The tendency of today’s self-described “conservative” politicians to favor unending U.S. military intervention is hard to understand given how poorly such war making has served global peace or any American interest. It boggles the mind all the more because it is steadfast conservatives like Kentucky’s own Eugene Siler (1900-1987) who have sometimes been most prescient about purposeless warmongering.
Siler’s example should be better heeded by many of our current leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who send so many of our young servicemen and servicewomen to the Middle East when there is no defensible mission left for the U.S. to perform there.
A devoted Christian who feared the devastation U.S. entry into the Vietnam War would eventually cause, Siler was the lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives opposing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that passed in 1964. (Siler’s dissent among House members often goes unnoticed in the record because he was unable to attend House proceedings that day and instead was “paired” with a member favoring the resolution who also did not attend the vote.)
This infamous legislation, whose own text mischaracterized it as a measure “To Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia,” permitted the president “as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
President Johnson based the need for U.S. military action in Vietnam on the assertion that two U.S. ships were subject to a “deliberate” and “unprovoked” attack in international waters. At the time, he promised that “we seek no wider war.”
We now know that the resolution did not achieve its stated purpose for “freedom” and that Johnson’s rationale for military action was false.
A conservative realist in the tradition of Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953), Siler knew it even then.
Being virtually alone in dissenting, Siler demonstrated not only forethought but courage as well. Though he retired that year, the quagmire the Vietnam War would become spurred him to seek a U.S. Senate seat four years later. Like the only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin measure, Siler was defeated. Though Johnson had wearied of the presidency, his White House had not tired of its pro-war propaganda campaign, and the war’s eventual ravages upon the nearly 60,000 Americans and over one million Vietnamese who died — not to mention those injured or bereaved — weren’t foreseen by most.
The prudent conservative Siler foresaw those ravages even then.
His resolve steeled by his Baptist faith, Siler was used to taking selfless and sometimes unfashionable positions. He sponsored legislation to prohibit the advertising of alcoholic beverages on interstate media. He vehemently opposed the judicial overreach that removed prayer from public schools. When in private practice as a lawyer, he refused to represent plaintiffs seeking divorces or defendants charged with whiskey-related offenses.
Politicians generally didn’t agree with Siler when he said the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was designed to “seal the lips of Congress against future criticism.” Who could argue with him now?
When this self-described “Kentucky Hillbilly” would joke that he was running for president and planned to resign after one day in office, just long enough to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops, he swam against the current and lost re-election. Yet who would deny his words have relevance today, with 14,000 of our troops stationed in Afghanistan and 2,000 stationed in Syria?
President Trump has announced plans to begin bringing our boys and girls home, returning about half of our soldiers home from Afghanistan and most of those serving in Syria. Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s reaction so far has been to pass a “sense of the Senate” resolution rebuking the president’s policy.
McConnell would do well to instead emulate the great Kentucky conservative Eugene Siler.