How Congress Got Us Out of Vietnam

Since January 10, when President Bush proposed a "troop surge" in Iraq, the administration has responded to legislative critics by stating that Congress cannot handle the responsibility of conducting an effective war. "You can't run a war by committee," Vice President Richard Cheney told FOX News on January 14.

But Democrats are no longer willing to trust presidential decision-making. "You don't like to micromanage the Defense Department," responded Congressman John Murtha, "but we have to, in this case, because they're not paying attention to the public..."

In the debate over whether the legislature can play a constructive role in shaping national security policy, the president's challengers have history on their side. Congress has often played a significant, albeit underappreciated, role in wartime politics.

One of the best examples for current Democratic legislators is that of their Vietnam-era counterparts. Ironically, both the left and the right have criticized the performance of Congress during the war in Vietnam. Liberals accuse the Congress of allowing Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon to push deeper into the jungles of Southeast Asia without opposition. Conservatives place responsibility for "losing" on the Democratic Congress.

The Vietnam-era Congress certainly had many failings. Lawmakers too often deferred to presidential decisions that they knew to be flawed. They hesitated to challenge presidents directly. Democrats and Republicans took action after the fact and agreed to watered-down compromises. Most importantly, Congress never forced an immediate end to the war. To the contrary, in 1964, Congress granted the president broad authority to use force, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s it continued to fund military operations after the war had turned into a quagmire.

But compared to Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Vietnam-era legislature compiled an impressive record in challenging flawed presidential decisions. Between 1964 and 1975, many legislators forced discussion of difficult questions about the mission, publicly challenged the administration's core arguments, and used budgetary mechanisms to create pressure on the Pentagon to bring the war to a halt. A number of liberal Democrats started in the mid-1960s as some of the most vocal critics of escalation in Vietnam; by the early 1970s they were wielding the power of the purse.

Many observers have glorified the role of the media and anti-war protestors in forcing an end to one of America's most disastrous foreign policies. But numerous members of Congress deserve equal respect, and can serve as a model for legislators who are today challenging the president.

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Early in Lyndon Johnson's presidency, prominent Democrats privately (and to a lesser extent, publicly) challenged the expansion of America's involvement in Vietnam. Congress created a serious political opportunity for Johnson to avoid escalation. At the same time that Johnson was hearing from hawkish advisors such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the State Department's Chairman of the Policy Planning Board Walt Rostow, a number of legislators bluntly argued that his advisors were wrong. Senator Frank Church of Idaho said that sending troops into Vietnam would be a "hopeless entanglement, the end of which is difficult to see." While most Democrats were unwilling to publicly speak against the president, many privately urged the administration to explore alternatives to escalation, including J. William Fulbright, Albert Gore, John McClellan, George McGovern, Stuart Symington, and John Sherman Cooper (a Republican). In December 1963, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote Johnson that the administration should cooperate with international officials seeking to find a settlement. "What national interests in Asia would steel the American people for the massive costs of an ever-deepening involvement?" he asked. Conservative Democratic Senator George Smathers reported to the president in 1964 that he was having trouble finding legislators who thought "we ought to fight a war in that area of the world." According to New York Times reporter Max Frankel, "It is beginning to look as if the Democrats plan to be their own most vigorous critics in this year's election debate."

The advice that most troubled Johnson came from the senior southern hawk, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia -- Lyndon Johnson's mentor in the Senate. In some of the most chilling telephone conversations from the Johnson presidential archives, Russell explained to Johnson why this war could not be won and how unimportant the conflict was to the outcome of the Cold War.

On May 27, 1964, President Johnson called Russell to ask him for advice on the "Vietnam thing." Russell called the situation the "damn worse mess I ever saw" and warned it would lead to a difficult war against the North Vietnamese and Chinese in the jungles. Russell said the U.S. position was "deteriorating" and that it looked like "the more we try to do for them [the South Vietnamese government], the less they are willing to do for themselves." Russell said Americans were not ready to send troops to do the fighting. If it came to the option of sending Americans or getting out, Russell said, "I'd get out." When Johnson asked him what was at stake, Russell responded that the territory was not important a "damn bit" to the United States. Russell also said he was concerned that McNamara was not as "objective" as he needed to be and that he didn't understand the "history and background" of the Vietnamese. Although Russell publicly insisted on using as much force as possible after Johnson committed the United States to the conflict, privately he continued to express his fears.

A similar dynamic could be seen in the debate surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964. The resolution granted the president sweeping authority to use military force in Vietnam and has often been characterized as the most dramatic example of Congress blindly deferring to the executive branch. The House passed the resolution 416 to 0 and the Senate 88 to 2, with Democratic Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in opposition. Still, many legislators had to be persuaded to support the administration. Johnson understood that, which is why he chose a widely trusted figure, Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright -- the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who had expressed doubts about the war -- to handle the resolution in Congress.

Congress fell short in the Gulf of Tonkin debate because it did too little, not because it did too much. Some legislators were far ahead of the administration, predicting the problems with the war, as well as the problems inherent in such an expansion of executive power. Facing an election and right-wing Republicans who were questioning the willingness of Democrats to use force, however, many members of both parties buckled and failed to act on their misgivings until later. Yet it is important to remember that the scope of the U.S. intervention was extremely difficult to foresee in August 1964 (even Johnson's advisors did not anticipate the type of ground war on which the United States would soon embark). Moreover, Fulbright personally assured the Democrats that the president would not misuse this authority to embark on an all-out war. Johnson had promised Fulbright that if the mission changed significantly, he would return to Congress for its consent.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution did not make a full-scale war inevitable. Following his landslide reelection in 1964, Johnson had even more political space to make a choice. Vice President Hubert Humphrey privately urged Johnson to call for a withdrawal, since 1965 was "the first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican right ..."

At the time, historian Fredrik Logevall has argued in Choosing War, "in terms of his domestic flank, Johnson had considerable freedom of action on Vietnam after the election. The political context he faced with respect to the war was a much more fluid one than is often suggested, with little or no national ‘consensus' about which way to proceed." Through their willingness to criticize the Vietnam hawks and raise questions about expanded U.S. involvement, congressional Democrats had played a central role in creating this important opportunity.

But it was a missed opportunity. In the spring of 1965, Johnson decided to "Americanize" the war by sending ground troops. At this turning point, skeptical Democrats fell short by not acting on their misgivings.

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As the war in Vietnam progressed, however, and the military situation deteriorated, a few Democrats used the power of congressional investigation to force the administration into a contentious public debate. The most significant proceedings were Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee hearings in February 1966. Eighteen months after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Fulbright decided that he could no longer stand by the president in a war he opposed. He was worried, as were most members of his committee, that the administration's optimistic assessments were wrong and that a huge buildup of troops would be required in the coming years. He also felt personally betrayed by the president, who had promised to act with restraint.

Fred Friendly, who headed CBS News, convinced his superiors to cover some of Fulbright's hearings live and to preempt the normally scheduled shows (such as the popular children's program Captain Kangaroo). In response, the administration scheduled events to distract public attention. The president held a summit with the South Vietnamese leadership in Hawaii the evening before the hearings started. Nonetheless, the Fulbright hearings provided the nation with the first glimpse of such administration officials as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, George Kennan, and former Ambassador to South Vietnam General Maxwell Taylor confronting difficult challenges about the war. When Rusk told the committee that, if the United States did not stand firm militarily, "then the prospect for peace disappears," Fulbright challenged almost all of his assertions. The senator insisted that there was no need to escalate operations in Vietnam because the conflict did not involve the vital interests of America and could easily be a "trigger for world war." The president personally called Stanton to pressure him to take the highly rated hearings off the air. CBS, also concerned about the financial cost of preempting popular shows, obliged.

Johnson came to hate Fulbright, whom he privately mocked as "Senator Halfbright." But the hearings stung the president. Although public opinion remained in favor of the war, Fulbright emerged as a key figure in the growing anti-war forces, though the courtly Southern aristocrat had little if anything in common with the demonstrators increasingly taking to the streets. Indeed, precisely because of his establishment imprimatur, his investigations and statements helped give antiwar protest a certain degree of legitimacy. The hearings also ensured that the mainstream media covered criticism about the war. Fulbright biographer Randall Bennett Woods explained that "the February hearings, in short, opened a psychological door for the great American middle class ... if the administration intended to wage the war in Vietnam from the political center in America, the 1966 hearings were indeed a blow to that effort." Over the next two years, Democrats conducted further hearings, not only on the war but on such related issues as the draft.

Congress also forced the administration to deal with the budgetary consequences of the war. In this case, the pressure came from conservative Democrats. While Johnson believed he could fund both domestic and wartime spending, some members of Congress forced him to make difficult choices. In January 1967, Johnson agreed with his economic advisors to propose a tax surcharge to quell the inflationary pressures caused by the war's overheating of the economy, and to raise enough funds so that he could continue paying for his War on Poverty initiative. But Representative Wilbur Mills, the powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, objected. Mills, a southern fiscal conservative, insisted that if the administration wanted to raise taxes, it would also have to cut domestic spending. Mills feared that the tax reductions of 1962 and 1964 would end in the "Vietnam jungle." According to Mills, Johnson would have to decide between guns and butter.

Because Democrats had lost 47 seats in the House, the conservative coalition had increased its strength, and Mills felt emboldened. While the administration agreed to spending cuts, it did not want to go as far as Mills did. The confrontation escalated in 1968 when an international financial crisis put intense pressure on the United States to reduce its deficit. The Johnson administration finally acquiesced that year and accepted $6 billion in budget cuts in exchange for the tax surcharge. While conservatives were not happy with the tax hike, they were eager to curb the deficit and strike a blow against Johnson's Great Society. At the same time, the tax surcharge "made many doves," as Dean Rusk explained, by making it painfully clear that there were costs to fighting this war. Previously, many liberals had believed that America could support "guns and butter." By 1968, they no longer thought so, and were willing to forego the war to save their ambitious domestic agenda.

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By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968, the antiwar coalition had expanded in Congress to include such former hawks as Missouri Democratic Senator Stuart Symington and northeastern liberal Republicans like Senator Jacob Javits. Bipartisan alliances were common in this era, since party discipline was weak and the committee system encouraged legislators to work across party lines.

In one respect, the antiwar coalition scored its most important victory when, upon taking office, President Nixon announced his policy of Vietnamization: The United States would gradually withdraw its forces from Vietnam to let the South fight the ground war on its own. Nixon's decision was as political as it was strategic: He had become convinced that he had to end the ground war if he hoped to undermine the liberal media and the Democratic Congress. Nixon's goal was to somehow "break the back of the establishment and Democratic leadership ... [and] then build a strong defense in [our] second term." Initially, his strategy worked. "The president has joined us," Church boasted, "he is now on the same perch with the doves ..."

Notwithstanding this huge policy shift -- and also because it took Nixon four full years to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Vietnam -- Democrats continued to challenge the administration. Nixon's aggressive claims about executive power goaded the opposition. On June 25, 1969, the Senate, by a resounding vote of 70 to 16, passed a "national commitments" resolution that stated that the Senate needed to repair the balance between the branches of government when dealing with foreign policy. That summer, Fulbright demanded that the administration admit there was a secret plan whereby the United States would help fight any insurgency in Thailand. Under pressure, Nixon announced a reduction of the U.S. military presence there. Following a two-week trip to South Asia, Mansfield began to demand that Nixon start reducing the size of U.S. military forces in the region. Some Republicans joined in. New York Representative Charles Goodell proposed a bill that would establish a deadline of December 1970 to pull troops out of Vietnam.

On December 16, 1969, Congress finally used the power of the purse. In a closed floor session, Church and Cooper offered an amendment to a defense spending bill to prevent the further use of money in Laos or Thailand. The amendment received the support of 73 senators. Church called the amendment a "reassertion of congressional prerogatives" on foreign policy. It survived the House-Senate conference committee, and Nixon signed the legislation.

But in the spring of 1970, Church and Cooper became concerned that Nixon was planning to use military force to support General Lon Nol, who had recently taken over Cambodia in a coup. Following Nixon's televised speech on April 30, in which he revealed that he had authorized a bombing attack on Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, Church and Cooper offered a new amendment that extended the 1969 prohibition to include Cambodia.

The administration mounted an intense lobbying effort to keep legislators from supporting the amendment. The American Legion sent letters to senators warning against such action. Historian Robert David Johnson has found that White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman authorized what Haldeman in his notes called "inflammatory types [such as Senators Robert Dole and Barry Goldwater] to attack Senate doves -- for knife in back disloyalty -- lack of patriotism." Nixon told his advisors to "hit ‘em in the gut."

Following an intense seven weeks of floor debate over the constitutional balance of power, the Senate voted on June 30, 1970 to pass the Church-Cooper amendment with 58 votes. The amendment stipulated that the administration could not spend funds for soldiers, combat assistance, advisors, or bombing operations in Cambodia. To broaden support for the measure, the sponsors agreed to alter the language so that the amendment aimed to work "in concert" with the administration's policies. They also declared the amendment did not deny any constitutional powers to the president.

Nixon warned that the amendment would "affect the president's exercise of his lawful responsibilities as commander in chief of the armed forces." In contrast to the seven-week debate in the Senate, it took the House less than an hour to table a motion instructing House conferees to agree to the Church-Cooper amendment. In response, Church and Cooper compromised on several key matters, including a provision to limit the amendment to ground troops and not air strikes. They then attached the amendment to a supplemental-aid bill that passed both the House and Senate. While the authors understood that Nixon was already taking troops out of Cambodia, and that the measure would have limited effect, Church still believed the amendment would "draw the purse strings tight against a deepening American involvement in Cambodia." Congress sent the measure to the president in late December. While some antiwar critics preferred the amendment proposed by South Dakota Democrat George McGovern and Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, which would have required a withdrawal of forces from Vietnam by the end of the next year, the passage of the Church-Cooper amendment marked the first successful use of congressional budgetary authority to limit the war.

The legislative pressure behind the amendment convinced Nixon that he would have to restrict ground operations in Cambodia and elsewhere. State Department official William Bundy recalled that "the Cooper-Church Amendment, and the sentiment it represented, continued to hang over the White House." Nixon National Security Council staffer John Lehman later said that "the impact on executive policies actually ran much deeper. It ... narrowed the parameters of future options to be considered. Everyone was aware that ground had been yielded and public tolerance eroded."

The proposals to restrict funds and force withdrawal produced intense pressure on Nixon to bring an end to the war on his own terms before his legislative opponents gained too much ground. During Nixon's first term, there were 80 roll call votes on the war in Congress; there had only been 14 between 1966 and 1968. In 1971, Mansfield attached an amendment to three pieces of legislation that required withdrawal of U.S. forces nine months after Congress passed the legislation. The White House warned that the president would not abide by this declaration. Congress agreed to pass the amendment but only after deleting the withdrawal date and declaring it to be a sense-of-Congress resolution, rather than a policy declaration, which was stronger. While the Senate had watered down the amendment, the expanding number of votes in support of it made the administration well aware of an increasingly active and oppositional Congress.

In 1972, Church and Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey were able to push through the Senate 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 of the legislation, with the amendment, marked the first time that either chamber had passed a provision establishing a cutoff of funds for continuing the war. Though House and Senate conferees failed to reach an agreement on the measure, the support for the amendment was seen by the administration as another sign that antiwar forces were gaining strength. The McGovern-Hatfield amendment was enormously popular with the public. A January 1971 Gallup poll showed that public support for the amendment stood at 73 percent.

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 only had 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. Indeed, to make certain that the president could not reverse course, in June 1973 Congress passed legislation that included an amendment sponsored by Church and 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.

Most importantly, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 over Nixon's veto. The legislation imposed a series of restrictions on the executive branch to ensure that the president would have to consult with the House and Senate before authorizing the troops for long periods of time.

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For the remainder of the decade, congress continued to legislate its ideas about U.S. conduct in the Cold War and to restrict the authority of the executive branch. In 1975, Congress refused President Gerald Ford's last-minute request to increase aid to South Vietnam by $300 million, just weeks before it fell to communist control. Few legislators had taken the request seriously; many conservative Republicans and hawkish Democrats agreed by then that Vietnam was lost and that the expenditure would have been a waste.

Nor did Congress restrict its actions to Southeast Asia. Congress passed an amendment in 1976 that banned the use of funds to fight communist forces in Angola. Frustrated with these decisions, Henry Kissinger complained that "we are living in a nihilistic nightmare. It proves that Vietnam is not an aberration but our normal attitude." Angola fell to communists. Although Democrats were not happy with the outcome, most remained convinced that Americans did not want to enter another protracted conflict. One cartoonist at the time quipped: "If you liked Vietnam, you'll love ... Angola."

Congress also tackled the important national security issues of covert operations and intelligence. Hearings by Church pressured Ford into issuing an executive order that imposed restrictions on the CIA, including a ban on assassinations. Ford agreed to issue the order, rather than waiting for inevitable congressional reforms, after then–Chief of Staff Dick Cheney told him such action would protect the CIA from "irresponsible attack" and protect presidential authority. In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required court-supervised monitoring of domestic surveillance operations by the federal government. The reforms were a response to revelations that the government had rampantly abused its power throughout the Cold War.

In sum, Congress played a very important role in building opposition to an unpopular and failed Cold War intervention. Legislators emerged as major voices of skepticism, criticism, and outright opposition to Vietnam. They checked the hawks in the administration who refused to believe the facts on the ground. Congress was ultimately pivotal to placing pressure on the Nixon administration to end a conflict that cost approximately 58,000 American lives.

Today, members from both parties would benefit by looking back at the history of Congress in the Vietnam era. As Congress struggles over how to correct a failed military policy and how to deal with an administration that is refusing to change course, legislators need to draw on their resources -- in the tradition of Fulbright, Church, McGovern, Cooper, Hatfield, and others -- despite the political risks. The real risk would be for Congress to capitulate and fail to act on its disagreement with the administration. The costs of the war in Iraq have been enormous, as financial and military resources, and human lives, are drained away. If voters go the polls in 2008 with the same fire in their bellies they had in 2006, the electoral costs will also be high for incumbents who failed to act on their beliefs.

Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history at Boston University and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is currently writing a history of national security politics since WWII that will be published by Yale University Press.

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