Filipink, Jr. on Goldberg, 'Bystanders to the Vietnam War: The Role of the United States Senate, 1950-1965'

Ronald Allen Goldberg
Richard M. Filipink, Jr.

Ronald Allen Goldberg. Bystanders to the Vietnam War: The Role of the United States Senate, 1950-1965. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. Illustrations. 159 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6891-8.

Reviewed by Richard M. Filipink, Jr. (Western Illinois University) Published on H-War (February, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Ronald Allen Goldberg's Bystanders to the Vietnam War examines the role the US Senate played in the development and implementation of Vietnam policy from the end of Harry Truman's administration through the open-ended escalation undertaken by Lyndon Johnson in the summer of 1965. Across nine chapters and a brief conclusion, this concise work argues that the Senate, for the most part, fell short of the role intended for it by the framers of the Constitution, with its effectiveness diminishing as the size of American military commitment increased.

The book opens with a brief look at the historical understanding of the balance of power between the Senate and the president on the issue of foreign policy before moving into a chapter on the evolution of policy under Truman. The bulk of the work, four of the nine chapters, examines Dwight Eisenhower's administration's evolving policies. These chapters, the strongest in the book, argue effectively that the majority of the Senate expressing negative attitudes toward intervention played a key role in checking the Eisenhower administration from intervening directly to aid the French in holding onto Indochina. That said, once the French decided to negotiate a withdrawal from the region, the bipartisan opposition to intervention splintered, with the Senate Democrats criticizing the administration for failing to work effectively with allies to prevent a communist victory while more conservative Republicans threatened to cut appropriations to France if they allowed the communists to take over the region. Though the Geneva Accords of 1954 satisfied neither party in the Senate, the accords did allow Eisenhower to take the initiative in creating the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization as a vehicle for American intervention.

The second half of Goldberg's discussion of the Eisenhower administration focuses on the creation and support of the South Vietnamese government under Ngo Dinh Diem. Goldberg highlights the positive relationship Diem had with members of both parties, particularly Democratic senators John F. Kennedy and Mike Mansfield. The Senate was by and large in complete support of American funding for Diem's government and army, with the stability brought to the country by 1957 seen as proof of the effectiveness of both the policy and Diem. The only questions raised by the Senate came in the last year of the Eisenhower presidency, centered on questions of misappropriated funds, though the issue was not considered serious enough to curtail funding.

After a brief chapter on Kennedy's presidency and its escalation of American commitment culminating in its, according to Goldberg, indirect complicity in the overthrow of Diem and the installation of a military junta, the book shifts focus to the presidency of Johnson. Chapter 8 discusses 1964, with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution the primary focus. Goldberg argues that although the resolution granting Johnson broad powers to pursue whatever policy he chose in Vietnam garnered only two negative votes in the Senate, there was an undercurrent of concern. The chapter alternates between the harshly and presciently negative opinions of the two senators who voted no, Democrats Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, and the effective counters made by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair William Fulbright, who saw the resolution to a hasty approval. Goldberg argues that political expediency and excessive deference to presidential power caused the Senate (along with a unanimous House of Representatives) to cede total control over Vietnam policy to Johnson. In the subsequent chapter that covers the first seven months of 1965, Goldberg reinforces his argument that although a growing number of senators had major reservations about the new militarized direction of the policy, those concerns were largely ignored by Johnson. With the resolution in hand and with Congress unanimously approving military appropriations for Vietnam, Johnson could dismiss Senate qualms and get on with the war.

Overall, this succinct book provides a useful overview of the Senate's rather limited role in making Vietnam policy. Goldberg effectively demonstrates that the Senate's power peaked during the early part of the Eisenhower administration at which point the United States did not play a military role. Once the military arrived in Vietnam, the Senate's power diminished rapidly, undercut by both growing partisan fighting over policy choices and deference to the president in his role as commander in chief. The book will clearly be useful in courses on Vietnam as well as courses looking at Congress's role in making foreign policy. Casual readers will benefit from its writing the Senate back into the history.

Citation: Richard M. Filipink, Jr. Review of Goldberg, Ronald Allen, Bystanders to the Vietnam War: The Role of the United States Senate, 1950-1965. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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