During his two dozen years as U.S. senator from Oregon, Wayne L. Morse (1900-1974) was an independent critic of many federal policies, especially the Vietnam War.
Wunderkind Senator Wayne Lyman Morse left his impression on the nation by his intractable commitment to principle. In a Senate career of 24 years, he built a reputation as an outspoken maverick of whom The Nation editorialized: "He said what he thought, he had a sharp intelligence, and he never minced words."
Born on a Wisconsin farm on October 20, 1900, Morse was the son of farmer-rancher Wilbur Morse and his wife Jessie (White) Morse. His father exercised a strong influence on his life, inculcating values of thrift and stressing the necessity of a good education. All his life Morse loved the land, took a keen interest in farm problems, and raised livestock professionally as a hobby.
At the University of Wisconsin Morse studied economics and labor problems as well as devoting a substantial amount of time to debate and argumentation. He earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees in 1923 and 1924 respectively. For four years he taught at the University of Minnesota, earning an L.L.B. there during the same period. A year's fellowship at Columbia University advanced his career greatly; his published study of grand juries brought him national attention and the coveted J.D. degree from Columbia. By the age of 31 Morse was a full professor and dean of the University of Oregon's School of Law.
Oregon became his home, and he devoted all his talents to it, studying crime in the state, serving as a legal education official for the state government, and earning a nationwide reputation for his school. His life-long interest in labor problems also made Morse a natural choice as a labor arbitrator.
His reputation as tough, knowledgeable, and evenhanded earned him respect from labor and management alike and brought him to the attention of the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal. Morse's negotiating skills became more valuable as the United States moved toward World War II. Through his efforts several crucial labor disputes were settled in 1941.
When war came, President Roosevelt appointed Morse to the 12-member National War Labor Board, a move which brought the 41-year-old into greater public focus than he had ever enjoyed before. He waged a fierce battle against anyone he believed to be impeding the war effort, even if he was alone in his dissent. Within a short time the nation—and the citizens of Oregon in particular—began to recognize him as a different sort of public figure, and the terms "maverick," "courageous," and "incorruptible" became associated with his name.
Until the 1940s Morse had hoped for a career as an appointed official, perhaps a federal judge. After one such hope fell through he embarked on an elective career, running for the Senate on the Republican ticket in 1944. A liberal Republican, Wayne Morse had little in common with many of his fellow party members—but he was alienated from many Democrats, too. Practical politics, including the ratio of Republicans over Democrats in Oregon, also dictated his ballot line. He defeated the incumbent Republican senator in the primary and overwhelmed his Democratic opponent on election day.
In the Senate Morse lived up to his maverick reputation by challenging the leadership of both parties, crossing swords with such legendary figures as Senators Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. In 1950 he overwhelmed his Democratic opponent with more than 75 percent of the vote to gain re-election.
Never popular with his colleagues, he was respected and feared for his outspoken candor. He fought his party's Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947 and opposed its presidential nominee in 1952. Morse's opposition did not stem from antipathy to Dwight D. Eisenhower so much as from the Republican platform and Ike's choice of Sen. Richard M. Nixon of California as his running-mate. After the Republican ticket defeated Adlai Stevenson Morse dropped his Republican Party allegiance and served his second Senate term as an Independent, converting to the Democratic Party before running for a third term in 1956. Following a spirited primary, Morse faced former Gov. Douglas McKay in November and defeated him decisively, setting a vote-getting record for Oregon. In 1962 he won a fourth term.
As a Democrat Morse was no more popular with his colleagues than he had been as a Republican. He was particularly out of step with his party during the early days of the Vietnam War. In the summer of 1964 Congress voted approval of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, granting wide powers to President Johnson to defend South Vietnam. The vote was 414 to 0 in the House and 88 to 2 in the Senate, Morse joining Alaska senator Ernest Gruening in dissent.
The 1968 presidential election put Richard Nixon in the White House and Wayne Morse in retirement, being replaced by youthful Republican Robert W. Packwood. Thus ended a career filled with fierce feuds and strongly expressed feelings. Morse was never at a loss for words, one of his Senate speeches setting a one man filibuster record of 22 hours 26 minutes in 1953.
An avid husbandman, Morse raised horses and cattle on his Oregon ranch. Kicked by one of the horses, he was hospitalized in 1951, thereby laying the groundwork for a famous national confrontation with Clare Booth Luce, wife of publisher Henry Luce. When in 1959 Clare Luce's nomination as American ambassador to Brazil was being defeated, Morse vigorously opposed Eisenhower's choice. She injudiciously ascribed Morse's conduct to his having been "kicked in the head by a horse." Morse won a victory when Luce resigned without serving in the post. The Morse-Luce feud was one of several which made headlines during his career and helped—along with his substantive measures— to earn him the reputation "Tiger of the Senate."
The United States has been enriched in different ways at different times by the widely diffused family of British emigrant John Morse, who came to Connecticut in 1639. In the 19th century the family gave the nation Samuel F. B. Morse and the telegraph; in the 20th, another communicator named Wayne Lyman Morse brought his message of uncompromising idealism and lonely commitment to his land.
Further Reading on Wayne L. Morse
Wayne Morse's life and career are the subject of A. Robert Smith's The Tiger of the Senate: The Biography of Wayne Morse (1962). Morse co-authored The Two Americas (1965), an account of U.S.-Latin American relations.