“I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States,” declared Oregon Democrat Wayne Morse during the August 7, 1964, debate that preceded the US Senate’s 88-2, vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.”
After just forty minutes of debate on August 7, 1964, the US House voted 416-0 to authorize President Lyndon Johnson to use of “conventional” military force in Southeast Asia. The Senate debate took longer—roughly nine hours—giving voice to the deceit, deception and fantasy that would serve as the excuses for what came to be known as the Vietnam War. Yet it also solidified the reputations of two dissenting senators as visionaries.
Senator Morse formally opposed the resolution on constitutional grounds, declaring that Article I of the Constitution would be violated if Congress surrendered its authority to check the President’s power. The Constitution establishes the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but to balance and check this power the Constitution invests Congress with the power to declare war.
When the resolution passed, Morse declared that Congress had surrendered its authority, and therefore the authority of the people it was elected to serve. Morse also deplored the open-ended nature of the approval and condemned Congress for giving the president and the military a “blank check” that would be cashed with taxpayer’s money and citizens’ lives.
The other foe was Ernest Gruening, a former editor of The Nation who helped lead the territory of Alaska to statehood before his election as the new state’s senator.
Gruening shared Morse’s constitutional concerns. But as a long-time participant in great debates about issues of colonialism, empire and democracy, Gruening outlined a second set of reasons for opposing the resolution.
Echoing arguments made by the Johnson administration, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution claimed that “naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace.” Historians and scholarly analysts would eventually call much of what was claimed into question, debunking key practical and political arguments for the resolution; but Gruening acknowledged a measure of conflict.