As War Looms

Lessons from Eugene McCarthy

So now America waits and the world waits, as the Bush administration moves perhaps inexorably toward war with Iraq. Yet the executive branch is not solely responsible for American foreign policy. The Constitution confers on Congress the power to declare war, and charges the Senate, by virtue of the advice-and-consent clause of Article II, Section 2, with special responsibilities on matters of foreign policy. Members of Congress have a patriotic duty to give the president their best, candid judgment about matters of war and peace.

As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I hoped the country had learned some painful lessons from the experience of the Vietnam War. It appears I was wrong-at least about the nation’s politicians. As the Bush administration prepares to make war on Iraq, some in Congress wring their hands but make no move to reconsider the October 2002 resolution giving the president authority to take military action. The timid compliance of Congress recalls the tilt toward excessive presidential action and congressional inaction on Vietnam thirty-five to forty years ago. I was reminded vividly of these parallels recently by the presence in Oregon of former Senator Eugene McCarthy.

The threat of war against Iraq foremost in his mind, McCarthy alighted in Oregon like the eagle on the Great Seal of the Republic, olive branch in one talon, sheaf of arrows in the other. Now eighty-six, McCarthy is...

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About the Author

John Callahan is Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and editor of Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel, Juneteenth and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (both published by Random House).