Echoes From an Earlier Conflict
How Congress wrestled with two presidents for control of the Vietnam War
Just as important, Congress never cut off funds for U.S. combat operations in Vietnam itself while American troops were there, although there were repeated efforts to do so. A big part of the dynamic was to build pressure on successive administrations in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s to slow down the war, and that effort eventually succeeded.
The antiwar continuum. On Dec. 16, 1969, Congress passed legislation attached to a defense spending bill to prevent the further use of money in Laoswhere U.S. forces had fought a controversial "secret war" against Communist forcesor in Thailand, which had served as a staging area for American troops. President Nixon, seeing the potential revolt and not wishing to defy Congress at that time, signed the measure into law.
But when Congress moved to extend the ban to Cambodia, Nixon balked. He argued that it imposed too many restrictions on his conduct of the war, an argument similar to Bush's contention last week. Nixon encouraged the hawkish leaders of the American Legion to pressure Congress to reject the limitations, which were sponsored by Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman urged Senate allies to condemn antiwar legislators for "knife-in-back disloyaltylack of patriotism." Nixon told his advisers to "hit 'em in the gut."
After seven weeks of often fiery debate over the constitutional balance of power, the Senate on June 30, 1970, approved the Church-Cooper amendment with 58 votes. The amendment stipulated that the administration could not spend funds for soldiers, combat assistance, advisers, or bombing operations in Cambodia. Nixon had already withdrawn U.S. troops from that country, but he wanted the option to send them back if he felt it would help win the war in adjacent Vietnam.
The House, not wanting to limit the commander in chief's options too much, endorsed a weaker version that limited the restrictions to ground troops. The Senate agreed, and the compromise version was attached to a supplemental aid bill that passed both the House and Senate. It was sent to the president in late December, and he signed it in January 1971, even though it tied his hands. "The passage of the Church-Cooper amendment marked the first successful use of congressional budgetary authority to limit the war," Zelizer says.
Pressure builds. Part of the reason that Nixon signed the bill is that by January 1971, demonstrations against the bloody conflict were raging across the country and Congress was turning increasingly against the war. Ire against Vietnam was so deep that America's soldiers in uniform were sometimes insulted as war criminals. Nixon and his advisers felt constrained by Congress, says Cornell historian Fredrik Logevall, "but in a political and not a legal sense."
Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Sen. Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, then proposed an amendment to force a total withdrawal by the end of 1971. The measure failed overwhelmingly, partly because Nixon was by then already withdrawing troops through his program to turn over the conduct of the war to the Vietnamese. Even so, the antiwar legislation kept coming.