The Supineness of the Senate

The Gulf of Tonkin, The 1964 Incidents. Part II Session. Supplementary Documents to February 20, 1968; Hearing With Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara Dated December 16, released December 20, 1968

Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 90th Congress, 2nd
US Government Printing Office

Fullbright and Johnson
Fullbright and Johnson; drawing by David Levine

“It was on the dignity of the Senate that Augustus and his successors founded their new empire…. In the administration of their own powers, they frequently consulted the great national council, and seemed [italics in original] to refer to its decision the most important concerns of peace and war…. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed…. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the Senate and the people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

—Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

A major item of business for the Senate in the session now beginning is finally to act upon Resolution 187. More than any other single piece of proposed legislation, it reflects the widespread revulsion in Congress against foreign adventures created by the Vietnamese war. It would express “the sense of the Senate” that in the future no President should commit the United States to use its armed forces abroad without “affirmative action” by Congress. The intent is to prevent future Vietnams.

The resolution was introduced by Senator Fulbright in 1967. Nothing he has done in years won such instant and wide support. It was unanimously approved, within his Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by Republicans and Democrats, doves and hawks. It was also endorsed outside the Committee by Democrats as conservative and influential as Russell of Georgia and McClellan of Arkansas, and by Republicans as far to the right as Allott of Colorado and Young of North Dakota. Its passage, overwhelmingly, by the Senate seemed assured. Yet it was somehow kept off the floor all through the 1968 session.

The Johnson Administration opposed the resolution, as did the military bureaucracy, and managed without protest from Fulbright or any other Senator to keep it from a vote. Mansfield, who had voted for the resolution in committee, turned around and put it on the shelf as majority leader, but promised to let it come to a vote this year. The resolution takes on added importance as a possible restraint on the new Administration. Nixon showed his interventionist tendencies as early as 1954 in Vietnam, and his Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, in his book America’s Strategy Gap: A House Divided (Regnery: 1962), thought Eisenhower was too weak in the Hungarian revolt and Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs. The excuse for putting off a vote at the last session was that it might upset the peace talks on Vietnam, though the resolution clearly applies only to future commitments. The Paris talks, dragging on, may provide a similar excuse this year. So easily is the Senate deflected from its purposes.

The terms of the…

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