Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Senate Votes Against War Resolutions Have Been Rare; Here are some Noteworthy Ones

Feb 2, 2022

Senate Votes Against War Resolutions Have Been Rare; Here are some Noteworthy Ones

tags: Senate,war,civil liberties

US Senators William Fulbright and Wayne Morse (r) during Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the progress of the war in Vietnam, 1966.

Photo Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine (public domain)

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

At a time when courage seems to be lacking in Congress to uphold basic principles of avoiding war and protecting civil liberties, it is refreshing to look back over the past century and discover examples of US Senators who resisted the popular tide, stood up for their conscience, and voted to oppose what was an overwhelming tide of support for entrance into World War I, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, and to oppose the Patriot Act as the reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda.

Three Republicans—Robert LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska in 1917 and Mark Hatfield of Oregon in 1991; and three Democrats---Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska in 1964, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin in 2001—all braved condemnation and denunciation, and exemplify what John F. Kennedy called “Profiles in Courage” in his 1956 book.  Interestingly, both Wisconsin and Oregon have had a senator of each party—one Republican and one Democrat—demonstrate true leadership. This bipartisan standard of principle, sadly, is too uncommon in American political history.

Robert LaFollette, Sr., known as “Fighting Bob” and “Mr. Progressive,” and immortalized for the “Wisconsin Idea” that became the foundation of the progressive movement and modern American liberalism, is regarded by many scholars as the greatest state governor in American history.  He has been rated as one of the five greatest US Senators of all time, including by a Senate committee headed by John F. Kennedy in 1957, joining Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Robert A. Taft. The members of that group are all now honored by commissioned portraits in the Senate Reception Room.  LaFollette served 19 years in the upper chamber (1906-1925), had an unsuccessful quest for the Republican nomination in 1912, and then ran as the Progressive Party nominee in 1924, winning his home state in the Electoral College and 16.6 percent of the national popular vote, the third best percentage for a third party in a national election. 

LaFollette fought for all kinds of progressive reforms, and his sons, Robert Jr. and Philip, continued his crusade as Senator and Governor respectively, in the generation after his passing. LaFollette also promoted anti-imperialism and isolationism in foreign affairs, and gained more enmity and fury from critics in this area than any other. In 1917, he started a filibuster in opposition to arming US merchant ships after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I. This earned him condemnation by President Woodrow Wilson and a campaign in his home state to recall him from his Senate seat, which failed. But LaFollette defied all criticisms, vocally condemning civil liberties violations during the war and after.  His willingness to stand up for what he considered unwise and dangerous abuse of power has made him a hero for the ages.

George Norris was termed “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Norris supported the New Deal with enthusiasm.  He served in the US Senate from Nebraska (1913-1943) after ten previous years (1903-1913) in the House of Representatives.  He was perceived as the great progressive reform champion from the Progressive Era through the New Deal years.  He promoted reform of the House of Representatives early on in his career, stripping Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon of his total control over proceedings in 1910, revolutionizing the chamber for the long-term future.  

Then, after being elected to the Senate, he became a staunch noninterventionist, and with LaFollette, opposed President Wilson’s call to arm merchant ships in 1917. He would oppose the Versailles Treaty after World War I, as did LaFollette.  Becoming a staunch Independent in so many ways, he became a leading advocate of the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority during the 1930s, and would cross party lines consistently in support of FDR, except on the Supreme Court “packing” plan, and foreign policy.  But even on the issue of nonintervention, he would eventually back US entrance into World War II, defying the views of other progressive Republicans in that regard, as outlined in this author’s book on Progressive Republicans and the New Deal (Twilight Of Progressivism: The Western Republican Senators and the New Deal, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).  Historians recognized his impact and have judged him as one of the top ten US Senators of all time, due to his strong convictions and conscience.  And John F. Kennedy included Norris in his 1956 book, Profiles In Courage.

A half-century later, as the Vietnam War became controversial and American engagement increased, two Senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon, and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, stood up against the tide and refused to support the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted immediate action against North Vietnam, after the reported attack on US ships in the Tonkin Gulf, claiming it was an attack in international waters that justified an aerial bombing in retaliation.  The House of Representatives voted unanimously to back the President’s resolution, but the two Senators started a filibuster, which delayed the final vote of 89-2 in the Senate.

Wayne Morse had been elected to the Senate as a Republican with a progressive heritage, having grown up in Madison, Wisconsin, and influenced by the heritage of the LaFollette family.  He moved to Oregon and started his Senate service in 1945, became an Independent in 1953, and then a Democrat in 1955, until his time in office ended after four terms in the Senate.  He was a thorn in the side of Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Johnson.  His controversial career was one of constant debating and promoting use of the filibuster, setting a record for one of the longest such uses of that tactic. Consistently, he advocated labor rights, women’s suffrage, and education, and railed against corporate domination and political corruption. 

Morse spoke up against isolationism and for internationalism in foreign policy, and was highly critical of the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the early 1950s. Both parties lobbied him when he was an independent serving in a nearly evenly divided US Senate from 1953-1955, before he was convinced to join the Democrats. His relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson when he was Senate Majority Leader was not cordial, as Morse accused Johnson of trying to dictate to the Democratic Senate caucus.

After being critical of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba under President Kennedy, Morse became a major critic of the Vietnam War even before the controversial Gulf of Tonkin resolution, calling it “McNamara’s War,” referring to the Secretary of Defense.  Morse became recognized as a cantankerous, stubborn character, widely disliked and shunned by other senators. He had a reputation of working to uphold Congressional authority over the Presidency.  His fight against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution led him to speak at antiwar rallies over the next few years. After losing his seat in the 1968 election, he attempted two comebacks. In 1972 he failed to win the nomination. He succeeded in 1974, but passed away in July 1974 before he could be reelected to extend his 24 years of service in the Senate.

Ernest Gruening joined Morse in opposition to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, despite having a much lower profile in the Senate.  Gruening had been appointed Governor of territorial Alaska from 1939-1953, and had been involved in the statehood fight during his time in office and after. When statehood was granted in January 1959, he became one of the first two senators from the new 49th state.  Born of Jewish parents in New York City, Gruening trained to be a medical doctor at Harvard Medical School, but found journalism and politics his passion. He worked for various newspapers, and then became involved in New Deal politics, including in the Interior Department, and as administrator of the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration in the mid-1930s.  As Territorial Governor, he was engaged in defense preparations for Alaska during World War II. 

He was as outspoken as Morse was in opposition to escalation of the Vietnam War, joining Morse to hold up the vote on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7, 1964.  But he had actually spoken up earlier on March 10, 1964, against engagement in Southeast Asia.  He condemned the expense of the war in a 30 page speech and accompanying exhibits, also critically noting the refugee crisis being created by the war, the immorality of the war, and the drain of blood and treasure caused by engagement.  He continued to speak up for the remainder of his time in the Senate, but was defeated in the primary by future Senator Mike Gravel in 1968. Gruening then ran as an Independent, ending up in third place in the vote count.

Mark Hatfield served two terms as Oregon’s governor (1959-1967) and five terms in the US Senate (1967-1997). He became notable for speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1966 while still governor.  He always saw former President Herbert Hoover as a personal role model, due to Hoover’s pacificism and noninterventionist spirit, which carried on beyond his presidency through involvement in the America First Committee (until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II).  Hatfield witnessed the devastation of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was unleashed, and it affected his views on peace.

He cosponsored the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment with South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern in 1970, which called for an end of all appropriations for the Vietnam War at the end of 1970, and a complete withdrawal of all US forces by the end of 1971.  It was a defiance of Presidential authority against President Richard Nixon and his own Republican party, an act of courage and principle. 

Hatfield voted consistently against military spending bills, as a believer in noninterventionism in foreign affairs.  Ultimately, he stood against the tide for war when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and was one of only two Republican senators to vote against the Gulf War Resolution in 1991, at a time when there was great unity in Congress about engaging in war to remove Iraq from Kuwait. He always stood out as unusual and unique in his votes on all foreign policy matters, but his seniority made him someone who drew attention by utilizing morality and ethics. His prominent religious convictions as an evangelical Christian and his self-proclaimed libertarianism made him someone who could not be ignored.

Russ Feingold was born to a Jewish family in Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He was inspired by the LaFollette family tradition, by his own father, and by his older brother, who was a Vietnam War conscientious objector.  After gaining a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford, he attended Harvard Law School, and was engaged in the Presidential campaigns of Mo Udall and Ted Kennedy.  He served in the Wisconsin State Senate for ten years, and then had three terms in the US Senate (1993-2011).  He became notable for promoting campaign finance reform in the Senate, in tandem with Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, and shared the 1999 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award with McCain for that principled stand.

Feingold served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and on the Select Committee on Intelligence.  He gained a reputation as a political maverick with an independent streak.  He became most controversial after the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, when he became the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act, complaining that its provisions infringed upon the civil liberties of American citizens.  When the bill came up for renewal in 2005, he led a group of bipartisan senators to remove some of the more controversial provisions, and ultimately led a filibuster against renewal in 2006, but the Senate voted to overcome the filibuster by a 96-3 vote.  In 2009, a further extension of the Patriot Act led to his continued opposition, since it failed to promote adequate civil liberties protections that Feingold thought essential. 

Feingold also voted against authorization for President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq, in 2002, arguing against military action based on false pretenses.  In 2005, he called for withdrawal of troops to begin, and wanted the end of the involvement in war by the end of 2006.  He also moved to censure Bush for violations including illegal wiretapping and mismanagement of the Iraq War, accusing him of an assault on the US Constitution.  Unfortunately, he lost his seat in the US Senate in 2010 to Ron Johnson, and again lost to Johnson in 2016.  But his principled stands on war and civil liberties made him a hero with courage and principle worthy of praise.

So these six US Senators, three Republicans and three Democrats over a period of a century, fought against the tide on matters that made them unpopular, but their consciences, morality and ethics governed their courageous responses. They should all be recognized as heroes in American history.

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