The voices of senators expressing growing concerns about the Vietnam War more than four decades ago were brought to life Wednesday with the release of more than 1,000 pages of previously classified testimony and transcripts by the Foreign Relations Committee.
In a statement authorizing release of the declassified material, Chairman and Vietnam veteran John 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 testimony reveals how some committee members became skeptical of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s description of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was the reported attack on a U.S. destroyer by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats that prompted Congress to give President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to use force in Southeast Asia.
According to Wednesday’s release, “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.” An investigation of McNamara followed, which led to a report accusing him of “misleading the committee in testimony.”
The regret of committee members who voted for the Tonkin resolution is evident from their words on the newly released pages. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr. said 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 documents were declassified through general procedures and submitted for review to the Department of State, Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.