Disorder and Decision

Nothing mattered more to Lyndon Johnson during the summer of 1964 than the approaching presidential elec¬tion. Having been accidentally propelled into the White House, he wanted to win a mandate that would make him president in his own right—and he wanted to win big. A re¬sounding victory at the polls would exorcise the ghost of Kennedy, which continued to exacerbate the sense of inferiority that had nagged him during the glamorous days of Camelot, when he had been shunted offstage as an uncouth provincial—a “freckle-belly,” as the Kennedy courtiers derided him. Johnson yearned to rise to the stature of his hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and confirm his conviction that the Great Society was heir to the New Deal. He took heart in the public opinion surveys that showed him to be surprisingly popular among voters who had supported Richard Nixon in 1960—which meant that he could triumph despite the defection from the Democratic ranks of the Deep South, where George Wallace, governor of Alabama, was mo¬bilizing white racists against his civil liberties programs. Even so, Johnson had been in politics long enough to be wary of complacency, especially with his administration committed to a small but unpre-dictable war in Southeast Asia. His concern sharpened in late July 1964, when the Republican convention rejected Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, a moderate, and nominated as its presi¬dential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a craggy ul¬traconservative who held a major general’s commission in the air force reserve.
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater pro claimed in his acceptance speech at the convention in San Francisco, using the line to punctuate his denunciation of the Democrats for being “soft” on Communism. But Johnson’s aides had taken precautions. They had drafted a legislative resolution that would serve a dual pur¬pose: by giving Johnson a free hand to conduct the war in Southeast Asia as he saw fit, it would strengthen his international credibility; more important, its passage by a substantial majority in Congress would assure him bipartisan endorsement and thereby remove the Vietnam issue from the election campaign.
The idea of such a legislative resolution had been suggested as early as February by Walt Rostow, then head of the State Department’s policy planning staff. The son of an idealistic Russian-Jewish immi¬grant father who had celebrated his adopted land by naming his three sons after Walt Whitman, Eugene Debs and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the young Rostow had been precociously brilliant. He was graduated from Yale, attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and became a pro-fessor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of thirty- four; his specialty was the economics of underdeveloped countries. Like many other academics attracted by power, he made himself avail¬able to several administrations. He had skirted the fringe of the Ei¬senhower administration before switching to Kennedy, who made him one of his foreign affairs advisers. Rostow quickly earned a rep¬utation as an effervescent idea man whose memorable phrases included the “New Frontier,” which became the Kennedy administration’s es¬cutcheon. Kennedy had sent him with Maxwell Taylor on a mission to Vietnam in late 1961, and Rostow returned full of zeal for a larger U.S. commitment, asserting that the conflict in Southeast Asia “might be the last great confrontation” with Communism. Recalling his ser¬vice during World War II, when he had helped to select bombing targets in Europe, he soon began to speak military jargon as he en-thusiastically advanced his strategic and tactical concepts. Eventually he seemed to revel in the war, as if trying to prove that a short, bespectacled intellectual could be tough.
Nearly every senior official concurred with Rostow on the need for some kind of congressional prop to underpin the administration as it laid plans for a larger U.S. presence in Vietnam. But Rostow’s sug¬gestion raised a cloudy legal question, one that had been examined and debated throughout the course of American history: Who had the power to involve the United States in a foreign conflict?
In 1787, the framers of the Constitution had devised a flexible for¬mula: they designated the president to be commander in chief of the armed forces in order to guarantee civilian control over the military; but they vested the power to declare war in Congress. Thomas Jefferson noted the important distinction at the time. By giving that power to initiate hostilities to the legislative rather than the executive branch, he observed, the authority to unleash the “dog of war” had been transferred “from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.”
Rigorously respecting the Constitution, America’s early presidents obtained congressional approval for such ventures abroad as the naval skirmishes with France and the pursuit of the Barbary pirates. Grad¬ually, though, their successors stretched the rules. Ulysses Grant acted on his own when he attempted to annex the Dominican Republic and William McKinley landed five thousand troops in China to help quell the Boxer uprising without consulting Congress in advance. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson went further, disregarding Capitol Hill as they sent forces into the Caribbean and Mexico to coerce or occupy sovereign states. By the middle of the twentieth century, the president had largely usurped the constitutional powers of the legis¬lature in the realm of foreign affairs. Franklin Roosevelt steered the United States into a sea war against Germany before the nation for¬mally declared war. And Truman, terming the intervention a “police action,” plunged into Korea without authorization from Congress.
This trend toward unshackled presidential power in foreign affairs was spurred throughout the 1950s and early 1960s by congressional, academic and media liberals whose minds had been molded during the Roosevelt era. They believed that World War II could have been averted had the United States and its allies moved earlier to stop the Nazis, and they applied the same logic to the Communist threat. So they favored a strong and active executive force capable of confronting that danger, and they battled against congressional conservatives who sought to limit the president’s prerogatives, branding them antiquated isolationists. Later, many of these liberals were to blame the Vietnam War on a presidency gone wild. But even Senator J. William Fulbright at first argued that the president lacked sufficient authority to deal with America’s enormous international responsibilities. Writing in the Cornell Law Quarterly in the fall of 1961, Fulbright advocated an over¬haul of the nation’s “basic constitutional machinery,” adding, “I won¬der whether the time has not arrived, or indeed already passed, when we must give the executive a measure of power in the conduct of our foreign affairs that we have hitherto jealously withheld.”

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