The Soldier and Congress

By Moten, Matthew; Gibson, Christopher P. | Military Review, March/April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Soldier and Congress


Moten, Matthew, Gibson, Christopher P., Military Review


Samuel Huntington published his seminal work in civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State, well over 40 years ago.1 That book launched a debate among scholars and soldiers and across academic disciplines that has only intensified over time. The arguments are descriptive and normative, theoretical and practical, but center on a single abstraction-the nature of the relationship between soldiers and their civilian masters.2

In keeping with this edition's theme, our focus is on the relationship between the military and Congress, echoing Huntington's concept of a "narrow autonomous sphere" of influence for the military in matters that are best decided by the profession. Implied in this notion is a division of labor between Congress and the military, which both institutions must constantly redefine in the continual contest of issues. Most important is a shared sense of responsibility for national security.

Congressional Oversight of the Armed Forces

Harry S. Truman, US Senator from Missouri, emerged from political obscurity in 1941 when he became chairman of a Senate subcommittee investigating defense spending during World War II. He quickly uncovered $100 million in waste in the Army's camp-building program, then expanded his efforts to examine all of the industrial efforts to support the war. Another man might have used this platform for self-aggrandizement and personal political gain. But as a student of history, Truman knew that a similar panel-ajoint committee on the conduct of the Civil War-had been the bane of President Abraham Lincoln's existence and had harmed the overall war effort. Its intrusion into operational matters, including the frequent public humiliation of Union commanders, had exacerbated problems within the Army of the Potomac and severely hampered Lincoln's prosecution of federal strategy. Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said that the committee was worth two divisions to him.3

Truman would have no part of what he considered an illegitimate interference with executive prerogative or anything detrimental to the war effort. Instead, he became a vigorous and proper force for accountability in a time of skyrocketing defense spending. His efforts saved the government billions of dollars in what has been called the most successful congressional investigation in history. Look magazine named Truman one of the 10 men in Washington, and the only one from Congress, most important to the war effort. Truman later became Franklin Delano Roosevelt's running mate because of his reputation as an effective, no-nonsense, patriotic legislator.4

Truman's positive example of congressional influence on national security policy contrasts with events at the outset of the Vietnam War. In 1964, as the Johnson administration contemplated sending infantry divisions to Vietnam, Congress was conspicuously absent from the debate.5 Indeed, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his joint chiefs of staff (JCS) manipulated Congress to gain its assent.

Johnson used a contrived event in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964 to strong-arm the Congress into near unanimous support of a wider involvement in Southeast Asia. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution served as a blank check for further escalation. Several months later, when faced with stiffened communist activity, Johnson ordered infantry units to Vietnam and bullied Congress into acquiescence.

In Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster recounts a closed meeting of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). Congressman Mendel Rivers, the new chairman, and other HASC members questioned the JCS about the administration's plan to escalate the war in July 1965. Rivers accepted the JCS' evasive answers and bland assurances that 250,000 troops could achieve administration objectives in a reasonable time and their promises that neither additional appropriations nor Reserve call-ups were necessary to accomplish the plan.

History proved otherwise. …

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