Senator Fulbright: Portrait of a Public Philosopher
Like most of his Senate colleagues, J. William Fulbright was slow to become a critic of our involvement in Indochina. In 1954, when Nixon was canvassing the Senate privately for intervention, the only Senator to speak up against “sending American GI’s into the mud and muck of Indochina” was the late Ed Johnson of Colorado. One question some future biographer of Fulbright should try to answer is why so informed and enlightened a Senator was so slow to recognize what was really happening. This slow start is hidden from view in Tristram Coffin’s overly flattering and protective biography. Fulbright did not oppose intervention when Eisenhower almost embarked upon it in 1954, nor when Kennedy began it in 1961. Fulbright’s Senate speech in June of that year, combined standard liberal precepts about the need for social reform with equally standard support for military aid in the anti-guerrilla struggle. He blamed Diem for the rise in guerrilla activity but at the same time thought Diem’s critics unfairly harsh. He sounded as balanced as a party platform:
The regime…can point to a record of steady accomplishment. Yet [it] has lacked something in benevolence…. Opposition, including that of anti-Communist elements, has been vigorously suppressed. It is a regime that of necessity has been authoritarian, but one that also has been perhaps unnecessarily severe. On balance, however, it must be said that the accomplishments of this regime are overlooked by many observers and commentators, who all too frequently have accepted uncritically the most abusive gossip and propaganda about President Diem and his administration.
As recently as the Spring of 1964 Fulbright was still far from ready to translate liberal generalities into concrete dissent on foreign policy. In his famous speech in March 1964 on “Old Myths and New Realities”—a speech which owes more to its title than its content—Fulbright said the country must “dare to think unthinkable thoughts.” But on the central issues of Cuba, China, and Vietnam, his conclusions, as distinct from his liberal sentiments, would not have startled a Readers Digest editor. He thought the U.S. should maintain its “political and economic boycott of the Castro regime; that we should not recognize Communist China or even “acquiesce in her admission to the United Nations under present circumstances”; and that we should continue and if necessary intensify our military efforts in Vietnam.
TO REREAD THAT SPEECH now is to understand why Johnson seems to be more bitter about Fulbright than he does about the more consistent and radical opposition to the war by Morse and Gruening. For Fulbright’s position on Vietnam in the Spring of 1964 was indistinguishable from Johnson’s. Fulbright thought that until we had improved our military position “there can be little prospect of a negotiated settlement which would assure the independence of a non-Communist Vietnam.” The italics are ours, to emphasize Fulbright’s formulation of the very conditions Johnson would soon use to hedge his offer of “unconditional negotiations …
Dissent March 9, 1967