WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chairman John Kerry and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are releasing more than 1,000 pages of previously classified testimony and transcripts from closed hearings in 1967 and 1968, a tumultuous period in U.S. history that echoes many of the issues confronting the country today.
In authorizing release of the declassified material, Senator Kerry said: “These transcripts and testimony were selected because they shed light on an important period of American history and all of its lessons. 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. As legislators and citizens, we can learn an enormous amount from the way our predecessors conducted business and struggled with some of the most difficult questions during a difficult period in our country.”
The Vietnam War was a major focus of these closed sessions. Much of the attention focused on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which had plunged the United States deeper into the war. The declassified testimony offers new insights into the committee’s skepticism about the incident and its growing concerns about the war.
After reports that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 1964, Congress had authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to use force in Southeast Asia. This authorization, known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, led to commitment of more than half a million U.S. troops to Vietnam.
Four years later, the Foreign Relations Committee heard confidential testimony from naval personnel who cast doubts on the official version of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. The committee staff conducted an inquiry and prepared a report accusing then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara of misleading the committee in testimony.
Many committee members who had voted for the resolution in 1964 regretted their decision in 1968. Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee warned in an executive session: “If this country has been misled, if this committee, this Congress, has been misled by pretext into a war in which thousands of young men have died, and many more thousands have been crippled for life, and out of which their country has lost prestige, moral position in the world, the consequences are very great.”
The controversy occurred in an atmosphere of skepticism about the course of the war that led to clashes with the Johnson administration. At one point, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the committee chairman, said Congress could not make the president do anything, but he underscored the committee’s responsibility to “give the country an opportunity to know what is going on.”
A second naval incident, the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korea on January 23, 1968, occupied a considerable amount of committee time, too. In classified session, Secretary of State Dean Rusk acknowledged that the ship had been engaged in electronic surveillance, but he insisted that it had been seized in international waters.
The newly released papers come from an era when Congress conducted much of its business behind closed doors in executive session. Among the other topics covered in the papers are the Senate’s ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the impact of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the soaring economic costs of the Vietnam War.
The volume is the latest in a series of historical releases by the committee. It was prepared by Donald A. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office. The transcripts and other papers were declassified through general procedures and submitted for review to the Department of State, Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
Tonight Senator Kerry will speak at an event to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the United States.