When Congress Gets Mad

Foreign Policy Battles in the 1950s and Today

President Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act on August 1 1946. Wikimedia Commons

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

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