Thursday, July 15, 2010

New documents from Vietnam era resonate even now

New documents from Vietnam era senators still resonate in modern debate over war powers

In the thick of the Vietnam War, senators harrumphed about White House arrogance, fretted over their own ineffectiveness, complained bitterly about misleading information from the Johnson administration and debated the value — and potential damage — of telling Americans the truth.

In more than 1,000 pages of previously classified testimony and transcripts from 1967 and 1968, a picture emerges of the political, social and moral crosscurrents that members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrestled with at a time when the shadows of Vietnam colored their thinking on problems foreign and domestic.

The documents were released Wednesday by the Foreign Relations Committee and its chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a decorated Vietnam War hero who later emerged as a forceful opponent of the war.

"It is incredible to read through these papers and hear the voices of many of the Senate's giants wrestling with Vietnam and all its complexity at a time when many of us, including some of us on the Foreign Relations Committee today, were serving as young officers in Vietnam living out those very same questions in a personal way," Kerry said.

One senator, Democrat Frank Church of Idaho, argues in a closed-door session in February 1968 that "you cannot expect the people, whose sons are being killed and who will be killed, to exercise their judgment if the truth is concealed from them."

Another, Democrat Mike Mansfield of Montana, counters that releasing a staff report raising doubts about the administration's account of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident will only "divide the country further and you will give people who are not too interested in facts a chance to exploit them and to magnify them out of all proportion."

The senators express outrage at the administration's shifting explanations for the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which in 1968 was still a matter of great dispute. Both sides agree that North Vietnam attacked a U.S. Navy ship in the gulf on Aug. 2 as it cruised close to shore. But it was an alleged second attack two days later that led to the first U.S. bombing raid on the North and propelled America deep into war.

Committee Chairman Sen. William Fulbright, D-Ark., worries that if the senators don't assert themselves more "about matters as important as declaring war" then "I do not see how we have any real function." Without taking a stand, he says, "we are just a useless appendix on the governmental structure." Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper, R-Iowa, says the senators have become "subservient" to the administration.

Mansfield speculates that "the groundwork is laid for a deeper and bigger and more expensive American involvement. ... We are in a box and we do not know how to get out of it."

And Fulbright says that the military's haste to take "retaliatory action far beyond any justification" in the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the administration's evasiveness about what happened raises questions about what it might do with nuclear weapons.

"If this is the way they are going to go ahead, they are going to the same thing with nuclear weapons," Fulbright tells senators in a closed-door session. "I think it's probably the next step, if they feel like doing it, they are not going to tell us about it, they are going to start using them."

The committee documents were edited and prepared by Senate Historian Donald Ritchie, who said in an interview with The Associated Press that they illustrate the senators' mounting frustration with the Johnson administration, a sentiment especially strongly felt among Democrats who believed they had given the Democratic president a lot of leeway and been misled in return.

"You begin to see what led to the enactment of the war power resolution four years later," Ritchie said, referring to the War Powers Act that limits a chief executive's power to wage war without congressional approval.

The debate over the proper balance of war powers between Congress and the president remains an issue today, Ritchie said, giving a contemporary sound to the historical documents.

Worries over the Vietnam war also played a major role as the committee grilled Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a closed-door inquiry on Jan. 26, 1968, into North Korea's seizure three days earlier of the U.S. Navy spy ship USS Pueblo.

"I must say that with one war going on in Vietnam and the possibilities of a war (with North Korea), I would think the best thing to do would be to try to pursue this by diplomatic means and not to use force," Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky tells Rusk.

Rusk tells senators the prospect that North Korea would restart a shooting war with the U.S. should Washington retaliate militarily for the ship's seizure has to be weighed.

One of the Pueblo's 83 crew members was killed and 10 others were wounded. The crew members would later be released after 11 months of captivity and sometimes torture.

But at the time, Rusk told the panel little was known about why the ship was seized or whether it and the crew would be released. However, he speculated that "this has been an effort on the part of North Korea to show solidarity with North Vietnam, perhaps to cause us to divert forces from Vietnam."

Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., told Rusk the U.S. should "not be trying to get any more wars going until we finish the one we are in."

Mundt said having the spy ship sailing so close to North Korea at the same time the U.S. was fighting a major war in Vietnam "was very bad planning on somebody's part."

"I think there is a lot of misinformation going on, and I am tired of being flim-flammed," Mundt added.

The Pueblo is still held by North Korea. It is on a river in Pyongyang and is used as a tourist attraction.


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