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.1

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 19642 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.” Fulbright then thought that we had “no choice but to support the South Vietnamese government and army” in order to defend our “vital interests” in Vietnam.

What were those vital interests? Fulbright did not say. But his over-all view of Southeast Asia strikingly resembled that which Johnson was later to unveil at the Manila Conference. Fulbright said, as Johnson often does, that “our purpose is to uphold and strengthen” the Geneva agreement, though he had just finished calling for an “independent” and “non-Communist” South Vietnam and the agreement called for elections to let its people decide whether they wished to be independent and non-Communist. This contradiction is characteristic of American official policy. Then Fulbright went on to say that we seek only “to establish viable, independent states in Indochina and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, which will be free of and secure from the domination of Communist China and Communist North Vietnam.” He continued, in a passage that deserves close study:

I emphasize that we wish these nations to be free of and secure from [italics in original] domination by Peking and Hanoi, but not necessarily hostile to these regimes. Our objective is not [italics in original]—and in this I believe I am accurately expressing the official view of the United States Government as well as my own—to establish our own military power in Indochina or in any way to bring the Indochinese peninsula under our own domination or even to bring them into an American “sphere of influence.”

This, too, like official policy is shot through with contradictions. Isn’t an American sphere of influence implicit in the terms? How else could we be sure these states remained “free of and secure from” Hanoi and Peking? Who would draw the line between policies “not necessarily hostile to” Peking and Hanoi and policies we would regard as too un-hostile or too friendly? Our record of animosity toward Cambodia illustrates how we draw the line and how we make our displeasure felt when we feel it has been crossed. Is this not comparable to our Monroe Doctrine in Latin America? Is it not the germ of the Johnson Doctrine sketched out at Manila for Southeast Asia? To see it objectively we need only imagine our reaction if Peking were to announce that while it did not wish to establish a sphere of influence in Central America and the Caribbean, it would seek a system of states independent of Washington, though not necessarily hostile to it! To draw such a parallel was still too unthinkable for Fulbright in March, 1964.


From Johnson’s point of view, the policies Fulbright now criticizes were the same policies Fulbright had himself sketched out the year before Johnson adopted them as his own. In that speech Fulbright said he was prepared to go along with “whatever strategic decisions are found necessary,” whether we decide “to continue or intensify our present support for the South Vietnamese government without expanding the scale of the operation, whether we seek a general negotiation without first trying to alter the military situation, or whether the war is carried to the territory of North Vietnam with a view to negotiating a reasonable settlement.”3 The italics are added. This means that in March 1964 Fulbright viewed with equanimity the prospect of extending the war to the North in order to soften it up for a settlement we would regard as “reasonable.” This was the very policy Johnson was to put into effect the following February. It was not expressed in a bloodthirsty way but it was otherwise not essentially different from the policy advocated by Goldwater and the Air Force hawks, though the fact was kept hidden, of course, during the 1964 campaign.

BUT THE FUTURE HISTORIAN and biographer must not rest content with cynically noticing this unspoken agreement, He must dig deeper. To decide on wider war as a way of forcing Hanoi to accept our terms, required three forms of preparation. There had to be an incident, to arouse the country’s emotions. There had to be a Congressional blank check to the President for a wider war. And there had to be the deployment of air, naval, and combat units for the escalation. The Tonkin Gulf affair in August, 1964, provided for all three. Fulbright’s role was to put the blank check resolution through Congress for Johnson. Could he have been as innocent of what was really happening as he and his first biographer claim that he was? “It was an aberration…I just don’t understand what happened,” Fulbright now says, and Tris Coffin comments, “This is a painful honesty few would essay.” But neither admit that the Tonkin Gulf resolution made possible in August what Fulbright himself had outlined in March as one way to a “reasonable settlement” of the Vietnamese war.

Three pieces of the puzzle are available now that may not have been available to Mr. Coffin when he wrote his biography. One is the revelation by Tom Wicker, Washington Bureau chief of The New York Times, in an Esquire article on Johnson (November 1965), that Johnson had been carrying the Tonkin Gulf resolution “around in his pocket for weeks waiting for the moment” when it could most favorably be presented to Congress. The second is a story in the July 23, 1964, issue of the Saigon Post, which only recently came into my hands. This reveals that the “moment” for which Johnson was waiting was bound soon to happen because there had been a sharp step-up, beginning in July 10, 1964, of commando raids upon the North. These increased the probability of a clash with the U.S. Since American naval forces were then standing by off North Vietnam, whether to direct and cover the raids, as the North Vietnamese charged, or, as we claim, merely to observe what was happening. (The probability of an incident was increased by the fact that South Vietnam’s navy was made up of former U.S. naval vessels. Their silhouette on enemy radar would be indistinguishable from our own.)

It is a pity that Mr. Coffin did not question Senator Fulbright about these commando raids, or notice that just such raids were proposed by the Senator in his March 1964 speech as it was originally delivered and is now reprinted in the appendix to Coffin’s biography. The original language suggesting expansion of the war to the north differs curiously from the version published in Fulbright’s own book, from which I quoted above. The original phrasing was:

…and finally the expansion of the scale of the war, either by the direct commitment of large numbers of American troops or by equipping the South Vietnamese army to attack North Vietnamese territory, possibly by means of commando-type operations from the sea or the air.

Not only Morse and Gruening, the two who voted against the Tonkin Bay resolution, but Senators as different as Russell, McGovern, Nelson, and Scott were concerned by indications that the Tonkin Gulf incidents might have been provoked by just such commando raids on North Vietnam. The Administration was so anxious to bury all such possibilities from public view that last November 24, when it finally released the text of the hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Tonkin Gulf resolution Aug. 6, 1964, it blacked out not only its answers but even Morse’s questions on this sensitive point.4


NOW I COME back to that Saigon Post story of July 23, 1964, which throws new light on the Tonkin Bay incidents. It appeared less than two weeks before these incidents occurred. It was an interview with Ky, then Air Commander, saying that there had been a 40 percent increase “in air operations aimed at sending Special Forces teams in[to] North Vietnam.” The Post said, “The official admission came as unconfirmed reports by Vietnamese sources told of widespread explosions rocking industrial centers and harbor areas in North Vietnam since July 10.” These sources said “key industrial and harbor targets had been destroyed.”

These were exactly the kind of operations Fulbright had originally proposed only a few months earlier in March. Could he have been in ignorance of what was going on? It is true that the U.S. press did not carry the Saigon Post interview with Ky, perhaps because our military have done their best to keep commando raids on the North out of our papers ever since they began sporadically in the mid-Fifties. But Fulbright did not have to look any further than The New York Times of August 4, 1964, two days after the first Tonkin Gulf incident to read that according to military sources “destroyers on patrol have sometimes collaborated with South Vietnamese hit-and-run raids on North Vietnamese cities, though the destroyers themselves stay in international waters.”

Yet Fulbright in response to Morse’s questions on the Senate floor lent his prestige to the official cover story: “the best information” he had from official sources was “that our boats did not convoy or back up any South Vietnamese naval vessels that were engaged in such attacks.” When Senators Nelson and Scott asked about reports that our vessels were operating within the twelve-mile limit claimed by North Vietnam, Fulbright answered querulously. “Why should the U.S. be so careful about the sensitivities of North Vietnam. We were there for the purpose of observation of what went on in that area, because our people felt it necessary as part of our activities in protecting and helping to protect South Vietnam….” Even Mr. Coffin for once is led at this point to smile derisively at his hero. “For those with long memories,” he writes, “there was strong irony here. Fulbright might have been ‘Ole Tawm’ Connally or Walter George growling at that damn young nuisance from Arkansas.” Fulbright, as Coffin recognizes, covered up the peculiar background of the Tonkin Gulf incidents and this made it possible to push through authority for a wider war.

Recently another piece of the puzzle surfaced into public view. Escalation of the war into the North also required extensive deployment of additional military forces. In the transcript of the closed Senate Committee hearings of August 1964—which was not released until last November 24—there is the text of a statement submitted to the Foreign Relations Committee by Secretary McNamara, which disclosed for the first time that large-scale deployment of forces to the Far East was already underway.5 Among six major military steps being taken were the “movement of fighter bomber aircraft into Thailand,” from which the bombing of North Vietnam was to begin in February; and “the alerting and readying of selected Army and Marine forces” with which, once the election was over, we were to abandon the fiction of advisory role and plunge into combat operations. A major expansion of the war was in the works but there was no hint of this in the Senate debate. When the Senators voted a blank check for an enlarged war, few knew that Johnson had already begun to cash it, even before it was signed.

THESE NEWLY RELEASED McNamara disclosures have scarcely been noticed. They make Mr. Coffin’s apologetics for Fulbright hard to accept. Mr. Coffin writes that Fulbright put the Tonkin Gulf resolution through the Senate because “he accepted the Administration theory that this would keep the war from widening.” Now we can see that the resolution legalized secret preparations to widen the war. Fulbright and his committee should have been alerted to them by McNamara’s detailed account of the military deployments the Administration had set in motion.

These new revelations call for a fuller explanation from Fulbright than the apology he offered in his memorable speech last April on “The Higher Patriotism” when he had at last moved into open opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is a speech so eloquent that it makes much that went before forgiveable, but it still leaves much unexplained.

The Senator said he first began to express his doubts about the escalation policy in a memorandum to Johnson in April, 1965. That was two months after the bombing of the North began. The Coffin biography reveals that he then went to see the President on June 14. Here Coffin adds to our knowledge of what happened with a vivid picture of “Fulbright sitting quiet and restless while the President lectured him at a machine gun clip, words tumbling over each other in that peculiarly flat drawl,” as Johnson pulled memoranda from every pocket. “Let me show you how many times we have offered to talk to them…they have spit in our eyes. How do you negotiate with folk like that?” (The words are presumably Coffin’s paraphrase of Fulbright’s account.)

When the Senator finally had a chance to speak, Coffin relates, he “said he was going to oppose, publicly, a further escalation of the war.” The next day, in the Senate, he spoke out for the first time. But we still do not know the full story of Fulbright’s evolution from a quiet hawk to an outspoken dove. What we do know is that when he shifted from a supporter to a critic of administration foreign policy, as he did on the Dominican Republic as well as Vietnam, the weakness of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as an independent check on the Presidency became evident. The years of cozy bi-partisanship in foreign policy had long rendered it almost moribund. But this part of the story must be left to a concluding installment.

This Issue

January 12, 1967