Echoes From an Earlier Conflict
How Congress wrestled with two presidents for control of the Vietnam War
In 1972, the Senate passed an amendment to foreign-aid legislation that would end funding for all U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia except for withdrawal (subject to the release of all prisoners of war). Senate passage marked the first time that either chamber had approved a total cutoff of funds for continuing the war.
Though House and Senate conferees failed to reach an agreement on the measure, support for the amendment was seen by the administration as another sign that antiwar forces were gaining strength. In fact, a January 1971 Gallup Poll showed that public support for the McGovern-Hatfield amendment stood at 73 percent. (The nation hasn't quite reached that level of antiwar sentiment today. The latest Wall Street Journal/nbc poll shows that 56 percent of Americans want to set a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq.)
"During the final negotiations with the Vietnamese over ending the war, culminating with the 1972 Christmas Bombings and the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, the president knew that he had only a limited amount of time before Congress finally used the power of the purse to bring the war to an endregardless of what the administration wanted," Zelizer recently wrote in The American Prospect.
The peace agreement spurred the president to finally pull out the remaining U.S. combat troops. "Indeed," Zelizer adds, "to make certain that the president could not reverse course, in June 1973, Congress passed legislation that included an amendment sponsored by Church and [New Jersey Republican Sen. Clifford] Case to prohibit the use of more funds in Southeast Asia after August 15. Sixty-four senators voted in favor. When the House assented, its vote marked the first time that chamber had agreed to cut off funds, too."
After U.S. withdrawal was concluded in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, over Nixon's veto, which required the president to consult with Congress about military action and prohibited spending in Southeast Asia for more U.S. military action. Coupled with congressional cuts in aid to South Vietnam, the president's war powers were severely limited.
Endgame. Many war-weary Americans thought they were done with Vietnam in January 1973 when the United States and North Vietnam negotiated the Paris Peace Accords. But within months, the North had broken the agreement and sent an additional 300,000 soldiers into the South, bringing its troop strength to about 460,000.
President Nixon, weakened by the Watergate scandal, felt powerless to resume bombing or to send U.S. troops back in. Beyond the War Powers Act, limiting the president's ability to enforce the peace agreement, Congress reduced U.S. economic and military aid to the Saigon regime.
Nixon resigned in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal in August 1974, and Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded him. Ford was prepared to challenge Congress to keep money and other assistance flowing to the South and to send U.S. troops back in if the North remained belligerent. But that November, Democrats routed the gop in congressional elections by campaigning against the Nixon-Ford approach to Vietnam, summarized as "peace with honor." America's patience had worn out.