In 1924, a maverick politician who I’ve written about before, Robert La Follette, Wisconsin’s venerated Republican senator, ran for president on the Progressive Party platform. Among his neighbors were his friends, the Morse family, and he mentored their son, Wayne, on politics. Wayne Morse (1900-1974) would always view La Follette as a political hero and would aim to further his principles throughout his career. He pursued a career in law and this ultimately led him to academia and in 1929 he became a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. Only two years later he was the dean, the youngest for any accredited law school by the American Bar Association. As dean, he would be frequently sought by labor unions to mediate disputes and some would accept no one else to help them.
Morse’s time as dean helped build his reputation and in 1944 he ran for the Republican nomination to the Senate. He was challenging Senator Rufus Holman, a former Klansman who had angered the Jewish population for his extremely restrictive stances on immigration, and this was for his time in which immigration was already heavily restricted. He was also a conspiracy theorist which caused frequent embarrassment for the GOP. Holman alleged that Morse was a “stalking horse” for the Democrats who badly needed to improve registration in the state of Oregon and claimed there was a conspiracy by Henry J. Kaiser and the Portland shipyards to support Morse (Drukman, 1997, 136). Holman’s latter view was unproven, but he would prove to be sort of correct on the former. Although Morse had criticized Roosevelt and the New Deal on the campaign trail, once elected to the Senate, his voting quickly established him as the most progressive Republican in the chamber (MCI score: 14%). His voting record was 100% for labor unions and during the 80th Congress he was one of the few Republicans to oppose tax cuts. In one way, Morse at least partially changed his tune from the views of La Follette…he voted for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. La Follette had been an irreconcilable on the League of Nations and established himself as a non-interventionist, while Morse was willing to vote for measures he regarded as helping secure peace.
In 1950, Morse won reelection not only because it was a good Republican year…he had become very popular statewide, winning 3 of 4 votes. That year he was one of six other Republican senators who signed onto Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience”, which simultaneously criticized the Truman Administration, the House Committee on Un-American Activities tactics, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (without naming him) tactics. That year he voted for the McCarran Internal Security Act, one of his infrequent breaks from progressivism on domestic issues. In 1952, Morse initially embraced the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower but was so deeply disappointed by the choice of Richard Nixon as his running mate as well as the understanding between Eisenhower and conservative Senator Robert A. Taft that the latter would take the reins on domestic policy, which was reflected in the party’s platform, that he left the Republican Party and endorsed Democrat Adlai Stevenson instead. He served in the 83rd Congress as an Independent, even taking his own folding chair in as he had been stripped of committee assignments and seniority for his defection. For this session, however, he voted with the Republicans on organization as he regarded the election of a Republican Congress as the will of the people. In 1953, Morse broke a solo filibuster record against the Tidelands Bill, speaking for 22 hours and 26 minutes against giving coastal states title over the natural resources of offshore resources (read: oil) rather than the federal government. The record had previously been held by none other than Robert La Follette, who filibustered for 18 hours and 23 minutes in 1908 against the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which established the National Monetary Commission. Morse’s record would hold until Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. To this day, Morse holds the distinction of having the third longest solo filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate and this, along with his independence, helped him become known by his supporters as “The Tiger of the Senate”. In 1954 he voted for the censure of Joseph McCarthy.
In 1955 he switched to the Democratic Party after Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson offered him a restoration of his seniority and his choice of a committee seat. That year, he was joined in the Senate by a former student of his, liberal Democrat Richard Neuberger. Despite their many ideological agreements, they didn’t get along as their history at the University of Oregon School of Law didn’t end well. Morse had and continued to serve as the stern father figure to Neuberger, who was resentful of his attitude. By 1957, they were not speaking to each other, rather daily writing angry letters delivered by couriers. The feud only ended with Neuberger’s death from a stroke brought on by terminal cancer in 1960. While many Oregon Republicans minded his switch to the Democratic Party, it wasn’t enough to deny him reelection in 1956 as many voters still liked him. Although now a liberal Democrat, Morse maintained a somewhat independent voting record. He was the only senator from above the Mason-Dixon line to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but his critique differed from the Southern senators: he thought the bill too weak. Indeed, he had voted against amendments that weakened the bill. This wasn’t the first time he had opposed a civil rights measure on grounds that it was too weak: he, along with Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.), had voted against an appropriation for the Fair Employment Practices Committee as they thought it insufficient. His mentor, Robert La Follette, took a similar attitude towards the Federal Reserve Act, voting against it as he thought it too favorable to bankers despite much of the opposition to the act being from bankers. Morse proved a strong supporter of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. He also became increasingly critical of foreign aid and would often vote to cut funding…a reflection of the man he admired, La Follette.
In 1960, Morse, one of the chamber’s staunchest supporters of organized labor, was suspicious of John F. Kennedy for compromising on the subject, namely with his sponsoring of the Kennedy-Ives Labor Reform Bill, and decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform of liberalism. He stated of Kennedy,
“When the Eisenhower Administration took office one of its first objectives was to riddle the tax code with favors for big business and it did so with the help of the Senator from Massachusetts. We need a candidate who will reverse the big money and big business domination of government. We need a courageous candidate who will stand up and fight the necessary political battle for the welfare of the average American. Kennedy has never been willing to do that” (New York Times).
Morse, however, struggled in the primary against the popular and charismatic Kennedy and the Kennedy campaign spread rumors that he wasn’t a serious candidate, which dogged him throughout the campaign. He would respond, “I am a dead serious candidate”, but ultimately, he didn’t even win the primary in his home state (Smith). Despite fears that he would lose reelection in 1962 against popular Governor Mark Hatfield as a result of this loss, Hatfield decided not to run and Morse secured reelection. Also, despite differences that were hyped up in the primary campaign, he proved a staunch supporter of the Kennedy Administration, voting for the New Frontier programs. Morse would give similar support to the Great Society.
Morse’s Most Famous Vote: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson sought Congress’s approval for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing conventional military force in Vietnam without a declaration of war. Congress, convinced of the story the Johnson Administration had told them about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, voted for the resolution. The only opposition in the Senate came from Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) and Wayne Morse. Morse believed that the resolution was a mistake and that the senators voting for it would regret it and indeed they did. Johnson privately complained about Morse’s vote against and derided him as “mentally unstable” and “untrustworthy” (Langguth). His vote against this again has precedent with his mentor, La Follette, who was one of six senators to vote against American involvement in World War I.
The Downfall of Morse
The issue of the Vietnam War consumed Morse and he was speaking across the country on the subject and praising student activists. The FBI even investigated Morse over his active opposition. In 1966, he fatefully endorsed the man he had feared would supplant him, Mark Hatfield, in his bid for the Senate over Democrat Robert B. Duncan, as the latter was a war hawk while the former was a dove. Governor Hatfield won the race and many Democratic activists were furious. They gave Senator Morse little backing in his bid for reelection in 1968 and he came within three points of defeat in the Democratic nomination to Duncan. He would be even less fortunate in the election, in which Republican Bob Packwood, who campaigned against Morse on the grounds that he was too focused on Vietnam, prevailed by under a point in a tremendous upset. His narrow victory was attributed to him besting Morse in the October debate, as Packwood’s debate answers were focused and crisp while he seemed tired and a little bit unfocused.
Morse didn’t take defeat lying down: he continued to be politically active and in 1972 he attempted a comeback, running against the man he had previously endorsed, Mark Hatfield. However, Morse had had good reason to fear the prospect of Hatfield running against him back in 1962 as he defeated his challenge by over twelve points. In 1974, he sought a rematch with Packwood and opted not to debate as it hurt him the last time around. It was a rough year for Republicans and Morse, a harsh critic of President Nixon, had a good chance of being elected. Although his spirit was vigorous, the same could not be said about his health. Morse maintained a busy campaign schedule, but on July 21st, he was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection that resulted in a diagnosis of kidney failure. He did not believe in artificially sustaining his life and thus refused dialysis. Morse died the next day at 73.
I admit, were I in office in 1964 and given the intelligence that was made available at the time, I would have voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with almost the whole of Congress. Morse, however, saw something that all but one other senator did not, and I often respect people standing independently, even when disagreeing with me. Senators pretty much acknowledged his judgment was correct, mostly symbolically, in their overwhelming vote to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution during the Nixon Administration. Morse did what he could to follow in the footsteps of La Follette and he did in both his independence and his progressivism. In Morse, Oregon had their La Follette.
Drukman, M. Wayne Morse (1900-1974). The Oregon Encyclopedia.
Drukman, M. (1997). Wayne Morse: A political biography. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press.
Langguth, A.J. (2000). Our Vietnam the war 1954-1975. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
’Liberalism’ Issue Pressed By Morse. (1960, May 14). The New York Times.
McColgan, J. (2007, June 13). Commentary: Film profiles ‘The Last Angry Man’. Wallowa County Chieftain.
Smith, R. (1960, May 12). Campaign Zeroing On Oregon. The Oregonian.
Wayne Morse Sets Filibuster Record. U.S. Senate.