As an experienced politician, Lyndon B. Johnson moved swiftly to exploit this sentiment. Johnson told an aide, "Just you remember this: There's only two kinds at the White House. There's elephants and there's pissants. And I'm the only elephant." This attitude encapsulated Johnson's conception of the presidency. He saw the president as the initiator of major legislation, the creator of the national agenda, and the dominant force in foreign affairs. "The congressional role in national security," he maintained, "is not to act but to respond to the executive." He proceeded with this perspective in dealing with the warfare in Southeast Asia. "I am not going to lose Vietnam," he told an ambassador. Accordingly he sent more troops to South Vietnam and instituted secret incursions along North Vietnam's coast and naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin. This activity led to escalating clashes with North Vietnamese forces. After an alleged second torpedo boat attack on U.S. naval vessels, without verifying the reality of the assault and determined to give the communists "a real dose," Johnson ordered massive bombing of North Vietnamese coastal bases. Then he asked Congress for a resolution, modeled on that handed to Eisenhower in the Taiwan crises. With it, Congress promised to support all measures he would take against armed attacks or to prevent aggression. Only two senators objected to this open-ended grant of power. One of them pointed out that "the Constitution does not permit the President to wage war at his discretion."
Johnson argued he possessed that power but wanted it reinforced by the resolution, which he compared to Grandma's nightshirt because "it covered everything." He also made clear the decision to use force "was mine—and mine alone." On this basis, initially with high public approval as measured by polls, he steadily enlarged the American war in Vietnam. Slowly, though, an antiwar movement gained support and spread over the country. Some of its leaders accused him of seeking support for a war that involved no vital national interest by lying to the public.
Briefly, Johnson's intervention in a civil conflict in the Dominican Republic in April 1965 shifted attention from the Vietnam debate. He gave a variety of reasons for deploying 23,000 troops on the island. Most often, he said he acted to avert a communist takeover and to protect endangered American lives. The occupiers found no evidence of a communist plot or peril to American lives. At home and abroad, jurists and others denounced the intervention as a violation of international law. Domestic critics pointed out that he had invaded without seeking congressional consent. He responded that he merely exercised what had become traditional executive power in foreign affairs.
Johnson offered similar rationalization for making war in Vietnam. He cited the Tonkin Gulf resolution as evidence of congressional support for his policy but asserted that he did not need its approval because the "Commander in Chief has all the authority that I am exercising." In the summer of 1966, as the public's approval rating of his presidency plummeted, he said defiantly, "I'm not going down in history as the first American President who lost a war." He persisted in viewing conflict largely in terms of his own stake in it, which he stretched to identify with the national interest. He spoke of "my troops" and of his war that he would run his way.
In an effort to refute critics, Johnson ordered the State Department to prepare a tract justifying the war. Dutifully, a subordinate argued that the president had ample authority to use force on his own, to decide what constituted an attack on the United States, and thus to commit troops anywhere in the world for such defense. He cited the Quasi-War and the Korean War as precedents, thus in the latter case using an example of dubious constitutionality to sanction another case of questionable validity. All the while, antiwar activists denounced Johnson as a "slob" and "murderer." This personal disdain stained the presidency. Reverence for it declined. Polls indicated that about half the public considered the war a mistake. Johnson took criticism personally, dismissing it usually as unpatriotic. He placed antiwar leaders under surveillance and violated their civil rights. At one point he blurted, "This is not Johnson's war. This is America's war."
Finally, much of the public and various legislators, even in the president's own party, could stand no more. They said he had come to exercise "virtually plenary power to determine foreign policy" and "it is time for us to end the continual erosion of legislative authority." Gallup polls showed that the public view of the war as wrong had risen to 79 percent. Then, when a primary in New Hampshire indicated that Johnson could not win reelection, he withdrew his candidacy. The pubic did not turn against Johnson for using power illegitimately, for lying, or for waging war unilaterally. They wanted him out because of a failed use of the foreign affairs power in a war with high casualties and no benefits. Americans had tolerated, and even praised, comparable use of the war power by other presidents. None, though, had exploited that power as outrageously as he did. With that power he ran amok but did not, as some analysts claim, weaken the presidency. Although Richard M. Nixon, in his second bid for the presidency in 1968, benefited from the backlash against Johnson's Vietnam policy, he too believed in the concept of executive supremacy in foreign affairs. Like Johnson, Nixon was a man of vaulting ambition well known for his hawkish views on the war. In his election campaign he stressed that "the next President must take an activist view of his office" and have a strong will. Nixon maintained that bold initiatives abroad always had come from strong presidents. In office, he acted on that premise.
From the start, Vietnam clouded Nixon's administration. Even though he had promised to terminate the entanglement there, at his inaugural, antiwar demonstrators—shouting "Four more years of death!"—pelted his limousine with debris. Undeterred, he reshaped Johnson's Vietnam policy while retaining its substance. He continued an air war in Laos and peace negotiations in Paris, began sustained bombing of North Vietnam, and launched secret air strikes in neutral Cambodia. We must, he explained, negotiate from strength and not withdraw unilaterally from the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Alarmed senators then passed a resolution that deplored past executive excesses and recognized no presidential commitment to continue the war. Claiming that as commander in chief he possessed sole authority over the armed forces and could order them abroad without specific congressional approval, Nixon ignored the resolution. He thereby charted a collision course with Congress. He did pull some troops out of Vietnam, but peace advocates complained about the slow pace. As antiwar demonstrations escalated, Nixon bristled. As had Johnson, he declared he would not be the "first American President to lose a war." Polls taken at this time, October 1969, indicated majority support for his position.
In April of the next year, without consulting Congress, the president launched an invasion of Cambodia, justifying it with various explanations such as routing North Vietnamese ensconced there. "Bold decisions," he said, "make history." A substantial segment of the public viewed the action differently, as an unwarranted widening of the war. Peace demonstrations escalated across the nation. To counter the furor, Nixon asked the State Department to make a case for his decision. Accordingly, an assistant attorney general, William H. Rehnquist, argued that as commanders in chief, presidents had the authority to order troops "into conflict with foreign powers on their own initiative" and even to deploy them "in a way that invited hostile retaliation." Hence, Nixon had acted properly. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. dismissed Rehnquist's contention as "persiflage"—compromising historical and legal scholarship for service to his client. Congress then revived an endeavor to restrain the president's assumed power to make war unilaterally. The Senate passed a bill forbidding involvement in Cambodia without its consent and repealed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Nixon dismissed these measures, avowing that as commander in chief he could maintain the warfare on his own. At this juncture, for seemingly personal reasons, Nixon unilaterally made another controversial foreign relations decision. In a war between India and Pakistan that broke out in December 1971, despite considerable sentiment for at least neutrality, he sided with Pakistan. He ordered a naval task force into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. Critics pointed out that the United States had no vital stake in the conflict, yet he alienated India and risked possible war with the Soviets, who sided with India. In February he did enhance his image as a maker of foreign policy with a trip to the People's Republic of China that initiated a détente with that old foe.
In December 1972, Nixon ordered twelve days of around-the-clock bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Critics denounced it as war by tantrum, as violence beyond all reason, and called him a maddened tyrant. He responded that if the Russians and Chinese thought "they were dealing with a madman," they might then "force North Vietnam into a settlement before the world was consumed by larger war." Finally, public pressure drove him in January to conclude cease-fire accords with North Vietnam, but he continued secret bombing raids in Cambodia and Laos as well as aid to anticommunist regimes in the region. When these actions became known, Congress decided to enact "definite, unmistakable procedures to prevent future undeclared wars." It compelled Nixon to end hostile actions in Indochina.
Meanwhile, the Cold War presidential practice of covertly aiding conservative candidates for high office in foreign countries backfired. Nixon had directed the CIA to block Salvador Allende Gossens, a socialist legally elected president in Chile, from taking office. When that effort failed, Nixon ordered the CIA to organize a military coup against Allende that on 12 September 1973 led to his murder and to a right-wing dictatorship in Chile.
In October, as Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal came to light, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt and Syria erupted. He airlifted supplies to Israel. To counter an alleged Soviet plan to intervene, he ordered a worldwide alert of U.S. forces, including nuclear strike forces. Critics regarded this order as unnecessarily drastic. They suspected he issued it to divert public attention from his troubles with Congress, or as an example of using the foreign policy power to deal with domestic political exigencies. Then, on 7 November, after decades of debate over the war-making capacity in the president's foreign-affairs power, Congress overrode Nixon's veto to adopt the War Powers Resolution. It required the president, in the absence of a declaration of war, to report to Congress within forty-eight hours after ordering troops into a foreign conflict. Unless the legislators approved a longer deployment, he had to withdraw the force within sixty days. The law allowed an extension of thirty days if the president deemed that time necessary for a safe withdrawal. It also placed curbs on his ability to circumvent Congress, to deploy armed forces in hostile situations, and to engage in covert military ventures. But by permitting the president to deploy forces for a limited time without congressional consent, it subverted the aim of collective decision making in foreign policy. As skeptics pointed out, the resolution delegated to the president more power in foreign affairs than the Constitution allowed. It granted him freedom to wage war for several months anywhere in the world as he chose.
Despite his critics and facing impeachment, Nixon contended he had acted much like other strong executives who had taken for granted an inherent right to employ their foreign policy power to intervene unilaterally in other nations, especially weak ones. They, too, had lied, acted covertly, and had skirted Congress. Only he suffered punishment, and only because of evidence uncovered in secret tapes he made of White House conversations about his involvement in the Watergate scandal. This was true, but he did abuse the foreign policy power more than his predecessors.
While out of office, Nixon continued to defend his extravagant conception of the strong executive. He contended that in wartime the president has "certain extraordinary powers" that make otherwise illegal acts lawful when taken to preserve the nation. In this perspective, the president alone decided what served the best interest of the nation. Critics maintained that with such views and his behavior, primarily in foreign affairs, he demonstrated that unrestrained power in the hands of a paranoid president could endanger democratic government.