Disorder and Decision 9

Morse was the Typhoid Mary of Capitol Hill. A lean, humorless teetotaler, he had arrived in Washington in 1945 as a progressive Republican determined to steer his party toward enlightened positions on such issues as education and labor relations, which he knew inti¬mately. Frustration prompted him to switch to the Democrats, who rewarded him with choice committee appointments. By the 1960s, however, he had become a sanctimonious bore, a garrulous orator whose gravel voice would drone on over trivia. By the time he con¬fronted McNamara on August 6, he had lost his credibility. His colleagues would tolerate him for five or ten minutes, since they respected the ritual courtesies of the Senate, but he rarely changed votes. He lacked influence.
Early that morning, a Pentagon officer telephoned a startling tip to Morse. The officer, whose identity Morse would never divulge, re¬vealed that the Maddox had indeed been involved in the covert South Vietnamese raids against North Vietnam. Thus the administration had been disingenuous in describing the Communist attack against the destroyer as “unprovoked. ” But at the joint committee meeting, when Morse suggested that there was a connection between the American ship and the South Vietnamese commandos, McNamara gave him a steely glare and a duplicitous answer: “Our navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any … I say this flatly. This is a fact.”
At fresh Senate foreign relations committee hearings in 1968, chal¬lenged by documents that disclosed a different story, McNamara awk¬wardly amended his earlier denial. The Maddox captain had known about the clandestine South Vietnamese operations, he conceded, but was not aware of the “details.” But at the same hearings, McNamara and General Earle Wheeler suffered memory lapses when asked about the Pentagon’s plans to bomb North Vietnam, which had been drawn up in early 1964. McNamara said he would “have to check the record, ” while Wheeler opined evasively that “to the best of my knowledge and belief. . . there was no thought of extending the war into the north.”
His colleagues ignored Morse, as did the full Senate when it con¬vened on the afternoon of August 6, 1964, to debate Johnson’s pro¬posed resolution. Speaking to an almost empty chamber, Morse asserted that “the place to settle the controversy is not on the battlefield but around the conference table. ” He was joined in opposition by only one other senator, Ernest Gruening of Alaska, a veteran liberal who warned that “all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy.” But their voices were drowned out by a din of patriotism. Even Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who had long harbored reser¬vations about the U.S. pledge to Southeast Asia, cast aside his doubts. “Our national honor is at stake,” he intoned. “We cannot and we will not shrink from defending it.”
Though the resolution was never in jeopardy, Johnson had told Fulbright to secure its passage as fast as possible by the largest possible vote. Anything less, Johnson explained, would tarnish the image of unity so important to America’s international reputation. Also im¬plicit in Johnson’s demand for overwhelming congressional endorse ment was his constant preoccupation with Goldwater. Johnson knew that the Republican hard-liners would back him, but he worried that he might become their captive unless liberals rallied to his side as well. The liberals respected Fulbright. It was his job to bring them aboard.
Fulbright portrayed the resolution as a moderate measure “calcu¬lated to prevent the spread of war.” He began to work on doubters like George McGovern of South Dakota and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, allaying their fears that the president would be accorded excessive power. In particular, Fulbright dissuaded Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin from introducing an amendment calling for ef¬forts to “avoid a direct military involvement” in Southeast Asia. Such a codicil was superfluous, he assured Nelson, since “the last thing we want to do is become involved in a land war in Asia.”
So the Senate approved the resolution with only Morse and Gruen- ing dissenting, while the House of Representatives passed it unani¬mously. Morse predicted that its supporters “will live to regret it,” and he was vindicated in May 1970, when the resolution was re¬pealed—on the initiative, ironically, of a loyal Richard Nixon disciple, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, who figured that it had become ob¬solete. The outcome of the vote pleased nobody more than it did Walt Rostow, who had originally conceived the idea. Looking back on the Tonkin Gulf episode and its aftermath, he remarked, “We don’t know what happened, but it had the desired result.”
To the Hanoi leaders, the U. S. air strikes dramatized their vulnerability to American military might. Stressing in internal directives that “our initial experiences in fighting were inadequate,” they redeployed their defense forces and tightened discipline. Worried by the prospect of future reprisals, they also began to probe the possibility of negotiating an end to the war—at least as one of their options.
J. Blair Seaborn, chief Canadian member of the International Con¬trol Commission, who had for months been secretly carrying sweet- and-sour messages from Washington to Hanoi, met with Pham Van Dong again on August 13 to outline the deal that the Johnson admin¬istration was repeatedly to offer the Communists. They could count on “economic and other benefits” if they abandoned the insurgency in the south, but they would “suffer the consequences” if they persisted in their “present course.” Infuriated, Pham Van Dong warned that sustained American attacks against North Vietnam would spread the war “to the whole of Southeast Asia.” Then, changing his tone, he gently advised Seaborn to return with fresh American proposals, per¬haps based on the 1954 Geneva accords.

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