Congressional Power - Congressional dissent beyond vietnam




For several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most prominent of these Senate dissenters was Missouri's Stuart Symington, formerly a Cold Warrior and Harry Truman's secretary of the Air Force. Symington's break with the past symbolized the altered world of Congress in the early 1970s. The Missouri senator chaired one of the most important foreign policy subcommittees in U.S. history, one that launched inquiries of U.S. commitments in Thailand, Spain, and Laos and helped produce the 1971 National Commitments Resolution. In 1967 hearings looking into U.S. foreign arms sales, Symington offered a concrete demonstration of the link between military aid and foreign policy. In the 1968–1969 battle against the antiballistic missile (ABM), the first full-fledged congressional challenge to a Cold War weapons system, he showed that dissenters, who traditionally shied away from slots on the Armed Services Committee, needed detailed technical knowledge of military matters if they hoped to prevail in debates on national security policy. In his inquiry into U.S. agreements with Spain over military bases on the Iberian Peninsula, he uncovered how overseas bases, frequently obtained without congressional sanction, brought with them broader diplomatic requirements. And in the Laotian hearings, he offered a glimpse at how secrecy could obscure not only national security material but also secret wars that were occurring without legislative sanction.

In the broadest sense of the term, Symington himself was a transitional figure. His own transformation from a hard-line anticommunist to a skeptic of Cold War foreign policy helped him lead the Senate's transition into a more aggressive body on foreign policy matters. But his most significant achievement came in pioneering tactics that other liberals would use even as he himself faded from the ranks of active dissenters. Indeed, some of the highest-profile executive-legislative battles during the later Richard Nixon and early Gerald Ford administrations featured freshman liberals employing devices prominently used by Symington, such as the efforts of Iowa senators Harold Hughes and John Culver in the early 1970s. Both Hughes and Culver elected to join the Armed Services Committee rather than the Foreign Relations Committee; both cultivated allies in the military; and both used the information gleaned from those allies to undercut their opponents' credibility. Behind all of these efforts stood perhaps the most important transition point of the post-Vietnam era: the willingness of Congress to challenge executive supremacy on Department of Defense matters—on policy, on specific weapons systems, and in roll-call votes.

Members of Congress were prepared to use these revived powers. Liberals in the Senate, often using foreign aid riders, expanded on the ideological alternative they first had outlined in the foreign aid revolt. First, they charged that policymakers from the Johnson and Nixon administrations had subordinated traditional American ideals—such as support for democracy, human rights, and self-determination—to the anticommunist dictates of the Cold War. Second, they charged that the national security apparatus associated with the Cold War had given the military an excessive role in the making of U.S. foreign policy. Finally, they contended that a democracy required a foreign policy of openness—and that a foreign policy of openness required a consistent congressional presence in international affairs.

This dissent produced attacks against U.S. policy toward Latin America, Asia, and Africa, regions in which, critics contended, a misapplication of containment principles had produced policies that contradicted the country's image as a champion of international reform, employed military solutions to political or social problems, and allied the United States with ideologically undesirable regimes. For example, after Augusto Pinochet's military government assumed power in Chile in 1973, Representative Donald Fraser and Senator Edward Kennedy opened hearings on Pinochet's human rights abuses. Congress then enacted a series of measures to gradually end U.S. assistance to the regime. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 provided another opportunity to act, and Thomas Eagleton pushed through the Senate an amendment cutting off foreign aid to the Ankara government. Surveying the burst of activity, one European diplomat concluded, "It isn't just the State Department or the president anymore. It's Congress now."

But the most important of these congressional efforts concerned U.S. policy toward Angola, where a small Central Intelligence Agency covert operation mushroomed in mid-1975. The operation came to the attention of Iowa senator Dick Clark, who toured Africa in the summer of 1975 and returned home convinced that respecting Angolan self-determination would atone for earlier instances in which the anticommunist mindset of the Cold War had caused the United States to abandon its traditional anti-imperialist ideals. Concerned about the ramifications of the Ford administration's actions, he introduced an amendment to the 1976 foreign aid bill to cut off all covert assistance to Angola, thus forcing a public debate on the policy. In fact, he reasoned, publicity itself formed an appropriate method of oversight. A foreign aid amendment and the subsequent congressional debate provided the perfect vehicle. A few months later, the Senate passed an amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill introduced by John Tunney immediately terminating covert assistance to the Angolan anticommunists. The two amendments represented the high point of a congressional revolt against the anticommunist ethos of the Cold War and executive authority in foreign policy.

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