Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Morse, Vietnam and Feeling the “Bern”

I came of age during the Vietnam War and, like many of my generation, questioned why we were sending Americans to fight and die there.

Wayne-MorseIt took a prickly constitutional law professor and politician to provide a credible answer – the Vietnam War was a colossal blunder that could have been and should have been avoided.

The answer came as I covered Senator Wayne Morse on his quixotic quest for a political comeback in 1972. I had just been hired as news editor for The Daily Astorian, where I assigned myself the political beat.

Morse, who lost his Senate seat to Bob Packwood in 1968, was locked in a Democratic primary battle with his arch-rival Bob Duncan. Morse and Duncan had exactly opposite views of the Vietnam War, which was the central issue in their primary campaign.

By 1972, I had covered some outsized political figures in my journalistic career, but none quite compared to Morse. He was elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1944. He immediately irritated conservative colleagues with his support of organized labor and devotion to what he called “constitutional liberalism.”

Morse became an independent in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon as his vice presidential running mate. Some of his GOP colleagues attributed his defection to a kick in the head administered by a horse (not a donkey) in 1951.

Wayne_Morse_and_LBJ_Oval_Office_1965After mounting in 1953 what then was the record for the longest 1-man filibuster, Morse agreed to caucus with Senate Democrats in 1955 at the importuning of Lyndon Johnson, which resulted in perhaps one of the greatest ironies of Morse’s or Johnson’s political careers.

Morse made a presidential run in 1960. John F. Kennedy went on to win the presidency, with Johnson as his vice president. Kennedy got sucked into the Vietnam War to prevent another “domino” from tumbling into the communist bloc and on assurances the North Vietnamese could be easily defeated.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson made history with his War on Poverty and by doubling down on the Vietnam War. He used the Tonkin Gulf incident to plunge American deeper into the conflict. Morse was one of only two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

Morse was still excoriating the decision to fight in Vietnam in 1972 when I joined him on the campaign trail as a reporter. Anyone willing to listen to this professor-politician got an education about Vietnam, rigid ideology and geopolitics.

The nub of Morse’s argument was that Ho Chi Minh fought alongside the Allies in World War II to defeat Imperial Japan. Like Mao Zedong in China, Ho saw the end of the war as an opportunity to unite Vietnam. While Mao and Ho were both communists, Ho’s nationalistic vision was very different. He also recognized that the long-term threat Vietnam faced wasn’t the French or Americans, but the Chinese.

Cam_Ranh_Naval_base_(concept)According to Morse, Ho secretly invited the United States to set up a naval base in Cam Ranh Bay to act as a deterrent to Chinese aggression or attempts to establish hegemony over its smaller neighbor. The United States, then clinging to the Cold War Domino Theory of foreign policy, rejected the offer to get in bed with a communist regime and set about fatefully fortifying the French and later supplanting them as the defenders of South Vietnam.

Morse revealed an insight into the Vietnamese people that it took the rest of the country decades to figure out. In 1972, Morse described the Vietnamese as extremely industrious and eager for their own national identity. They didn’t want to be manipulated by a foreign power, communist or capitalist.  They understood China would eventually emerge as an Asian powerhouse, and they needed a burly buddy on their side.

obama-in-hanoi-99049You could read President Obama’s recent Vietnam visit, where he lifted a long-time arms embargo, as a belated acknowledgement of Morse’s view.

Vietnam has reason to fret over China and its ambitions in the South China Sea. Historically, the Chinese have lorded over their southern neighbor. As recently as 1979, the Chinese invaded Vietnam, with troops on foot marching in front of armed vehicles as a symbol of its power and overwhelming population.

Congressman Les AuCoin and I have a connection to that invasion. We, along with other members of AuCoin’s pre-normalization trade mission, were delayed on the tarmac at the Guilin airport because our destination was being used by a part of the invasion. The meaning of the military action, which turned out be more of a demonstration than a battle, was instantaneous.

Later, while still working on Capitol Hill in the early 1980s, I suggested it was time to normalize relations with Vietnam. As an advocate of normalizing relations with China, I saw doing the same with Vietnam as a way to send a symbolic message to the Chinese that America hadn’t lost interest in Asia. I was told it was too soon after the Vietnam War to repair the relationship. I channeled Morse who might have said, “It’s almost too late.”

More than 30 years later, the economic and geopolitical significance of Vietnam is obvious to anyone paying attention. The United States has assimilated thousands of Vietnamese refugees who have become productive citizens, started businesses and added valuable diversity to our overall population. We now see what Morse saw long ago.

Morse in 1960If not for tagging along on Morse’s campaign comeback trail in 1972, I like many others would have relegated him to history’s dropbox as a quirky and cantankerous political figure who could pick a fight with his best friend.

It’s ironic that if Morse was alive and ran for office in 2016, his style would have appealed to the yearning for an anti-establishment, gutsy, never-surrender candidate. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of foreign policy.


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