How Congress Got Us out of Vietnam: Once upon a Time, Congress Put an End to a Bloody Debacle. It Can Do It Again

By Zelizer, Julian E. | The American Prospect, March 2007 | Go to article overview

How Congress Got Us out of Vietnam: Once upon a Time, Congress Put an End to a Bloody Debacle. It Can Do It Again


Zelizer, Julian E., The American Prospect


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 cannot 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.

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 State Department official 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. …

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