops' savage bombardment of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, North and South...what was called North and South Vietnam at the time. That went on throughout the rest of the 1960s and into much of the 1970s.

Phillip Babich: What did the U.S. media coverage of the incident do to dissenting voices, such as the voice of Senator Wayne Morse , from Oregon? How did the coverage make Senator Morse's comments appear to the public?

Norman Solomon: Morse was one of only two senators, the other was Ernest Gruening of Alaska, to vote against the Tonkin resolution. It was kind of an invitation to stand up and salute the flag, and anybody who refused to do so was attacked as a, essentially treated as, a pariah, attacked as somebody who lacked requisite patriotism, and military resolve. It certainly was the pattern that was set throughout the 1960s. You know, in retrospect there's a myth that somehow the U.S. media led the charge in raising basic questions to challenge the Vietnam war. At the time, it was very different.

And year after year of U.S. escalation the mass media quibbled over how the war could be won, but not whether the U.S. had a moral, ethical, legal right to drop so many bombs and send so many troops to Vietnam. For Wayne Morse in particular, I don't think it was ever a quandary for him. Unlike almost everybody in the congress at the time, he saw the U.S. actions, beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin rationale for ratcheting up the escalation in Vietnam. He saw those actions as aggression...he called it aggression, not rhetorically, but just point blank, "this is what's going on, it's wrong, we shouldn't be doing it."

Phillip Babich: You've compared, here, we're talking in the fall of 1999, the U.S. media's coverage or lack of coverage in the provisions of the Rambouillé Accords that would have allowed NATO to occupy all of Yugoslavia just prior to U.S. and British bombing campaigns against Yugoslavia. You compared that coverage to the coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. What's the relationship that you see there?

Norman Solomon: I think the Gulf of Tonkin events are so powerful because 35 years later we can see that they were a prototype for deception coming out of the White House, when there was a desire in the Oval Office to go to war. Then, the enemy was perceived to include the American people in the sense that only partial or spun information was going to be shared, and part of the warfare apparatus was aimed at the U.S. public.

So, you fast forward more than three decades, and you find in early 1999, the statements coming out of the office of Madeline Albright and William Cohen and Bill Clinton all claiming that the Rambouillé Accords, which were negotiated under pressure, to put it mildly, pressure from the U.S. government, just outside of Paris... those Accords had provisions that were not exactly secret, they just went unpublicized week after week, leading up to the war, and throughout most of the war. Rambouillé Accords calling for NATO troops to have the prerogative to occupy not just Kosovo but all of Yugoslavia.

I think the parallels include that if the American people in 1964 knew the truth about what took place and what didn't take place in the Gulf of Tonkin, it would have been easier and there would have been much more of a ground swell to organize opposition against the buildup and the military action implemented by the Pentagon; and in a similar way, in 1999, if the American public had been told that the Rambouillé text called for allowing NATO to occupy all of Yugoslavia, a provision that no sovereign government would accept anywhere in the world, then the battle cries that cited the Rambouillé agreement which the Milosevic regime in Yugoslavia refused to sign on to as a rationale for the war...those battle cries, I think, would have been mitigated and there would have been earlier and more opposition to what became the eleven week U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign, dropping so much deadly ordnance on Yugoslavia.

Phillip Babich: Why didn't the mass media let us know about that?

Norman Solomon: I think there's a tremendously deep pattern, a rut that is easy for U.S. journalists to go along, to get along with the White House and the Pentagon, to serve as stenographers for the rely on official sources and to put forward their statements with credibility that historically we know they don't deserve. It's just easier, if you're working for a major media outlet, to treat U.S. government officials as credible sources, even when we know they have lied repeatedly in recent years and recent decades on these sorts of foreign policy issues.

Phillip Babich: You alluded to this, but I'm wondering specifically, what do you think U.S. war planners have learned over the years, concerning media coverage of wars since the Gulf of Tonkin incident?

Norman Solomon: Well, I think the U.S. war planners have gotten slicker, and there's a lot more by way of resources put into working the press. Working the press not only out of Washington, but through out the country. I think of what happened a couple of years back, when Sandy Berger and Madeline Albright and William Cohen felt it necessary to go to Columbus, Ohio for what we could call a co-production of CNN and the U.S. government: the Town Hall Meeting. The war drums were beating to provide rationales to send more missiles into Baghdad and other populated areas of Iraq, and as groundwork, those top officials went to Columbus, went to Ohio State University campus, and it didn't go according to script.

And people raised tough questions that couldn't be answered with any kind of resonance or credibility by the officials. So Berger and Cohen and Albright went back to Washington with egg on their faces. And I think they concluded that you don't even have to go through the motions of asking the American people what they think. You go to war first, and then confront the public with the fait accompli. I think clearly that's what happened in the spring of 1999 in terms of Yugoslavia.

Phillip Babich: That reminds me of the quote of Senator Wayne Morse. He said on national television in 1964, "I don't know why we think just because we're mighty," (referring to the United States), "that we have the right to try to substitute might for right." I'm wondering, would you say that is still an accurate assessment of U.S. foreign policy today?

Norman Solomon: Well, unfortunately, as we end the decade and the century, it describes very well the situation we're still in. Wayne Morse was a phenomenal senator because he was so blunt and so direct. When I look back at this now premiering documentary about Wayne Morse, and when I thought of my own fortunate experience as a 16 year old in 1968, sitting in a hearing room of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and hearing Wayne Morse denounce the war in Vietnam. He denounced it when it was very unpopular to do so, and the American people, to a large extent, over the years in spite of the mass media, in spite of the lies coming out of Washington...the American people came to agree largely with his assessment.

He was very blunt. He was very direct. He challenged the President, who was of his own party. He challenged the mass media. You can hear from the footage, when you listen to the clips of Wayne Morse, how direct he was. For instance, the Face the Nation broadcast in 1964, when a very prestigious renowned journalist of the era, Peter Lisagor said, "Senator, you know that the American people can't make foreign policy." And Morse, without, I think, being at all pompous about it, figuratively speaking, reared back on his hind legs and said, "That is total nonsense."

Peter Lisagor: Senator, the constitution gives to the President of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy.

Wayne Morse: ...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. It belongs to the American people.

Peter Lisagor: Then how can you say that Adlai Stevenson, or Secretary of State Rusk, or Secretary MacNamara have three separate foreign policies which they are promulgating in the U.N., the State Department, and the Defense Department? Where does the President fit in to this on the responsibility scale.

Wayne Morse: What I'm saying is, under our constitution, all the President is is the administrator of the peoples' foreign policy. Those are his prerogatives, and I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about our foreign policy...

Peter Lisagor: You know the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy.

Wayne Morse: Why do you say that? Why, you're a man of little faith in democracy if you make that kind of a statement. I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts if you'll give them. My charge against my government is we're not giving the American people the facts.

Norman Solomon: For me, it's very striking that here in late 1999, there's not one member of the U.S. Senate with that kind of grit and determination and principle to speak out directly to challenge what the U.S. government is doing, when so many lives are being cost. You can think about what has happened in East Timor in recent months. The slaughter subsidized by the U.S. government, and for that matter over the past decades, but dramatically, here in the fall of 1999. I can't find of a U.S. Senator with the determination and the directness to speak out in the way Senator Morse did three decades ago.

Phillip Babich: I've been speaking with Norman Solomon. Norman, thanks for joining us.

Norman Solomon: Thank you, Phillip.

Phillip Babich: That's it for this edition of Making Contact: A look at Senator Wayne Morse and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Thanks for listening.

Special thanks this week to Square Deal Productions for permission to use audio excerpts from the documentary "The Last Angry Man." To find out where you can see this film you can call (503)228-8326. They also have a web site:

Laura Livoti is our managing director. Peggy Law is executive director. Stephanie Welch is associate producer. Norman Solomon is senior advisor. Our national producer is David Barsamian. Our production assistant is Shereen Meraji. Din Abdullah is archivist. And, I'm your host and managing producer Phillip Babich.

If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. Making Contact is an independent production. We're committed to providing a forum for voices and opinions not often heard in the mass media. If you have suggestions for future programs, we'd like to hear from you. Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter Trio. 'Bye for now.