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The Supineness of the Senate

The Gulf of Tonkin, The 1964 Incidents. Part II Session. Supplementary Documents to February 20, 1968; Hearing With Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara Dated December 16, released December 20, 1968

Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 90th Congress, 2nd
US Government Printing Office

It was on the dignity of the Senate that Augustus and his successors founded their new empire…. In the administration of their own powers, they frequently consulted the great national council, and seemed [italics in original] to refer to its decision the most important concerns of peace and war…. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed…. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the Senate and the people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

—Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

A major item of business for the Senate in the session now beginning is finally to act upon Resolution 187. More than any other single piece of proposed legislation, it reflects the widespread revulsion in Congress against foreign adventures created by the Vietnamese war. It would express “the sense of the Senate” that in the future no President should commit the United States to use its armed forces abroad without “affirmative action” by Congress. The intent is to prevent future Vietnams.

The resolution was introduced by Senator Fulbright in 1967. Nothing he has done in years won such instant and wide support. It was unanimously approved, within his Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by Republicans and Democrats, doves and hawks. It was also endorsed outside the Committee by Democrats as conservative and influential as Russell of Georgia and McClellan of Arkansas, and by Republicans as far to the right as Allott of Colorado and Young of North Dakota. Its passage, overwhelmingly, by the Senate seemed assured. Yet it was somehow kept off the floor all through the 1968 session.

The Johnson Administration opposed the resolution, as did the military bureaucracy, and managed without protest from Fulbright or any other Senator to keep it from a vote. Mansfield, who had voted for the resolution in committee, turned around and put it on the shelf as majority leader, but promised to let it come to a vote this year. The resolution takes on added importance as a possible restraint on the new Administration. Nixon showed his interventionist tendencies as early as 1954 in Vietnam, and his Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, in his book America’s Strategy Gap: A House Divided (Regnery: 1962), thought Eisenhower was too weak in the Hungarian revolt and Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs. The excuse for putting off a vote at the last session was that it might upset the peace talks on Vietnam, though the resolution clearly applies only to future commitments. The Paris talks, dragging on, may provide a similar excuse this year. So easily is the Senate deflected from its purposes.

The terms of the resolution were intended to shore up the fast disappearing Constitutional right of Congress to decide when the United States shall go to war. When the Foreign Relations Committee after extensive hearings1 sent the resolution to the Senate in 1967, it did so with a report2 which spelled out the reasons why the framers of the Constitution gave the power to declare war exclusively to Congress. It also spelled out step by step the steady usurpation of that power by the Presidency since 1900 and particularly since the Korean war in 1950, the first full-scale war in which the United States ever engaged without a declaration of war by Congress.

The essence of the story is that in the case of America, as of Rome, imperial adventures abroad weakened constitutional controls at home. “The use of the armed forces against sovereign nations without authorization by Congress,” the committee reported, “became common practice in the 20th Century.” It began with Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the Navy against Colombia in the Panama affair, and continued with the military interventions of Taft and Wilson in the Caribbean and Central America. The trend, the report said, was “accelerated by Franklin Roosevelt” and “continued at a rapid rate” under Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, “bringing the country to the point at which the real power to commit the country to war is now in the hands of the President.”

When the committee contrasted this practice with American constitutional principles, its stately old-fashioned language seemed to be invoking a past as irretrievable as Rome before the Caesars:

There is no uncertainty or ambiguity about the intent of the framers of the Constitution with respect to the war power. Greatly dismayed by the power of the British Crown to commit Great Britain—and with it the American colonies—to war, fearful of the possible development of monarchical tendencies in their new republic, and fearful as well of the dangers of large standing armies and military defiance of civilian authority, they vested the power to commit the United States to war exclusively in Congress. This power was not, like certain others, divided between the executive and the legislature; it was conferred upon Congress and Congress alone.

The reference to George III may be out of this world but “the dangers of large standing armies and military defiance of civilian authority” are not antiquarianisms. To put the war power in the hands of the President is to put decision-making behind the closed doors of the White House and the Pentagon where the sheer inertial power of our huge standing armed forces may count for more than public opinion, and secrecy fosters “military defiance of civilian authority.” This is how Presidents, though elected, can become Caesars, and like them the masters and the pawns of the imperial legions.

Nuclear weapons invest the process with terrifying dimensions. “The executive, by acquiring the authority to commit the country to war,” the committee said in a grave and eloquent conclusion, “now exercises something approaching absolute power over the life and death of every living American—to say nothing of millions of other people all over the world.” It warned that unless the constitutional checks on the war-making power were restored, “the American people will be threatened with tyranny or disaster.” It is not often that so sedate a committee speaks so strongly.

The incident which occurred, or is supposed to have occurred, in the Gulf of Tonkin three years earlier, and unleashed our first bombings of North Vietnam, weighed heavily in the making of that Committee report. It called Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf resolution of August, 1964, “the extreme point in the process of constitutional erosion [of the Congressional war-making power] that began in the first years of this century.” Yet, as often happens, the judicious gravity of the words bears little relationship to the Senate Committee’s haphazard, grass-hopper-minded, tendency to leave the most serious matters hanging, forever unfinished, in mid-air. Its chairman, Fulbright, and its staff—whether with or without the concurrence of its members, we are not told—have just brushed its five-year-old off-and-on again investigation of the Tonkin Gulf affair under the rug, uncompleted. This is the one story which, fully disclosed, might have dramatized for the country the dangers on which that “no more Vietnams” resolution dwelt and thus mobilized the popular support required to push it through the Senate this year.

For some unexplained reason this inquiry has instead been brought to a sudden end with a twenty-page document so obscurely put together that its wider significance went unnoticed and few newspapers paid it any attention at all.3 The timing of the release, just five days before Christmas, with Congress out of session and most Committee members home for the holiday, and the form—an exchange of letters between Fulbright and the Pentagon with the scantiest explanation—were alike calculated to attract as little attention as possible.

This hasty burial is of special interest to readers of The New York Review of Books. When this writer, in the issue dated March 28, 1968, called attention to the questions left skillfully unanswered by Secretary of Defense McNamara and by General Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the hearing held by the Committee on the Tonkin Gulf affair in February, 1968, Senator Fulbright put the article into the Congressional Record (March 22, 1968), with a compliment to the writer (“one of the most industrious and perceptive journalists I know”) and a pledge to get the answers. “I can assure Senators,” Fulbright told the Senate that day, “that the Committee intends to continue to press the Department of Defense for the information we have thus far not received.”

The only result, however, is the flimsy little “Part II” released by Fulbright in December. The Committee in this document fails to explain what it did get and to pursue what it didn’t. The military bureaucracy, with adeptness and effrontery, has left the Committee’s main questions and requests as unanswered as they were in the hearing a year ago. How can Congress, and particularly the Senate, pick up the reins given it in the Constitution over war-making when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, its main reliance in foreign policy, proves so slack?

The Tonkin Gulf episode provides a model of how not to run an investigation. The first hearing was little more than a rigged affair, held jointly by the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees of the Senate. It was designed to help the White House stampede the Senate into voting a blank check for wider war in Southeast Asia, as it did next day, with only two negative votes, those of Morse and Gruening, both tragically lost in the last election. Fulbright in that hearing, as in the Senate debate, ran interference for the Administration.

A second hearing was held secretly in May, 1966, after Fulbright became disillusioned, but the record has never been released; indeed its very existence is little known. I verified the fact that it had taken place after noting some scattered references to it by Senators in later years. A third, and it now appears the final, hearing was held last February 20, and a censored text released shortly afterward. So the only hearing made public which can really be called investigatory was limited to a single day and heard only the two official witnesses, Secretary McNamara and General Wheeler. At the close of that hearing Senator Gore was so exasperated by the evasions and contradictions that he told Fulbright, “I think we must plow forth and get to the full truth and make a report to the public.”4 But the plowing has ended in mid-furrow. Fulbright and the Committee have written finis to the investigation without making any report.

A considerable number of participants in the Tonkin Gulf affair were so antagonized by what they considered the falsities in the official accounts that they volunteered, at considerable risk to their careers, to tell what they saw. Some that night were on board our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf. Others were in the command and control center at the Pentagon through which a series of frantic messages passed before the President went on the air and ordered our reprisal raids on North Vietnam.5 But none of them was ever put on the stand to testify before the Foreign Relations Committee, and Fulbright has never explained why.

  1. 1

    US Commitments to Foreign Powers,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings on Senate Resolution 151, August 16-23 and September 19, 1967. [This later became Senate Resolution 187.]

  2. 2

    National Commitments: Report No. 797,” 90th Congress, 1st Session, November 20, 1967, Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  3. 3

    For three that did, see Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, Joseph R. L. Sterne in the Baltimore Sun, and a shorter, less comprehensible dispatch in The New York Times, all on December 20.

  4. 4

    February 20, 1968 Hearing, p. 109.

  5. 5

    The Associated Press had a special team digging out and interrogating these witnesses and sent out an extensive story on what they had to say. But few papers published it. The fullest version we have seen appeared in the Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1967, and may be found at Page S1888 of the Congressional Record last February 28. See also the interviews with participants by David Wise in his penetrating account for Esquire in April of last year.

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