Alvin H. Gamson, who was my seventh-grade history teacher not long after serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, always encouraged debate.
In 1958, he signed my little autograph book, writing: "To the King's loyal opposition: May you continue to argue and debate for the rest of your life, for that is the true spirit of American democracy."
I have loved history ever since. Over many years, I have taken a particular interest in foreign policy and civil rights.
Three of the most eloquent and effective critics of U.S. foreign policy during three different wars included three prominent United States senators.
Richard B. Russell Jr. of Georgia played a central role keeping the Korean War from expanding to China in 1951. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas held many powerful hearings questioning the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia has delivered dozens of speeches challenging the impending and actual invasion of Iraq since 2002.
All three served together in the Senate between 1959 and 1971.
All three voted against civil rights legislation. Their careers reflect the complexities of life and politics.
Russell served in the Senate from 1933 until he died in 1971. As a candidate opposing President Harry S. Truman's civil rights legislation at Democratic National Conventions, Russell won 263 votes in 1948 and 268 in 1952.
Fulbright served from 1945 through 1974, when he lost the Democratic primary in Arkansas. He became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1959.
Byrd began serving in 1959 and has cast more votes than any senator in American history.
Russell, Fulbright and Byrd all studied history back to Greek and Roman times. They all understood the critical role the U.S. Senate should play to stop impetuous policies and power grabs by presidents and military leaders.
Richard B. Russell Jr.
In April 1951, the nation faced one of its gravest political and Constitutional crises after President Harry Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Delivering speeches before public crowds and Congress, the hugely popular general arrogantly defied the president, seeking to force him to reverse his decisions.
MacArthur wanted to blockade China and bomb Chinese forces in Manchuria. He wanted no limits on waging war against North Korea. Truman wanted to contain Communism. But he did not want to precipitate an all-out world war.
"MacArthur's arguments were sweeping the country, but there were arguments on the other side. Who would bring them out? Who would dare to stand against the tide?" asked historian Richard A. Caro in "Master of the Senate," the third volume of his biography about President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"The Senate would have a moment of glory, an episode that would show what the Senate could be at its finest - and why Russell was, in aspects other than racism, the personification of that ideal," Caro wrote.
From early May through late June 1951, Russell chaired Senate hearings that brought out the dangers of MacArthur's aggressive global strategies.
Russell was deeply committed to reaffirming civilian control over the military. And he had a broad understanding of history, of the Greek, Roman and other later empires.
Under Russell's leadership, the Senate "had done, in short, precisely what the Founding Fathers had wanted the Senate to do, what their Constitution had designed it to do: to defuse - cool off - and educate; to make men think, recall them to their first principles, such as the principle that in a democracy it is not generals but the people's tribunes who make policy," Caro wrote.
Russell later opposed the "massive retaliation theories" of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles under President Dwight Eisenhower and was an early opponent of intervening in Vietnam.
Russell supported many programs to help poorer people, especially during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. But Russell never modified his views on segregation.
In a February 1988 Senate speech honoring Russell, Byrd noted Russell "never changed his mind on the issue of racial integration. He viewed civil rights laws as 'force bills' designed to change race relations in the South. He believed, too, that much of the support for civil rights legislation came from what he called 'South haters.'
"On most issues, he was flexible and able to compromise, but, on the question of racial integration and white supremacy, he died holding the same views as those held by his southern ancestors. History, tradition, and social relations, as they had developed in the South after slavery, possessed an unbreakable hold on him," Byrd said.
J. William Fulbright
Fulbright, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee longer than anyone, constantly questioned foreign interventions.
In "Old Myths and New Realities," a book published in 1964, Fulbright states, "Congress, and especially the Senate, does have a role in foreign policy. That role is to participate in shaping broad policies."
In 1961, he opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1965, he opposed sending Marines to the Dominican Republic. Soon after voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, Fulbright became a leading critic of the escalating Vietnam War.
During a 1968 hearing, Fulbright stated, "There was a high degree of inaccuracy in the presentation of the [Johnson] Administration to this committee, and to the Senate through this committee."
Never fearing to stand alone, Fulbright had cast the only vote in 1954 against giving Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy more money to continue his with-hunts against real and imagined "Communists."