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Vietnam Hearings

January 24, 1966

Senator J. William Fulbright

Early in 1966, a journalist who had interviewed more than 200 U.S. troops in Vietnam wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright. The reporter explained, "The war is not going well. The situation is worse than reported in the press and worse, I believe, than indicated in intelligence reports." A recent military buildup seemed to be having little effect. One officer told the reporter, "If there is a God, and he is very kind to us, and given a million men, and five years, and a miracle in making the South Vietnamese people like us, we stand an outside chance—of a stalemate."

On January 24, 1966, Secretary of State Dean Rusk appeared before a closed hearing of Fulbright's committee. His assessment: "If the U.S. and its allies remained firm, the communists would eventually give up in Vietnam." Rusk's testimony convinced Fulbright that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson was blinded by its "anticommunist assumptions."

Attempting to forestall a buildup of American forces, Fulbright launched a high-profile series of widely televised public "educational" hearings in February 1966. The all-star cast of witnesses included retired generals and respected foreign policy analyst George Kennan.

Kennan advised that the United States withdraw "as soon as this could be done without inordinate damage to our prestige or stability in the area" to avoid risking war with China. His testimony prompted an angry President Johnson to order FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate whether Fulbright was "either a communist agent or a dupe of the communists."

Conducted in the Senate Caucus Room, the hearings reached their most dramatic phase when Secretary Rusk and General Maxwell Taylor arrived to lay out the administration's case. Fulbright shifted from his earlier role as a benign questioner of supportive witnesses to a grim prosecutor, his dark glasses set resolutely against the glare of television lights.

The February hearings did not immediately erode Senate support for Johnson's war policies. They did, however, begin a significant shift in public opinion. In the four weeks that spanned the hearings, the president's ratings for handling the war dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent. The testimony of George Kennan and other establishment figures had made it respectable to question the war.

Fulbright's biographer concludes that the hearings "opened a psychological door for the great American middle class. It was Fulbright's ability to relate to this group, as well as his capacity for building bridges to conservative Senate opponents of the war, such as Richard Russell, that would make him important to the antiwar movement."