WASHINGTON — On a February morning in 1947, President Harry S. Truman summoned Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the most powerful critic of the Democratic Administration's foreign policies, to ask support for a historic new policy of aid and alliances to contain Soviet expansion in Europe.
Vandenberg agreed, on one condition: that the President consult with the opposition in formulating his policies and not merely in carrying them out. "We have to be in on the takeoffs," Vandenberg said, recalling a remark by Harold Stassen, "not just the crash landings."
And, despite occasional disagreements on specific issues, the bipartisan approach that began with that White House meeting dominated the conduct of American foreign policy for more than 25 years--until the Vietnam War shattered the national consensus on containment and polarized the two major political parties.
Now, congressional leaders of both parties are seeking to regain at least some measure of the old consensus. They are making new efforts to strengthen the political center in foreign policy and restore the bipartisan atmosphere of what some describe as the almost halcyon days of the Cold War.
The bid for bipartisanship is coming in no small part from the Reagan Administration and some of its congressional supporters. The Administration, despite its roots in the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, has found that foreign policy initiatives cannot succeed without broad support in Congress.
Says I.M. Destler of Washington's Institute for International Economics, a longtime student of Congress' role in foreign policy: "Under the Carter Administration, we had a version of the left's agenda; under the early Reagan Administration, we had a version of the right's agenda. Both of them bumped up against reality and discredited themselves . . . and as a reaction you may be getting a move back to the center.
"It's not at all certain yet. But it will be a major factor to watch for over the next four years," he said, noting that "this Administration came to power with a clear commitment to repudiate what had previously been thought of as a bipartisan consensus on arms control, and it has backed away from that."
In another indication of its new appreciation for the importance of broad congressional support, the Administration twice resorted to that old stand-by, the bipartisan commission, to deal with the divisive issues of Central America and the MX missile. Similarly, at the insistence of Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), President Reagan last month agreed to a third bipartisan panel, this one composed entirely of senators, to oversee the newly resumed arms talks with the Soviet Union.
And on Thursday, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the conservative new chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, opened an ambitious series of hearings on the entire sweep of U.S. foreign policy--hearings aimed at nothing less than ending the polarization of the Vietnam era and returning to the bipartisan ways of earlier years.
"We will seek to find and to strengthen an American consensus for clear and achievable foreign policy," Lugar said last week. "The United States has not yet fully recovered from the Vietnam War. . . . It is important to restore a greater degree of consensus about our interests and commitments around the world and about our willingness to defend them."
Many Democrats agree. "Consistency in foreign policy is badly needed," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), perhaps the most liberal member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "More bipartisanship would be helpful. And provided there's some give and take, it can be done. . . . "
Lugar said he hopes his hearings, scheduled to last six weeks, can promote consensus by focusing first on areas where there is already some general agreement, such as the need for toughness toward the Soviet Union along with arms control talks. Only later will the hearings turn to such divisive issues as the use of force in Central America.
His first witnesses, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, will be followed by former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger, Cyrus R. Vance and Dean Rusk.
The chances of success for the effort to recapture bipartisan consensus in foreign affairs are already a matter of private debate in the halls of Senate office buildings. Some Democrats have said they are skeptical that such broad hearings, in a committee with a fledgling chairman and strong-minded members ranging from Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on the right to Cranston and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) on the left, can bridge the gulf between the two parties.
Lugar himself, a former Rhodes scholar who has won a reputation as a low-key but effective advocate of Reagan Administration policies, acknowledges that he is undertaking an uncertain venture.