Congress and the Cold War

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This book provides the first historical interpretation of the congressional response to the entire Cold War. Using a wide variety of sources, including several manuscript collections opened specifically for this study, the book challenges the popular and scholarly image of a weak Cold War Congress, in which the unbalanced relationship between the legislative and executive branches culminated in the escalation of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam, which in turn paved the way for a congressional resurgence best symbolized by the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For decades, historians and political scientists have ignored the pivotal role of Congress in shaping the politics of the Cold War. They will no longer be able to do so. By redefining congressional power, and revealing the numerous ways through which legislators pushed and pulled national defense policies, Johnson offers an exciting, well-researched, and first-rate piece of political history. This outstanding work should be on the bookshelves of everyone who is interested in the story of American politics since WWII." Julian Zelizer, Boston University and author of The American Congress: The Building of Democracy

"Robert David Johnson explodes the myth that Congress took a backseat to the presidency during the Cold War. His sweeping panorama of second half of the twentieth century portrays a feisty institution that seriously questioned and challenged the diplomatic and military policies of a succession of presidents. Here is an astute analysis of our system of checks and balances." Donald A. Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps

"A necessary addition to all college and university libraries." -- Choice

"Robert David Johnson has produced a carefully argued and through reassessment of the role played by Congress...This is a fascinating volume:it throws considerable light on the workings of the Constitution."
Peter Lowe, American Historical Review

"A notably detailed and accomplished history of much that unfolded on Capitol Hill with great significance for U.S. policies moves scholars closer to being able to construct a genuinely balanced history of the U.S. governments relations with its allies, rivals and enemies during a tense era."
Davis M. Barrett, Journal of Cold War Studies

"Congress and the Cold War is clearly an exceptional piece of historical research, ably addressing in its broad sweep such additional topics such as the critical role of personalities, the turf wars among several important committees...and the double-edged sword of increased House influence in foreign affairs."
Dennis M. Foster, The Review of Politics

2007 Outstanding Academic Title -- Choice Magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521821339
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/31/2005
  • Pages: 431
  • Sales rank: 1,419,844
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert David Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has published three books: The Peace Progressives and American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 1995); Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1998); and 20 January 1961: The American Dream (DTV Press, 1999). He is the editor of a fourth book: On Cultural Ground: Essays in International History (Imprint Publications, 1994). Professor Johnson has published articles or essays in Diplomatic History, Journal of Cold War Studies, Oxford Companion to American History, International History Review, and Political Science Quarterly, among others.
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Cambridge University Press
0521821339 - Congress and the Cold War - Genocide, History, and the Limits of the Law - by Robert David Johnson


Constructing a Bipartisan Foreign Policy

Serious congressional planning for the postwar world dated from Senate consideration of the B2H2 resolution in 1943. Named for its original four sponsors - Joseph Ball (R-Minnesota), Harold Burton (R-Ohio), Carl Hatch (D-New Mexico), and Lister Hill (D-Alabama) - the resolution sought to commit the United States to membership in a postwar international organization that included a police power. When Foreign Relations Committee chairman Tom Connally (D-Texas) countered with a vaguely worded offering that urged U.S. membership in a postwar "international authority" of "free and sovereign nations," a Senate debate about how the United States should respond to the postwar environment erupted.

Connally chaired the "Committee of Eight," a special subcommittee created to institutionalize informal cooperation between the administration and the Senate and thereby avoid the institutional tensions that had doomed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.1 The thin-skinned Connally, faced with legitimate questions about his resolution's unclear wording, complained about the "debate degenerating into a heckling of the chairman of the committee"; Allen Drury, who covered the wartime Senate for the New York Times, perceived that "the gap between the Foreign Relations chairman and the Senate which he must persuade is becoming steadily wider." 2 The Texas senator's political and personal shortcomings highlighted the significance of Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg, who Francis Wilcox, the Foreign Relations Committee's chief of staff, termed the "indispensable element" in the Senate's response to postwar foreign policy.3 A newspaperman before his election to the Senate, Vandenberg gradually abandoned his isolationism after Pearl Harbor; by 1943, the Michigan Republican reasoned that "detailed specifications" about the U.S. role in the postwar world needed to "await tomorrow's realities," leaving the committee resolution's vagueness "a sense of strength rather than of weakness for the moment." 4

The B2H2 forces, however, dominated Senate debate. Ball, described by Allen Drury as "an effective-looking character," with "his gray hair at 40, his massive size, his rugged face, and his Gary Cooper bashfulness," argued that the constitutionally protected ability of the upper chamber to offer advice on treaties "can have value only to the extent that [the advice] is clear and specific to the greatest degree we can make it so." 5 Addressing the issue from more of an anti-imperialist angle, Claude Pepper (D-Florida) noted that the Connally Resolution's wording could have authorized the Congress of Vienna or a postwar three-power alliance between the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain. Over the initial days of debate, applause frequently greeted addresses by the B2H2 senators.6

With the B2H2 forces envisioning a postwar foreign policy based on a crusading internationalism, conservatives started questioning the basis of any postwar organization. Eugene Millikin (R-Colorado) ridiculed Pepper's advocacy of an "ideological" alliance of democratic states; Harlan Bushfield (R-South Dakota) charged that the B2H2 senators "propose to remake the world." 7 The resolution's most powerful opponent was Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican who had led the attack against FDR's prewar foreign policy. The son of former President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the Ohio senator critiqued the B2H2 advocates' demand that "we should obtain a commitment to the most extreme form of international control before people have thought about the question." 8 Who would control the international police force? Would a postwar international organization be divided into differing branches? How could the great powers achieve the disarmament necessary as a precondition to establishing such a force? Though Ball dismissed such criticisms as obstructionism, Taft veered increasingly toward an attack not only on B2H2 but on U.S. participation in a less ambitious international organization.9

With debate spinning out of control, the president persuaded Connally to offer a substitute resolution that simply praised the work of Secretary of State Cordell Hull at the 1943 Moscow Conference of foreign ministers. As would occur with similar postwar resolutions, the political and international conditions under which the Senate considered the substitute - after Hull already had completed his work - made it almost impossible to oppose the bill without repudiating executive commitments.10 But while Roosevelt's gambit temporarily blocked extended discussion about postwar internationalism, the alternatives to mainstream foreign policy would not be so easy to squelch.

Roosevelt's success in preempting congressional debate culminated in the administration's shepherding of the UN treaty through the Senate, but his presidency left unresolved fundamental questions about how Congress would approach the postwar world. Of course, ideological and institutional confusion on foreign policy was not confined to the Congress at the time. The sudden end of the Pacific War left the United States dominant in Japan, but on the Asian continent, matters were considerably less settled - in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The Soviets, intransigent regarding Germany's future, consolidated their control over Rumania, Bulgaria, and, ignoring Yalta's requirement of free elections, Poland. In Western Europe, Communist parties scored well in Italian and French elections, while the British Labour government experienced a major financial crisis. Harry Truman's administration struggled to develop a coherent response to this international turbulence, but world events eventually pulled the United States into a more consistent policy. One sign came when Truman warned the Soviets about the need to withdraw from Iran; another came in the administration's decision to extend a government loan to financially strapped Britain in 1946.

The British loan debate demonstrated that the ideological divisions apparent in 1943 persisted, though with some important distinctions. Soviet conduct and growing domestic anti-Communist sentiment eroded internationalist strength.11 With senators such as Ball and Hatch retreating from their wartime positions, Claude Pepper emerged as the unquestioned internationalist spokesman. The Florida senator remains best known for his House service in the 1980s, as a powerful advocate for the nation's elderly. His political career began, however, in 1936, as the Senate's "boy orator." Before World War II, Pepper sponsored the first Lend-Lease bill; during the conflict, he championed a foreign policy oriented around the principles of the Atlantic Charter. Individual meetings with Soviet premier Josef Stalin and Czech president Eduard Beneš in 1945 convinced him that U.S.-USSR cooperation could continue into the postwar world.12

In what one colleague termed an "intolerant attack on the British," Pepper critiqued the loan from an anti-imperialist perspective, wondering about the purposes to which London would put the money, given its pattern of "exploitation of little countries." 13 (He cited Jordan, Iraq, Hong Kong, and India as examples.) The Florida senator most worried, however, about the anti-Soviet justifications utilized by colleagues such as Vandenberg. From his perspective, the Soviets keeping troops in Iran was no worse than the British doing likewise in Iraq or the Dutch resisting Indonesian independence. He reminded the Senate that the Soviets had killed more Germans in World War II than the rest of the Allied nations combined, and he speculated that an anti-Soviet foreign policy would transform the United Nations from an agency of peace into a guarantor of the status quo.

Pepper's comments symbolized unease among Senate leftists with the general state of postwar foreign policy. With support from prominent figures outside the administration, such as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and former undersecretary of state Sumner Welles, the internationalists, the London Times realized, posed the "one formidable challenge" to Truman's handling of world affairs.14 Glen Taylor (D-Idaho) criticized the administration for supporting anti-Communist movements in Yugoslavia and Poland; he contended that both included former fascists.15 Robert La Follette, Jr. (Progressive-Wisconsin) chastised Truman for not disarming quickly enough, thus compounding the "hang-over of war." 16 And Pepper wondered why, if the president wanted to find a foreign nation to demonize, Truman did not focus on Spain, where the ouster of Francisco Franco represented the "hope of democratic-minded people all over the world." 17 Increasingly, the unreconstructed internationalists suffered for their positions: newspapers such as the Washington Post cast doubts upon Pepper's loyalty; Taylor's standing deteriorated within the Idaho Democratic Party; and La Follette's anti-militarism played a role in his defeat by a previously little-known World War II veteran, Joseph McCarthy, in the 1946 Republican primary.18

With the internationalists on the defensive, the focus of congressional opposition to Truman's foreign policy shifted to the right. A group of conservatives, dubbing themselves "revisionists," claimed that they wanted to revise, rather than reject, the administration's international approach. Owen Brewster (R-Maine) charged that the loan to Britain would subsidize British socialism, a charge echoed by Homer Capehart (R-Indiana) and William Knowland (R-California).19 While revisionist amendments - such as a Knowland offering to release the funds only if the U.S. government was not running a budget deficit or a Capehart proposal to allow the British to use loan funds solely to offset an unfavorable trade balance with the United States - lost overwhelmingly, they did reveal the group's desire to reconcile foreign policy initiatives with their domestic vision. We commonly think of Cold War foreign policy blending the foreign and domestic through liberals' embrace of an anti-Communist foreign policy, which then distorted their domestic viewpoint.20 Yet the first clear linkage actually occurred through the revisionists' emphasis on constructing anti-Soviet international initiatives in such a way to satisfy their domestic agenda.

British officials, saying that they were not "inclined to risk further debate with Congress," informed the State Department of their willingness to renegotiate the loan.21 They need not have worried: Vandenberg, embracing the Cold War consensus for which he would become famous, dominated the debate. The Michigan senator saw no choice but to pass the resolution; he cautioned colleagues to learn from the Munich Conference and avoid a foreign policy based on appeasement.22 The loan sailed through both chambers of Congress.

While the Senate debated internationalism, Congress was also modernizing its internal structure, with a goal of addressing international affairs more effectively. In early 1946, a joint committee co-chaired by La Follette and Representative Mike Monroney (D-Oklahoma) recommended reducing the number of standing committees from 33 to 16 in the Senate and from 48 to 18 in the House, so as to allow more specialization and enhance oversight. The joint committee also called for more clearly delineating committee jurisdiction and providing more money for congressional staff.23 Translated into law with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, these proposals set the stage for a radically different congressional approach to international affairs. The Military Affairs and Naval Affairs committees, which had rarely focused on policy matters, were consolidated into one committee, Armed Services, which received oversight of the entire defense apparatus. Of the 61 members of the two previous committees, only 35 received slots on Armed Services.24 The bill also provided the tools - if not, necessarily, the will - for effective oversight and investigation: before 1946, each member of Congress received funds only for a secretary, most committee staffs consisted of only clerks, and senators and congressmen relied on their own research or material from outside interests when challenging the executive viewpoint on international matters.25

Political scientists speak of two types of congressional power brokers - policy entrepreneurs, whose authority comes from mastery of a specific issue; and procedural entrepreneurs, who use bureaucratic minutiae to exert their influence.26 The fluid atmosphere of the postwar Congress offered fertile ground for procedural entrepreneurs, and no one took better advantage than Connecticut senator Brien McMahon, a freshman senator first elected in 1944. One month after Hiroshima, McMahon introduced a measure to create a federal board consisting mostly of cabinet members to oversee the nation's atomic energy industry, a proposal that suggested less that the Connecticut senator had thought through the issue than that he wanted to be a player. A more comprehensive proposal came from the chairs of the Military Affairs committees, Representative Andrew May (D-Kentucky) and Senator Edwin Johnson (D-Colorado). The May-Johnson bill, which enjoyed the support of the War Department and initially the administration as a whole, called for a nine-member Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), dominated by the armed forces, with full authority over all uses of atomic energy; the measure also mandated stiff penalties - up to $100,000 in fines or 10 years imprisonment - for disclosing any atomic secrets (including in scientific journals).27

Initially, it seemed as if the May-Johnson bill would sail through both houses. In a survey of 81 members of Congress conducted in September 1945, only 5 (all Democrats) advocated turning atomic knowledge over to the United Nations; Vandenberg considered "an 'exchange' of scientists and scientific information as sheer appeasement." 28 The nation's atomic scientists, however, opposed the measure, and they searched for a patron to offer an alternative.29 McMahon was the default choice: he was ambitious, interested, and seemed to have an open mind on the issue of civilian supremacy. In October 1945, a temporary alliance between McMahon and Vandenberg, who wanted to prevent the military committees from getting exclusive jurisdiction, displaced the May-Johnson bill with a measure for a special temporary committee.30 By Senate custom, the sponsor of a bill calling for a special committee was entitled to the chairmanship, and so the Connecticut senator had his committee, after less than two years of Senate service. "For a freshman senator," the official history of the AEC noted, "this was the opportunity of a lifetime." 31

The 17 staffers of McMahon's special committee interviewed more than 70 witnesses, producing more than 600,000 words of testimony.32 Although McMahon possessed only limited knowledge about the specifics of atomic energy, he effectively cultivated the journalistic elite - in early 1946, Joe Alsop, Marquis Childs, Drew Pearson, Walter Lippmann, and Roscoe Drummond all hailed the Connecticut senator's work.33 Fleshing out his earlier ideas, McMahon proposed a full-time AEC, stressing both the peaceful and military uses of the technology and providing penalties only for acts of espionage. The measure also forbade granting patents for the military use of atomic energy. McMahon conceded that many of the bill's provisions represented a "distinct departure from our usual way of doing things, but we must remember that atomic energy…is sui generis." 34

Passing such a measure represented no easy task. The special committee included many of the upper chamber's power barons, figures who owed McMahon no deference. The Connecticut senator adopted a two-pronged strategy, working with administration sympathizers to persuade the president to back his bill while publicly subjecting military witnesses to a "merciless cross-examination" so as to make it appear as if his offering represented the only alternative to a military-dominated atomic energy structure.35 "If the issue is in doubt," McMahon's chief staffer concluded, "then we've got to make the goddamndest fight we know how to make." 36

The former effort paid dividends on February 2, 1946, when Truman endorsed the bill. But McMahon struggled to maintain support from other committee members, who preferred Vandenberg's approach of establishing an AEC military liaison committee, which could overrule the civilian commissioners on national security issues.37 The Vandenberg amendment, however, generated strong opposition from scientists and liberals; McMahon privately informed the president that he would oppose any bill that included the Vandenberg offering.38 The attention generated a public outcry - in less than a month, more than 25,000 people wrote to the special committee denouncing the amendment, prompting Vandenberg to ask McMahon for a compromise.39 One committee staffer termed it "unprecedented in the history of our Congressional legislation" for a Senate "stalwart" to concede to a freshman who had initially been outvoted 10-1 on his own committee.40 But McMahon, perhaps better than any member of the immediate postwar Congress, understood how fluid international and institutional conditions could allow even the most junior senator to accrue considerable power.

The most striking aspect of the Atomic Energy Act, however, was its recommendation for a Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). The legislation endowed the JCAE, the first regular congressional committee established by statute, with more power than possessed by any congressional committee up to that time.41 As a joint committee, the JCAE avoided the difficulties associated with House-Senate conference committees, while, unlike other joint committees, it possessed legislative authority, or the status to have bills referred to it for hearings and action.42 The Atomic Energy Act also required keeping the JCAE "fully and currently informed" of all AEC initiatives, a structure that ensured that on atomic energy matters, the committee's members would be "policy" as well as "procedural" entrepreneurs, almost impossible to challenge on the floor.43 The McMahon-Vandenberg compromise sailed through the Senate, and strong administration lobbying accounted for House passage by around 50 votes, though with many restrictive amendments. The London Times correctly described the bill as "in reality a victory of internationalist sentiment over narrow, old-fashioned nationalism." 44

The conference committee dropped most of the House restrictions, producing a final measure resembling McMahon's initial bill. In this sense, the Atomic Energy Act illustrated the balance of power between the two branches on foreign policy issues. By excluding the House from any role in approving treaties or confirming ambassadors, the Constitution clearly envisioned a more prominent Senate role in international affairs. When Congress challenged executive control of foreign affairs through the major power shared between the branches - the power of the purse - the Senate almost always took the lead, whether in the 1850s disruptions of James Buchanan's Latin American policy, the Johnson amendment of the late 1910s, or in the 1920s, when congressional action checked military interventions in Nicaragua and Haiti. Indeed, with the important exception of tariff legislation, the House played an insignificant foreign policy role in the early twentieth century. During one congressional session in the 1920s, for instance, the Foreign Affairs Committee spent a week debating a $20,000 appropriation for an international poultry show in Tulsa, which one committee member recalled as "the most important issue that came before the Committee in the whole session." 45 The committee's military counterpart, the Military Affairs Committee, went several sessions during the decade without even holding formal hearings.

Then, suddenly, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the House burst into activity - though through initiatives that did the institution little credit. These undertakings ranged from the quixotic (Indiana congressman Louis Ludlow's attempts to amend the Constitution to require a popular vote before any declaration of war) to the personal (the attacks of New York's Hamilton Fish against the policies of one of his constituents, President Franklin Roosevelt) to the troubling (the institution's decision to renew the Selective Service Act by a scant one vote in the summer of 1941) to the demagogic (the efforts of Texas' Martin Dies and Mississippi's John Rankin to focus the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] against left-wingers). This record produced a backlash after World War II. Allen Drury noticed as early as 1944 that responsible members of the House looked to the other side of Capitol Hill for foreign policy leadership: "They are afraid of the House, of its sudden emotionalism, its tendency to be stampeded by men like John Rankin and Ham Fish." 46 The New York Times reporter considered it remarkable that - despite the traditional jealousy between the branches - House leaders "trust the Senate more than they do themselves." 47 While, perhaps, few congressmen seemed as eager to dispense with their prerogatives as Kentucky Democrat Elden Spence (who believed that in foreign policy, the president "ought to have the same powers as the executives or dictators representing the enslaved peoples in the totalitarian governments"), few imitated the aggressiveness of senators such as McMahon, Pepper, or Vandenberg.48

The McMahon Act and the British loan bill represented the two most significant international matters to come before Congress in 1946. Unfortunately for the administration, Truman could not match his foreign policy accomplishments on the domestic front, and the unsettling effects of demobilization combined with a remarkably effective campaign waged by the Republicans yielded enormous GOP gains in the midterm elections.49 The Republicans picked up 13 seats in the Senate and 56 in the House, seizing control of Congress for the first time since 1930. The new class, the most conservative group of Republican freshmen until the 1994 elections and Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," strongly opposed government spending of all sorts, and most also exhibited an antipathy to foreign entanglements.50

The new political alignment seemed to guarantee confrontation between the GOP-dominated legislature and the Democratic executive. Increased partisan wrangling did occur, most viciously through the efforts of the HUAC, the body that Truman not incorrectly termed "more un-American than the activities it is investigating." 51 Working closely with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (R-New Jersey) championed legislation to require the registration of Communists; Thomas also oversaw a high-profile inquiry into Communist influence in the film industry. Cooperative witnesses included Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, who complained that "Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pictures" while members of the Cartoonists' Guild of America wanted to turn Mickey Mouse into a fellow traveler.52 When ten writers refused to reveal whether they had once belonged to the Communist Party, citing the free speech protections of the First Amendment, the "Hollywood Ten" subsequently were convicted for contempt of Congress.53 Meanwhile, in a more direct attack on the administration's foreign policy, HUAC freshman Richard Nixon (R-California) leveled spectacular and ultimately convincing allegations that Alger Hiss, a former State Department and UN operative, was a Communist spy.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 Constructing a bipartisan foreign policy 1
2 Legislative power and the congressional right 35
3 Redefining congressional power 69
4 The consequences of Vietnam 105
5 The transformation of Stuart Symington 144
6 The new internationalists' congress 190
7 The triumph of the Armed Services Committee 242
App. A The foreign aid revolt of 1963 287
App. B The Senate and U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, 1970-1974 293
App. C The Senate of the new internationalists, 1973-1976 300
App. D The house and the end of the Cold War, 1980-1985 311
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