on the World Today
THIS town looks a little weary, slightly stale, and even sad these days. It has lost its ring of freshness, particularly in the foreign policy field. The official dialogue consists of worn-out clichés and inadequate explanations on problems ranging from the war in Vietnam to allied division in the Atlantic community.
President Johnson has been lecturing the country, the Congress, in private and in public, and anyone else he can find about the dangers of Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Mostly he repeats what Secretary of State Dean Rusk has already said. Or it works the other way, with Rusk and other ranking State Department officials repeating what the President has said. And around and around it goes, not only on Southeast Asia but on the underdeveloped world, Charles de Gaulle, the prospects for progress in Latin America, foreign aid, and the general failure of allied nations to live up to their global responsibilities.
Southeast Asia is the Capital’s preoccupation, its nightmare, and probably the best example of the sallow, sometimes misleading Administration attempts to explain its overseas posture. On Vietnam, where new and complex dilemmas keep cropping up, the country gets only a steady diet of tired comments, which all too often fail to meet the immediate situation.
We must persevere in Southeast Asia, Johnson and his top advisers say. North Vietnam must leave its neighbors alone; we seek no wider war; we seek no territory; we shall not quit; and the Communists alone are to blame for the absence of peace.
It has been said that the more the Johnson Administration talks about Vietnam, the less convincing it sounds. The President simply is not getting his message across to the country, or for that matter, to the Congress.
Just to add to the confusion, the Congress has in some instances voted Mr. Johnson wider authority to conduct the war. The Senate’s overwhelming action on the country’s Ready Reserves and National Guard is a case in point. The President expressed no desire for standby authority to call up reserves and guardsmen without a declaration of national emergency, but the Senate, not wholly persuaded by the Administration, voted it anyway. The Senate action is in part the result of clear inequities in the national military draft. But a glance at the roster supporting the measure also suggests that election-year politics are increasingly seeping into the debate over Vietnam.
It is a peculiar exercise these days when Senate doves, led by Fulbright, Morse, Gruening, and the Kennedys, join their more hawkish colleagues in support of wider presidential power in Southeast Asia. They are admitting that their attempts to restrain official policy have failed, and are seeking to make certain that responsibility for new escalation of the war, as well as any adverse political repercussions from it, will be borne by the Administration and not by the Congress.
A change of track
But there are, nevertheless, exceptions to Washington’s threadbare appearance at the moment. One such exception comes as a direct offshoot of the war in Vietnam. It is the question of Red China, now a focal point for a rising national discussion about the relevancy or myth of more than a decade and a half of American policy. The government has embarked on a new diplomatic track, one that should have started in the fifties instead of the mid-sixties. And there can be no doubt that the official community here, as well as the American public, is relaxing on China to a point where a more reasonable, more realistic dialogue is possible in and out of government.
Washington is beginning to sweep away some of the diplomatic debris left from the last decade — the anti-Communist hysteria of Senator McCarthy during the early fifties, the national passion over Chinese intervention in the Korean War, and the anti-Chinese commitments of the late John Foster Dulles throughout the fifties.
In those years the American approach to Peking swung right from simple containment of China to almost complete ostracism. But suddenly, in recent months, the Johnson Administration has approved a rather extensive relaxation of travel restrictions on Americans wishing to go to China. Peking may not choose the same path, but at least the United States is providing such an opportunity if China wishes to follow suit at some point. Three times now, with the President’s approval, Washington has eased travel restrictions to cover categories ranging from the American business community to scientists and scholars.
It also is interesting to note that last month two high-level scientific conferences were held at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. The Atomic Energy Commission served as a sponsor for both conferences. Prior to these meetings, Washington was approached through academic circles on possible invitations to three leading Chinese Communist physicists. This was encouraged through official channels here, and the invitations were sent.
A shift of emphasis
Washington’s great psychological leap forward on China is perhaps best marked by the President’s recent major policy pronouncement on the subject. In that speech Johnson talked for the first time about long-range reconciliation, the futility of confrontation, and the hopes for international peace borne only within a framework of coexistence.
“There is [one] essential for peace in Asia which may seem the most difficult of all: reconciliation between nations that now call themselves enemies,” the President said. “A peaceful mainland China is central to a peaceful Asia. . . . For lasting peace can never come to Asia as long as the 700 million people of mainland China are isolated by their rulers from the outside world.”
What distinguishes Washington’s present mood from that of the past is that the Administration is addressing itself not so much to the danger of crisis as to the opportunity of crisis. Where China is concerned, the President in effect is making clear that American defiance in the face of danger will continue and that there will be wider American support whenever and wherever opportunities arise. He has shifted the emphasis away from a dialogue that tends to divide rather than unite.
Nobody in Washington is suggesting that the government suddenly seized a set of original ideas on China. Proposals for relaxed travel restrictions, generally wider Sino-American contacts, and other moves toward long-range reconciliation have been before various Administrations for years. But for the most part, these proposals never won White House approval, to say nothing of support from top State Department echelons. They were generated in the Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs and at lower levels of the foreign service and somehow lost or shunted aside before reaching the higher, policy-making rung of government. This does not appear to be the case any longer.
Breaches are beginning to appear in the rigid, anti-Chinese dike at the top of the government. Ideas, for the first time in a long while, are starting to trickle through — so much so that one key China hand at the State Department recently reversed his decision to retire from government. This does not mean key Administration figures are leaping with enthusiasm toward new conciliatory moves on China. Rusk, for example, is almost testy on the subject of China. He gives the impression that as long as the war in Vietnam continues, it is useless, perhaps even damaging, to trumpet peaceful initiatives toward Peking.
“None of the recent forward movement on China, not a single new initiative, has come from the Secretary personally,” says one State Department official. It is not that Rusk opposes these new moves; he simply is not sufficiently persuaded of their worth to push such diplomatic activity.
The question, then, is why the President seems to be moving away from past American policy commitments such as travel restrictions, which many in Washington considered senseless from the beginning. Johnson appears more sorrowful than angry about China’s militant resistance to any suggestion of East-West accommodation, not only in Asia but elsewhere in the world.
Certainly, the President is now reacting to China in a more comfortable way than did any of his post-war predecessors, and there are those who suggest that Johnson’s more flexible approach may be the product of his political past. It is felt that the President came to office with less of an ideological commitment concerning China than those which were dominant in past Administrations. He knew the China dilemma only as a domestic political problem through the China lobby of the fifties, the early Dulles years, and the opinionated give-and-take on Capitol Hill during that period. However, he never really went through the intellectual process of sorting out the China issue, in all its cloudy mixture of myth, prejudice, and reality.
Futility and hope
But once confronted with the problem, he relied on practical political instinct. He saw no percentage for either Washington or Peking in the maintenance of travel barriers, a rigid ban on mutual contact, and a tightly frozen policy of isolation where China is concerned. If China is to push one Vietnam after another, the President reasoned, then the future can only be grim, even foreboding. He has thus begun the slow, at times painful, process of trying quietly to persuade China of the futility in confrontation and of the hope in rapprochement.
This process is now gathering momentum for a number of reasons. For example, the Administration’s first relaxation of travel restrictions brought no domestic outcry from the old China lobby, or even the right wing in this country. Accordingly, the President felt he was in a position to push the question further.
There are other reasons. Nobody is certain how long the American blockade of China in the United Nations will hold up. An expanding war in Vietnam has forced not only the official community but the rest of the country to look at China in an entirely different light.
And finally, Congress, somewhat conscience-stricken over its grant of blank-check authority for presidential action in Southeast Asia, focused national attention on the China question during a series of extensive hearings last March. Those hearings, perhaps more than anything else, gave rise to a long-needed national discussion about China and the implications of Chinese policy on a global scale. What, for example, does China’s burgeoning nuclear-test program mean to an EastWest power balance in Asia, or anywhere else for that matter?
Fulbright pro and con
With Washington shifting its stance on China, it is useful to take another look at Senator Fulbright and his role as perhaps the Administration’s most prestigious critic on foreign policy.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright has now led a series of wide-ranging hearings on Vietnam, China, and the tattered state of the Atlantic alliance. Detailed testimony on China from diplomatic, military, and academic circles provided the country with by far the most important national discussion of China since the subject was foreclosed during the height of the McCarthy furor.
Fulbright’s opposition made him a symbol, through which at least all responsible criticism of the conduct of American foreign policy could be channeled. There also has been considerable criticism of the senator. It is suggested that Fulbright seems to wait for a field of criticism to build up before he enters with his own views or position. Such an entry in a critical foreign policy crisis like Vietnam is often after the fact and sometimes too late to be influential.
Moreover, it is said that Fulbright on Vietnam, or in the broader sense, on China, fails to apply the good gambler’s formula of quitting while he’s ahead. At times he appears to carry his argument too far. In doing so, he bores the public in such a way as to blunt the very points he is trying to make.
If Fulbright pushes his attack on the Administration to further extremes, he will run the danger of becoming the center of a debilitating national controversy over American policy in the Far East. Nothing illustrates the point better than the example of Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, whose bitter and repetitious assaults on official policy have brought him something less than public respect.
Nonetheless, Fulbright’s restless protest about China and other essential policy questions has served to bring Congress back into the mainstream of foreign policy deliberations in Washington. Acting as a kind of manager of seminars, as well as an important bridge between the academic and official communities, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has again found a way to discharge certain constitutional responsibilities in an era of crisis. The senator has restored some of the old functions, which had faded with the rise of executive power and the need for quick presidential decisions on serious international flash points. In short, the Senate’s resurgence in the foreign policy area can only be for the good.
Oxford versus Little Rock
It might be asked why Fulbright broke with the President in a way he never had before. Surely he does not stand to gain politically from his break. While the answer is not easy, there is one private story about the senator which may help to explain his somewhat extraordinary course of action in recent months.
The time was 1962, shortly after Fulbright won re-election to the Senate. Walter Lippmann and the senator had a lengthy, serious discussion about Fulbright’s foreign policy role. The columnist suggested that Fulbright could make a more significant contribution if only he would decide that this was to be his last term. Fulbright is now sixty-one.
His long political career has always been minimized by an inner conflict between Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and Little Rock, where he was and still is a politician. Perhaps he has now accepted Lippmann’s advice.