Wayne Morse : Use of Force

9 Sep

Rachel Maddow recently gave a shout-out to Oregon Senator Wayne Morse (1900-1974), who was the lone voice of dissent when President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress to approve military action against Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Morse was later joined by Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska in voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which dramatically escalated the United States’ involvement in the war in Southeast Asia.

Maddow referenced Morse in light of the current debate in Congress over the use of force in Syria, and for his courage in saying no and voting to uphold the Constitution as he saw it, in the face of seemingly unified support to do otherwise. I confess I puddled up when I heard the piece (as a podcast), probably because of the whole Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-ness of it, the solitary man of principle facing down the corrupt government machine. And he was from Oregon! But also because I’ve started to inventory his films. Morse bequeathed his papers to the University of Oregon Libraries and the collection is our largest–1300 linear feet. Included in all of that are many, many boxes of film, all of which has remained unprocessed and unknown for 40 years since we got the collection.  I am particularly fascinated by the films of Morse speaking to directly to constituents from behind a desk in the Senate Recording Office. Presumably these films were sent home to Oregon to screen at clubs and meetings to let folks know what he was up to. In the days before public access television and certainly youtube, these films tell an interesting story about how Congress communicated with voters in the mid-20th century.

An intrepid filmmaker from Oregon Public Broadcasting picked through some of it to make a documentary about Morse, but most of it is a mystery. We don’t even know how many there are. Thanks to a grant from the Morse Center for Law and Politics here on campus, I can hire a student to help me describe it and do basic preservation work.

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