When Congress Failed to Stop the Vietnam War

Although polls show that two-thirds of the American public thinks that the war in Iraq is a mistake, Congress is having trouble stopping it. In fact, it continues to fund the war. The 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.

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