The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
The scholar Edward Corwin famously described the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches set out in the U.S. Constitution as “an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” With different parties controlling different branches of government, partisan politics tends to intensify this struggle, and the consequences can be ugly. These days, for example, hardly a week seems to go by without vicious sniping between the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress over one issue or another—from China to Russia, Iran to Syria, Cuba to Israel. And on most issues, process as well as discourse has broken down, with each side openly trying to thwart or bypass the other.
This is not the first time things have descended to such a level. What the current situation most resembles, in fact, is the early Cold War era, when Republicans in Congress made foreign policy central to their attacks on President Harry Truman. Then, as now, the GOP condemned a Democratic president for being too soft, letting down key allies, and leaving the nation ill equipped to deal with its adversaries. And then, as now, congressional hard-liners sought greater control over foreign policy, proposing all manner of resolutions and hearings to rein in and embarrass the president.
The historical parallel is not exact—they never are—but a look back at the earlier strife offers useful context for evaluating today’s bitter divisions and their likely outcome. The main takeaway is not comforting to contemporary Republicans: trying to fight a no-holds-barred war over foreign policy against a determined White House can limit the effectiveness of U.S. efforts abroad and discredit those who launch what can come to be seen as obstructionist assaults.
Ironically, the Republican challenge of the late 1940s and early 1950s followed one of the most productive periods of bipartisan cooperation in congressional history. Between 1947 and 1949, the Truman administration worked closely with the Republican-dominated 80th Congress to pass some of the central components of containment. Just weeks after Truman laid out a vision for an interventionist foreign policy against Soviet influence in March 1947, Congress appropriated $400 million so that Greece and Turkey could confront internal communist threats. After the Truman Doctrine came the Marshall Plan, an even more ambitious initiative that provided $13 billion for the reconstruction of Western European economies devastated by World War II.
Many Republicans, including Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan (who wielded impressive power over his party’s rank and file), supported these measures because they had become committed internationalists in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Truman’s sweeping rhetoric on the Soviet threat also helped. The story that Vandenberg instructed Truman to “scare the hell out of America” to win Republican support might be apocryphal, but it contains a kernel of truth: Truman did use hyperbolic language to sell containment, and he conspicuously failed to place geographic limits on where such a strategy would apply.
Still, Truman’s Republican outreach worked only up to a point. The Truman Doctrine mobilized Republican support, but it also gave the president’s opponents the opportunity to attack him when he failed to live up to its principles. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that Western Europe had to be protected from Soviet influence, for example, but when the Cold War spread to Asia, Truman proved more reluctant to aid regimes that he considered corrupt, such as the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Republicans took advantage of Truman’s perceived failure to act on his word to contain communism on every front: Senators Styles Bridges, William Knowland, and Kenneth Wherry, for example, claimed in a memorandum inserted in the Congressional Record that the president was pursuing a “wishful, do-nothing policy which has succeeded only in placing Asia in danger of Soviet conquest.”
For his part, the intensely partisan Truman never grew comfortable working with Republicans, especially those in the party’s nationalist wing, who hoped to limit both the size of the U.S. government and its long-term global commitments. Indeed, he invited Robert Taft—an Ohio senator who so epitomized GOP conservatism that he was dubbed “Mr. Republican”—to the White House only twice during his presidency. And rather than negotiate privately with his critics, Truman chose to attack them publicly, culminating in the “whistle-stop tour” of his 1948 reelection campaign, when he traveled the country by train and relentlessly lambasted the “do-nothing” Republican Congress.
Republicans were initially unconcerned by the criticism, since they considered Truman an accidental president who lacked the charisma and gravitas for the top job. New York Governor Thomas Dewey, their candidate for the presidency, was so confident of victory in the 1948 election that he scarcely challenged Truman’s foreign policy during the campaign season. Then the votes were counted, and Dewey lost in the Republicans’ fifth straight defeat.
So the Republicans returned to Washington in 1949 in a surly mood. Many in the GOP concluded that their cooperation with the Democratic White House on foreign policy had consigned their party to the political margins. With Vandenberg sick with cancer, leadership on Capitol Hill passed to senators in the party’s nationalist wing, such as Taft, Bridges, and Wherry. And the days of bipartisan cooperation shuddered to a halt.
In the years after 1949, Republicans made a concerted effort to depict Truman and the Democrats as weak, especially on communism in Asia—a charge that both the nationalist and the internationalist wings of the party initially embraced. Truman, Republicans insisted, had “lost” China to Mao Zedong by refusing to provide sufficient help to Chiang in the Chinese Civil War. Even worse, they claimed, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had given the “green light” for North Korea to invade South Korea in June 1950 by publicly excluding South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter earlier in the year.
When Truman responded to the North Korean attack by deploying four U.S. divisions to the peninsula, Republicans hardly rallied around the flag. Taft began by claiming that the administration’s weak Asia policy had effectively “invited” the invasion. Then, as U.S. troops retreated south in disarray, Republican lawmakers charged that Truman had wasted taxpayers’ dollars on domestic projects while so neglecting the nation’s defenses that the U.S. military could not even halt the North Korean army. The name-calling often got ugly. Wherry declared that “the blood of our boys in Korea” was on Acheson’s “shoulders, and no one else”—a statement Truman considered “contemptible.”
In November, after the Inchon landing and then China’s entry had whipsawed the course of the war back and forth, this name-calling turned into something more sinister. Some Republicans went so far as to portray the partisan tensions as a contest between loyal Americans and actual and potential traitors. Senior Republicans began to consider the possibility of impeaching both Truman and Acheson for treasonable actions, and South Dakota Senator Francis Case even introduced a bill to abolish the State Department.
A year earlier, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy had already begun escalating policy disputes to ones of character and patriotism, alleging that card-carrying Communists had infiltrated the State Department. As the Korean War ground on, McCarthy widened his sights. He dubbed Acheson a tool of Moscow and encouraged him to flee to Russia. He also accused George Marshall, the U.S. secretary of defense, of selling out American interests to the Communists.
The virulence of McCarthy’s indictments worried many Republicans, including Taft, who privately described his colleague as a “hard man for anybody to work with, or restrain.” Yet when trying to forge a Republican position on McCarthy’s allegations, Taft and other GOP leaders allowed partisanship to override their private qualms. McCarthy, Taft believed, should “keep talking, and if one case doesn’t work out, he should proceed with another,” until he eventually succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of Truman and the Democrats.
In the midst of an increasingly unpopular and eventually stalemated war, it was easy for the Republicans to attack the Democrats as weak. But it was far harder to develop a coherent alternative policy. The logic of the Republican critique pointed in the direction of military escalation—going big seemed marginally preferable to going home—and many in the party’s nationalist wing found an icon in General Douglas MacArthur, who had rejected his commander in chief’s relative restraint, had called for taking the war to China in pursuit of victory, and was ultimately fired by Truman in April 1951. After MacArthur’s passionate farewell address to Congress, Republican Representative Dewey Short from Missouri remarked, “We saw a great hunk of God in the flesh, and we heard the voice of God.”
Yet when Republicans began to analyze MacArthur’s actual policy advice, its appeal faded. As a rhetorical device, accusing the president of weakness had its merits, but as the basis for a new policy, it presented obvious problems. Republicans from both wings of the party were already indicting Truman for the growing death toll of his limited war, and many nationalists were convinced that the war in Korea was consuming too many tax dollars. Did they really want to escalate a conflict that Taft, in July 1951, described as a “useless and expensive waste”?
Truman aimed to limit American involvement in Korea partly because he thought Europe was the most important Cold War battleground. But he also wanted time to implement NSC-68, the secret policy document produced by the State Department that outlined a stepped-up containment plan. Taft and his conservative allies balked at the cost of this program, which Truman had candidly indicated would be funded in part by increased taxes. And as the implications of NSC-68 became clearer, some Republicans recoiled from what they saw as an emerging “garrison state,” one that proposed not only to force young men into a system of universal military training but also to impose wage and price controls.
Along with an overweening state, many Republicans feared a highhanded president they saw as bent on bypassing constitutional checks on his authority. When Truman decided to send U.S. forces to Korea without asking Congress for a declaration of war, for example, Taft charged, “There is no legal authority for what he has done.” And in December 1950, when the president decided to send four additional divisions to bolster NATO in Europe rather than confront the Chinese intervention in Korea, many Republicans challenged his authority to do so without their consent. Their cause quickly gathered support across the aisle, and in early 1951, a bipartisan coalition passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the deployment of further U.S. troops to Europe “without further congressional approval.” By then, the charge that Truman’s foreign policy threatened the letter and spirit of the Constitution had become a central feature of the Republican challenge to the president.
As the basis for a new policy, accusing the president of weakness had obvious problems.
Increasingly frustrated by their inability to effect changes in U.S. policy through persuasion, moreover, hard-line anti-interventionists in Congress decided to try establishing procedural restraints on the White House instead. The most famous of these was the so-called Bricker Amendment, a series of measures designed to bring the White House to heel by placing explicit restrictions on the scope and ratification processes of treaties and executive agreements. Named after their sponsor, Ohio Senator John Bricker—a staunch conservative who had been Dewey’s running mate in 1944—the measures were intended as protection against the supposedly sneaky attempts of executive-branch globalists to abandon their country’s age-old freedoms. Their text included language such as “a provision of a treaty which conflicts with this Constitution shall not be of any force or effect” and “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” A version Bricker introduced in February 1952 got 58 cosponsors in the Senate, including every Republican but one.
By the 1952 presidential election, however, the nationalist challenge had begun to fizzle. Truman had managed to get his way on most foreign policy questions, waging a limited war in Korea without congressional approval and using the war to mobilize U.S. power for a long-haul struggle to contain the Soviet challenge. And the election of Dwight Eisenhower—a quintessential internationalist and avatar of the Republican Party’s establishment wing—was a victory for the GOP but a defeat for its nationalist faction. Increasingly concerned about the prospect of a Taft candidacy, mainstream Republicans had flocked to Eisenhower as a moderate with bipartisan appeal.
During the campaign, Eisenhower promised only modest changes to Truman’s foreign policies, both on Korea and on containment more generally, pledging merely to bring more competence and frugality to their implementation. Once in office, moreover, he viewed a major task of his administration as teaching his party to govern after 20 years in the presidential wilderness. Republicans in Congress, he observed, had become so used to dealing with a Democratic president that their instinct was to automatically oppose any policy proposed by the White House. “Now that we have a Republican Congress their job is to hold up the hands of the executive departments,” Eisenhower told his cabinet in early 1953, “but they have not learned that yet. . . . Their automatic thinking is to tear them down.”
Fortunately for Eisenhower, because the GOP had been out of power for so long, even its nationalist leaders were prepared to mute their instinctive oppositional traits, not to mention their deep-seated aversion to key elements of Eisenhower’s foreign policy agenda. Taft himself performed a valuable service shortly before his death in July 1953 by helping bottle up the Bricker Amendment in committee. And other influential Republicans reluctantly agreed to support an armistice agreement that ratified the stalemate in Korea, something many in the party had initially opposed because it fell short of an outright U.S. victory.
Partisanship on foreign policy can backfire and criticism from the sidelines is easier than policymaking in power.
By 1954, cooperation between Democrats and Republicans was returning to Washington. When McCarthy continued with his increasingly wild efforts to root out supposed Communists throughout the government and armed services, his own party finally decided to repudiate him. And by the time the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, Eisenhower had not only quelled the worst excesses in the Republican ranks but also forged a constructive working relationship with the Democratic leadership, led by powerful southerners such as Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson. The bipartisan consensus that followed would prevail until the Vietnam War.
The constructive cooperation between a moderate Republican president and southern Democrats in Congress during the mid-1950s shows how much U.S. politics has changed over the generations. Back then, both parties were internally divided along ideological and regional lines; today, they are much more homogeneous. President Barack Obama, like Truman before him, has shown little aptitude for reaching across the aisle, yet given the distance between the parties on so many issues, it is doubtful that any president could bridge the contemporary chasm. Still, there are some lessons to be learned from the earlier era, chief among which is that perceived partisanship on foreign policy can backfire and criticism from the sidelines is easier than policymaking in power.
During the 1950s, nationalist Republicans ended up getting minimal political payoffs for their attacks on the Truman administration, with Taft himself emerging as the biggest loser: he desperately sought the presidency for years, but his aggressive politicking on foreign policy became an insurmountable obstacle. Taft’s willingness to hammer the administration at every opportunity and in every way—including the use of the particularly blunt instrument of McCarthy—worried many in his party, who in turn worked to block his presidential nomination in 1952. And the more that Taft and his allies condemned Truman for his weakness, the more they raised the stakes for themselves to offer a plausible alternative, which they never really had.
Indeed, however unappetizing a limited war in Korea was, the prospect of either abandoning the peninsula to the Communists or fighting a full-scale war with China was much worse. And although the Truman administration’s apparently passive policy toward communist advances in Asia became an easy target, the notion of aggressively pursuing “rollback” contained obvious risks. The American public certainly had little stomach for increased belligerence or adventurism in the wake of a long, stalemated war fought halfway around the world. And so Republicans desperate to win back the White House gradually dropped their confrontational approach and eventually sided with Eisenhower’s moderation.
A belligerent foreign policy stance, moreover, fit uncomfortably with the Republican Party’s advocacy of smaller government, lower taxes, and fiscal responsibility. A muscular posture abroad, after all, would require a higher budget, which in turn would require either higher taxes or higher deficits, both of which were anathemas to many in the GOP. Taft’s railings against Democratic weakness, for example, lost much of their force when, in 1951, he began pledging to cut U.S. defense spending by half and claimed that Truman’s proposals for a 3.5-million-man army would wreck the economy. (The Eisenhower administration eventually tried to square this circle by promulgating its “New Look” policies, including massive retaliation, which supposedly promised more bang for the defensive buck, but the actual changes to U.S. national security policy came only at the margins.)
Nationalist Republicans’ policy proposals, finally, tended to provoke fear and loathing from major U.S. allies. Truman’s domestic critics regularly accused him of selling out the country’s friends abroad, but the friends the critics had in mind tended to be small, weak countries with high political salience back home, such as Taiwan and South Korea. What the critics generally ignored was that Truman’s efforts to put in place a robust, well-resourced containment of the Soviet Union without triggering an actual war were supported and appreciated by the country’s larger and more strategically important allies, such as France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and West Germany. Nationalist Republicans’ rash rhetoric often spooked Washington’s truly indispensable partners, who feared the prospect of escalation in Korea, looked askance at McCarthy’s campaign to root out internal Communists, and fretted about the consequences of excessive congressional control over U.S. foreign policy.
If the 1950s are any guide, therefore, one might expect to see the punches that come thick and fast in the midst of a partisan campaign over foreign policy land far from their intended targets and quite possibly end up hurting those who throw them in the first place.