In August 1964, President Johnson went to Congress to ask for far-reaching authority to conduct military action in Vietnam. The “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” as this authority was called, would give the president broad power to engage in a war of any size, for any length of time, without the need for a formal declaration of war from Congress. It was popular within Congress and throughout the country, and Johnson rightly expected it to pass without much opposition.
Out of that uncritical unity, Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) rose to give a scathing and extraordinarily prescient critique of the resolution, and of our involvement in Vietnam. “Mr. President,” said Morse, on the Senate floor, “criticism has not prevented, and will not prevent, me from saying that, in my judgment, we cannot justify the shedding of American blood in that kind of war in Southeast Asia. I do not believe that any number of American conventional forces in South Vietnam . . . can win a war, if the test of winning a war is establishing peace.” He called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution “an undated declaration of war” and urged his colleagues to join him in opposing it.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
They did not. Ninety-eight senators voted in support of the resolution. Only Morse and Gruening (who had been a longtime editor at the Nation) opposed it. Four years later, Morse’s opposition to the war would become the central issue in his reelection campaign, a campaign he would lose by just half a percentage point of the vote. Gruening was defeated that same year in a Democratic primary.
There was a time when this is how we defined political courage in America: a politician standing up for deeply held principles, in opposition to his party and a popular president, regardless of consequence. But today, we have adopted a new and distorted definition of political courage, one that rewards those who claim to be making hard choices, when in truth there is nothing hard about what they’ve chosen.
Case in point: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan has been called courageous, a hero of sorts, by members of his party, by members of the media and even by some Democrats. And what is it that Ryan so bravely did in order to receive the outsized praise heaped upon him these past two months?
He proposed a federal budget that, in every respect, articulated extremist Republican ideology. He balanced the budget using faulty assumptions that no respected economist outside the Heritage Foundation has called reasonable. And he did it by slashing health-care benefits for the elderly and the poor, for children and the disabled, all while giving $4 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. For this, he has become a hero within his own party (someone Dick Cheney claims to “worship”), even though he made his proposal from a perfectly safe congressional district, where he has no reason to expect political consequences at the ballot box. While his proposal may cost his party control of Congress, it will cost him nothing.