Cold War

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Cold War


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Private: COLD WAR

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By Robert David Johnson:

The arrival of the Cold War further weakened the traditional levers of congressional authority. The nature of the communist threat placed the government on close to a permanent war footing, while the advent of nuclear weapons provided an immediacy lacking in any previous challenge to U.S. national security. In this new situation, a constitutional theory emerged claiming that the commander-in-chief clause bestowed an independent foreign policy power upon the executive, an argument almost never previously advanced. On the domestic front, the perceived lessons of the late 1930s bolstered the Truman administration’s strategy of equating its own foreign policy principles with the concept of bipartisanship. A century and a half before, Jefferson had shown how aggressive presidential leadership and partisan unity could work to diminish congressional authority. Now, Harry Truman looked to create a party unity between executive and legislature that did not exist, with the aim of stifling congressional dissent. Faced with a Congress controlled by Republicans between 1947 and 1949, the president essentially regarded congressional attacks not as legitimate institutional challenges but as nothing more than partisanship.

Not surprisingly, then, the early Cold War is not remembered as a period of intense congressional activism in the international arena. As Arthur Vandenberg conceded during his stint as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair in the Eightieth Congress, issues seemed to reach Capitol Hill only when they had developed to a point where congressional discretion was badly restricted. Indeed, what Truman’s final secretary of state, Dean Acheson, dubbed the “Vandenberg treatment”—granting to the Michigan senator small, superficial concessions and a dose of public praise—aptly describes the common view of the congressional role in Truman’s foreign policy.

In many ways, congressional power did diminish in the early stages of the Cold War, although this was partly because—as with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act fifteen years earlier—the legislature willingly surrendered its role. At times the body seemed eager to expand the president’s foreign policy powers beyond even what Truman desired. Such sentiments explain the overwhelming approval of initiatives such as the National Security Act (1947), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), and the post-1950 expansion of the defense budget. They also affected the early congressional response to the Korean War; at the time, several senior members expressly asked Truman not to involve Congress in the decision. With the combination of NSC 68—the document that deemed the triumph of communism anywhere in the world a threat to U.S. national security—and the onset of the Korean War dramatically escalating the military budget, the beneficiaries of defense spending spread around the country. As a result, members of Congress who even considered opposing defense appropriations were vulnerable to the charge that they were not only subverting national security but also failing to protect the economic interests of their constituents. In the decade between the end of the Korean War and the end of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, defense bills passed with an average of less than one negative vote in both chambers.

Until the Korean War began, however, the congressional response to the Cold War was considerably more complex. In 1947, even as the administration was uniting behind George Kennan’s containment doctrine, Congress seriously considered three alternative approaches to world affairs. A small group of Democratic liberals supplied the most tenacious opposition to the Truman Doctrine, in which the president pledged to assist any government threatened by communist takeover. Led by Claude Pepper and Edwin Johnson, they charged that extending military assistance to undemocratic regimes in Greece and Turkey would contradict the internationalist ideals for which the United States fought World War II. To the administration’s right, a sizable bloc of Republicans led by Senator William Knowland of California and Representative Walter Judd of Minnesota demanded that the administration reorient its foreign policy toward East Asia by aiding the Nationalists in China’s civil war. Finally, nationalists ranging from the talented (Robert Taft of Ohio) to the unscrupulous (Pat McCarran of Nevada) questioned any initiative that would threaten U.S. sovereignty and argued that an activist foreign policy would dangerously strengthen the federal government. They instead advocated waging the Cold War through domestic measures that would crack down on communist sympathizers. This point of view enjoyed strong support in the House of Representatives, which was more subject to conservative pressures generated by the 1946 elections.


The end of the Cold War broke down the established pattern of legislative-executive relations. The Cold War’s conclusion accelerated the trend, which began with Vietnam and Watergate, of diminishing the federal government’s role in the everyday lives of most Americans. The new international environment forced members of both branches to search for new ideological approaches to world affairs. And it coincided with—and perhaps contributed to—the most extended period of divided government (with one party controlling Congress and another the presidency) in American history.

Most academics and politicians had predicted that the end of the Cold War would establish a more consistent congressional presence in U.S. foreign policy because the threat of immediate nuclear attack had so dramatically receded. But the first post-Cold War president, George H. W. Bush, defied expectations, even though he faced a Congress controlled by Democrats for his entire term. Encouraged by his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, Bush proved extraordinarily aggressive at defending (and enlarging) executive prerogatives, using vetoes and especially presidential signing statements to outline a vision of presidential power whose scope would have stunned even a figure like Alexander Hamilton. A sign of his intentions came in his first year, when he sent marines to Panama in 1989—without congressional authorization—to remove from power and arrest Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, who was wanted in the United States on drug charges. Bush also rejected congressional attempts to influence policy toward the People’s Republic of China, consistently vetoing bills to tighten sanctions on the Beijing regime after the Tiananmen Square crackdown against student dissidents.

Congressional Democrats, who generally outmaneuvered Bush on domestic issues, had more difficulty in adjusting to the post-Cold War environment. The new Senate majority leader, Maine senator George Mitchell, was a former judge and believed that framework legislation, if properly used, would allow Congress to play a greater foreign policy role. The run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 put this thesis to the test. After Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush, acting in concert with U.S. allies, eventually sent 250,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. But, citing the measure’s unconstitutionality, Bush refused to invoke the War Powers Act. After the 1990 midterm elections, the administration moved another quarter million U.S. forces into the region, clearly anticipating the possibility of offensive action. Bush officials suggested that the president would go to war with Iraq without requesting a declaration of war from Congress, citing his power as commander in chief.

Led by Mike Synar, a group of House Democrats petitioned the Supreme Court for redress. But in line with precedent, the Court declined to involve itself in foreign policy battles between the executive and legislative branches. (Indeed, the few decisions the high court did render on international issues, such as the 1983 ruling Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, which ruled the one-house legislative veto unconstitutional, tended to weaken congressional influence.) Although Synar’s effort failed, political pressure eventually persuaded Bush to submit a bill authorizing him to use force. The president did so, however, only days short of an announced deadline to initiate offensive action and with more than 500,000 U.S. troops stationed along the Iraq-Saudi Arabia border. In such an environment it came as little surprise that Congress supported the war declaration; perhaps the real shock came in the forty-seven senators who opposed the resolution.

The record regarding congressional power after the Gulf War was somewhat mixed. Like his predecessor, William Jefferson Clinton struggled with the effects of divided government: a crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections brought Republicans to power in both the House and the Senate. Moreover, unlike the Mitchell-led congressional Democrats during the Bush administration, the new GOP majority was fairly united ideologically and was determined to use congressional power to implement its agenda. Clinton experienced difficulties with Congress almost from the start of his administration. Legislative pressure in part forced the administration to reverse itself on issues ranging from Clinton’s commitment to end discrimination against gays in the military to the president’s decision to continue an ill-conceived humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Even the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Clinton’s first legislative victory on a foreign policy matter (and, in many ways, the only significant one of his administration) came only after a bloody fight with Congress.

After 1994, a condition of almost permanent hostility between the president and Congress developed. Congressional Republicans offered a multifaceted program that coalesced into an unusually powerful—and effective—critique of the executive’s approach to world affairs. Ideologically, the congressional Republicans had several basic viewpoints that reinforced each other. Some GOP legislators seemed eager to revive the Cold War, embracing a vehement anticommunism and supporting hard-line policies toward China, Cuba, and North Korea. Moreover, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the congressional Republicans used Congress’s power of the purse to prevent the scaling back of the Pentagon budget, partly for ideological reasons, partly due to a desire to funnel defense dollars to their home districts or states. From another angle, Republicans such as House Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas boasted of their lack of overseas travel and espoused an anti-internationalism that targeted organizations like the United Nations. Most of the new wave of congressional Republicans also opposed overseas interventions—like Clinton’s actions in Haiti and the Balkans—which they viewed as Wilsonian in theory.

Three other factors made the congressional power exercised by the 1990s GOP somewhat unusual. First, after their opposition to the Gulf War, congressional Democrats, for the previous forty years the more active of the two parties in seeking to utilize congressional power, all but ceased involvement on matters relating to foreign affairs. Second, after a series of weak leaders following the 1974 defeat of J. William Fulbright, the Foreign Relations Committee returned to a higher profile under the stewardship of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, whose aggressive posture made him a factor on virtually all international questions during the Clinton administration. Finally, the extreme distaste most congressional Republicans felt for Clinton gave party members a political incentive to oppose executive authority in foreign policy, as when Congress refused to renew Clinton’s authority to “fast-track” trade agreements, a luxury enjoyed by every president since the passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934.

Still, the performance of the congressional GOP sometimes failed to live up to its rhetoric. For example, while Clinton’s ability to negotiate tariff deals was impeded, he acted unilaterally and in opposition to the stated congressional position when he intervened to prop up the Mexican peso in 1995. Similarly, in the midst of the war in Kosovo, he initiated hostilities without formally consulting Congress and then ignored GOP-sponsored legislation that seemed to call for him to terminate the operation. Regardless of the precise balance between the two branches at the end of the twentieth century, however, older patterns in congressional power remained in place: the role of the appropriations process and other unconventional methods in measuring the congressional presence in conducting U.S. foreign policy; the importance of party divisions in shaping attitudes toward the congressional role in world affairs; and the tendency of Congress to offer more ideologically extreme viewpoints on international matters than did the executive.

Source: the entry “Congressional Power.” Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy


With the termination of the Cold War and collapse of the USSR in 1990-1991, the United States quickly emerged as the world’s lone superpower. Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, the realization of the country’s superpower status inaugurated another massive disagreement over the country’s proper role in world affairs. Not since classic Rome had a single state towered so completely over its potential rivals. Behind the debate over American global responsibility was President George H. W. Bush’s refusal, in 1992, to confront the well-publicized genocide in Bosnia and his tardy, reluctant involvement in feeding the starving people of Somalia. For his critics, the end of the Cold War presented the United States, with all its power, an unprecedented opportunity to embrace the country’s historic mission to humanity. The risk-avoiding approaches of the Bush years seemed to assure only the loss of national self-respect and the denial of America’s proper role in world affairs. The country, some argued, had the obligation to exercise its exceptional power aggressively in its own and the world’s deepest interests.

Undaunted by the doubtful relevance of America’s self-assigned obligations to humanity, President Clinton promised that, after January 1993, U.S. foreign policy would focus on the goal of expanding democracy and humane values. In his inaugural address, he pledged U.S. action whenever “the will and conscience of the international community is defied.” There would be interventions, he promised, not only to defend national interests, but also to satisfy the national conscience. On becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in February 1993, Madeleine Albright acknowledged: “If there is one overriding principle that will guide me in this job, it will be the inescapable responsibilityÂ…to build a peaceful world and to terminate the abominable injustices and conditions that still plague civilization.” Clinton elucidated his agenda before the UN General Assembly on 27 September 1993. “During the Cold War,” he said, “we sought to contain a threat to [the] survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions.” For the first time in history, he added, “we have the chance to expand the reach of democracy and economic progress across the whole of Europe and to the far reaches of the world.” From the outset, Clinton faced a powerful realist critique of the necessity and feasibility of his burgeoning campaign, much of it based on the admonitions of Hamilton, Washington, and John Quincy Adams against foreign crusading.

For the Clinton administration, three countries seemed to require immediate attention—Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. It launched immediate interventions in all three, with doubtful results. In none of the three did Washington achieve its stated objectives. Haiti remained a basket case, economically and politically; the death of American soldiers in Somalia late in 1993 prompted Clinton to withdrew those that remained. In Bosnia, the three goals of U.S. involvement—the return of the refugees, the creation of a multiethnic state, and the arrest and trial of Serb war criminals—remained unfulfilled. In 1999, Kosovo emerged as the defining issue in Clinton’s crusade for human rights by scolding and chastising foreign transgressors. On 24 March he unleashed a NATO-backed air war against Serbia, both to protect the Kosovars and to bring Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, to justice. Clinton’s Kosovo intervention was the first resort to force for purely humanitarian objectives in the nation’s history. The seventy-eight days of bombing brought a Serb capitulation without creating the desired peaceful, multi-ethnic regime in Kosovo. NATO leaders, meeting in Washington during April 1999, accepted membership in Clinton’s global crusade for human rights. They proclaimed human rights, not national sovereignty, as the guiding principle in international affairs. It mattered little. U.S. critics of both the ends and the means of the Kosovo war predicted that the experiment would not be repeated.

Clinton’s idealist crusade to improve the human condition turned out to be Euro centric; in the Atlantic world, at least, massive repression had become unacceptable, especially if it occurred in a small, defenseless region. The Serbian experience was no measure of the West’s response to ubiquitous challenges to Western values elsewhere. Neither Washington nor the European capitals responded to the pervading horrors of Africa and Asia, beginning in Rwanda in 1994 and continuing through central Africa to Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Continued global suffering illustrated the magnitude and tenacity of the world’s political and societal disabilities, as well as the absence of external power and will to confront them.

Through two centuries of its history, the United States experienced a persistent debate over approaches to foreign policy. It was a controversy absent in nations whose political philosophy derived from different assumptions about humanity and the state. In general, the American debate embraced a realist-idealist contest, although at times the issues produced shifting positions and clouded the fundamental clash between realist and idealist goals and assumptions. But the continued debate, with neither side acknowledging defeat, attested to the abiding fundamentals of both positions. Realists argued that the country’s external policies be guided by national interests and the simple desire to maximize stability and minimize harm. They asked that the United States exert its leverage in pursuit of humane objectives only where assured successes were commensurate with costs and effort. For them, no policy choice would achieve utopia. Idealist proposals comprised largely sentimental and rhetorical responses to meliorist visions of a malleable world, supposedly subject to the reforming influences of American political and economic institutions. It was an approach dominated by seductive ends, with little concern for means.

America’s vibrant civilization enhanced the attractiveness of the American model, while the uniqueness of the country’s traditions and environment limited the expansive power of its example. The country’s long pursuit of meliorist dreams demonstrated its limited knowledge and authority to institute democracy and a humane order in other lands. Still, the meliorist vision never faltered and always remained subject to arousal by the trials of other lands. In practice, however, realism defined the fundamental formulations of all U.S. foreign policy, except the moral crusading in Cuba and East Asia at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as the Wilson-dominated responses to the challenges of the interwar decades. The country’s long experience in foreign affairs demonstrated that objectives that ignored or transcended the nation’s interests could not long endure.

Source: the entry “Realism and Idealism” (Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy), by Norman A. Graebner.

Concept of Cold War

An introductory definition of Cold War is provided here: the period in world affairs from c.1947-1990, marked by ideological, economic and political hostility and competition between the US and the Soviet Union, and drawing in other powers at various levels of involvement


See also

  • Doctrines
  • Exceptionalism
  • Internationalism
  • The National Interest
  • Open Door Policy
  • Power Politics
  • Self-Determination
  • Wilsonianism

Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives; Bipartisanship; The Constitution; Elitism; Foreign Aid; Presidential Power; Public Opinion; Treaties

Further Reading

Accinelli, Robert. “Eisenhower, Congress, and the 1954-1955 Offshore Island Crisis.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (spring 1990): 329-344. A good study of the limits of congressional power during the Eisenhower years.

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition. Cambridge and New York, 1987. The best published study of the League of Nations battle in the Senate.

Arnson, Cynthia. Crossroads: Congress, the Reagan Administration, and Central America. New York, 1989.

Ashby, LeRoy. The Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920s. Urbana, Ill., 1972. The best biography of the career of the 1920s Foreign Relations Committee chair.

Banks, William C., and Peter Raven-Hansen. National Security Law and the Power of the Purse. New York, 1994.

Acheson, Dean. Power and Diplomacy. New York, 1958.
Beard, Charles Austin. The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals. New York, 1943.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Genius of American Politics. Chicago, 1953.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1964.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. Chicago, 1951.

Bernstein, Barton, and Franklin Leib. “Progressive Republican Senators and American Imperialism: A Reappraisal.” Mid-America 50 (1968): 163-205. An excellent study of the relationship between congressional power and liberal dissent before World War I.

Blechman, Barry M. The Politics of National Security: Congress and U.S. Defense Policy. New York, 1990. A nicely done study of how Congress has influenced national security matters since World War II.

Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-45. Lincoln, Neb., 1983.

Franck, Thomas M., ed. The Tethered Presidency: Congressional Restraints on Executive Power. New York, 1981. A somewhat dated volume that remains valuable for the depth of its coverage.

Franck, Thomas M., and Edward Weisband. Foreign Policy by Congress. New York, 1979.

Gaskin, Thomas M. “Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Eisenhower Administration, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1957-1960.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 24 (spring 1994): 337-353.

Gibbons, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships. 4 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1986-1995. The standard account of Congress and the Vietnam War.

Gleijeses, Piero. “The Limits of Sympathy: The United States and the Independence of Spanish America.” Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 481-505.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Kristol, Irving. On the Democratic Idea in America. New York, 1972. (The chapter “American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy”)

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1951.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. New York, 1952.

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953.

Perkins, Dexter The American Approach to Foreign Policy. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1962.

Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985. A good model of integrating congressional history with the broader study of U.S. foreign relations.

Hinckley, Barbara. Less Than Meets the Eye: Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress. Chicago, 1994.

Hoyt, Steven, and Steven Baker, eds. Legislating Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo., 1984.

Johnson, Loch K. A Season of Inquiry: Congress and Intelligence. Chicago, 1988.

Lindsay, James M. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Defense Policy. Baltimore, 1994. Much broader than its title suggests, the best book to date on Congress and the Cold War.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. A remarkable example of how including the congressional perspective enriches the writing of international history.

Olmsted, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Pastor, Robert A. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, 1929-1976. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.

Paterson, Thomas G. “Presidential Foreign Policy, Public Opinion, and Congress: The Truman Years.” Diplomatic History 3 (1979): 1-21.

Rakove, Jack N. “Solving a Constitutional Puzzle: The Treatymaking Clause as a Case Study.” Perspectives in American History, n.s. 1(1984): 207-248. The most thoroughly researched piece on congressional power in foreign affairs and the Constitutional Convention.

Reichard, Gary W. “Divisions and Dissent: Democrats and Foreign Policy, 1952-1956.” Political Science Quarterly 93 (1978): 37-65. A solid study of the Democrats’ “limited dissent.”

Ripley, Randall B., and James M. Lindsay, eds. Congress Resurgent: Foreign and Defense Policy on Capitol Hill. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.

Schoultz, Lars. Human Rights and United States Policy Toward Latin America. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Small, Melvin. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789-1994. Baltimore, 1996.

Smist, Frank. Congress Oversees the Intelligence Community, 1947-1989. Knoxville, Tenn., 1994.

Stone, Ralph. The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Widenor, William C. Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. A model in congressional biography, of Wilson’s leading foe in the League of Nations fight.

Woods, Randall Bennett. Fulbright: A Biography. New York, 1995. A much-needed study of arguably the most powerful Foreign Relations Committee chair in U.S. history.

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