The media was complicit, perhaps more so than Congress, in terms of why/how the Executive Branch had become so powerful. Television in particular gave the impression that the President and federal government were united and confident about their course of actions in Vietnam. The truth was that the government had morphed into an entity that closely resembled the USSR as far as its desire for secrecy, believing that any open debate on foreign policy could only aid the enemies of the US (especially the USSR).
Key Senators like William Fulbright (AR) that were foreign policy experts were told of actions after the fact by the such agencies as the CIA. Figures such as McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger became more important than experts in Congress, as well as the State Department, since they were within the Executive Branch. Being the “President’s Men” also meant that they didn’t have to testify in front of Congress. The kind of debate envisioned by the Founding Fathers between the Executive and Legislative Branches simply didn’t occur over Vietnam until 1966 . . . before the Fulbright Hearings, the only debate on Vietnam occurred within the Executive.
While Fulbright liked to see JFK use TV for political advantage, he was beyond-worried by 1966 with LBJ’s increased power and his relative powerlessness as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What also bothered Fulbright was that Executive Branch figures like SecState and various Presidential aids were on television getting exposure, but not a Senator (not necessarily him). Fulbright was one of the “Old Guard” and not one to use TV, and oddly enough, Fulbright didn’t crave the spotlight like most of the fellow Senators. Fulbright didn’t think much of the media, since he believed they brutalized/trivialized serious debate and, in essence, they were the intruders to the Order of Things.
Fulbright actually didn’t want his hearings to be televised, thinking it would be a colossal distraction, but his hearings had always been open, and by 1966 that meant including television. That being said, Fulbright doubted that the networks would bother television the hearings. However, the Fulbright Hearings would be the first time since the “Loss of China” (1949) and the Korean War Era (1950-53) that TV had given a major platform to a member of Congress to challenge the direction of the nation’s foreign policy.
By 1966, in many ways Fulbright was THE Senator, and he had a key ally in the world of journalism with Walter Lippmann, who was enthusiastically in Fulbright’s corner (Fulbright had moved into lockstep with Lippmann in terms of doubting the direction of US foreign policy). Fulbright wasn’t just challenging the power of the Presidency, but also the assumptions of the Cold War twenty years after WW II ended. And an added factor: for years Fulbright held reservations that the US should impose its values/institutions everywhere around the world. The Bay of Pigs fiasco intensified Fulbright’s doubts and increased his confidence. After the debacle, Senator Fulbright had no problem sending a memo to President Kennedy saying the attack was a bad idea: in his mind, that memo meant that he was right and the Executive Branch was wrong.
Fulbright knew that in order to get LBJ to see things more his way on Vietnam, he would need to take time to educate LBJ, but the President wasn’t a willing student. The split between LBJ and Fulbright actually started with the Dominican Republic (“Operation Power Pack”), where the US went in with overwhelming force for Containment (of Communism) reasons (a rough equivalent would be the Grenada invasion in 1983, “Operation Urgent Fury”). As a result of the quick and decisive result in the Dominican Republic, LBJ and many in the government believed that Vietnam would be no different, which only encouraged the arrogance associated with the Vietnam. Fulbright had disliked the US involvement in the Dominican Republic from the start, seeing the invasion as “Yankee Imperialism” at its worst.
What the cables really showed was that the LBJ administration went into the Dominican Republic without accurate information and then tried to reshape events later to fit their point-of-view. Fulbright decided to give a speech about the cables since his committee was split and therefore there would not be a committee report. Fulbright knew full well that the speech would mean the end of being part of LBJ’s circle (although by then he was in the outer ring). Fulbright’s speech was given as Vietnam was heating up, and as far as LBJ was concerned, Fulbright was politically dead to him, and as far as Fulbright was concerned, LBJ had broken that promise made in private where he stated he wouldn’t send US troops to South Vietnam. Fulbright saw the situation as similar to the “Divine Right of Kings”, and the King and his Princes were on television every day, spreading and disseminating their version of events and decisions.
Six days later, CBS aired another round of the supplemental hearings, and the producers wanted Fulbright to keep the session to thirty minutes so that the only show canceled on CBS would be Captain Kangaroo. But Fulbright simply didn’t care about the programming on CBS, and the hearings (which proved to be great TV) continued, and CBS kept airing the hearing, and kept canceling regular programming. NBC aired the hearings as well, but their shows weren’t as lucrative, so NBC didn’t lose nearly as much advertising revenue as did CBS.
It was during the Fulbright hearings that LBJ decided that it would be a good time to take Air Force One to Honolulu to meet with a high-ranking South Vietnamese military official; LBJ was losing control of the media, and he wanted it back. During the hearings, when it came time for George Kennan to testify, CBS ran “I Love Lucy” reruns while NBC stayed with the hearings (CBS had egg on its face, especially since the witnesses that day were high level men with titles from the Executive Branch). As it turned out, there would be no other Congressional hearings concerning the Vietnam War on television.
In the end, the government and military witnesses at the Fulbright hearings, under intense questioning, were unable to make a case for the Vietnam War, and as a result, the White House had started to lose control of the war on television. The point was reached where General Matthew Ridgway, a true American hero from WW II and the Korean War, refused to testify at the Fulbright hearings since he was unwilling to criticize a war he knew was wrong/unwinnable while soldiers were in harm’s way.
Slowly, TV magnified the inconsistencies/brutalities of Vietnam, but at first, TV was part of the President’s team, which made it a consensus medium. But that changed in part because the war kept going and victory was elusive, which showed the predictions of the Great Men in Washington, D.C. were wrong. Also, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army controlled the pace and intensity of the war to fit their needs, which meant that the pace and intensity of the war didn’t match what President Lyndon Johnson wanted or needed.
Below: An analysis of the Fulbright Hearings, focusing on SecState Dean Rusk's testimony . . .