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 …

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Letters

Dissent March 9, 1967