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Senate Stories | Foreign Policy


Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

J. William “Bill” Fulbright (D-AR) with President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 202306 12Chairman J. William Fulbright and the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution
June 12, 2023
In early August 1964, two reported attacks on American navy ships in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to ask Congress to approve a joint resolution authorizing the use of force in Southeast Asia without a congressional declaration of war. Senator J. William “Bill” Fulbright of Arkansas ensured swift passage of what came to be known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, a role that he would later come to regret.

In early August 1964, two reportedly unprovoked attacks on American navy ships in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf near North Vietnam became key events in the evolution of congressional war powers. For nearly a decade, American policymakers had viewed South Vietnam as a critical Cold War ally. Republican and Democratic administrations had provided the independent South Vietnamese government with financial assistance and military advisors to combat ongoing threats from its communist neighbor, North Vietnam. In the summer of 1964, the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam included approximately 12,000 military advisors, as well as a naval presence in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf. On August 2, an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, came under fire by North Vietnamese boats while supporting a South Vietnamese covert operation in the Gulf. Two days later, the commander of the Maddox reported “being under continuous torpedo attack” while on patrol with a second destroyer, the USS C. Turner Joy.1 After the second reported attack, President Lyndon B. Johnson summoned congressional leaders, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William “Bill” Fulbright of Arkansas, to the White House for a briefing. Citing the second unprovoked attack, President Johnson informed lawmakers that he would be launching retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese targets, a unilateral action that he believed he could take in his constitutional capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces. Like President Dwight D. Eisenhower before him, Johnson wished to secure congressional approval—in advance—for any future military actions he may wish to take to protect national interests in the region. Consequently, Johnson asked lawmakers to approve the Southeast Asia Resolution to “promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia,” by authorizing the commander in chief “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the … United States and to prevent further aggression.” Fulbright and his colleagues voiced their support for the air strikes and the resolution. Hours later, Johnson publicly announced that he had ordered attacks on North Vietnam while affirming that his administration did not seek a wider war.2 The next morning, Johnson personally asked Fulbright to shepherd the administration’s joint Southeast Asia Resolution, which came to be known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, swiftly through the Senate. The administration had modeled it after two 1950s resolutions that had provided President Dwight D. Eisenhower with congressional authorization to use military force if necessary to defend allies from Communist aggressors in Formosa (today Taiwan) and the Middle East. “The Constitution assumes that our two branches of government should get along together,” Eisenhower later recalled of the effort to obtain congressional authorization for the use of military force. He preferred that any military response be an expression of the will of the legislative and executive branches. Under Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, however, only Congress has the authority to declare war. During debates about the Eisenhower resolutions, Fulbright had expressed misgivings that Congress was relinquishing its constitutional war powers to the executive branch. Nevertheless, Fulbright did support the Formosa Resolution in 1955. (He was not present to cast a vote for the Middle East Resolution in 1957.) While President Eisenhower did not take the nation to war under those congressional authorizations, Congress had set a precedent in granting an administration such broad authority.3 Despite his earlier reservations, in 1964 Senator Fulbright readily agreed to shepherd the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the Senate. Fulbright viewed President Johnson as a long-time friend and political ally. In 1959, while serving as Senate majority leader, Johnson had helped maneuver Fulbright into the coveted position of chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Leader Johnson fondly referred to Fulbright as “my secretary of state.” In 1960 Fulbright had supported Johnson’s candidacy in the Democratic presidential primary. Johnson won the vice-presidential nomination instead and in 1961 assumed the critical role of congressional liaison for President John F. Kennedy’s administration. In that capacity, Johnson’s warm relationship with Fulbright continued.4 As the Senate’s undisputed foreign policy expert, Fulbright understood that President Johnson had inherited a complex situation in Vietnam after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The domestic politics of responding to the North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. ships weighed on Fulbright’s mind as well. The resolution came “in the beginning of the contest between Johnson and [Barry] Goldwater” in the 1964 presidential election, Fulbright later recalled. “I was just overpersuaded … in my feelings that I ought to support the president.” Fulbright accepted the responsibility of delivering for the president a strong bipartisan political victory just months before the election.5 Shortly after Johnson announced the retaliatory strikes and his intention to seek congressional authorization for future military action, Americans rallied around the commander in chief. “Southeast Asia is our first line of defense; when an enemy attacks us there, he is in principle, attacking us on our native land,” declared Senator Frank Lausche of Ohio. Polls showed that the Johnson administration had the overwhelming support of the American public—with 85 percent supporting its response. A desire for peace must “not be misconstrued as weakness,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Los Angeles Times blamed “Communists” for “escalat[ing] the hostilities—an escalation we must meet.” Johnson’s political rival endorsed his actions, too. “We cannot allow the American flag to be shot at anywhere on earth if we are to retain our respect and prestige,” Barry Goldwater announced. Retaliatory strikes, Goldwater maintained, are the “only thing [the president] can do under the circumstances.”6 President Johnson sent the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to the Senate on the morning of August 5. Fulbright met with Senate leadership and administration officials to plot a strategy for its swift passage, emphasizing the need for quick action and repeating the official administration position that “hostilities on a larger scale are not envisaged.” Staff who recalled “soul-searching” Senate debates over Eisenhower’s Middle East Resolution in 1957—a debate that lasted for 13 days—were incredulous at Fulbright’s determination to rush the resolution through the Senate, but the Arkansas senator proved persuasive. As one historian later assessed, “The administration had skillfully cultivated a crisis atmosphere that seemed to leave little room for debate.”7 On August 6, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman convened a joint executive session with the Armed Services Committee. During that session, which lasted a little more than an hour-and-a-half, senators posed few substantive questions of the witnesses representing the administration, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. “As much as I would like to be consulted with on this kind of thing,” Senator Russell Long of Louisiana told the president’s advisors, “the less time you spend on consulting and the quicker you shoot back the better off you are.” Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon was the exception, challenging the administration’s claim that the attacks had been unprovoked. Tipped off by a Pentagon officer, Morse inquired if North Vietnam might have interpreted recent joint United States-South Vietnam covert operations as provocations. Secretary of Defense McNamara said no. The committee voted 14-1—Morse provided the dissenting vote—to send the resolution to the full Senate for its consideration.8 A few hours after the committee vote, Fulbright stood at his desk in the Senate Chamber and urged “the prompt and overwhelming endorsement of the resolution now before the Senate.” He had secured a unanimous consent agreement to limit the debate over the resolution to three hours, beginning that afternoon and continuing into the following morning. A final vote was scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on August 7. Despite the grave implications of the resolution, the debate was sparsely attended. A few senators expressed skepticism about the wisdom of granting the president such broad authority. Did the resolution authorize the president to “use such force as could lead into war” without a congressional declaration, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky wondered? Yes, Fulbright conceded, the resolution did give the president such authority. “We all hope and believe that the President will not use this discretion arbitrarily or irresponsibly,” Fulbright explained. “We know that he is accustomed to consulting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with congressional leaders. But he does not have to do that.” The chairman reassured his colleagues, however, that the Johnson administration had denied any intent to widen the war, stating: “The policy of our Government not to expand the war still holds.”9 Chief opponent Wayne Morse was present for nearly all of the debate. He pleaded with his colleagues not to approve the resolution. “I shall not support … a predated declaration of war,” he insisted. But Fulbright’s foreign policy expertise and his close relationship with the president helped to assuage doubts about the wisdom of granting any president such sweeping authority. “When it came to foreign policy,” noted Senator Maurine Neuberger, Morse’s junior colleague from Oregon, “I did whatever Bill Fulbright said I should do.” At the conclusion of the debate, the Senate approved the resolution 88-2. Ernest Gruening of Alaska joined Morse in dissent. The House had already unanimously approved the joint resolution, and the president signed it into law on August 10, 1964.10 Fulbright had helped to deliver a major political and policy victory for his friend, President Johnson. In November, Johnson defeated Goldwater in an electoral landslide. In early 1965, under the provisions of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Johnson vastly expanded the war in Vietnam. He approved a bombing campaign in North Vietnam and ordered the first U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam. This betrayal of his stated intent stung some of the president’s friends in Congress, especially Fulbright. More than 150,000 U.S. combat troops entered South Vietnam by the end of 1965, and that number swelled to more than 530,000 by 1968. Wayne Morse had predicted that his Senate colleagues would come to regret their support for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It wasn’t long before Fulbright did. Beginning in 1966, Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee held a series of high-profile educational hearings about the war. Broadcast live on national television, these hearings revealed the White House’s intentional deceptions about the war’s progress and widened what came to be known as the administration’s “credibility gap.”11 The hearings deepened Fulbright’s resolve to educate the public (and his colleagues) about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. An ongoing committee investigation revealed that the administration’s justification for retaliatory action in 1964 and even the sequence of events that precipitated the request for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution were based on obfuscations and lies. The administration had drafted the resolution months before the reported attacks of August 1964, the hearings revealed, having it ready to present to Congress when the timing was right. Despite the fact the administration had insisted that the second unprovoked attack required forceful retaliation, there was doubt at the time that the attack had occurred. On the afternoon of August 4, for example, the commander of the USS Maddox—just hours after his initial report of the attack—cabled his superiors, “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful … Suggest complete evaluation before any further action.” The administration failed to share these doubts with members of Congress.12 In 1968, as the number of American casualties in Vietnam grew, Senator Fulbright expressed regret for his role in passing the resolution. “I feel a very deep moral responsibility to the Senate and the country for having misled them,” he lamented. Fulbright devoted the remainder of his Senate career to reclaiming Congress’s constitutional war-making powers and ending the war in Vietnam.13 In 1971 Congress rescinded the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, though it continued to fund the war until the U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam in March 1973. Later that year, Congress approved the War Powers Act over President Richard M. Nixon’s veto. The law represented Congress’s desire to define the circumstances under which presidents may unilaterally commit U.S. armed forces. Congress had granted the executive branch discretionary war-making power with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and some had learned a powerful lesson in that experience. “If we could rely on the good faith of the Executive,” Fulbright explained during a Senate debate of the war powers bill in July 1973, “we would not need the bill. However, since we cannot do so, so we do need a bill.” The War Powers Act requires the executive branch to consult with and report to Congress any commitment of armed forces.14 Despite his achievements, Fulbright lost his bid for reelection in a 1974 primary. The War Powers Act continues to serve mainly as a framework to promote legislative and executive branch cooperation on war powers issues. Its efficacy, however, depends upon Congress’s willingness to enforce the law. Since the 1950s, Congress has authorized presidential administrations to use military force by congressional resolutions rather than by declarations of war.
1. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Senate Committee on Armed Forces, Southeast Asia Resolution, Joint Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 6, 1964, 8. 2. Randall Bennett Woods, Fulbright: A Biography (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 349–50; Joint Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia, Public Law 88-408, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 7, 1965, 59 Stat. 1031; President Lyndon B. Johnson, “August 4, 1964: Report on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” Presidential Speeches, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency, Miller Center at the University of Virginia, transcript and recording accessed June 2, 2023,; Louis Fisher, Constitutional Conflicts Between Congress and the President, 4th ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 278–79. 3. Woods, Fulbright, 221; Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 1st sess., January 28, 1955, 994; Congressional Record, 85th Cong., 1st sess., March 5, 1957, 3129; Fisher, Constitutional Conflicts, 278, 281. 4. Woods, Fulbright, 215, 353. 5. Woods, Fulbright, 348; Frederik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 205. 6. Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 5, 1964, 18084; “A Nation United,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1964, reprinted in the Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 6, 1964, 18400; Woods, Fulbright, 354; “Times Editorials: U.S. Answer to Aggression,” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1964, A4; Charles Mohr, “Goldwater Backs Vietnam Action by Johnson,” New York Times, August 5, 1964, 4. 7. "Pat M. Holt, Chief of Staff, Foreign Relations Committee," Oral History Interviews, September 9, to December 12, 1980, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C., 178; Logevall, Choosing War, 205; Woods, Fulbright, 347, 353. 8. Committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services, Southeast Asia Resolution, 14, 18. 9. Ezra Y. Siff, Why the Senate Slept: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Beginning of America’s Vietnam War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 27; Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 6, 1964, 18399, 18402, 18409-10. 10. Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., August 5, 1964, 18139; Mason Drukman, Wayne Morse: A Political Biography (Portland: The Oregon Historical Society Press, 1997), 413. 11. Drukman, Wayne Morse, 413; Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis and Their Senate Hearings (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). 12. Woods, Fulbright, 350–51; Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series), Vol. XX, 90th Cong., 2nd sess., 1968 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010), 281–86. 13. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series), Vol. XX, 90th Cong., 2nd sess., 1968 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010), 305-306. 14. Fisher, Constitutional Conflicts, 281–87; Logevall, Choosing War, 202–5, 213; Woods, Fulbright: 340–59, 415–67; Congressional Record, 93rd Cong., 1st sess., July 20, 1973, 25088.
Senators on Combat Tour, 1943 202210 6A World War II Combat Tour for Senators
October 6, 2022
On July 25, 1943, shortly after Allied forces invaded Sicily and Allied bombers targeted Rome, five United States senators set out on a unique and controversial journey: to inspect American military installations engaged across the globe in the Second World War. They boarded a converted bomber named the “Guess Where II” at Washington National Airport to begin a 65-day tour of U.S. military installations around the world.

On July 25, 1943, shortly after Allied forces invaded Sicily and Allied bombers targeted Rome, five United States senators set out on a unique and controversial journey: to inspect American military installations engaged across the globe in the Second World War. They boarded a converted bomber named the “Guess Where II” at Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) to begin a 65-day tour of U.S. military installations around the world. Each senator wore a dog tag and carried one knife, one steel helmet, extra cigarettes, emergency food rations, manuals on jungle survival, and two military uniforms. The senators were to wear the military uniforms while flying over enemy territory and visiting U.S. field operations in the hope that, if captured, they would be treated humanely as prisoners of war.1 The idea for this inspection tour originated among members of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, also known as the Truman Committee. The Military Affairs Committee had been examining every aspect of war mobilization, from soldier recruitment to weapons and supply contracts. The Truman Committee, chaired by Missouri senator Harry Truman, had spent two years exposing waste and corruption in the awarding of defense contracts, including in the construction of military facilities around the United States. Both committees wished to expand their investigations to include inspections of facilities overseas and initially quarreled over which panel would take on the task. The Truman Committee received approval for a tour from General George C. Marshall and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1943. Albert “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky, who chaired a Military Affairs subcommittee also planning overseas inspections, protested and stated that he already had “an understanding” with the War Department about a tour of military bases. Chandler took his case to General Marshall and petulantly told reporters that “maybe the Army ought to take up its legislation with the Truman Committee.”2 The army did not want the “embarrassment” of choosing between the two committees, so the White House tasked Majority Leader Alben Barkley and Republican Leader Charles McNary with reaching a compromise. In July Barkley, who initially opposed the idea of any senators traveling abroad and taking up the time of military commanders, announced the creation of a small, bipartisan ad hoc committee of five senators to take the trip, chaired by Georgia Democrat Richard Russell and composed of two members from the Truman Committee and two from Military Affairs—Ralph O. Brewster of Maine, Happy Chandler of Kentucky, James Mead of New York, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., of Massachusetts.3 The committee's goals were to observe the condition and morale of American troops, the quality and effectiveness of war materiel under combat conditions, and the operations of distributing military and civilian supplies to the Allied front lines. The investigatory committee believed, as Russell later explained, that what they learned on the trip would be helpful “in dealing with questions arising from our relations with the other Allied powers, and in preparing for the many trying and complex issues whose solution must have final approval by the Senate after the war is over.” In particular, the committee was concerned about securing access rights at the war’s conclusion to military installations that the U.S. had helped to establish overseas.4 As laudable as this mission seemed, departing members received a good deal of criticism both from colleagues and constituents. At a time of stringent gasoline rationing, a constituent wrote Russell that it would be wiser to allocate his aircraft's fuel to the needs of “your Georgia people.” Senator Bennett Clark of Missouri suggested that military commanders would not “let them see enough to stick in their eye.” The senators were determined to prove Clark wrong.5 The senators' first stop was England, where they bunked with the Eighth Air Force, dined with the king and queen, and interviewed Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They moved on to North Africa, spending a week in various cities along the Mediterranean Sea. From there they toured installations in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. supplies were being shipped to support the Soviet Union. They continued on to India, China, Australia, and Hawaii before returning home on September 28. The flight from the British colony of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) to the west coast of Australia, 3,200 miles over water, was the first time anyone had flown nonstop over the vast Indian Ocean in a land-based plane. Along the way the senators met with commanders and high-ranking civilian officials as well as enlisted men and wounded soldiers. In total the trip took 65 days and logged 40,000 miles.6 Upon their return, Russell had planned to brief the Senate at a secret session set for October 7. Before that briefing, however, Military Affairs Committee member Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., upstaged Russell by giving his own account in public session, a move that angered the chairman. Russell shared the committee’s report with his colleagues as planned and the next day had summary findings inserted into the Congressional Record for public consumption. The report framed the key issues of postwar reconstruction and policy, including recommendations for continued U.S. access to overseas military bases, the prospects of continued foreign aid after the fighting stopped, and a proposal for merging American military branches into a single department after the war.7 The report set a firm precedent for future overseas travel by senators, with additional trips taking place in 1945. Senator James M. Tunnell led a subcommittee of the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, known as the Mead Committee after the departure of Harry Truman, on another visit to military installations in North Africa and the Middle East in early 1945. In May 1945, after Germany had surrendered, Russell guided a group of eight senators from the Military Affairs and Naval Affairs committees on a trip to France and Germany, where some of the hardest fighting of the war had taken place.8 While some observers had doubted the utility of the 1943 tour, the detailed report of Russell’s committee persuaded them that the senators had completed a useful task, setting the stage for future congressional delegations (CODELs). New York Times columnist Arthur Crock, who admitted that he had his reservations about the trip, afterwards praised the group for its careful examinations and declared the trip “an excellent illustration of what can be done by Congress by the use of the effective and responsible committee system.”9
1. George C. Fite, Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 189. 2. “2 Senate Committees Wrangle Over Who Rates Africa Tour,” Washington Post, April 9, 1943, 1; Fite, Richard B. Russell, 188–89. 3. “Avoids Ruling on Junkets,” Baltimore Sun, April 18, 1943, 15; “Five Senators to Tour World in Army Plane,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 1, 1943, 5; “War Will Continue Until 1945, Warn Senators Back from Tour,” Washington Post, September 30, 1943, 1. 4. Katherine Scott, “A Safety Valve: The Truman Committee’s Oversight during World War II,” in Colton C. Campbell and David P. Auerswald, eds., Congress and Civil Military Relations (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2015), 36–52; Congressional Record, 78th Cong., 1st sess., October 28, 1943, 8860; “Senators Seek Post-War Base Showdown Now,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 04, 1943, 8. 5. “Senators to Visit Our Forces Abroad,” New York Times, July 1, 1943, 8. 6. Congressional Record, 78th Cong., 1st sess., October 28, 1943, 8860; “Senators Reach Hawaii,” New York Times, September 23, 1943, 6; Fite, Richard B. Russell, 191. 7. Fite, Richard B. Russell, 193; Congressional Record, 78th Cong., 1st sess., October 8, 1943, 8189–90. 8. Fite, Richard B. Russell, 195–96. 9. “War Tour By Senators Promises Wide Benefits,” New York Times, October 3, 1943, E3.
Winston Churchill Addresses Congress, 1941 202205 2Churchill’s Historic Speech to Congress
May 2, 2022
British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a historic wartime address in the Senate Chamber before an informal meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941. In the days following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, Congress had approved declarations of war and formally allied the U.S. with the British to defeat the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy. In Washington, D.C., to coordinate military strategy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak before Congress.

British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a historic wartime address in the Senate Chamber before an informal meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941. In the days following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, Congress had approved declarations of war and formally allied the U.S. with the British to defeat the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy. In Washington, D.C., to coordinate military strategy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak before Congress.1 Traditionally, Congress holds joint meetings and sessions in the more spacious House of Representatives Chamber. On this occasion, perhaps because many senators and representatives were out of town for the holidays, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley invited the prime minister to speak in the more intimate Senate Chamber.2 Churchill’s schedule during his visit to Washington was tightly packed with business both official and social. He met with government officials, held a joint press conference with the president, joined Roosevelt in the ceremonial lighting of the National Christmas Tree, and on Christmas Day attended services at Foundry Methodist Church. Everywhere he went, the charismatic Churchill drew cheers and applause. “In less than a week’s time,” the Washington Post noted, “Americans have caught on to one of Winston Churchill’s major characteristics—his ability to thrill a crowd.” His most significant public appearance, however, came when he spoke to Congress in the Senate Chamber.3 On the chilly morning of December 26, Capitol Hill buzzed with anticipation. Crowds gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of Churchill’s arrival at the Capitol. Shortly before noon, the House recessed and its members proceeded to the Senate Chamber. Senate doorkeepers seated House members at desks on the side of the Chamber reserved for the Republican senators while senators crowded into desks on the Democratic side. Supreme Court justices and members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet sat in the first row. Soon, all 96 desks were occupied, forcing doorkeepers to place extra chairs at the rear of the Chamber to accommodate the crowd. Even with limited public access to the event, the visitors’ galleries overflowed with members’ families and foreign guests.4 A hush fell over the crowded Chamber as Churchill took his place at a lectern bristling with microphones. Three national radio stations broadcast his speech live, and two others delivered it overseas via shortwave radio. Powerful overhead lamps illuminated the otherwise dimly lit Senate Chamber. Newsreel cameras began to roll, recording every word for posterity.5 The prime minister began on a light-hearted note. “The fact … that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful.” The audience erupted in laughter, but soon his speech turned serious. The prime minister warned that “many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us” and predicted that Allied forces would need more than a year to turn the tide of war. The United Kingdom had been the target of a nine-months-long German bombing campaign—known as the Blitz—and Churchill noted that the Axis powers “are enormous; they are bitter; they are ruthless.” These “wicked men” he called them, had brought evil forces into play. They must “know they will be called to terrible account.” “Now,” he stated solemnly, “we are the masters of our fate.”6 Churchill’s audience included isolationists who had resisted U.S. involvement in the overseas conflict. This bipartisan group, which included Senator Burton Wheeler, a Montana Democrat and a prominent figure in the “America First” movement, had worked to pass a series of neutrality acts to limit the administration’s financial and materiel support for Allied forces. The Pearl Harbor attack had significantly weakened this movement’s popularity, however, and Churchill noted Americans’ resolve to defeat the Axis powers. “Here in Washington,” he observed, “I have found an Olympian fortitude … the proof of a sure and well-grounded confidence in the final outcome.” His rousing speech prompted spontaneous cries of “Hear, Hear” and vigorous rounds of applause. At the conclusion of Churchill’s 30-minute address, Chief Justice of the United States Harlan F. Stone extended a “V” for victory sign. Churchill responded in kind. “The effect was instantaneous, electric,” observed one reporter. “The cheers swelled into a roar.”7 It was a speech “full of bubbling humor…, stern courage—and hard facts,” reported the New York Times, and seemed to have the intended effect of inspiring lawmakers to rally behind a unified war effort. Senator John Gurney of South Dakota offered his enthusiastic support for “complete cooperation” between the two countries, and Senator Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania exclaimed that it was “one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard.” Even Wheeler conceded that the speech was “clever” and would appeal to the “average American.”8 After exiting the Senate Chamber, Churchill joined Vice President Henry Wallace and a select group of six House and Senate leaders for a private luncheon in the Capitol before returning to the White House. His visit to the Capitol, and the unusual occasion of a joint meeting held in the Senate Chamber, would not soon be forgotten. Churchill would return to the Capitol to address joint meetings two more times, in 1943 and 1952, an honor afforded to only one other foreign dignitary in the nation’s history.9
1. James K. Libbey, Alben Barkley: A Life in Politics (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 221; Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess., December 26, 1941, 10119. 2. Robert C. Albright, “British Premier Will Address Senate Tomorrow,” Washington Post, December 25, 1941, 1; “Roosevelt and Churchill Attend Public Yule Church Services,” The Sun, December 26, 1941, 1; Libbey, Alben Barkley; John Fisher, “Give Us Victory! Roosevelt and Churchill Pray,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 26, 1941, 3. 3. “Big Crowd Thrills as Winnie Appears,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 3; Fisher, “Give Us Victory!”; “Churchill Joins FDR in lighting Christmas Tree,” Chicago Tribune, December 25, 1941, 14. 4. “Churchill Tells Congress Allies Will Take the Initiative in 1943,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 12. 5. “Churchill to be on Radio,” New York Times, December 26, 1941, 3. 6. Senate Journal, 77th Cong., 1st sess., December 26, 1941, 515–17; “Don’t Count on Collapse in Reich, Says Churchill,” Washington Post, December 24, 1941, 1; “Churchill Promises We Will be Able to Take Initiative Amply in 1943,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 1. 7. “Congress Thrilled,” New York Times, December 27, 1941, 1. 8. Ibid.; “Capitol Opinion Gives Approval to Churchill Talk,” Daily Boston Globe, December 27, 1941, 2; “Churchill Speech Hailed in Congress,” New York Times, December 27, 1941, 3. 9. Gladstone Williams, “Georgian, Two Other Senators Greet Churchill,” Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1941, 2; “Joint Meeting & Joint Session Addresses Before Congress by Foreign Leaders & Dignitaries,” History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, accessed April 22, 2022,