Many current members of Congress, especially progressives, may have envisioned how they would have handled the Tonkin Gulf crisis in 1964. In their imaginations, they would have asked probing questions and treated the dubious assertions from the White House with tough skepticism before voting on whether to give President Lyndon Johnson the authority to go to war in Vietnam.
If they had discovered what CIA and Pentagon insiders already knew – that the crucial second North Vietnamese “attack” on U.S. destroyers likely never happened and that the U.S. warships were not on some “routine” patrol but rather supporting a covert attack on North Vietnamese territory – today’s members of Congress would likely see themselves joining Sens. Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening as the only ones voting no.
Bravery in hindsight is always easy, but things feel quite different when Official Washington is locked in one of its pro-war “group thinks” when all the “important people” – from government to the media to think tanks – are pounding their chests and talking tough, as they are now on Russia and Ukraine.
Then, if you ask your probing questions and show your tough skepticism, you will have your patriotism, if not your sanity, questioned. You will be “controversialized,” “marginalized,” “pariahed.” You will be called somebody’s “apologist,” whether it’s Ho Chi Minh or Vladimir Putin. Against the State: An ... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 UTC - Details)
And nobody wants to go through that because here’s the truth about Official Washington: if you run with the pack – if you stay within the herd – you’ll be safe. Even if things go terribly wrong – even if thousands of American soldiers die along with many, many more foreign civilians – you can expect little or no accountability. You will likely keep your job and may well get promoted. But if you stand in the way of the stampede, you’ll be trampled.
After all, remember what happened to Morse and Gruening in their next elections. They both lost. As one Washington insider once told me about the U.S. capital’s culture, “there’s no honor in being right too soon. People just remember that you were out of step and crazy.”
So, the choice often is to do the right thing and be crushed or to run with the pack and be safe. But there are moments when even the most craven member of Congress should look for whatever courage he or she has left and behave like a Morse or a Gruening, especially in a case like the Ukraine crisis which has the potential to spin out of control and into a nuclear confrontation.
Though the last Congress already whipped through belligerent resolutions denouncing “Russian aggression” and urging a military response – with only five Democrats and five Republicans dissenting – members of the new Congress could at least ascertain the facts that have driven the Ukraine conflict. Before the world lurches into a nuclear showdown, it might make a little sense to know what got us here.