Echoes From an Earlier Conflict
How Congress wrestled with two presidents for control of the Vietnam War
"A generation shaped by Vietnam must remember the lessons of Vietnam. When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming."
George W. Bush, Aug. 21, 2000, speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars
To many Americans, George W. Bush's standards for making war have changed dramatically since he first campaigned for the White House. Clearly, he believes the Iraq conflict is just, but most people are by no means convinced the goal is clear or that victory is assured, much less that it will be overwhelming.
As Bush knows, these are some of the same objections that the public expressed about Vietnam three decades ago. And the echoes of that faraway conflict got even stronger last week in the most serious confrontation between the commander in chief and Congress in a generation. The latest flashpoint was Bush's veto of a $124 billion bill that would have both funded the Iraq war and simultaneously set a deadline for withdrawala deadline he couldn't accept.
"It's déjà vu all over again," historian Douglas Brinkley told U.S. News. Adds Boston University historian Julian Zelizer: "The situation today resembles the 196970 period when Congress started testing the waters ... using the power of the purse to threaten the president" and force him to "draw down the war."
Zelizer and other historians say the current battle over Iraq policy could be just the start of a long process similar to the messy endgame of Vietnam. "Congress is a back-and-forth institution," Zelizer told U.S. News. "Today we see an escalation of political pressure, and that's just what happened in Vietnam."
Lessons. The course of that long-ago debate in Washingtonand its ultimate outcomeare more than a little illuminating in trying to understand the current political impasse over Iraq and where it's going. Back then, a Democratic Congress, fueled by rising voter anger, began trying to assert control over U.S. policy in Vietnam, first by limiting military action in surrounding countries, then by clamping down on funding for the war itself. By the last months of Richard Nixon's presidency and at the start of Gerald Ford's, Congress was in full rebellion not only against the war but also against the authority of the gop commander in chief. And while it's unclear whether the current Congress will go that far, many Democratic lawmakers would surely like to.
Yet it took Congress a long time to seize some semblance of control in the Vietnam eraseven years from the first antiwar hearings until U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973. Those initial hearingsthe first in a serieswere conducted in February 1966 by Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, a foreign policy specialist who had famously turned against the conflict. Reflecting the harsh emotions of the day, President Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Democrat, dismissed his antagonist as "Senator Halfbright."
But any complete reading of the historical record will disappoint today's antiwar activists; there were numerous defeats for the anti-Vietnam movement along the way. From 1970 to 1973, Congress considered 18 proposals to restrict funding for military operations in Indochina, and only five were enacted, according to the Congressional Research Service.