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Fulbright: The Timid Opposition

Fulbright’s effectiveness as a brake on the widening war in the crucial months ahead will depend on the effectiveness of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, its staff and his capacity as chairman. Fulbright is talking about the possibility of more Vietnam hearings this year, but the record in the past is not encouraging. Though the Committee contains some of the ablest and most liberal members of the Senate—Aiken of Vermont and Case of New Jersey on the Republican side; Mansfield, Morse, Gore, Church, Clark, and McCarthy on the Democratic side—most of them seem to be cloakroom crusaders, brave in private, cautious in public, fitfully aroused and poorly informed. Judging by the record, the staff seems to be lethargic; either it does a poor job of briefing the members before a hearing or the Senators then ignore the questions and memoranda prepared for them. I and other newspapermen blushed at their clumsy performance in interrogating Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense “for Public Affairs,” i.e., propaganda, last August 31, when their blunderbuss methods enabled this skillful newsman-turned-bureaucrat to evade the real issues in Pentagon efforts to manage the news.

The three best informed members of the committee are Fulbright, Mansfield, and Morse. Morse alone operates from outside the gentlemen’s club inhibitions of the Senate Establishment. Mansfield from time to time, in special reports and speeches, lets fresh air in on stale situations, but at the decisive moments he usually subordinates his own better judgment to the compulsions of his post as Majority Leader, which means Presidential lieutenant. Even more than Fulbright, he tries to mold policy by private influence within the Administration; events have shown this does not amount to much. Fulbright, like Mansfield, is at his best in his thoughtful speeches. Both men are far wiser than Lyndon Johnson, but he is smarter than either and is continually taking them back into camp. Fulbright as Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations lacks that tireless passion for searching out the jugular fact which makes a first-rate investigator. He is a reflective rather than a combative man, easy-going by temperament and drawn to the Establishment by birth and natural bent. It is an index of the deepening crisis in foreign policy, and a tribute to the man, that he should have moved as far as he has into the uncongenial role of oppositionist, but those who see him intimately note that he is depressed rather than exhilarated by it. He does not have the heretic’s zest for standing alone, and often succumbs to the temptation of returning to the fold.

Those aware of this weakness did not miss its skillful exploitation by Vice-President Humphrey when he brought Fulbright along to join in the welcome to the President on his return from Manila that rainswept night at Dulles Airport just two months ago, nor the President’s own masterly histrionics. First Johnson appeared coldly to ignore the prodigal’s return, then rewarded him with a warm embrace. Next day the President gave Fulbright an hour’s private briefing, and instructed Rusk to continue it over lunch. The result was a statement by Fulbright unexpectedly hailing the result of the Manila conference. While Fulbright expressed the opinion that a cessation of the bombing “might be useful,” he had come around to the Johnson view that “the North Vietnamese certainly ought to indicate their willingness to respond to such an initiative on our part.”

THIS LACK OF CONSISTENCY makes it hazardous to count on Fulbright’s independence. His first break with the Johnson Administration’s belligerent policies abroad was over the Dominican Republic rather than Vietnam. Not since Borah forty years ago has a Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee challenged a President of his own party as Fulbright did Johnson when he attacked the Dominican intervention. Its counterpart was Borah’s attack on coolidge’s military intervention in Nicaragua in 1927. The circumstances were so alike as to be a useful reminder of the stale choreography with which the State Department handles our Latin American relations. “The first landing of troops,” one standard historian has written,1 “was declared to be solely for the protection of American lives and property, but there was little evidence that American lives and property were in jeopardy…. The spectre of Russian Bolshevist activity in Latin America was conjured but refused to walk.” Yet even in the midst of an attack as scathing as Borah’s, Fulbright left his door open to the White House by absolving Johnson from blame for the Dominican intervention. He was careful to say that Johnson could not have acted differently on the basis of the “faulty advice” given him “by his representatives in the Dominican Republic,” though Fulbright must know this is a polite falsehood; the Big Stick policy is instinctive with Johnson. Fulbright even added that he was sure “as I know President Johnson and indeed most U.S. citizens are sure, that our country is not and will not become the enemy of social revolution in Latin America.” This is the language of the courtier, for whom untruth seems justified if it may flatter the monarch into a better course.

There is an even more serious warning in the Dominican affair for those who hope, as indeed I do, for national leadership from Fulbright. Those two speeches on the Dominican intervention provided a brilliant autopsy, but the patient might not have been dead if Fulbright had been more alert or courageous at the decisive moment. Tris Coffin lifts the curtain on this in his biography,2 though without assessing its significance. He provides an inside account of that White House conference with Congressional leaders which Johnson called in 1963 to discuss recognition of the military junta which had overthrown Juan Bosch as President of the Dominican Republic. This was one of Johnson’s first moves as President and his first break with the Latin American policies of Kennedy. Kennedy had cut off economic aid and withdrawn recognition in protest against the coup and in the hope that this would force the military out of power. Now Johnson assembled Congressional leaders to hear Under-Secretary George Ball report that the military junta would fall unless aid were resumed and relations restored.

THREE MEMBERS of Senate Foreign Relations, Fulbright, Mansfield, and Morse, were among those invited to that White House conference. Johnson, as Mr. Coffin reveals, turned eagerly to Fulbright after the State Department presentation and asked, “What do you think, Bill?” That was the moment—and not almost two years later—when Fulbright should have spoken up. The fall of the junta would have opened the way to the restoration of Bosch, the Dominican Republic’s first elected President in more than a generation, and heartened every democratic regime in the hemisphere. They are all haunted by well-founded fears of collusion between their military and ours. Mr. Coffin writes that Fulbright did not like the decision to recognize the junta. But instead of opposing it he replied, “In a case like this, when the Congress has no information of its own, and the State Department presumably has the facts, we have no alternative but to support the Department.” Mr. Coffin relates that Mansfield also gave his “reluctant assent” and that “the only outright refusal” came from Morse.3 Morse asked Johnson first to consult with the Presidents of Venezuela and Chile. Both had opposed the military coup and feared the contagion of its example. They would certainly have advised Johnson to maintain the Kennedy policy, especially when it seemed on the verge of succeeding.

What were the facts in the State Department’s presentation which so impressed and inhibited Fulbright? Mr. Coffin does not tell us. But the main argument trundled out, as I have learned elsewhere, was the same superannuated scarecrow, the oldest employee in the Department’s Latin American division—not to support the military might open the door to a Communist takeover. The Department too often thinks democracy risky. But it was two years before Fulbright made the retort he should have made then. “Obviously if we based all our policies on the mere possibility of Communism,” Fulbright told the Senate in his first speech on Dominican policy, September 15, 1965, “then we would have to set ourselves against just about every progressive political movement in the world, because almost all such movements are subject at least to the theoretical danger of Communist takeover.”

It was a question of judgment, not of facts. To let the State Department make the judgment by supplying the supposed facts is to make the Foreign Relations Committee its prisoner. The most disquieting point in the record of the Committee is that it seems so rarely to go after the facts on its own. Fulbright has been on the Committee since 1945 and its chairman since 1958. In all that time it has much too often seemed dependent for its facts on official briefings, and whatever could be elicited from them by hit-or-miss interrogation. Though these briefings notoriously give the Senators information little different from, and often considerably less than, they can read in the newspapers, they are usually held in executive session. The effect is to hide from better informed critics outside just how floozy is the inside dope given the Committee.

Fulbright recently told the Associated Press that he was going to investigate Vietnam further in the new year. This will mean very little, however, if confined to the usual questioning at the annual review given the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in secret sessions at the beginning of each year by the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Head of the CIA. At the very least, these officials should be required to do what McNamara does in his survey of military position and policy before the Appropriations and Armed Service Committees of both houses. McNamara releases the text of his annual review to the press and then makes public a censored version of the hearings.

A PRIME EXAMPLE of the Committee’s failure to do its homework was Rusk’s own confirmation hearing. This episode ranks high in the untold tales of this drowsy watchdog. Rusk was Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in 1951 during the clash between Truman and MacArthur. The ultra-cautious Rusk then committed the one incautious act of his life. Three days after General Bradley made his famous declaration that MacArthur’s plan to expand the Korean war into a war on China would be “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy,” Rusk turned up in the camp of the MacArthurites. Rusk was persuaded by John Foster Dulles to speak at a China Institute dinner arranged by Henry Luce. The other two speakers were Dulles and Senator Paul Douglas, both strong supporters of MacArthur against Truman. At this dinner Truman’s young Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs delivered himself of a speech which overnight made him the hero of Life, Time, Senator Taft, David Lawrence, and the rightist press. The Washington Post reported that Secretary of State Acheson was “hopping mad” and that Rusk had not cleared the speech in advance with the State Department. Acheson held a press conference disavowing the implication that the Rusk speech signaled a shift in policy away from limited war in Korea. Even Arthur Krock joined Lowell Mellett, Marquis Childs, and Walter Lippmann in taking Rusk to task. Dean Rusk would have committed the American government not just to the containment or even the isolation of the Peking government but to its overthrow. “Such an objective,” Lippmann wrote in a column “Bradley vs. Rusk” (May 22, 1951) “excludes a negotiated settlement in Korea and is just another way of announcing our terms are once again unconditional surrender.” Later that year Rusk was eased out of the Department. Dulles, at that time Chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, then got Rusk the job of being its President at a salary The New York Times said was between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, no mean consolation.

Who would have dreamt that nine years later this darling of the Republicans would turn up as Secretary of State on Kennedy’s New Frontier when the Democrats returned to power? Yet except for a few half-hearted questions from Aiken, no hint of this record appeared in the Rusk confirmation hearing before Senate Foreign Relations (nor in the press). The staff only had to check back in newspaper files to dig it up. It is unbelievable that Fulbright did not recall it, for when that Rusk speech was made Fulbright was actively supporting the Truman position as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the famous MacArthur hearings. The speech was memorable for the sentence in which Rusk called Communist China “a colonial Russian government—a Slavic Manchukuo on a larger scale.” Manchukuo is what the Japanese named the regime they established in Manchuria in the 1930s under the puppet Emperor Pu Yi, last of the Manchus. Events since have richly demonstrated that Rusk’s characterization of Communist China as a mere puppet of Moscow was one of the most splended pratfalls in the annals of prophecy. There were of course all sorts of practical political reasons for keeping Rusk’s record out of sight, but all of them derive from that acquiescence in sham which is the price of membership in the nation’s elite. The banker Robert Lovett, the most stratospheric of all the stuffed shirts in the New York foreign policy establishment, had turned down the job as Secretary of State and recommended Rusk to Kennedy instead. So Fulbright and his colleagues were silent as an Administration pledged to get the country moving again saddled itself with a Secretary of State more rigid, if anything, than John Foster Dulles himself

In all the years of our involvement in Indochina, back to the two billion dollars we squandered on the French war, Senate Foreign Relations never held public hearings on it until last year. An example of what an energetic Foreign Relations Committee might have done was provided by the Porter Hardy subcommittee of House Government Operations in 1959 when it exposed the bribery, perjury, and wasted millions which marked our foreign aid program in Laos. Its 984 pages of hearings, though censored, still provide the most thorough insight into our Indochinese policies, particularly our repeated efforts to prevent the elections called for by the 1954 Geneva agreement and to upset the neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma, whom we have since come reluctantly to support. J. Graham Parsons presided over this mess as US Ambassador to Laos and was severely criticized by the House Committee for helping to hide it from public view. But Senate Foreign Relations unanimously confirmed him that same year for promotion to Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. Parsons was not corrupt; he was just outstanding even in the Foreign Service for his rich endowment of complacency. Within a few weeks of his confirmation, he was appearing as a star witness before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to pillory Albert M. Colegrove and the Scripps Howard press for the first major attempt in US journalism to expose the Diem dictatorship. All that Parsons then denied has proven all too true. It is incredible that Fulbright and his colleagues failed to see through him.

FULBRIGHT AND HIS COLLEAGUES performed a service when they held their first public hearings on Vietnam last winter. They, and the television companies by covering them fully, finally opened a public debate on issues which had too long been settled by drift and default. But the hearings also demonstrated limitations to be corrected if future hearings are to be more effective. There is no substitute for preliminary staff investigation in the field; a committee must know the answers in advance if it is not to be “snowed” by slick official witnesses. Lower level officials are more productive witnesses than those of Cabinet rank; the former know more about actual operations. Often, as reporters know, they are anxious to expose what their superiors would rather cover up. There is no reason why experienced newsmen, who have actually covered the war, should not be summoned as witnesses; events amply testify that some newsmen have been better judges of this war than the officials. Last winter’s hearings were too heavily weighted with top officialdom, though their subjection to public interrogation provided some interesting fireworks and gave the country a chance to see just how smug they tend to be. The only two non-official witnesses, George Kennan and General James M. Gavin (retired), made a real contribution, but suffered from the inhibitions which a lifetime in the bureaucracy imposes, a fear of being “too far out” and a timidity which led them to take back much of what they had said as soon as hostile questions were asked from the pro-war side.

Above all, the hearings showed that after all these years the Committee still lacks expertise in Indochinese affairs. The fundamental issue in Vietnam, in any effort to win the people, as American experts have often said, is land reform. It is both a clue to the failures of the past and to negotiation in the future: the National Liberation Front, in promising private ownership, seeks to allay peasant fears of losing their land to the same kind of savage and sectarian land reform that stirred a peasant revolt in the North in 1956. Not to keep an eye on this issue is to miss what concerns the peasants most. Future hearings, for example, should focus attention on the alarming fact that when Dr. Dan recently proposed in the Constituent Assembly that the new Constitution guarantee the peasants the land they actually till, the proposal got only three votes in an Assembly heavily weighted with landlords. He also got no support from the US Embassy in Vietnam, though we are presumably pledged by the Honolulu and Manila declarations to land reform and “social revolution.”

IT IS REVEALING that land reform is not even listed in the index to last year’s hearings and was mentioned only a few times in passing. There the best discussion of the land problem is a series of articles by Richard Critchfield in the Washington Star last January, which Senator Clark inserted in the record. These are by far the most valuable part of the whole 743-page transcript. It is a pity they were never discussed before the TV audience, since they reveal that 3,000 rich Saigon families can earn as much as $40,000 a year on their legal rents and holdings, much less the higher rents and larger holdings they often get away with. As American troops move into the costly task of subduing the Mekong Delta, the resistance they encounter will be severe because, as Critchfield wrote, “The crux of the problem has yet to be tackled…the redistribution from big to small owners of more than 2 million acres.” To move in before, and without, land reform is to reconquer the Delta for the big landowners with American lives. This is the truth of which the country has not yet been made aware.

The Foreign Relations Committee missed an opportunity when General Maxwell D. Taylor appeared before it. Taylor’s first report to Kennedy in 1961 advised extensive social and political reform if South Vietnam were to be saved. Diem succeeded by a bitter campaign to get American aid without those reforms. Taylor should have been asked to tell the Committee that whole story. Here the Committee and its staff were again asleep at the switch. Even Morse asked Taylor legalistic questions about the SEATO pact instead of focussing on the aborted social and economic reforms Taylor once recommended. The failure to institute them cost Diem’s life and is costing many American lives. They will never be instituted either by a military junta made up from the landlord class nor by a Constituent Assembly in which the peasantry, the bulk of the people, is conspicuously unrepresented. Only a government which includes their spokesmen can negotiate peace and end a quarter-century of instability. These are the issues on which the country needs to be educated and these are the issues Fulbright and his colleagues have yet to explore.

Establishment liberals avert their eyes from this record. Their attitude reminds one of Johnson’s attitude toward Diem. On the plane trip home from Saigon in 1961, after Johnson had described Diem as the Churchill of Asia, a reporter tried to tell Johnson a little about Diem’s record. “Don’t tell me about Diem,” Johnson said. “He’s all we’ve got out there.”4 Fulbright is no Diem but he, too, is “all we’ve got” and we are grateful for him. But it’s just as well to be clear-sighted about the record, as a hedge against disappointment and to bring pressure on him and his Committee. They are going to have to do a lot better in the future than they have in the past if they are to help bring the country back to peace.

This is the final installment of a threepart series.

Letters

Dissent March 9, 1967

  1. 1

    Graham H. Stuart: Latin America and the United States, p. 364, Appleton-Century, 4th ed., 1943

  2. 2

    Tristram Coffin: Senator Fulbright: Portrait of a Public Philosopher, Dutton, 1966

  3. 3

    Later, so I have heard, Johnson shrewdly told Morse, “You know two of those fellows [meaning Fulbright and Mansfield] voted against their consciences.” This was said, of course, to flatter Morse. The wily Texan never misses a trick.

  4. 4

    David Halberstam: The Making of a Quagmire, p. 69

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