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Francis O. Wilcox: Chief of Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1947-1955)


“One of the roles of Congress in looking at our foreign policy problems is to do its share in informing the people of the country about recent developments, about problems that exist, and about options that are available because we clearly need an informed electorate.”

Interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie, Francis Wilcox discusses the role of Congress in foreign policy.

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RITCHIE: Do you think the Congress should take an independent role on an issue where they differ strongly from an administration, or should they basically allow an administration to take its own course and just try to check what the…?

WILCOX: Well, clearly they have a constitutional right to express their opinion and to do what they think is in the interest of the Republic. I think in the case of Angola, it was wrong to signal to the world that the United States would not interfere, or not play any role in Angola, because you really need to keep your enemy guessing a little more than that. It gave them [the Soviets], in effect, a green light to go ahead and do what they wanted to do.

RITCHIE: Is that one of the real drawbacks of the Congress' role in foreign policy, that it's hard for the Congress to do anything covertly, that everything the Congress does is open and overt?

WILCOX: It has to be, and of course the changes that have taken place in the 1970s have provided for a more open Congress and a more open foreign policy. Whether you like it or not, this is what's going to happen. I've been interested though, to see. I've been reading some material about the parliamentary democracies in Western Europe. And in every case, I think, including the United Kingdom, France, Western Germany, Italy, the foreign affairs committees don't have the same stature, the same power and authority that our congressional committees have. It's the executive that conducts foreign policy, traditionally, without very much interference from the legislative branch. Of course, there they don't have the separation of powers principle. They have a parliamentary system and the executive leaders are members of the parliamentary body, so the situation is quite different.

But the problem of the Turkish embargo is another case in point, where Congress specified that we couldn't sell arms to Turkey that we had promised her unless real progress was made on the Cyprus question. Well, who is best equipped to determine this problem? The administration felt that Turkey was terribly important to the southern, southeastern flank of NATO, and that the Turks had made clear that they were not going to do anything until the arms embargo was repealed. And whether Congress is in a better position to judge that question is certainly open to consideration. I think what we need to do in cases like that is of course to try and reconcile the differences between the executive and legislative branches, and not let these differences impede the conduct of foreign policy. Congress ought not to obstruct any more than absolutely essential. You don't want to destroy the efficiency of the executive branch, but on the other hand Congress has role to play. The problem is how to bring these two things together.

I might have said something, too, about the importance of Congress as an educator. Senator Fulbright had an article recently in Foreign Affairs in which he emphasizes this point. Josh Billings once said that it ain't ignorance that causes all the trouble, it's the fact that people know so damn much that just ain't so!" One of the roles of Congress in looking at our foreign policy problems is to do its share in informing the people of the country about recent developments, about problems that exist, and about options that are available because we clearly need an informed electorate. We clearly need an informed public if we're going to have a foreign policy that's worth a hoot. The task of making the people more aware of foreign policy problems, I think, really falls to the Congress, maybe in two ways: through hearings conducted by the Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs Committees, and they can do this in a very effective way as they did some years ago in connection with our policy towards China. I think they helped open up new avenues of thought with respect to that problem. Then the trips back home that the members of Congress make, and the meetings they have with their constituents. They can do a great deal to help keep the people back home informed of our foreign policy problems.