The Capitol's Cold War: Donald R. Wolfensberger Reviews Congress and the Cold War

By Wolfensberger, Donald R. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Capitol's Cold War: Donald R. Wolfensberger Reviews Congress and the Cold War


Wolfensberger, Donald R., Harvard International Review


Looking back on the Cold War today, 15 years after the fall of the Soviet empire, a first-year college student might ask a professor, "What was that all about?" Indeed, even at the height of the nearly half-century struggle between East and West, there was an ongoing debate among foreign affairs experts over the origin, nature, and direction of the Cold War--a debate that continues today.

Robert David Johnson does not purport to resolve that debate, nor does he attempt a detailed history of the US Congress' role in the Cold War. Instead he concentrates on instances in which Congress exercised its independent will to make or influence US Cold War policies. He aims to refute the commonly held notion that Congress was largely acquiescent to the US President during most of the Cold War. Johnson makes the important point that the conventional image of a supine Congress is based largely on abdications of its treaty and warmaking powers. To get the true picture, he argues, one must look at other ways in which Congress asserted itself to affect public opinion and national policymaking. Congress attached policy riders to spending bills, its subcommittees held hearings and investigations to scrutinize administration policies, and its individual members called attention to otherwise ignored problems or parts of the world and promoted new ways of looking at them.

A professor of history at Brooklyn College and author of The Peace Progressives and American Foreign Policy (1995) and Ernest Greuning and the American Dissenting Tradition (1998), Johnson does a masterful job of mining scores of archival collections, congressional debates, committee hearings and reports, and oral histories to put flesh--warts and all--on the many players who were a part of the debates of the Cold War era. He asserts there were two distinct groups of members who stood up for the powers and prerogatives of Congress during the Cold War period: the conservative "revisionists" in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the liberal "new internationalists" in the 1960s and 1970s.

Johnson calls the former group "revisionists" because "they claimed to desire a revision in Cold War liberalism," focusing less on aiding capitalist democracies in Europe than on aiding those in East Asia and fighting communism at home. Their ranks included senators Robert Taft (R-OH), Pat McCarran (D-NV), Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), William Knowland (R-CA), and John Bricker (R-OH). The revisionists eventually overreached, Johnson writes, and a public backlash brought an end to their run around 1954 with the censure of McCarthy, the defeat of the Bricker amendment (which gave Congress sweeping new powers over foreign policy), and the death of McCarran. The "new internationalists," on the other hand, wanted to change "the anti-communist ethos of the Cold War" that assisted dictatorial regimes, placed emphasis on military solutions using expensive new weapons, and overextended US military commitments abroad. The leading new internationalists included senators Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Frank Church (D-IN), Harold Hughes (D-IA), and Stuart Symington (D-MO). Although they entered Congress in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they did not taste success until the late 1960s. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, they too had run out their string as a more conservative mood overtook the country and many of the liberals were defeated for re-election. Johnson does not disguise his own sympathies, which lie with the new internationalists.

Although the author's purported aim is to show how Congress asserted itself during the Cold War even before its widely acknowledged (albeit brief) political resurgence in response to Vietnam and Watergate, only about half the book deals with the 1945 to 1968 period. Furthermore, much of that concerns failed attempts of the revisionists and new internationalists to make their marks on foreign and defense policies. Those who tried to assert independent congressional power were thwarted or co-opted from 1945 to 1948 by the bipartisan foreign policy consensus forged by US President Harry Truman and Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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