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 withdrawal-a deadline he couldn't accept.
"It's deja vu all over again," historian Douglas Brinkley told U.S. News. Adds Boston University historian Julian Zelizer: "The situation today resembles the 1969-70 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 Washington-and its ultimate outcome-are 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 era-seven years from the first antiwar hearings until U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973. Those initial hearings-the first in a series-were 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. 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 Laos-where U.S. forces had fought a controversial "secret war" against Communist forces-or 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 disloyalty-lack 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 presi-dent 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.
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 end-regardless 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.
In December 1974, the month after those crucial elections, Congress overwhelmingly approved a foreign assistance act slashing the appropriation for South Vietnam. "The Republicans' staggering losses left the president little choice but to aggressively appease the opposition if he wanted to get anything done," writes Brinkley in his biography Gerald R. Ford. "And the only thing that would appease them was an end to the Vietnam War."
In January 1975, the North Vietnamese launched another major offensive, and by the end of March, they had captured numerous provinces, with little resistance from the beleaguered South Vietnamese, who were running out of supplies and ammunition.
Ford requested $1.4 billion in emergency military aid for South Vietnam and Cambodia. Congress authorized only $1 billion and actually appropriated just $700 million. Meanwhile, the city of Quang Tri fell to the Communists, then the ancient capital of Hue, and the Americans began evacuating remaining U.S. personnel and thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
With the House and Senate balking on saving the Saigon regime, the president addressed the nation before a joint session of Congress. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged him to tell the American people that "Congress was solely to blame for the debacle in Southeast Asia," Ford later wrote, but he refused, considering that option too divisive. Instead, Ford called for unity and said the United States couldn't "abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs."
But Congress would have none of it. The legislators decided not to provide any more money for South Vietnam, and Ford felt there was nothing more he could do. With the North Vietnamese about to take Saigon, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled the country. In the final hours, American helicopters evacuated desperate Vietnamese from the rooftops. But many were left behind in a final humiliation that closed the book on America's involvement in Vietnam after 11 years.
This story appears in the May 14, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.