When Congress Failed to Stop the Vietnam War





Mr. Goldstein is Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a writer for the History News Service.

Although polls show that two-thirds of the American public think that the war in Iraq is a mistake, Congress is having trouble stopping it. In fact, it continues to fund the war. Congress recently voted to appropriate $162 billion more for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the bill, the Democrats included domestic benefits for veterans but yielded to the administration's opposition to any troop withdrawal. Thus, while Congress has power to declare war and controls the public purse, practical problems constrain its exercise of these constitutional powers. The chief problem is that the majority party lacks the two-thirds majority in either house to override a presidential veto. What's more, both houses are reluctant to cut off spending to support troops in the field.

But the problems run still deeper and make any Congress ill-equipped to stop even an unpopular war a president wishes to continue. This institutional limitation was demonstrated thirty-five years ago when Congress tried to stop President Nixon's bombing of Cambodia.

Large majorities in both houses opposed the bombing as illegal and ill-advised and Watergate had already undermined Nixon's popularity. Nonetheless, Congress, with the acquiescence of leading opponents of the Vietnam war, eventually allowed Nixon to continue. The episode reveals the enormous obstacles to Congress stopping even an unpopular war.

In the spring of 1973 Nixon directed American military forces to continue bombing Cambodia even after the United States and North Vietnam had signed an agreement to end the war. The administration had previously defended such bombing as protecting American troops but their return had eliminated that justification.

In an effort to stop Nixon, Congress approved an amendment to an appropriations bill by Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton to prevent federal funds from being used to bomb Cambodia. Nixon promptly vetoed the measure and the House failed to override the veto.

With the end of the government's fiscal year only a few days away, Congress was considering a continuing resolution to allow government to operate at prior spending levels and legislation to raise the debt ceiling. These routine but necessary measures became complicated when the Eagleton Amendment was added to them. Such legislation, if passed, would have allowed government programs to continue but would have precluded further bombing of Cambodia.

This legislative maneuver led to a bargain between Nixon and Congress. He agreed to sign legislation provided the bombing cutoff did not take effect until August 15. A historic Senate debate followed, splitting Democratic liberals between those, led by J.William Fulbright, who favored the compromise, and those, such as Eagleton, who opposed it.

Fulbright and his colleagues conceded that the compromise allowed Nixon to continue bombing for 45 days. They insisted that they opposed the bombing but were powerless to stop it since the House would not override Nixon's veto.

Eagleton and his allies saw it differently. Congress had never authorized the bombing of Cambodia. The August 15 compromise gave Nixon that permission. Congress should assert its prerogatives and stop the bombing, Eagleton argued, not acquiesce as Nixon trespassed on its constitutional role of deciding when the United States was to make war. Ultimately, Congress approved the compromise, the funding measures passed and Nixon signed them into law.

The episode presents a clear instance of Congress seeking to flex its spending power to stop an unpopular war. The Eagleton Amendment brought Nixon to the table and the August 15 compromise ended the assault after 45 more days.

Yet it also illustrates limitations on congressional power. The conditions for stopping the war were far stronger in 1973 than they are now regarding Iraq. The troops were home, the bombing lacked legal justification, huge congressional majorities opposed it, the bombing had little strategic value and Nixon's administration was falling apart barely six months into his second term. Even so, Congress allowed Nixon to bomb for 45 more days. If Congress could not blow the whistle under those circumstances, when could it ever do so?

In 1973, many members of Congress who denounced the bombing as illegal and immoral were unwilling to force a constitutional showdown. Some calculated they could blame Nixon for a bombing they allowed to continue; others were disposed to compromise on Congress' constitutional power as if it were an ordinary legislative tradeoff.

The battle over the Eagleton Amendment reminds us that then, and now, Congress is hard-pressed to stop even an unpopular war. That takes presidential action. That difficult job will fall to George Bush's successor.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/11/2008

I'm sure you are correct to say the polls show two-thirds of Americans think the Iraq War was a mistake, and I think those polls are correct. However, if asked the same question five years from today, and certainly 10 years from today, most Americans will not then believe the Iraq War was a mistake, in all likelihood. Winning makes a big difference, and it looks very much like the objective of creating a democratic state in Mesopotamia--friendly to the U.S.--has become a reality. If so, this will be of inestmable value to the whole Middle East and to us for decades if not centuries to come.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/5/2008

We have stopped "the unpopular war" by winning it, and that was by far the best way to stop it. It would be insane to stop providing security for the new Iraqi state too soon, and jeopardize the immense progress that has been made.

I've lived through several wars in which we were engaged, and cannot remember any one of them which could be called "popular." The criterion for funding should be whether they are necessary, not whether they are popular.


Walter D. Kamphoefner - 7/1/2008

Did they interview any Iraqui Christians, assuming there are still any left in the country?

http://news.yahoo.com/s/usatoday/20080630/cm_usatoday/anexodusfromiraq;_ylt=AnBhdAGIni1QRVCf8rVjJ5as0NUE


Michael Davis - 6/30/2008

Amen brother. It's clear the surge has worked. We are much better off now without Hussein, et.al.

Anyone who wants a more clear understanding on just why Hussein was removed, needs to refresh their memory by reading chapter four of Niall Ferguson's "Colossus."


John Olerud - 6/29/2008

I watched a C-Span presentation from Anwar province in Iraq this morning. The C-Span camera crew interviewed officers and enlisted Marines stationed at an Iraqi police station outside Fallujah. One of the enlisted Marines commented that when he served in the same area a year ago his unit came under attack on a regular, almost daily basis. He said that right now the area is peaceful and quiet. He also commented that it would bother him if he couldn't see progress, but he commented that he saw progress in leaps and bounds by the Iraqi police taking care of law and order in the area and with the level of trust and cooperation between U.S. forces and local civilians. One of the last segments of the film showed American Marines discovering a buried weapons cache that local civilians alerted them to. The last segment was an interview with a Marine officer who explained how our tax dollars are paying Iraqi workers to remove reeds and vegetation from poorly maintained canals. The officer explained how this simple measure hurt the insurgents. First, it gave money to individual local Iraqis. Second, it cleared cover that insurgents could utilize for ambuscades. Third, it allowed the Marines to bring equipment to dredge the canals and widen them. This allowed the water to flow properly which benefited agricultural production and reduced the potential for waterborne disease. It was an interesting and eye opening piece, and I encourage you to watch the piece on C-Spans website. I wonder why we don't see this on network or cable news. I guess they are caught up in the blame game as well.

I feel safer in a world without Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq. I feel safer in a world without Uday and Qusay Hussein ready to continue the Hussein family rule for another generation. I feel safer in a world where Iraq has a democratically elected government.

I wonder what percentage of Americans wanted to vote for the Copperhead candidate, George McClellan, in July of 1864.


John Olerud - 6/29/2008

I watched a C-Span presentation from Anwar province in Iraq this morning. The C-Span camera crew interviewed officers and enlisted Marines stationed at an Iraqi police station outside Fallujah. One of the enlisted Marines commented that when he served in the same area a year ago his unit came under attack on a regular, almost daily basis. He said that right now the area is peaceful and quiet. He also commented that it would bother him if he couldn't see progress, but he commented that he saw progress in leaps and bounds by the Iraqi police taking care of law and order in the area and with the level of trust and cooperation between U.S. forces and local civilians. One of the last segments of the film showed American Marines discovering a buried weapons cache that local civilians alerted them to. The last segment was an interview with a Marine officer who explained how our tax dollars are paying Iraqi workers to remove reeds and vegetation from poorly maintained canals. The officer explained how this simple measure hurt the insurgents. First, it gave money to individual local Iraqis. Second, it cleared cover that insurgents could utilize for ambuscades. Third, it allowed the Marines to bring equipment to dredge the canals and widen them. This allowed the water to flow properly which benefited agricultural production and reduced the potential for waterborne disease. It was an interesting and eye opening piece, and I encourage you to watch the piece on C-Spans website. I wonder why we don't see this on network or cable news. I guess they are caught up in the blame game as well.

I feel safer in a world without Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq. I feel safer in a world without Uday and Qusay Hussein ready to continue the Hussein family rule for another generation. I feel safer in a world where Iraq has a democratically elected government.

I wonder what percentage of Americans wanted to vote for the Copperhead candidate, George McClellan, in July of 1864.

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