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The senators who said no.

[Elites for Peace: The Senate and the Vietnam War, 1964-1968, Gary Stone, University of Tennessee Press, 302 pages]

THE VIETNAM WAR remains a great festering wound on the American body politic. It lives on as a political issue in the form of accusations and recriminations relating to the war records of baby-boomer political candidates. In the 2004 presidential campaign, discussion of the two candidates' Vietnam-era service was so prominent that one might forget direct U.S. involvement in that conflict ended 30 years before.

Vietnam wasn't America's only unpopular war in the 20th century, but it was the one that nearly tore the country apart when it inspired massive street protests in the late 1960s. In Elites for Peace, Gary Stone turns attention away from campus protesters and rioters and focuses instead on opposition coming from the corridors of power. At the center of Stone's narrative is Democratic Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, a man of contrasts. He was a signer of the segregationist "Southern Manifesto" who became a darling of the liberal intelligentsia. He started his career as an advocate of executive power, but became a harsh critic of the war policies of two presidents.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee during the war years, Fulbright played a critical role in shaping policy, first as a supporter and later as an opponent. Stone describes well the significance of Fulbright's reluctant evolution away from supporting the president: he "didn't want to play congressional combatant to the policies of the executive branch; he had even gone so far as to propose that the Constitution be changed to limit congressional interference in foreign policy. For Fulbright, Congress was the problem, not the solution."

In August 1964, while still an advocate of executive power, Fulbright shepherded the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the U.S. Senate with only two dissenting votes. The resolution gave the Senate its first opportunity to debate the expansion of the U.S. role in Vietnam. In Stone's account, senators were more interested in protecting the freedom of the seas than in widening American involvement in Vietnam or in striking a blow in the Cold War. Hubert Humphrey made this point explicitly, claiming that support of the freedom of the seas was "a part of our national history." Some skeptical senators questioned why a relatively small and weak country such as North Vietnam would attack the United States. Only two senators voted against the resolution--Democrats Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska. They had, among other issues, concerns about eroding the separation of powers. Stone writes, "Morse ... characterized the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as undermining the constitutional separation of powers because it gave the president 'the power to make war without a declaration of war.' ... Morse argued that the very centralization of power and risks of nuclear war which characterized the present period made it all the more imperative that Congress jealously guard its powers from executive encroachment."

Stone documents the startling transformation of Senator Fulbright from an apologist for executive power to one of the most prominent senatorial foes of the presidency in U.S. history. One of the key moments in his metamorphosis occurred when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the war in February 1966. In Stone's account, the hearings were damaging to the Johnson administration because opponents of the war outnumbered supporters, and the supporters didn't have a coherent line of argument. This was particularly the case among pro-war Republicans who weren't very interested in giving LBJ a helping hand.

The hearings were televised and received major media attention. George Kennan was a star witness and is the most prominent non-governmental actor featured in Elites. Kennan informed the committee that victory in Vietnam would cost more than it was worth and that the war damaged prospects for improved relations with the Soviet Union. He described himself as "sort of a neo-isolationist."

By examining the war in a public forum, the 1966 hearings created an opening for columnists and other opinion makers to discuss it. The New Republic even printed Kennan's testimony in a special supplement. Stone writes, "the most important immediate effects of the hearings were the intensification of public interest in the war and the enhancing of the legitimacy of its critics. Looking back at the hearings, [Republican Claiborne] Pell opined that they 'made peace a respectable word and showed that disagreement was respectable, too. If such a respectable group of stuffed shirts as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could question this war, it gave other people the courage to question it.'"

After the hearings, Fulbright began to draw comparisons to the kinds of isolationist senators whom he once strenuously opposed. Carl Marcy, Foreign Relations Committee counsel, told the senator that a speech he planned to give would make "Borah and Hiram Johnson and Cabot Lodge, Sr. look like pikers." Stone adds, "the suggestion was unappealing to Fulbright. He had not come to Congress to emulate the likes of William Borah or Hiram Johnson. He certainly did not want to surpass them as an antagonist of presidential power. The older Lodge--the great senatorial opponent of the Treaty of Versailles--had never been his hero; it was Lodge's nemesis, Wilson, whom he had admired." But such comparisons would stick. Later, Fulbright would be linked to Ohio isolationist John Bricker, who in the 1950s proposed various constitutional amendments to limit the reach of treaties and executive agreements.

The other senators discussed in Elites range from hawks like Connecticut Democrat Thomas Dodd, who during the Tonkin Gulf Resolution debate argued for "the validity the domino theory, the strategic importance of Vietnam, [and] the futility of negotiating with Communists," to doves like Democrat Frank Church of Idaho, who, like Fulbright, would be compared to William Borah. Since Elites is about the actual work of the Senate, the antiwar presidential campaigns of Democrats Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy are only briefly mentioned.

Fulbright's committee wasn't the only one with jurisdiction over the war. In 1967, the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, led by hawkish Mississippi Democrat John Stennis, held hearings in which several military leaders called for an end to various restrictions on bomb targets and for more intensive attacks. The subcommittee sided with the hawks, and in a report that received substantial media attention, called for much more aggressive bombing of North Vietnam to close Haiphong Harbor and cut off communication between the North and Red China.

Stone compares the 1967 hearings to the 1951 Senate hearings held in the wake of Harry Truman's firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In each case, senators "suggested that civilian leaders were somehow acting improperly in not deferring to the recommendations of the armed forces." They also put in the spotlight controversial civilians--Dean Acheson and Robert McNamara--thought to be particularly responsible for the respective military stalemates. Stone concludes, however, that the differences outweigh the similarities: "The 1951 hearings took place at the very peak of the McCarthy inquisition, in a Washington electrified by accusations that were unleashed against the highest levels of government, especially its foreign policy and military apparatus. With virtually the whole Republican Party aligned with McCarthy, the hearings, unlike those held sixteen years later, were bitterly partisan and tainted by expressions of doubt about the very loyalty of the governing party."

The Johnson administration was hamstrung in the Senate not only because pro-war Republicans were reluctant to align themselves with the president but also by the lukewarm support of usually hawkish Southern Democrats. By 1966, Fulbright was a prominent opponent of the war and was joined by Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee. Several others had private doubts about the conflict and were uninterested in the administration's rhetoric about extending the Great Society to Vietnam. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who would become a prominent national figure during Watergate, invited Fulbright to testify before his Subcommittee on the Separation of Powers about presidential encroachment on congressional war powers.

Throughout Elites for Peace, Stone credits the Senate with providing leadership in questioning the Vietnam War. He compares the change in atmosphere between the February 1966 hearings and early 1968 and concludes, "If in 1966 Senate dissent can be described as having the prominence of a flute in a baroque ensemble, in 1968 it had greater resemblance to a violin in a mighty Wagnerian orchestra, its distinct voice obscured by that of a hundred other instruments playing fortissimo."

We are supposed to gain wisdom from the study of history, and Stone's book has lessons for those willing to learn. In a very short period of time, senators who had voted to give the Johnson administration what amounted to a blank check in Vietnam came to question their votes. But once the decision is made to go to war, it is difficult simply to turn around and leave. Stone quotes Sen. George McGovern saying in 1970 that "every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave." Though an early critic of the war, McGovern voted to support the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. If given another chance, he and Fulbright and many others would have voted the other way--but you only get that one opportunity. During the rush to war, the political atmosphere is too often inhospitable to the sober reflection required to make such a momentous decision.

Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
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Title Annotation:Elites for Peace: The Senate and the Vietnam War, 1964-1968
Author:Stooksbury, Clark
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 10, 2007
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