WASHINGTON - The CIA director predicted it would be a "long war.'' A senator from Missouri, expressing concern about the unconventional nature of the fighting, wanted to know, "Who is the enemy?'' A senator from Tennessee, meanwhile, warned that if the American people were being misled that "the consequences are very great.''
The words were uttered in secret more than 40 years ago during private meetings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the Vietnam War. But they were made public for the first time yesterday by Senator John F. Kerry, now the panel's chairman, out of a belief that the lively debates offer lessons for how to grapple today with the war in Afghanistan and other hot spots.
"Some of the parallels are almost eerie,'' Kerry said in an interview yesterday, "and I think all of us can learn an enormous amount from the way our predecessors dealt with questions very similar to those we face today.''
The transcripts provide a window into how senators wrestled privately with some of the most vexing questions about the Vietnam War, including basic issues such as what the war was about, how much it would cost in lives and dollars, and what victory might look like.
Many of controversial questions that emerged in the previously classified transcripts are being raised anew. For example, there was widespread confusion about who the United States was fighting in Vietnam, not unlike in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is joined by a host of other insurgent groups with differing agendas. There were also deepening doubts about the credibility of official assessments of the political and security situation, and shifting reasons for why the United States was even there - concerns that have a familiar ring today.
Kerry said that he remains a strong supporter of the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan, but that he believes the expanding mission demands the kind of rigorous debate that the foreign relations panel engaged in during the Vietnam era.
"Their questions are honest and poignant,'' he said. "There's no grandstanding, no posturing, just real debate. We have a burden to match that level of gut debate and discussion.''
The historical record released yesterday also holds personal significance for the Massachusetts Democrat, a Vietnam veteran who testified against the war before the same committee in 1971.
In releasing the documents, Kerry might be hoping to bolster his own historical record by demonstrating the depth of concern during private Senate deliberations that the Vietnam War was a losing enterprise long before the United States withdrew its forces in 1973. Kerry was dogged during his failed 2004 presidential campaign by attacks from a group of Vietnam veterans who were angry about his actions during the war and his view that it should have ended sooner.
Asked yesterday if he believed the documents helped justify the antiwar views he expressed after he returned from Vietnam, he responded, "It hits home just how much these senators in Washington were wrestling with many of the same questions we were thinking through in a very different way in uniform.''
A spokesman for the veterans' group that criticized Kerry during his presidential bid could not be reached for comment.
Kerry's involvement in debates over various wars has been a hallmark of his public career. He voted in 2002 to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, going against the strong opposition of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. And while Kerry supports the war in Afghanistan, other members of Congress, including Representative James McGovern of Worcester, have argued that the war is unnecessary.
The documents, released after consulting with several national security agencies, cover 1967 and 1968, when the United States was dramatically expanding its military involvement in Vietnam. They include nearly 1,200 pages of transcripts from so-called "executive sessions'' of the Foreign Relations Committee as well as testimony it received in closed-door briefings from senior officials in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Many of the documents involve the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was passed by Congress in 1964 and gave Johnson authority to send US forces into combat against North Vietnam. The resolution was approved after the Johnson administration reported that a US Navy ship operating in international waters was attacked by North Vietnamese boats - reports that were later called into question.
By 1968, when the committee heard testimony from naval officers that directly refuted the version of events provided by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, some members of the committee said they regretted voting for the resolution.
"The final conclusion we draw from these cables is that Mr. McNamara misled the committee,'' the panel's chief of staff at the time, Carl Marcy, said in one secret session in 1968.
The transcripts also show that some senators were extremely doubtful that the United States had a reliable partner in the South Vietnamese government - an echo of recent concerns about the Afghan government, which has been implicated in rampant corruption and lacks credibility with the Afghan people.
Senator Joseph S. Clark, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told the committee in 1968 after a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, "I came back with no conviction that this government can really last too long except to the extent that we bolster it up.''
Overly optimistic assessments of the war were also a continuing theme of the committee debates during that period, the documents show. "I believe that the situation there is much worse than we are told,'' Senator John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky Republican, said in an executive session that the committee held on February 7, 1968.
There were also questions about whether senior military leaders were being told the truth by commanders in the field. Clark related to the committee one battlefield incident in which he received competing version of events from soldiers on the ground and headquarters.
There were also concerns, not unlike those raised by opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about changing justifications for the war in Vietnam.
Senator Karl Mundt, a South Dakota Republican who was a self-described backer of the Vietnam War, remarked in February 1968: "I am getting more and more confused as to the reasons I am supporting it. They entirely changed the reasons. I happened to like the second set of reasons better than I did the first, but at least I would kind of like to know when I am supporting it what the reasons are.''
Alan Wirzbicki contributed to this report.