The prospect of Democrats controlling the 110th Congress has raised speculation over a possible suspension of funds for the war in Iraq. Given control of the purse strings, a Democratic Congress would be in the position to force the government to begin the withdrawal of troops. Although they have been hesitant to define their plan for Iraq, some Democrats have hinted at a drastic reduction in funds. When asked in a recent interview how a Democratic Congress could stop the war, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who is set to chair the Ways and Means Committee should the Democrats win the majority, precociously answered, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?” Fellow member of the Out of Iraq caucus, Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has stated that “Personally I wouldn’t spend another dime on the war,” and notes that Congress helped force an end to the Vietnam War by refusing to pay for it. (1)
What happened when Democrats in Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War?
Historians have directly attributed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the cessation of American aid. Without the necessary funds, South Vietnam found it logistically and financially impossible to defeat the North Vietnamese army. Moreover, the withdrawal of aid encouraged North Vietnam to begin an effective military offensive against South Vietnam. Given the monetary and military investment in Vietnam, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage compared the American withdrawal to “a pregnant lady, abandoned by her lover to face her fate." (2) Historian Lewis Fanning went so far as to say that “it was not the Hanoi communists who won the war, but rather the American Congress that lost it." (3)
In January of 1973, President Richard Nixon approved the Paris Peace Accords negotiated by Henry Kissinger, which implemented an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam and called for the complete withdrawal of American troops within sixty days. Two months later, Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Thieu and secretly promised him a “severe retaliation” against North Vietnam should they break the cease-fire. Around the same time, Congress began to express outrage at the secret illegal bombings of Cambodia carried out at Nixon’s behest. Accordingly, on June 19, 1973 Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment, which called for a halt to all military activities in Southeast Asia by August 15, thereby ending twelve years of direct U.S. military involvement in the region.
In the fall of 1974, Nixon resigned under the pressure of the Watergate scandal and was succeeded by Gerald Ford. Congress cut funding to South Vietnam for the upcoming fiscal year from a proposed 1.26 billion to 700 million dollars. These two events prompted Hanoi to make an all-out effort to conquer the South. As the North Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary Le Duan observed in December 1974: “The Americans have withdrawn…this is what marks the opportune moment." (4)
The NVA drew up a two-year plan for the “liberation” of South Vietnam. Owing to South Vietnam’s weakened state, this would only take fifty-five days. The drastic reduction of American aid to South Vietnam caused a sharp decline in morale, as well as an increase in governmental corruption and a crackdown on domestic political dissent. The South Vietnamese army was severely under-funded, greatly outnumbered, and lacked the support of the American allies with whom they were accustomed to fighting.
The NVA began its final assault in March of 1975 in the Central Highlands. Ban Me Thout, a strategically important hamlet, quickly fell to North Vietnam. On March 13, a panicked Thieu called for the retreat of his troops, surrendering Pleiku and Kontum to the NVA. Thieu angrily blamed the US for his decision, saying, “If [the U.S.] grant full aid we will hold the whole country, but if they only give half of it, we will only hold half of the country.”5 His decision to retreat increased internal opposition toward him and spurred a chaotic mass exodus of civilians and soldiers that clogged the dilapidated roads to the coast. So many refugees died along the way that the migration along Highway 7B was alternatively described by journalists as the “convoy of tears” and the “convoy of death.” 6 On April 21, President Thieu resigned in a bitter televised speech in which he strongly denounced the United States. Sensing that South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, the NVA accelerated its attack and reached Saigon on April 23. On the same day, President Ford announced to cheerful students at Tulane University that as far as America was concerned, “the war was over.” The war officially concluded on April 30, as Saigon fell to North Vietnam and the last American personnel were evacuated.
2 Edward J. Lee, Nixon, Ford, and the Abandonement of South Vietnam (McFarland & Co., 2002), p. 105.
3 Fanning, Betrayal in Vietnam.
4 Lee, 82.
5 Ibid, 91.
6 Ibid, 98.