THE TONKIN GULF COMES TO SALINAS

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Salinas farm fields and construction

In 1972 I was working in Salinas, California, as assistant to the president of the community college in that large agricultural region. It was my first job since completing graduate school in 1971. One day the president of the college told me I would need to drive over to a motel near the airport in Monterey to pick up the recently retired U.S. Senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, and bring him back to campus where he would be appearing as part of our celebrity speaker series.

“Morse did great things for higher education, so he’ll be good publicity for the college,” our president explained. “You used to work in Washington DC. You’ll be able to keep him amused.”

My Washington experience consisted of two summer intern jobs. But I had a powerful memory from those brief periods of a coincidence that had occurred one evening back in the summer of 1964, during my first internship. At a party I was attending in Georgetown, the host brought out a television set and told us he knew we would all want to hear what President Johnson was going to say in an emergency broadcast. Johnson announced that there had been an attack against an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, and that he would be seeking emergency powers from Congress to retaliate.

The next day, after the end of work, I wandered around Washington, as I often did, to see what was going on. In the long summer evenings, there was always something to do – walk through a neighborhood, go to a museum, watch the end of a parade, read a book at The Library of Congress.

I decided, for no particular reason, to go into the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol building.

The Senate was still in session. I showed my federal identification to the guard and was allowed to go upstairs and sit in the gallery. I was surprised that it was almost empty. The only people in the entire Senate chamber were a couple of visitors, me, a few reporters in their section of the gallery, Senator Mike Mansfield, the Majority Leader, presiding, a few staff members down on the floor, and Senator Morse.

Morse proceeded to launch into a long speech. Thundering, Morse said the United States was about to become ensnared in a war the nation would forever regret. Morse revealed that he had received a secret warning, from a contact at the Pentagon, that President Johnson was getting ready to create a pretext for combat based on false information about an encounter between an American ship and the Vietnamese in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin.

The President had asked the Senate for authority to strike back, and nearly every Senator was planning to vote for the resolution. But, Morse said, he himself would not vote in favor, and he knew his friend Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska would not.

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Wayne Morse and Lyndon Johnson

The powerful memory of my coincidental presence during Morse’s speech returned in 1972 as I drove over to Monterey and found myself standing in the reception area of the motel waiting for him.

In due course the Senator appeared, seemingly out of an earlier decade. He was wearing a double-breasted, very well tailored, gray flannel suit and, for accent, a red foulard tie of fine silk. Over his arm he carried a light topcoat and in one hand a broad-brimmed dress hat, which was something that almost nobody wore in the 1970s. His large eyeglasses, with their tortoise shell frames, seemed to belong equally to an earlier time.

The one feature that seemed very much of the present was the Senator’s face. The alert eyes and the focused gaze belonged to someone who was still very strong and very much with me in the here and now. And as I introduced myself and we began talking and walked to my car, I was fascinated by how resonant the voice still was.

In the drive to Salinas, I was able to tell Morse how I happened to hear him speak back in 1964. He listened with genuine interest and shared some details with me about the experience. One concerned the value of sources. “I had been in Washington a long time by then” he commented, “and one thing I learned was the value of confidential informants. People knew they could trust me. The friend at The Pentagon who phoned me risked his career.”

Another detail concerned energy. “That speech was one of the most exhausting of my life,” Morse explained, “even though I usually didn’t get tired after being on the Senate Floor. Senator Humphrey, who was an iron horse, used to tell me he would have collapsed if he had put as much energy into long speeches as I did. But after the Tonkin Gulf speech I was drained.”

And that was the end of our conversation regarding the Tonkin Gulf. We arrived in Salinas, I escorted the Senator to the big gymnasium where 1500 people in folding chairs were waiting, he strode to the podium, his body became statuesque, and the old campaigner, now revived, gave a roaring, charismatic speech about the value of education that never once mentioned Vietnam and brought down the house.

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