The president went on television relentlessly in pursuit of his war policies, or his proxies went there for him, on the evening news shows or on the Sunday interview shows. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, watched his old comrade Lyndon Johnson and decided after several months that the country was being taken, that the President was waging war by means of television, using this vehicle almost unchallenged to whip up support for a war that Fulbright had come to suspect had very little basic support among the American people. Fulbright had steered the Administration’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the Senate in August of 1964; now he was having an awakening. Later he gave a series of speeches demanding more broadcast time for the Congress and the opposition party; he had not previously noticed the degree to which the President could exploit and dominate television. You go along with him and it doesn’t bother you, Fulbright thought, until you suddenly disagree with him on an issue, and then you realize your helplessness
Senatorial helplessness was a subject upon which Bill Fulbright was increasingly becoming an expert. He could make a dissenting speech on Vietnam and he would be lucky to get a line or two in the New York Times or a minute on the evening news. Still, Bill Fulbright was not a man to throw himself into the breach. By nature he was an aristocrat, a man of rationality and decorum, uneasy with anything he thought might be demagogic. He was not a man to take on a President, or to lead a crusade. He had broken with Johnson over the Dominican Republic in 1965. He was disturbed by the escalation in Vietnam, by the semicovert way Johnson had been expanding the war, and by the manner in which the President bypassed the Congress, holding consultations at the White House. There the only congressional function was to listen. It reminded Fulbright of the age of kings, with their divine right.
Fulbright searched for a way for Congress at the very least to ventilate the issues, to bring some outside reason to bear on the stealthy war policy. The occasion turned out to be annual hearings on foreign aid. It was mostly happenstance, like two armies not expecting to fight each other but stumbling onto the same battlefield. Fulbright had not really chosen to make these hearings a confrontation, and he had not expected television coverage, except perhaps for the usual banal two-minute summary (“Secretary Rusk claimed…Senator Fulbright charged…”). Indeed, when the confrontation took place, aspects of it offended his own sense of civility as much as they did that of Dean Rusk. The television lights bothered Fulbright and he wore flip-up sunglasses. But the time was right, if not late. He had particularly articulate allies now on the committee—Wayne Morse, Albert Gore, Eugene McCarthy—and his own staff had become critical of the conduct of the war.
It became clear as Rusk testified on the first day of the Foreign Aid Bill hearings that foreign aid had nothing to do with it. These would be the public hearings on the Vietnam War that should have been held two years earlier at the time of Tonkin; the congressional debate about the meaning of the Administration’s policy that the nation had a right to expect. Ironically, what legitimized them in the public mind, and emboldened the timid television networks to cover them, was the men who came to testify were by and large Administration witnesses, and the lead witness not some antiwar critic, but Dean Rusk. What the Secretary of State said was news, and when he spoke it was all right for pencils to write and for cameras to run. It was legitimate, his title conferred legitimacy as Fulbright’s did not. If the first witness had been James Gavin or George Kennan, there probably would have been no such legitimacy, no precedent for television coverage, and thus, in all likelihood, no coverage.
It was, in fact, the first time that the Administration, however involuntarily, had sent its warlords before a body of serious critics—men with titles—where the questions and doubts which the war was provoking would be raised. Like the Ervin committee hearings some seven years later, the Fulbright hearings were the beginning of a slow but effective educational process, a turning of the tide against the President’s will and against his awesome propaganda machinery. It was a rare alliance of the media and another political institution against the presidency. It was the ventilation of various opposition views (led not by the opposition party—most of the key members of the Fulbright committee were from the President’s own party), and it helped legitimize dissent on the war.