John Kerry's Fulbright Moment

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Meacham

It had been, Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama said, a "rocky road." The year was 1968--one of those years that ranks with A.D. 33, 1066, and 1776 as an inarguable landmark--and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had spent hours in executive session struggling with the Vietnam War. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee dismissed concerns that holding public debates about the war would be divisive and undercut America's chances of victory. "What kind of victory? Will it be Pyrrhic?" Gore asked. His view: "This Congress either ought to declare war or undeclare war" in Southeast Asia. Another senator, Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, reported that he had asked the U.S. commander, William Westmoreland, "if there would be a military victory in this war, and he said no."

These details come from Sen. John Kerry's new release of 1,000 pages of Foreign Relations Committee documents from the Vietnam era. The report, which was prepared by Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie, covers 1964 and 1968. Strikingly, the most substantive public hearings on the war did not begin until the spring of 1971, when Sen. J. William Fulbright announced that the committee would meet to "develop the best advice and greater public understanding of the policy alternatives available and positive congressional action to end American participation in the war."

We need a Fulbright moment on Afghanistan, a war which is, as Kerry says, much more directly related to our safety than Vietnam ever was. "The underlying tragedy of Vietnam was that there was no compelling national-security interest at stake there," Kerry told me last week. "There just wasn't. But there is such an interest in Afghanistan. There would be a huge price to be paid if we were to allow the Taliban free rein to create more capacity for the planning of terror and the training of terrorists."

Granted, but the central policy question--counterinsurgency, with its relatively heavy troop presence, versus counterterror, which would emphasize tactical strikes against Al Qaeda while providing some support to anti-Taliban forces--has not been thoroughly debated by a public that sometimes seems only vaguely aware that our military is fighting a war that is about to enter its 10th year. "It is fair, in my judgment, to say that there has not been sufficient attention given in public--or, to be frank, in private, either--to the ways we might achieve our goals in Afghanistan," Kerry said. …