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Skepticism on Capitol Hill

The Congress Revives Its Rôle as Critic of National Security Policy

ISSUE:  Summer 1970

A remarkable development has recently occurred within the changing power conflicts and coalition strategies of the Congressional political system. The Congress has chosen after two decades of deferring to the military’s authority to revive its role of oversight in the deliberation of national security policy. It has asserted its constitutional claim to be consulted about the nation’s strategic posture and defense budget and it has attempted to restore its authority tv pass upon the hardware requests and the hard-line predictions of the professional military. Though many Congressmen had resigned themselves in the past to the fact that they could neither question classified defense information nor prompt their colleagues into an extensive review of military estimates, a significant number have now determined to check the bureaucratic momentum of the military machine. Defense appropriations approaching $80 billion and momentous resolutions (like that passed after the Tonkin Gulf action) were voted on with only a few hours of floor debate in the more confident years of the Vietnam war. Today the costs and the force structure of the armed services are as vulnerable to criticism as the Cambodian contingency plans devised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In short, the Congress has recognized that legislative criticism of military spending and strategic planning is not only politically feasible but also constitutionally imperative. 

Evidence of the changing roles and expectations of the Congress can best be found by surveying the current activities of the elite committees of the Senate and the House. Particularly notable are the changes manifest in the two Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. Previously they had utilized their powerful influence and their seniority status to shield defense issues from the scrutiny of junior colleagues on Capitol Hill or from a damaging exposure to public debate. Their aging members had come to assume that military deployments and defense appropriations lay beyond the interest or knowledge of all but a few of their colleagues. Since the members of these senior committees were privileged visitors in the inner councils of the national security bureaucracy they had come to perceive themselves as the political eminencesor advocates of the defense establishment. That they were in fact no longer credible in the turmoil of American political life had not occurred to them. Many held high military rank (on a reserve or retired status) and had persuaded the Pentagon to build valuable defense installations or bases in their districts. It came as a shock to their notion of seniority privilege when Congressmen too junior to sit on their committees began to question both their political influence and the expert judgment of their military friends. To put it bluntly, the mandarin leaders of the powerful committees were astonished when they found themselves forced to defend major items in the nearly $80 billion worth of military spending which they sought to authorize. As they had played the game for twenty years, the role of the Congress was to divide the spoils of the defense budget among rival armed services and political constituencies and to follow the leadership on national security issues provided by the elder brethren. They had never anticipated that a change in the rules of the game would be forced upon them by restless junior colleagues nor that the new rules would permit freshmen Congressmen to criticize the arcane operations of the defense establishment. 

On the rare occasions prior to the Vietnam war when the Congress had engaged in a full debate on the formulation of national security policy and defense spending it had demonstrated a marked political diffidence and a bipartisan behavior of self-restraint. The management of secret information and the use of policy initiatives were grasped so tightly by the Executive that the Congress could no longer pretend to exercise its proper function of legislative scrutiny. Congressmen were generally ignorant about the contingency plans which they had inadvertently authorized in 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Few were informed about the clandestine agreements arranged with foreign powers, such as Thailand or Franco’s Spain, and therefore could not ask the right questions at the right time. Manifestly, neither the advice nor the consent of the Senate was seriously solicited. Both chambers agreed that constitutional checks and balances had been so gravely eroded during twenty years of Cold War maneuvering that few legislators could serve as watchdogs over the excesses of an Administration which indulged in instant and repetitive warmaking. 

In the last decade it had become obvious that the Congress had abnegated its powers of initiative and oversight in many technical areas of vital public concern. But no area was more technical or harder to penetrate—or more vital to the general welfare—than that of defense policy. Thirty years ago national security programs had been constrained by the Neutrality Acts which a determined Congress had imposed upon FDR’s Administration; still infused with isolationist sentiment, the Senate at that time had asserted a firm control over the nation’s statecraft and policy maneuvers. In 1940 it had ratified twelve treaties and only twenty Executive agreements (which do not require Senate concurrence) and its enquiry into the budgets of the military had been exhaustive. In 1965 the Senate was asked to ratify no more than five treaties, but 242 Executive agreements were concluded without its formal approval. Many of these Executive instruments committed the United States—as in the pledge advanced in a private communication of President Eisenhower for the defense of the Diem régime in South Vietnam—to a major enlargement of the national security interests of the United States. The discussion of the $50 billion defense costs for that year were adequately preserved from searching Congressional review. 

A dramatic reversal of roles began to emerge when the Democratic majority in either House discovered the political advantages of criticizing the Vietnam war plans and the military procurement priorities of the Nixon administration. The most effective arena of debate appeared in the Senate. A significant minority took exception in the upper chamber to President Nixon’s declaration that “it was absolutely necessary for the nation’s security” that appropriations of several billion dollars be authorized for the deployment of the “Safeguard” anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system. A more profound cause for change could be found, however, in the political conflicts which overshadowed the argument over strategic weapons investments. Many members of Congress had grown restive over the massive increase of defense spending which had materialized during the six years of costly and undeclared warmaking in Vietnam. Faced with the threat of soaring inflation, and unable to allocate funds to allay unrest in America’s fast-deteriorating inner cities, more and more Congressmen had come to regard the enlargement of the defense burden as politically unsupportable. A halt had to be called quickly in the endless enlargement of the Pentagon’s spending schedule if domestic priorities were ever to be satisfied and if the threat of inflation was to be firmly curbed. 

When President Nixon insisted upon the financing of the ABM deployment program, a large group in the Senate decided that the opportunity to call a halt had at last arrived. The actual timing of their decision and the political need to call a halt should have caused little surprise to ABM advocates within the Congress and the Pentagon. After six years of undeclared war in pursuit of ill-defined purposes in the jungles ofS. E. Asia it appeared that a mood of profound skepticism had settled on the Congress. No longer could its deferential membership accept the professional assurances and the relentlessly optimistic intelligence of the military. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had promised Congress year after year that the war was about to be won and that half a million troops would soon return in triumph. But the war dragged on and the fighting spread to new combat zones in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. As a result the Congress grew immune to the Pentagon’s reassurances and to its insatiable demands for more costly hardware. When the White House passed to Republican hands in 1969, the Democratic majority turned with a new vigor to scrutinize the strategic rationale of the defense budget. It dared as it never had before to question out loud whether the military pressure groups and their Congressional allies were reliable custodians of the nation’s best interests.


A majority of Democrats in the Senate refused to be impressed by the missile “gap” warnings and the Vietnam strategy adopted by the Secretary of Defense and by the White House. Following upon the defeat of two of the President’s nominations to the Supreme Court, the Senate clearly intended to demonstrate to President Nixon that it was once again prepared to revive its constitutional beliefs in a system of checks and balances of power. Though its initial motivation was unquestionably to pursue partisan advantage, it recognized that its control over defense appropriations could potentially increase both its legitimate constraints upon and its political bargaining power over a headstrong Executive. 

The mistake which Mr. Nixon made was to confront the Congress upon the most vulnerable issue in his defense program. Secretary McNamara had explained as late as January, 1967, why an ABM defense was neither necessary nor feasible; though President Johnson later asked him to reverse his stand, a ballistic missile defense system could only appear suspect. To add to President Nixon’s discomfiture, the eminent Science Advisors retained respectively by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson each testified against the advisability of appropriating funds for the new “Safeguard” ABM design. In their opinion the engineering feasibility of the ABM was as doubtful as its strategic utility; its cost estimates were indefensibly vague and so was its ability to protect the nation against a limited nuclear attack. These informed critics dared advance their own projection of the growth of Soviet, Chinese, and United States strategic nuclear forces in the 1970’s and they cautiously concluded that the missile “gap” predicted by the Pentagon would not emerge. The television camera captured their dramatic refutation of the technical calculations and the doom-and-gloom projections of Secretary Laird, and even though the viewing public could not judge the validity of each argument it realized that the challenge put to the Joint Chiefs could not be simply dismissed as the traitorous ruse of a partisan Congress. 

Opposition galvanized within the Senate as the confrontation between external and Government experts unfolded. The skepticism of the Congress on the ABM appropriation swelled to unprecedented proportions and a large bipartisan group began to coalesce around the proposition that the Pentagon could commit a colossal error of judgment. In this respect, the Senate’s thirty-nine days of debate over the ABM broke new ground. In the past, the Senate had occasionally debated the utility of particular weapons systems (such as the B-70 advanced bomber or the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) but it had never subjected the strategic posture statements of the Pentagon to sustained inquiry or critical debate. A few complaints had been voiced over the $23 billion that had been wasted in the last decade in aborted missile and bomber designs but these criticisms presented no threat to the military’s preponderance in policy formulation. That profit padding and contract pyramiding had swollen many hardware estimates to the breaking point was admitted frankly. That few protests were made when aircraft or missile contracts over-ran by 200 or 500per cent can be explained perhaps by the fact that the home districts of leading Congressmen tended to benefit from such industrial mismanagement. Angry scenes had occurred in several subcommittees when lucrative contracts had been shuffled from one State to another or if a senior Senator found that defense plants in his bailiwick were to be phased out. The award for the ill-fated TFX (now the Fill) fighter-bomber provoked a squalid dispute when it went to General Dynamics in Texas rather than to Boeing or Lockheed on the West Coast: it needed all the influence of JFK and LBJ to resolve that scramble for public funds. But these skirmishes, like the inter-Service competition over the Polaris program or the Nike-X missile outlay, were fought over the political rather than over the strategic aspects of defense spending. The axiom had remained intact that the Executive should propose and the Congress—subject, of course, to the rules of seniority privilege and power—should dispose of munificent defense totals each year. 

Disagreement over the nation’s need to procure an ABM system finally moved the Congress to debate national security issues at a fundamental level of discourse. To the surprise of many White House watchers, Mr. Nixon decided to venture the high prestige of his office by insisting that the controversial procurement be authorized. Since a majority in the Senate threatened to repudiate the ABM, the President placed himself in an unenviable position. Though the Senate eventually voted 50-50 (with Vice-President Agnew breaking the tied vote) for the first year’s authorization, the Administration had to utilize every technique of political influence which it could bring to bear on the Congress to stave off defeat. The exercise did not enhance the prestige of the President as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief. When the final vote was taken, the President came within one vote of suffering the gravest defeat that a Chief Executive had incurred since compulsory military service had been approved by a one-vote margin in 1940. At the present time of writing it appears likely that the Senate will actually reject the second year’s ABM financing, thus retarding rather than reversing the President’s policy initiative. 

The Congress learned an important lesson in its cliff-hanging conflict over the 1969 ABM procurement. It perceived that it was no longer necessary for it to defer to the budgetary definitions or to the President’s monopoly of Cold War initiatives in foreign and military policy. Its less conservative members recognized that their patriotism would no longer be impugned if they expressed doubts about the quality of the military’s judgment. They also realized that the axioms of the Senate’s vaunted seniority system were at last open to challenge. The four senior committees which had helped insulate the military appropriation process from legislative scrutiny could, apparently, be thwarted and their arcane procedures of decision-making subjected to political assault. Rather strikingly, it was rumored that the last six votes needed to approve the ABM authorization were won not by strategic argument but by the Administration’s pledge to retain a naval shipyard in Maine, to accelerate oil drilling in Alaska and aircraft construction in Seattle, and to provide campaign funds for a recalcitrant Senator faced with a stern re-election contest in 1970. Rarely had the mystique of military procurement been reduced to so mundane a level of partisan political calculation.


It is impossible to isolate any one major cause of the radical change in attitude which has recently seized hold in the Congress. Disillusion with the frustrating war in Vietnam, fear of inflation in the domestic economy, and uneasiness with youthful protests against the Selective Service system obviously exerted a compelling influence upon many Congressmen. Though public opinion on defense issues could not be called inflamed, it certainly became weary of the military’s unceasing demand for a larger defense budget. Moreover, such critical Senators as Fulbright, Mansfield, Goodell, Hart, Kennedy, Church, Cooper, Muskie, and Symington began to attain a measure of public respect for their articulate criticisms of military policy. Senators from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, sensing the popular appeal of their dissident position on defense spending, appeared on television to attack the Nixon administration’s perpetuation of those policy mistakes in Vietnam which had swept Lyndon Johnson from power. University presidents, religious groups, and the serious press supported their critical attack, thus raising an irate response from Mr. Agnew, and the President seemingly bent before their attack by scaling down the United States garrison in Vietnam. Few Congressmen cared to identify themselves, as they had in previous years, as “hawks” dedicated to the indefinite support of the junta of political generals which monopolized affairs in Saigon, and considerable alarm was raised in the Congress as the combat zone was extended first to Laos and then to Cambodia. 

As the 9lst Congress proceeded, its internal dissidence became more intense than the public generally perceived. Young and liberal Congressmen, denied effective power by the rigid seniority rules of the Committee system, began to denounce the expensive mismanagement and the inexcusable excesses in the Pentagon’s hardware programs. Damaging attacks were launched against the Pentagon’s efforts to conceal an over-run of $2 billion in the costs of the controversial C-5Aair transport. Monumental blunders in the design of the new Sheridan tank and in the cost-accounting of the Navy’s nuclear aircraft carriers were also exposed. Grave dangers in implementing the $350 million program in chemical and bacteriological warfare ( CBW) were vehemently condemned when the Army’s negligence in testing and trans porting deadly nerve gasses hit the headlines; the President decided to cut back in CBW production soon after the Senate voted 91-0 against the CBW program.

Though most of the questioned appropriations were eventually authorized, the Congressional attack on the Air Force’s design for a manned orbiting laboratory in outer space resulted in its cancellation and a $3 billion cut was made in the total defense request. Further headway was also made toward blocking the two largest items of military largesse: a new manned bomber for the Air Force and the 15-carrier fleet demanded by the Navy. As the impetus of criticism gathered force, the former Director of the Bureau of the Budget—whose prominent role in the Johnson Administration had been widely celebrated—warned a joint sub-committee of the Congress that the cost of procuring new weapons delayed by the Vietnam War could absorb any of the “peace dividend” to be realized by a cessation of the fighting. If the $30 billion spent each year in Vietnam were deflected into new hardware inventories, he added, the annual defense budgets of the 1970’s would rapidly increase. The Joint Chiefs had already pressed for weapons projects costing more than $100 billion but if their demands were approved the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union would be logically doomed to fail. Seventeen billion dollars had so far been suggested for the development of multiple (MIRV) warheads for the offensive missile squadrons and $10.8 billion for the defensive ABM system. Though the Senate had voted 72 to 6 for a moratorium on MIRV deployments, in order to promote the SALT negotiations, the President refused to be bound by such an unsolicited expression of Senate sentiment. His plans for the next decade envisaged a defense establishment large enough to mount two­-and-a-half major operations (in Europe, Asia, and Latin America) at a nuclear and conventional level simultaneously. He was therefore fully aware that the cost of equipping this force structure could not be left to the discretion of a newly independent Congress.

As an immediate consequence of the ABM and procurement debates a challenge was thrown down before the most powerful, secretive, and exclusive committees of either House. The four committees, two on Armed Services and two on Appropriations, were each ruled by dictatorial Dixie-crat chairmen. Intransigently conservative in their belief that the nation had to preserve its outright military preponderance in the Cold War at any cost, each chairman presided with as awesome an authority over his own committee as over his one-party Southern constituency. Collectively, the four committees provided the Congressional base of that military-industrial complex against whose influence President Eisenhower had warned so sternly in his farewell address. 

Senator Russell, the most senior and experienced leader in the Senate, was particularly stung by the Democratic and Republican attacks upon his good friends in the military. In his many years in the Senate he had brought a wealth of defense industries to Georgia and he had exercised the prerogatives of his seniority to protect the Joint Chiefs from challenge or criticism. It was clearly within his power to withhold appropriations sought by unco-operative Senators, to block their promotion to influential committee assignments, or to close off debate whenever critics called for equal time in replying to the Pentagon’s pronouncements. His autocratic rule was emulated by Senator Stennis, who succeeded Russell as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and who brought a cornucopia of defense contracts to Mississippi. On the House side, Congressman George Mahon competed with Russell in the shrewd management of the Appropriations under his control—and in the enrichment of the economy of Texas. But his performance was overshadowed by that of Congressman Mendel Rivers, the fifteen-term autocrat of the Armed Services Committee. His district in Charleston so bulged with military installations and defense plants that he crudely boasted of his campaign slogan, “Rivers Delivers.” Though his strident position on military matters had frequently been disowned even by his Southern allies, his friendship for General LeMay and his superhawk stand on Vietnam and the Pueblo affair endeared him to the military and their numerous lobbyists. 

The Congressmen who support this oligarchic control of power and the purse are drawn extensively from the long­tenured Southern scions of the Democratic Party and from the conservative or small-town leadership of the Republican Party. Their sentiments of patriotism and of old-fashioned doctrine have long favored the military’s definition of national priorities. They have shown little concern for the endless welfare needs of the Northern cities or for the war-weary condition of liberal opinion. Immune from the surging tides of anger and protest which have swept through the ethnic minorities and the suburban taxpayers in the larger cities, oligarchs from the power centers of the South and Midwest, and from the Committees of Ways and Means, Rules, and Finance and Banking have been able to bargain from a position of strength with the President, on the one side, or with their hundred-odd adversaries in the liberal Democratic Study Group, on the other. Their refusal for six years to hold open hearings on the conduct of the Vietnam war, or on the annual $20 billion outlay on defense hardware, testified to the authority which they had sternly wielded over less­-aged and less-conforming colleagues on the Hill. 

The senior committees in both chambers retained their dominant authority either by relying on closed hearings or by limiting the source of testimony at their session to military or Administration spokesmen. In this manner, the soaring cost of new weapons systems or the ominous consequences of clandestine military deployments could be shielded (under the aegis of “need to know” security wraps) from embarrassing scrutiny. When a censored version of the testimony presented before each committee eventually appeared in print, it often ran to five volumes in length, each with 600 closely­filled pages of logistic data or deferred cost estimates. Since these volumes were usually released only a few days before floor debate began, many Congressmen were obliged to take on trust the decisions which their senior colleagues had made in passing upon the Services’ fiscal requests. Though they also relied on the Bureau of the Budget and the White House staff to review each request before it was sent up to the Hill there was little that the average legislator could do if he doubted either the wisdom or the cost-effectiveness of any line-item in the $551billion worth of military appropriations which had been authorized during the Vietnam war years.


Not since the bitter debates over the Neutrality Acts in the 1930’s, when Senator Nye investigated the influence of the “merchants of death” in the armaments lobby of World War I, has the Administration encountered such skepticism and hostility in its formulation of a national defense posture. Angered by the incessant attack upon the military’s waste of funds and its conduct of the Vietnam war, President Nixon struck back in a notable speech at the Air Force Academy last summer. His anger was only lightly veiled. Criticism of the military’s professional judgment had reached limits rarely heard since Congress had censured Lincoln’s generals during the Civil War, and the first uneasy stirrings over United States atrocity incidents in Vietnam had just begun (prior to the Songmy enquiry) to surface. The President charged that disrespect for the military establishment would eventually generate a neo-isolationist escapism and he roundly accused his critics of hankering after the illusions of unilateral disarmament. But his speech failed to stem the tide of public doubt and Congressional criticism. Protests continued to increase as the peace talks in Paris remained deadlocked and as the President shifted his position over negotiating with adversary forces throughout Indochina. Though United States support for the regime in Saigon remained firm, troop reductions were promised and the draft system was modified to stem the flood of Congressional criticism. But the mood of intransigent doubt on Capitol Hill steadily increased, notwithstanding the new Nixon doctrine proclaimed at Guam to reassure the American people that there would be “no more Vietnams.” The Congress remained dubious about the pledge as the war spread into Laos and Cambodia. Moreover, the failure to correct the imbalance between defense and urban expenditures exposed the President to political assault. He issued a veto over the Health, Welfare and Education budget of $20 billion before the TV cameras but he then had to solicit a larger sum from a doubtful Congress for long-term military procurements. Suspicion was voiced even by conservative Congressmen that the military wielded undue influence over Mr. Nixon’s foreign policy. Their doubt intensified when Mr. Laird revealed that the United States Air Force had flown more than 12,000 bombing sorties a month in Laos while prosecuting another undeclared war in Asia. 

Further attempts were made to constrain the Executive’s power as the fighting in Indochina continued to spread. In an earlier protest against the endless casualties and costs of the war in Vietnam the Senate had passed by 76-0 a resolution on the deliberation of “national commitments.” In its constitutional rhetoric the Senate called upon the President to desist from the manipulation of United States statecraft through the use of secret Executive agreements. It firmly reminded him that “affirmative action” should be sought from the Senate before commitments to the defense of other nations were pledged by Executive fiat.This reassertion of the Senate’s traditional rôle in foreign policymaking was triggered by several unfortunate events, several of which are worth recalling. 

In 1968 the Under-Secretary of State had testified about the cleverly composed resolution which the Senate had passed with only two dissenting votes after the hastiest debate four years earlier. This had come immediately after ambiguous reports (which were later discredited) of a torpedo assault upon United States ships in the Tonkin Gulf. He admitted, to the Senate’s dismay, that the resolution had been viewed as “the functional equivalent” of a declaration of war against Hanoi and that the military action authorized by the resolution had been planned months before. This admission stung several Senators into preparing legislation to retract the authority seized by the Executive after the 1964 resolution had been innocently approved. (The retraction has not yet come up for a vote.) Next it was revealed that an executive agreement signed with General Franco’s generals had been stretched to the point—which even the State Department did not know—of allowing United States troops to engage in counter-insurgency war games in Spain (presumably to protect the Falangist régime). It was then disclosed that the United States Government had also entered into a secret commitment for the defense of an equally suspect regime in Thailand—but no one knew if the commitment would be honored in cases of bothexternally and internally provoked aggression. Military contingency plans had been drawn up to bolster the regime in Bangkok with the 44,000 United States servicemen stationed in Thailand but the Pentagon refused to produce the plans before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; ironically, neither had the State Department ever seen them. Anxious about the United States sliding into another war in Thailand, as it had done in the early 1960’s in Vietnam, the Senate insisted upon restricting the total number of men in the armed services—so that the combat ambitions of the Joint Chiefs would be forcibly constrained. 

As the war continued to spread, the Senate voted with impressive majorities to impose a ceiling upon the total amount of aid which could be despatched to Laos and Thailand. The Director of the CIA provoked astonishment when he “generally confirmed” (in March, 1970) newspaper stories alleging that the CIA had been heavily involved in subsidizing and stage managing the undisclosed and undeclared war in Laos. Though the President pledged that no United States ground forces would enter combat in Laos, Senator Fulbright found his promise to be “specious” in the light of the massive air attacks launched by United States personnel secretly stationed in Thailand and Laos. He insisted that the President had no constitutional authority to deploy any forces in combat zones when the Congress had neither voted a declaration of war nor approved the signature of mutual security agreements with the nations to be defended. His strictures were emphatically repeated when the press reported that United States aid had been supplied to the military régime which ejected Prince Sihanouk in a coup d’état in Cambodia a month later.


The mood of skepticism in the Senate was reinforced as more and more criticism over national security policy began to be aired. The failure to identify a realistic policy to end the war in Vietnam exposed the President to as many complaints as his relentless demand for an ABM and MIRV deployment. Legislators in the House and Senate took greater pains to inform themselves about the technical and strategic arguments over the defense budget. Some discovered that CBW weapons had been secretly deployed in Japan and Germany. Others revealed that the Pentagon had disposed of massive and unauthorized consignments of “surplus” (but highly usable) armaments among the military juntas in Greece, Turkey, South Korea, and Taiwan by discounting the book value of United States military gifts. Senator Symington arranged a closed hearing on the clandestine United States involvement in Laos but the findings could not be “sanitized” for public dissemination—presumably because they were too damaging to the nation’s moral sense. The fiasco of the U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union, of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and of the Pueblo’sspying on North Korea had obviously left a scar on the nation’s self-image as a constitutional democracy. It was in this mood, as further revelations about the Green Beret and the Mylai murder incidents flowed in, that the Senate voted 78 to 11 that United States troops should not be authorized to enter combat in the former colonial territories of Indochina. 

It should not be inferred from this turn toward skepticism on the part of the Congress that the President was deprived of all sympathy and support on Capitol Hill. The senior committee members remained committed to the Administration’s hard-line position on Vietnam, the ABM and MIRV programs, and the financing of the military budget. Their powerful influences and oligarchic status were sufficiently strong, especially in the lower House, to preserve a voting majority on most defense issues. All too many Congressmen relied on their senior colleagues to channel contracts to defense industries or bases in their districts. Though protests against the hawk-like leadership of the House resulted in an attempt to remove the aging and intransigent Speaker, the membership still voted by 300 to 40 to support most military authorizations. In the Senate, too, the mood of sharp criticism was not always matched by the balance of roll-call votes. Though only 20 Senators voted for amendments deleting billion-dollar appropriations for jet aircraft or nuclear-powered carrier procurements, their trenchant criticisms succeeded in putting the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees in a highly defensive position. While in previous years the committees’ recommendations had gone virtually without challenge, they were now obliged to explain and defend each major item in the defense bill. 

The Administration, too, began to modify its position, particularly upon the rationale for an ABM deployment, in order to blunt the edge of criticism in the Senate. Mr. Nixon abandoned the oratorical emphasis upon retaining a United States nuclear “superiority” which he had constantly repeated in his 1968 election campaign. Instead, he urged a new doctrine of attaining nuclear “sufficiency.” But this switch met as little success as his next move. The original ABM plan of President Johnson had been based upon an anti-Chinese design. When influential Republicans in the Congress protested against the required dispersal of nuclear­tipped defense missiles in their suburban constituencies, the city-defense orientation ofthe “Sentinel” ABM was hastily scrapped. In its place, the “Safeguard” plan was modified into a prairie-based and anti-Soviet defense of the Minute­men ICBM silos located in the thinly populated areas of North Dakota and Montana. But this modification, too, failed to dislodge Mr. Laird’s critics. Hence, he was obliged to revive the anti-Chinese design in arguing for the second year’s expansion of the ABM program. In the meantime, however, the Senate had resolved by 72 to 6 that the nation’s security would be better assured by proceeding with the SALT negotiations with the Soviet Union; and to this end it recommended an immediate suspension of all further deployment of offensive (MIRV) and defensive (ABM) strategic weapons systems. Though the President rejected their vote out of hand, the press could not cite a comparable occasion when the Legislature had so profoundly doubted the expert judgment and the professional competence of the Executive departments in calculating the military security requirements of the nation.


It is impossible to predict at this time what further developments will materialize as a result of the reawakening concern in the Congress in matters of national security. The changes introduced so far have produced a significant and probably irreversible trend. It is unlikely that the Senate will discard its new role and its revived expectations of utilizing its constitutional authority while the state of national emergency (proclaimed in 1950 by President Truman) continues to extort such massive military outlays. Certainly, the secretive decisions of the elite committees during the pre-Vietnam era have come to an end. It is possible that the Congress, after twenty years of acceding to the Pentagon’s requirements, will now begin to equip itself with better research facilities, a larger professional staff, and a more independent attitude as it conducts its oversight of military matters. (At present there are barely a few dozen professional staff employed to check the papers originating from the 50,000 employees of the State and Defense Departments; most Congressmen must therefore depend upon the restrictive guidance and information supplied by the Executive or by the 339 “lobbyists” whom the Pentagon maintains, at an annual cost of $4 million, to handle Congressional liaison and publicity.) Judging from the energies which many Congressmen now devote to criticizing the budgets and war plans of the military monolith, most legislators will not easily forego the feeling of power and purpose which their recent forays into the policy process have produced for them. 

It is tempting to speculate about the consequences which might emerge if the Congress were to assert itself more vigorously in the deliberation of national security policy in the 1970’s. The payoffs to be gained from such activity could be extensive. First, if the Congress successfully established its authority as a key partner in the decision process it could eventually gain influence over a vital area of government. It could gain access to the secret information, the complex organizations, and the massive expenditures which constitute the pyramid mysteries of the defense establishment. Second, the elite committees of the Congress (such as Appropriations and Armed Services) would no longer be able to ignore the criticism and opposition of less senior or less orthodox Congressmen; they would have to justify major budget items each year instead of simply adjudicating between the appetites of their friends in the rival armed services. Third, a movement might develop to modify the autocracy of the committee power structure as well as the inequitability of the seniority principle upon which it depends. This would undermine the fiefdoms of the old men who live so close to the Pentagon. 

Innovations of this order have long been advocated by scholars and (junior) Congressmen alike. In the past they have gained remarkably little support or attention but the prospects today have basically altered. The bipartisan thrust to avoid extensive debate on defense policies and to stifle protest about soaring defense costs has evidently passed its peak of performance. A widespread debate has begun concerning the relative merit of various “national priorities.” The defense budget, as the largest single item of national expenditure, can no longer be upheld as an issue above popular or partisan debate. The restlessness of draft-age youth, the debilitating pressures of fiscal inflation, the war costs paid out of the capital reserves of our decaying cities, and the failing respect for our military leadership are factors germane to the renewed concern of the Congress in military matters. Nor is the concern likely to decline until opinion once again becomes apathetic about the vast sums spent on military hardware and contingency war programs. 

Among the many casualties produced by twenty years of Cold War is one that Congressmen quickly recognize: a gravely diminished respect for the procedures and institutions of the American political system. War-making, whether officially sanctioned or secretly deliberated, has taken a terrible toll of the capacity to generate idealism or tolerate error. For this reason it is doubtful that the Congress will again concede so much of its authority to the Executive managers of a ‘permanent crisis” bureaucracy. It still remains in doubt, unfortunately, whether the Congress—as presently constituted—will ever rise to the challenge posed by the President’s awesome enlargement of the state’s war powers.

Anxiety about the inflation of public expenditures and about the inadequacy of public controls has become widespread. The need to conserve national resources, to protect the nation’s environment, and to reorder national priorities has assumed a novel dimension of urgency. Not even the collapse of the régimes in tottering client states close to Vietnam can induce the alarm which the “falling dominoes” speeches aroused only five years ago. Journals as devoid of insurrectionary fervor as Fortune magazine and the Wall Street stock sheets have encouraged the Congress to reassert its discretionary power so that the post-Vietnam defense budget can he severely restricted. Conservative columnists have called for a restoration of a doctrine of the separation of powers so that the authority to declare war will effectively return to the Congress. Critics drawn from anti-conservative factions have not disagreed. Even though the Congress paid little heed to the mass “moratorium” movement of last fall, its criticism of the military and of the hopeless situation in Vietnam has drawn some applause, however tepid, from the young. They are in no way enchanted by the style of Congressional maneuver and debate but they too can find no other agency to check and question the nation’s military commitments and foreign policy choices—except violence in the streets. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether the Congress will devise procedures of control appropriate to the popular expectations of a post-Vietnam era. It islikely that the Congress will no longer play the part of a silent and deferential bystander in American diplomacy; but that its intervention will be vigorous or wise is difficult to foretell. It took twenty years for the Congress to express a critical position on the military dogmas of the Cold War. It might take another twenty before it learns how to handle the critical knowledge and the skeptical attitude with which it has now begun to experiment in its involvement with national security policy.


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