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America Can Still Avoid Another Vietnam in Iraq

ON February 1966, J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, convened hearings, televised nationally, on the United States and Vietnam at which Defense Secretary Robert McNamara justified the war, while longtime diplomat George Kennan and retired Gen. James Gavin criticized the U.S. role in Indochina.
These so-called Vietnam hearings, one of the first examples of Congress asserting itself critically into the war-making process, are still cited as an example of congressional oversight of, and opposition to, the American role in Vietnam.

Just 18 months earlier, however, Congress had failed to adequately examine U.S. policy in Vietnam, thus setting the stage for the expanded war Fulbright and other "dove" senators were criticizing in February 1966. In August 1964, after two alleged attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, in North Vietnam's territorial waters, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president authority to take "all measures necessary" to protect American interests in Southeast Asia, a virtual blank check for unhindered war.

The House unanimously passed the resolution, while the Senate vote in favor was 98-2. Fulbright, acting on behalf of the White House, presented the resolution in the Senate, carefully steered the debate and refused to allow critics to testify.

Later, after he had turned against the war, Fulbright claimed that he had never understood the resolution could justify the type of large-scale and destructive war that Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately waged. The record of the debates, however, belies such claims. Fulbright and the other 97 senators, including those later lauded as "doves," were well aware of what "any necessary measures" meant.

By 1966, however, there would be a marked and public change in that approach to Vietnam, best demonstrated by the criticism of McNamara in the Vietnam hearings and the positive responses to the views of Kennan and Gavin. The media became more critical of the American role in Vietnam while more politicians began to ask difficult questions of the Johnson administration.

What accounted for that significant change in a relatively short period of time?

Between August 1964 and early 1966, many Americans openly and powerfully criticized the war -- through public protests, "teach-ins" and draft resistance -- thus creating an environment in which media and political figures could be emboldened to voice their concerns about Vietnam. In that climate, Fulbright could hold critical hearings and other senators could publicly challenge the administration's policies. Sadly, however, the war had developed an inexorable momentum and congressional criticism would not stop it.

Just this past week, we have witnessed a congressional inquiry eerily similar to the Tonkin "debates." Sen. Joe Biden's Foreign Relations Committee listened to testimony from a number of people advocating war against Iraq, while critics such as the former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter were not heard. The Senate, as in August 1964, may be poised to offer an overwhelming endorsement of a war that is fraught with peril, which could lead to massive discontent in the Arab world, directly endangering those states dependent on U.S. support for their survival; almost certainly signal to Israel that it could escalate its murderous attacks on Palestinians; cause serious fractures in American relations with its allies in Europe; and inevitably lead to horrible destruction in Iraq, and possibly many American casualties if a land invasion is ordered.

Many months, or years, from now, we may be a nation divided over war in Iraq. Such national anguish is not inevitable, however. Another Gulf of Tonkin-type act, which seems likely today, can be avoided with a sober analysis of the peril of war and the pursuit of alternative strategies in the Middle East. Americans can mobilize to oppose military action in Iraq and Congress can take its responsibilities seriously and ask hard questions about the need for and conduct of any war there. To do less than that is a moral and political failure.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was ultimately rescinded, but the damage had already been done. Let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself with regard to Iraq.

Buzzanco is associate professor of history and the University of Houston and author of Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era and Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life.



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