John Kerry's Fulbright Moment

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.

Our cover story this week, by Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, lays out a strategy for an aggressive antiterror campaign with a reduced American presence. There is nothing simple about a problem like Afghanistan, and if there were a straightforward, uncontroversial path to take, we would have already taken it. It is often a useful exercise, though, to ask why something is the way it is, or whether something we have come to take for granted—in this case, the counterinsurgency, nation-building strategy in Afghanistan—makes sense.

At one point Fulbright said that if lawmakers fail to weigh in "about matters as important as declaring war," then "I do not see how we have any real function." Not taking a stand, he said, would mean "we are just a useless appendix on the governmental structure."

There, perhaps, is the most applicable lesson from the documents. There would be a certain elegant historical symmetry if Kerry, who testified before the committee in 1971, were to convene a public-policy review of the war in Afghanistan. Kerry has already held 11 hearings, issued a lengthy report, and has a report on corruption and threat finance pending. Counterinsurgency will also be discussed in hearings scheduled for the week of July 26. But just as Fulbright did not find his opening until 1971, Kerry may be only beginning to find his own.

The obstacles are clear, and real. "As you know, it's never been more difficult to achieve a level of public concentration to sustain a debate—and facts and truth have never had so little apparent role to play in any debate," Kerry said. All true. But isn't it worth trying in any event?

I asked if he had considered reprising the Fulbright role. "I have never thought about it in those terms," he said. There was a pause. "Part of the reason that would be practically difficult is the speed with which things move" and a fragmented culture's short attention span. He went on: "But we do have the obligation to explore these issues in public. Part of what I bring to the chair is the awareness, a very real awareness, of my culpability if we were to fail to ask the right questions." If anyone can do this, John Kerry can. Here's hoping he will.

Jon Meacham is editor of NEWSWEEK and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.