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.

In his brief Preface to Part II, released in December, Fulbright acknowledges that “several participants in the Tonkin incidents—or individuals in some way associated with the incidents—have voluntarily offered information.” But he says, without giving the reasons for it, that the Committee “decided early during our re-examination of this incident to limit published material to that related directly to official documents or communications.” To do so was to limit the public record to the documents the Pentagon could be prevailed upon to supply, and to the testimony and examination of the two official witnesses. So one-sided a procedure gave the advantage to the Administration. Fulbright says defensively in the closing sentence of his Preface to Part II that “nothing of an unofficial nature which came to the Committee’s attention would, in my opinion, alter in any significant way any conclusion which might be reached by a careful examination of the printed record.” What conclusion? That the August 4 incident never happened? That it was a fraud? Fulbright owes the Senate and the country something better than this coy and cryptic teaser.

The first stage in smothering the Tonkin Gulf affair appears in retrospect to have been Fulbright’s decision not to publish his staff study even of the documents supplied by the Pentagon. This was circumvented in part by Morse, who put most of them into the Congressional Record as part of the speeches he made on February 21, 28, and 29 last year. These courageous analyses will stand as the closest thing to a final report. But his disclosures were no substitute for the staff study itself. Few people will know that Morse’s source was the staff study. We are left without the benefit of the staff’s own conclusions and of the Committee’s considered judgment.

The second and final step in blanketing the investigation is embodied in the so-called Part II released in December. This acquiesces in the Pentagon’s refusal to deal with the questions left unanswered by McNamara and Wheeler last February. Fulbright could have taken his fight for the answers to the Senate floor this session. He could, as a minimum, have drawn public attention strongly to the Pentagon’s unwillingness to give the Senate anywhere near the full truth. He has done neither.

By far the most important document the Committee wanted last February was the “command and control report” which covered the flow of messages through the Pentagon and the White House the night the decision was made to attack North Vietnam. That such a report existed was kept from the Committee’s staff investigators when they asked the Pentagon for relevant reports and documents. Its existence became known only through an anonymous letter dated December 26, 1967, which Morse put into the record of last February’s hearing (at pages 84-5). “I doubt that all the power of the United States Senate,” the anonymous letter said, “could ever penetrate far enough into the super-secret world to learn much about what goes on.” The letter said the situation was so bad that “right now the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] is refusing materials in their field wanted by people working on Vietnam for the Secretary of Defense, most obviously because they are fearful it would serve the Secretary of Defense’s purposes, not theirs.”

Such are the Byzantine labyrinths created by the size and secrecy of the military establishment. The anonymous letter gave the full title of the command and control study so the Committee could ask for it. The anonymous letter said the document would show that “after the first report of the attack there was a report there probably had not been an attack at all. But the President was to go on the air to address the nation about the retaliatory attacks that had already been planned….” (Italics added). The President would have missed out on prime television time if the decision had been held up for confirmation. The attacks already planned would have had to be called off if further investigation had shown that no attack occurred.

This is where the body is buried. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an article published by Hanson Baldwin in The New York Times a month before the Tonkin Gulf incidents, had been arguing for an extension of the war into North Vietnam. All was ready for the bombings. This was a case study in instant crisis. It shows how easily Congress can be stampeded and how readily the truth may be hidden. The Senate Committee had some powerful levers at its disposal to obtain that report or to learn its contents. A colloquy on page 77 of the February hearing disclosed that there were forty copies extant and Senator Gore said, “You will find some at the Rand Corporation.” If the Pentagon refused to supply a copy, one could have been subpoenaed from Rand. The same page disclosed the name of the man who wrote the report, a man identified only as Ponturo. It took only a telephone call on our part to locate a John Ponturo at the Institute for Defense Analysis, and to learn from him (1) that he was employed by IDA in 1964 at the time it made this report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; (2) that the report was still classified; and (3) that no one from the Foreign Relations Committee ever contacted, much less questioned, him.

The same page of the hearing last February contains a similarly vague reference to a man identified only as “Fubini.” The context indicates that he was a Pentagon official who was dubious about the August 4th incident. Fulbright even got McNamara to say that he had no objection to Fubini’s being called as a witness. McNamara said that Fubini, at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, was Deputy Director of Research and Engineering. There is reason to believe Fubini saw the excited exchange of messages that night. He too was never called as a witness, though his background would have made his appearance before the Committee impressive. Instead he is left buried in this shadowy reference in last February’s hearing.

When we checked the New York Times index, we found that Dr. Eugene G. Fubini, a brilliant Italian-born physicist who served as an electronics expert with our armed forces in World War II, became Deputy Director of Research and Engineering at the Pentagon in March, 1961, and was made an Assistant Secretary of Defense by Kennedy in June, 1963. He resigned in June, 1965, to become a vice-president in charge of research for International Business Machines Corporation, but stipulated, that he would not work on any military business for IBM.6 A New York Times story of July 4, 1965 said he had become an abominated ” ‘no’ man” at the Pentagon because he had so often vetoed proposed military research projects. Fubini also was never questioned by the Foreign Relations Committee or its staff. What a way to run an investigation!

The tactics used by Fulbright in dealing with the Pentagon in the wake of last February’s hearing—as newly disclosed in Part II—were extraordinarily weak. It turns out from the first document, Fulbright’s letter of request to Secretary Clifford, dated last March 1, that he did not really ask for the command and control report. He merely asked about “the status of the command and control report evaluating the Tonkin Gulf incidents” [Our italics]. So flaccid an approach invited the rejection it evoked. Acting Secretary of Defense Paul C. Warnke replied last April 4 that “the study is not considered appropriate for dissemination outside the Department.” The excuses given were that it was “an internal study,” that it “was not intended to be…a comprehensive evaluation of the incidents themselves,” and that it “was not prepared for review by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” One wonders how much would have been left of the report if the Chairman had “reviewed” it.

Fulbright not only took this lying down but did not even refer to the command and control report and the Pentagon’s refusal to release it in the brief Preface, little more than a page in length, with which he introduced Part II. There is much in these few extra documents released last December which was worthy of explanation. They provide further evidence that we knew North Vietnam claimed a twelve-mile limit when we ordered our destroyers to penetrate it before the “incidents.” There is a page which shows that the destroyer Maddox carried sixteen electronics experts, four from Taiwan, in addition to its regular crew, convincing evidence of its espionage mission.

From the tortured and disingenuous language of the Pentagon’s replies to Fulbright, an expert—but only an expert—can learn just how spurious was that ultra top secret information which McNamara several times showed the Committee—after clearing the hearing room of its staff, on the excuse that staff members had no security clearances higher than top secret!7

This was supposed to be an intercepted message which proved that the enemy attack of August 4 did take place. Now it turns out, from an assertion which Fulbright made in a letter of May 29, and which the Pentagon reply did not deny, that this “source never said that there had been an attack on August 4,” and that all this source did was give the Defense Department “the name of a man already known.”

It is a pity this revelation of official mendacity is buried so deeply and obscurely that few will ever be aware of it. One can also learn for the first time from Part II that a cooperative captured North Vietnamese naval officer who earlier told US naval interrogators that there was an attack on our destroyers August 2 but not August 4 was able to speak with authority. He was second in command of the enemy squadron which was supposed to have made the second attack!

There are also vital lessons to be learned from the exquisite samples in Part II of the rich double talk the military bureaucracy can fabricate to hide the facts from civilian authority. These merit attention in future crises and deserved comment and explanation by Fulbright and his Committee. One of the unanswered questions—and hardly a minor one—was whether any air units had been alerted for the bombing of the North even before the alleged attack on August 4 occurred. The answer supplied was brief, crisp, and opaque:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have not identified any air unit which had been alerted for movement into South Vietnam or Thailand prior to the Tonkin Gulf incidents.

One answer might have been that no air units were alerted before the bombing; another answer might have been that they were. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff cannot answer yes or no to that simple question, there is something seriously wrong with their control of the armed forces. To reply instead that they have not “identified” any units alerted before the incidents is an obvious evasion. The JCS doesn’t even say they cannot identify such units.

Fulbright let them get away with a similar bit of bureaucratic obfuscation in reply to another key question. This, as Fulbright put it in his letter of last March 1, was “whether recommendations were made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff [before the Tonkin Gulf incidents occurred] to extend the war to North Vietnam.” This also could have been answered “yes” or “no.” Instead the JCS reply was that (1) while the JCS during “the first part of 1964” before the August incidents had “examined several possible types of military action against North Vietnam in order to deter that country from continuing its aggression against South Vietnam” and (2) “contingency planning for these actions was taken,” “no definitive recommendations for extending the war to the North had in fact been made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff” (our italics). What does “definitive” mean? Why “definitive” instead of “definite”? Could it be that there was a definite recommendation but the “definitive” orders to attack were waiting for the incident?

Fulbright not only accepts these evasions but fails to comment upon them in his dry and equivocal Preface. He says the new documents have been made public “because of the possible historical interest”! And he adds that his purpose was not “to revive the controversy over the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin but to complete, to the best of the committee’s ability, the public record.”

What a sham!

  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.

  6. 6

    In January 1966, he was appointed to a four-year term on the Defense Science Board.

  7. 7

    We call attention, for its amusement and enlightenment value, to the colloquy which occurred at this point in the hearing last February. The hearing was held behind closed doors, with press and public barred. But that was not enough for McNamara. He wanted the committee staff barred also:

    The Chairman [Fulbright]: The staff…are cleared for top secret information….

    Mr. [Carl] Marcy [Committee Chief of Staff]: All of the members of the staff who are here submitted renewal requests for top secret clearance recently and, so far as I know, all of these requests have been granted.

    Secretary McNamara: But that is not the issue. Clearance is above top secret for the particular information involved in this situation. [February Hearings, p. 36]

    Apparently the bigger the whopper the higher the classification.