Last week we acknowledged two important milestones in American history. The first was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin speech on August 4. The second was the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's resignation from office on August 9. As we now know, both Johnson's run-up to the war in Vietnam and Nixon's defense of his presidency were built on a pile of lies.
In LBJ's case, he knowingly deceived the nation into believing North Vietnamese PT boats had attacked U.S. Naval forces so he could immediately increase America's presence in Southeast Asia. I think it's safe to say there is a direct link between Johnson's half-baked Gulf speech and a majority of the 58,000 U.S. troops who died in Vietnam.
Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon and FBI deputy director Mark Felt were beacons of light during those dark and disturbing days. Morse was one of two members of the Senate to oppose Johnson's call to arms. He must have known he was signing his political death notice when he voted against the president and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7th.
Here's what Morse said at the time: “I believe that history will record this resolution as a historic mistake. I am not going to go along with this kind of a program, in South Vietnam … that in my judgment is going to kill needlessly untold numbers of American boys, and for nothing.”
Leading up to the congressional investigation of Nixon, Felt's secretive ways, and steady handling of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, earned him the nickname "Deep Throat." If he literally hadn't come out of the shadows when he did, I'm guessing the White House taping system and the Watergate committee's smoking gun ultimately may never have been uncovered. But Felt did, they were, and so it was game over for the unlawful president.
(Interestingly, in the years since the Watergate scandal, terms like Irangate, Travelgate and others have become embedded in our political lexicon. As damaging as they were to Presidents Reagan and Clinton, for example, none have come close to the constitutional crisis America faced in the early 1970s.)
Washington is filled with monuments honoring people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. plus the Doughboys, WWII and Vietnam veterans (to name but a few). If ever there was a need to recognize two contemporary patriots, Wayne Morse and Mark Felt would top my list. They not only stood up to powerful political forces, they lived out the true definition and ideals of what it means to be a citizen.
It may have taken decades to understand the importance of their actions, but we do now. Morse's willingness to speak out publicly 50 years ago, and Felt's need to talk privately 40 years ago, should be an inspiration to the rest of us. You may not agree with their politics or motives, but you cannot dispute their courage. America owes both of them a sincere debt of gratitude.
Freidenrich writes from Laguna Beach, California. He served as a congressional staff assistant on Capitol Hill in 1972. Follow him on Twitter @freidomreport.