The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
THE more popular a government the greater the disadvantages it faces in preparing for and waging war. Government action must wait on the development of a substantial measure of supporting consent. And the support must come not only from public opinion but from the legislative representatives of that opinion. Effective preparations are hampered and military effort is checked if, instead of joining forces in the face of a common enemy, the executive and the legislature waste their strength in jurisdictional quarrels. An emergency, however, is no time to dispense with or even unduly to subordinate a legislature. It may have to change its activities, but it can play a high, albeit a different, rôle in making a militant representative government more vigorous and effective.
Representative governments have now well-nigh vanished from the continent of Europe. Herr Hitler's Gauleiters have taken their places. Only in Great Britain and the British Dominions, in the United States and in the continent to the south of us, are there governments which are still representative. Only these states, therefore, face problems which involve the relationship of executive and legislature, whether in peace or in war. When, in wartime, these problems are solved, representative governments which at the start have faced disadvantages of disunion and delay develop a resiliency and superiority of spirit which can carry them to victory. That was abundantly demonstrated from 1914 to 1918. And since September 1939 all observers of the House of Commons agree that it has played a not inconsiderable rôle in making Britain's effort as effective and as magnificent as it has become. On the other hand, the failure of the French executive and parliament to subordinate personal and factional quarrels and to give to the country the vigorous leadership it needed was one of the reasons for the French collapse.
In the United States, as I write, relations between the President and Congress are unsatisfactory but they are not yet ominous. So long as the war is a white war -- that is, one of threats and propaganda, of economic reprisals and sabotage -- the emergency does not seem pressing enough to make a chief executive display his best qualities of leadership, to impose on the legislature adequate feelings of responsibility, and, the coördinate branches of the government having reached virtual agreement on essentials, to unify public opinion and energize administrative action.
In ordinary times, when "normalcy" reigns and government can approach -- but not very near to -- the simple thing that President Harding declared it to be, relations between the executive and the legislature almost always give rise to complaint. If a president tries to lead, he is charged with seeking to be a dictator and with expecting Congress to be a rubber stamp. If he does not wish to do much and Congress flounders, then we complain of the legislative inefficiency which derives from executive inaction. In England and France there have been comparable complaints. During the twenty years between two world wars, the balance in Great Britain (save when two minority labor governments were in office) was decidedly in favor of the cabinet, which in effect legislated subject to the consent of the House of Commons. On the other hand, the normal working of the French parliamentary system was such as to justify the statement that during the eight months of the year when they were in session the chambers administered as well as legislated. The critical publicist will have thought the balance out of line in each country.
But when crisis comes, when action must be speedy and drastic, when a wrong decision may be better than no decision at all, the scales always oscillate violently in the direction of the executive. When fear stalks abroad, as it did in the United States in 1933, Congress is willing, even eager, temporarily to abdicate. That spring Congress passed bills before its members had read them. Just a year ago, after the fall of France, when the President presented a huge defense program, Congress approved the largest appropriations in history without serious question -- indeed, without careful scrutiny. When a legislature realizes the necessity of spending huge sums of money rather quickly -- on something like defense or relief-- it ceases to be a checking body and must let go of the purse-strings. On the other hand, when, as in the case of the Lease-Lend Bill, the decision is on policy and time does not seem to be of the absolute essence, Congress (and rightly so) seeks to be a good deal more than just a rubber stamp.
For the waging of war -- even for war preparations -- the legislature must grant enormous powers to the executive. Then it becomes the task of the elected representatives of the people to watch the possessors of the power and to encourage or tame them. An unsympathetic executive can make this difficult. A legislature is always unhappy in wartime, no matter how much confidence it may have in the executive. For it wants to know more about what is going on than the executive is willing to disclose. It feels that it has experience and ability that are not being used. Only an unbroken succession of victories can prevent or remove fears which may, sooner or later, drive it to critical speech or interfering action which may weaken the national effort.
"I hold it to be our bounden duty, impressed upon us by our position here, to keep an anxious, watchful eye over all the executive agents who are carrying on the war at the direction of the people, whom we represent and whom we are bound to protect in relation to this matter." Thus argued William P. Fessenden in a speech in the Senate on December 9, 1861. Eighty years later, Congress considers itself to have the same "bounden duty." But how can the duty be performed without hampering the executive in his task of direction? How far, indeed, is it proper that the "anxious, watchful eye" of Congress be permitted to scrutinize the President in his use of powers which he possesses apart from statute, under the Constitution which makes him Commanderin-Chief of the Army and the Navy?
No one can make a blueprint for executive-legislative relationships. "The men of Massachusetts," Walter Bagehot declared, "could have worked any constitution." Much will always depend on the characters and abilities of the individuals who may be in key places in the two branches of the government. But from the past we can draw suggestions which are pertinent to our present situation. Those drawn from the experience of France and Great Britain do not lose value because there is a difference between parliamentary and presidential government.
So long as military matters were the preserve of monarchs and a popularly elected assembly had not gathered power to itself, the problem of legislature and executive in wartime could not arise. Curiously, the first legislative interference with the conduct of military operations was probably the most extreme of all. In August 1793, the French turned to the levée en masse. Since France's "mass armies and their warfare were at first in the service of the new bourgeois state, the 'lawful' representatives of that state -- whether the Legislative Assembly, the Convention or the Directory -- sought to maintain civilian control over the Leviathan that they had called into being." Hence Lazare Carnot, as head of the Committee of Public Safety, sent to the front so-called "deputies on mission." As Dr. Alfred Vagts has explained in his "History of Militarism," these deputies controlled the armies "by the summary promotion and demotion of officers and the execution of generals who failed to achieve victory."
That experiment France did not repeat, although in 1915 and 1916 there was greater parliamentary interference with the military authorities than was the case in any of the other states then at war. There were parliamentary delegations to the armies; Deputies and Senators presumed to question and chide commanders and, on their return to Paris, seek for dismissals. Such parliamentary activity was probably annoying rather than harmful. Sometimes the parliamentary interference had beneficial consequences, especially in the case of inquiries which certain commissions made into the adequacy of hospital facilities and the provision of heavy artillery and munitions supplies. Some of the members of these commissions were on terms of intimacy with the President of the Republic, Raymond Poincaré. Successive Cabinets endeavored to keep him in ignorance, and he had grave doubts as to the adequacy of the French industrial effort. To the pages of his well-nigh interminable diary he confided his fears and chronicled the encouragement that he gave to Deputies and Senators in their efforts to speed things up and to bring the Ministry of War to a realization of the seriousness of the situation. Such a combination of pressure by the President of the Republic and parliamentarians in his confidence was on the whole more beneficial than harmful. Half a dozen changes of ministry before Clemenceau began to earn the title "Père de la victoire" showed that Parliament had not abdicated. It was still exerting control, albeit selectively and spasmodically. The fact that the Deputies were in session, debating and prodding, had a good effect on public opinion.
While France was engaged in the present war, however, from September 1939 onwards, the French Parliament did nothing in particular and that not very well. The negligible character of its rôle was the result of a number of different factors. Not the least important was that it had, over the years, permitted itself to become more and more anaemic in comparison to the executive. The complexity and severity of financial and economic crises had compelled the French Parliament to grant pleins pouvoirs to successive Cabinets. It was necessary that the Ministers do much of the legislating; but Parliament should at least have concerned itself with the results. The decrees had to be submitted to the Chambers. Only rarely, however, did objections force withdrawal or modification. This abdication of Parliament as an organ of review and control, and as a critic of the executive, was fatal.
When the war came Parliament could not reassert itself. From September 3 until November 30, 1939, it did not meet. On the latter date it extended M. Daladier's decree powers and provided (in the usual form) that each decree must be submitted within one month for the approval of Parliament if it was in session. At meetings in December the Parliament considered budget matters. Throughout the winter there were no important debates. Unlike the House of Commons, the Chamber of Deputies contained only a few members who could catch the ear of the country by criticisms of the government. These seem not to have felt it a duty to criticize, and if they had the censorship to which Parliament consented would have kept their voices from being heard.[i] A number of parliamentary commissions pretended to be active. They met rather frequently and listened to perfunctory statements from Ministers. But the commissions were futile because they emanated from a Chamber in which the country had little confidence. This time, moreover, there was not in the Elysée a President who, like Poincaré, wanted to be something more than a machine to parade or sign. The Parliament and the commissions had a few secret sessions -- an expedient which, as the English have learned, is never reassuring to a nation. The Chamber did drive out Daladier and install Reynaud as Prime Minister. But this was brought about as much through party and personal intrigues as from a parliamentary demand for more effective leadership. It is not strange, therefore, that in the tragic days that marked the end of the Third Republic the Ministers and a few powerful personages who were not Ministers were permitted, or forced, to make the crucial decisions without any Parliament which they could consult. Decisions participated in and approved by Parliament might not have been any better. They could hardly have been worse.
In Great Britain, from 1914 to 1918, Parliament was less effective than its counterpart across the Channel. When the present war began it was incomparably more effective. When in 1915 the munitions shortage became so great as to be a scandal and a serious threat to the British armies in France, exposure took place in the newspapers and not on the floor of the House. In December 1916, when the House turned from Mr. Asquith to Mr. Lloyd George, the parliamentary opposition became even more negligible. Save in a few cases when Mr. Lloyd George clashed with generals who had their friends in the House of Commons, the real criticism of his administration came only from the press. Parliament, through select committees, investigated a few matters, but by and large the Fourth Estate took the place of the elected representatives of the people as the forum where grievances were voiced and where the executive would hear criticism of its acts. Indeed, the Prime Minister was infrequently in the House. He entrusted its leadership to Mr. Bonar Law, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr. Lloyd George attended only when he had some pronouncement to make. His parliamentary utterances became more like Presidential Messages than participations in disputes on policy. He was frank in recognizing this shift of influence to the press; and not unconnected with the recognition was the large number of press lords whom he translated into real Lords with seats in the upper chamber.
In this war the House of Commons has not had to yield to the press as critic of the executive. It has influenced policy; it has forced the correction of abuses; it has spurred executive action; and it has not felt that it was deprived of the knowledge which is essential if action is to be intelligent. British critics are sorry that the House has not been able to do more, but even the most severe of them agree that the House has done much. The daily questioning of ministers has been important. Even Mr. Chamberlain recognized its utility and endeavored to give members greater opportunities. On the whole there has been expert steering between the Scylla of triviality and the Charybdis of demanding information that would be of use to the enemy.
The House forced Mr. Chamberlain's resignation and in effect made Mr. Churchill Prime Minister. It has driven some individual incompetents out of the government and has brought about a number of shifts of square pegs to what it was hoped might be square holes. Full powers of legislation have been transferred to the Cabinet, but debates on some of the emergency defense regulations have caused their withdrawal and revision. Policy -- strategic, financial, economic, industrial -- has been discussed in the open, mostly on the motions for adjournment which permit full debate without requiring the debaters to take sides in a vote.
At secret sessions war ministers have been able to talk more frankly than in public session. But the whole principle underlying a virile legislature is frustrated if it does not meet in public. It must be a sounding board for the wishes and fears of constituents, and the sounds are ineffective if they reach the ears of ministers only in private. The nation is prevented, moreover, from knowing whether ministers have satisfactory explanations for what have seemed to be mistakes, and whether, in criticizing and questioning, the House of Commons is really representing it. But, as Mr. Churchill has said, "There is no reason why we should keep the enemy informed of the details of our arrangements." And he added grimly: "We do not receive similar information from him about his way of life, although, I am sure, our military staffs would be much convenienced thereby."
Under these circumstances, the Select Committee on National Expenditure has done highly important work. Set up in December 1939 "to examine the current expenditure defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament for the Defence Services, for Civil Defence, and for other services directly connected with the war," the Committee is instructed "to report what, if any, economies consistent with the execution of the policy decided by the Government may be effected therein." The limitation "directly connected with the war" has not prevented the Committee from ranging over nearly the whole field of British administration. At once the Committee determined that they conceived it "to be more their duty to prevent or check waste before it occurs than to conduct inquiries into past events." They would be able to discharge this task better "by discussion and exchange of ideas with the spending departments undertaken concurrently" with the examination of representatives of the departments and scrutiny of their plans, rather "than by recommendations and criticisms in a formal report." Thus the Committee, which consisted of twenty-eight members (later increased), divided into six sub-committees among which were allocated all phases of the war effort.
This was a wise decision. Five persons meeting privately with a Minister or Under Secretary are not an inquisitorial body. In April 1940 the Committee reported to the House that "in this field" -- that is, "in discussion and exchange of ideas" -- their efforts had "already met with definite success." It would be tedious to enumerate all of the matters that the Committee and its sub-committees have inquired into. Each sub-committee has held dozens of sessions and heard scores of witnesses. A coördinating committee composed of the chairmen of the sub-committees seeks to secure an over-all view. Normally a Select Committee of the House of Commons can speak only to the House, but this Select Committee received special permission to address memoranda directly to the Prime Minister. In these it makes suggestions on matters unsuited for public comment.
Nearly a score of reports have been published. The Eleventh Report, filed in August 1940, was comprehensive and enumerated some of the matters in respect of which the Committee had thought that changes of policy or reorganization of administration were essential, and checked them with the actions, if any, that the government had taken. Nearly one hundred Committee proposals were listed, some of them minor but many on matters of great importance. The Departments reported what they had done: "accepted"; "partly accepted"; "under constant study"; "not accepted, but coördinating committee set up"; "implemented with certain exceptions"; "substantially implemented"; "action under consideration by Treasury". The subjects ranged from the purchase of land and the selection of airdrome sites to priorities for sub-manufacturers of machine guns and the best utilization of the available supplies of sugar.
If members of the American Congress read the reports of the Select Committee, they will feel that, in comparison with members of the House of Commons, they are uninformed and uninfluential in respect of the progress of our defense preparations.
Members of our Civil War Congresses, however, were neither uninformed nor uninfluential. In December 1861, Lincoln's radical opponents got Congress to set up a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which at times seemed not unmindful of the precedent of Carnot's deputies on mission to the armies. Originally proposed to inquire into why battles had been lost, it obtained broader terms of reference. As Senator William P. Fessenden declared, Congress is "not under command of the military of this country. They are under ours as a Congress." The Committee summoned commanders and their subordinates before it and inquired into the political opinions of the generals. Sub-committees visited the battle-fronts. Sessions were in secret, so a witness did not know what had been testified to about him before his appearance. Senators used the testimony in their speeches or gave out driblets to the newspapers.
In 1917 when the Senate sought to amend the Food Control Act to set up a Joint Committee on Expenditures in the Conduct of the War, President Wilson declared that, if accepted, it would "render my task of conducting the war practically impossible." He thought that "the constant supervision of executive action which it contemplates would amount to nothing less than an assumption on the part of the legislative body of the executive work of the administration." And he added that there was "a very ominous precedent in our history which shows how such a supervision would operate." He referred, of course, to the Civil War Committee which, in his view, "was the cause of constant and distressing harassment and rendered Mr. Lincoln's task all but impossible." He went on to say that he was not questioning what might be the motives or the purposes of the members of such a committee. Even if they wished to coöperate in the most patriotic spirit, such coöperation would not be "practicable in the circumstances. The responsibility rests upon the administration. There are abundant existing means of investigation and of the effective enforcement of that responsibility." Mr. Wilson's judgment of the Civil War Committee was probably too severe. His estimate of the "abundant" means that Congress had of holding the executive responsible was certainly optimistic.
For, given the uneasiness in Congress and the unrest among the public, the Civil War Committee was probably inevitable. There is little evidence that President Lincoln was hostile to its creation or, within limits, to its activities. Indeed, Nicolay and Hay spoke of the Committee as "earnest, patriotic and honest." The Committee reported to Congress that "for a long time they were in constant communication with the President and his Cabinet and neglected no opportunity of at once laying before them the information acquired by them in the course of their investigations." But after two years relations with the President became acrimonious. Members of the Committee used their positions to seek advantages for their military friends. The commanders regarded the Committee as a Court of Star Chamber or a species of Aulic Council.
On balance, did the Civil War Committee do more harm than good? It is interesting to note that two scholars who have devoted particular attention to the workings of the Committee do not view its efforts or even its excesses so harshly as President Wilson did. Writing shortly after the controversy in 1917, Professor W. W. Pierson thought that the Committee had "brought speed and energy into the conduct of the war; that they ferreted out abuses and put their fingers down heavily upon governmental inefficiency; and that they labored, for a time at least, to preserve a balance and effect a coöperation between the legislative and executive departments." Three years ago, Professor T. Harry Williams, reëxamining the evidence, concluded that if the Committee had been divorced from its unfortunate political bias it "might have performed a very real service. No other body in the country had its unique opportunity to gather information from all fields of the war." In short, the most valid objections to the Committee were to its members and to their behavior, rather than to the device as such.
During the World War, President Wilson's opposition to any Congressional committee was effective. There were one or two special inquiries. The House of Representatives agreed speedily and almost unanimously to the appointment of a special committee to investigate the shipment of defective ammunition. Under Senator Chamberlain, the Senate Military Affairs Committee held a series of hearings and probably did some good, although all too patent were the desires of certain Senators to embarrass the administration rather than to ferret out mistakes and to seek their correction. Again, in May 1918, Wilson successfully opposed a Senate Resolution which would have made the Military Affairs Committee in effect a committee on the conduct of the war. He asked that every supporter of the administration vote against the resolution and added (to the regret of some): "These are serious times and it is absolutely necessary that the lines should be clearly drawn between friends and opponents." He did yield to the general demand for an inquiry into aircraft production and appointed a Board under the chairmanship of Charles Evans Hughes, who two years before had been the Republican candidate for the Presidency. With no fanfare of trumpets, that Board went about its task expeditiously, and a reorganization of the aircraft procurement speedily followed.
By and large, however, Congressional scrutiny of the conduct of the war -- of what was being done with the billions that were being expended -- waited until after the Armistice. Then the Republican House of Representatives elected in November 1918 appointed an investigating committee known as the Graham Committee. It spent half a million dollars in conducting wholesale inquisitions into past demeanors. Such ex post facto investigations must stress malfeasance, not nonfeasance and misfeasance. They cannot accept the principle of Fouché: "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder." The Committee turned up a very small amount of corruption. It did uncover imbecilities that had cost the country millions. But who then cared? The war had been won. Who, now, indeed, recalls what the mistakes were? Legislative control, to be effective, must be concurrent.
Unhappily, however, the Congressional system is not well geared for concurrent scrutiny and criticism of executive action. Constitutional arrangements separating legislature and executive give Washington a political climate that is inhospitable to harmonious relationships. When at the outset of his first administration he revived the custom of delivering Presidential Messages in person, Woodrow Wilson told the Congress that he thought it desirable to demonstrate that the President was a person and "not a mere department of the Government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power" -- that he was "a human being trying to coöperate with other human beings in a common service." During his first administration President Wilson had a high measure of success in achieving such coöperation. There was never any doubt as to what he desired in the way of legislation, but he worked with, instead of attempting to dictate to, Congressional leaders.
It is only by Presidential frankness with Congressional leaders and by the appearance of Cabinet members or other officials before Congressional Committees that Congress can get the information which the whole House of Commons receives from the Prime Minister and his colleagues. Congress does not often debate large policy and the way it is being implemented. Senators and Representatives are hard-working men, but most of their energies are devoted to committee service and within the committees the matters under discussion frequently boil down to technicalities. The machinery of defense preparations is so ramified and uncoordinated that Congress cannot be sure of who does what. On occasion President Roosevelt is unwilling to give a clear lead on important matters -- the conscription bill of last summer, for one example, and the pending tax measure for another. Anyone who set out to rewrite Emile Faguet's book, "L'Horreur des Responsabilités," would find pertinent materials in Washington today.
Even though the American executive and legislature are separated, even though the former occupies a special status under the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and even though the latter has difficulty in securing an over-all view, the two can and should seek to work harmoniously in a time of crisis. The President could allay a good deal of legislative uneasiness if he conferred on a group of Congressional leaders the rights which Walter Bagehot once declared were the only rights the British Crown possessed: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. Bagehot added that "a King of great sense and sagacity would want no others; he would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect." Those are in essence the rights that Mr. Churchill encourages the House of Commons to exercise. He could ignore Parliament. Instead he cultivates it.
Much in the way of collaboration and understanding can be achieved through committees of inquiry. If Senators and Representatives undertook (like members of the Select Committee on National Expenditure in Great Britain) to spend dreary hours quietly examining representatives of the services and other spending officers -- who at the outset, at least, might be hostile and uncommunicative -- and if they made it clear that the Congressional intention was only to aid and coöperate and not to pillory or to gain personal publicity, they might discover that they were aiding Congress to perform "its bounden duty" more effectively. An executive weakens himself if he neglects "the care and feeding" of his legislature. And a legislature must make its wants known.
[i] Parliament made no serious effort to force the modification of any of the censorship regulations.