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The President, The People, And The Power To Make War
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
The problem is not simply one of bringing to the Foreign Relations Committee senators who will command, and justly command, the ear of the President and the country. There is the further consideration of whether they will insist upon equipping themselves with the kind of staff that permits them to operate with knowledge and force. One of the basic reasons for the overweening supremacy of the White House in international affairs has been its machinery for accumulating facts and its capacity to withhold or distort information and to project its interpretations of events. There is no reason why a Congress that took seriously its role, and was backed by the public in its assertiveness, could not establish information machinery that would enable it to fight the battle of Pennsylvania Avenue on more equal terms.
The potential of such congressional action has been strikingly demonstrated in recent years. During the Vietnam debate in the L.B.J. days, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by the sharp-minded J. William Fulbright and more or less adequately staffed, began to operate like a countervailing power in international matters. Lyndon Johnson may have come to detest William Fulbright, but he read carefully every word the senator said. The committee launched hearings that were a prime factor in building congressional and public opinion against the war and in ultimately changing Johnson policies. Fulbright has apologized for the “perfunctory” attention his committee gave to the Tonkin Resolution in the early days, and the remark is of more than personal significance. It is an open question whether the United States would have ended up fighting in Vietnam if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been vigilant, continuously informed, and articulate during the years from 1954 when the essential shape of affairs in Southeast Asia was developing.
The slow and intricate process of building a realistic base for congressional participation in international affairs—will the American people press for it? A natural aftermath of war is the urge to forget about its horrors, including the way that the country got into them. Yet Vietnam has been a shock to millions and to groups containing many influential figures, and certainly the foreseeable trend of events will keep ever present the possibility of large-scale United States combat involvement. Perhaps the present high feelings about Vietnam will carry over sufficiently to create a congressional stance that will give the American people some degree of responsible surveillance over the disposition abroad of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.