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Congress Is Always Reluctant to End Wars Unilaterally

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says trying to end U.S. involvement in Iraq by repealing the use-of-force resolution is like “un-ringing a bell.” Another Member compares it to “trying to put an egg back in a chicken.” Choose your metaphor; the point remains that ending a war is a lot more difficult than starting one. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Constitution is silent as to whether Congress can “un-declare” a war. It is simply understood that a war ends when one side wins; a peace treaty is signed (ratifying a victory or stalemate); or one side withdraws from the field of battle either voluntarily (in frustration or fatigue) or for lack of resources (men, material and money).

While comparisons between U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Iraq are imperfect at best, what does bear close watching are the similarities and differences in how Congress attempts to extricate American troops from an unpopular war. We may not be witnessing an exact replay of steps taken in the 1970s to accelerate American withdrawal from Vietnam, but we certainly are witnessing variations on a theme, or two themes, to be precise. One is de-authorizing the war and the other is defunding it.

In the case of Vietnam, Congress actually did contemplate a way to end the war when it passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964 in response to North Vietnamese attacks on a U.S. destroyer. The resolution gave the president authority “to take all steps necessary, including the use of force” to repel attacks on American forces and to protect our Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies in defending their freedom. Section 3 of the resolution stated that the authority would expire when the president determined “that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured … except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress” (which is not subject to presidential approval). That was the deauthorizing approach.

When President Lyndon Johnson escalated U.S. troop levels in Vietnam by 200,000 in 1966, Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) offered an amendment to a supplemental spending bill for the war to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The amendment was overwhelmingly rejected.

When President Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, there were well over 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. He began a phased withdrawal of troops later that same year, coupled with his “Vietnamization” plan to strengthen South Vietnam’s defense capabilities. The legislative branch adopted several “sense of Congress” resolutions supporting the withdrawal policy but also enacted an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act barring any U.S. ground combat activity in Laos or Thailand — the “no funding” approach.

In late April 1970, Nixon sent American troops into Cambodia to clean out North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries. A storm of protest against broadening the war erupted in mass rallies around the country and in Congress. Although Nixon promised that the troops would be removed from Cambodia by the end of June, the Senate proceeded to consider a number of legislative responses to the incursion.

The principal focus was an amendment offered to the foreign military sales bill by Sens. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) and Frank Church (D-Idaho) to prohibit the use of funds for U.S. troops or advisers in Cambodia. The amendment was reported by the Foreign Relations Committee and eventually adopted by the Senate. During debate on the bill, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) offered an amendment to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to demonstrate that Republicans were also upset with the president’s incursion into Cambodia. The administration did not object to the amendment, arguing that the president retained the inherent authority as commander in chief to continue the war, so long as Congress supplied the funds.

Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, did object, however, because his committee, on May 15, had reported a separate concurrent resolution repealing the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Nevertheless, the Dole amendment was handily adopted on June 24 and was finally signed into law in late December. The Foreign Relations Committee’s concurrent resolution repealing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was adopted in July but never taken up by the House.

Senate debate on the military sales bill dragged on for seven weeks and then got hung up in the House-Senate conference committee for six months over the Cooper-Church language (which the House had rejected). A modified version of Cooper-Church was eventually transferred to a foreign assistance bill and signed into law at the end of the session — six months after U.S. troops had left Cambodia.

By now it is popular myth that it was a “resurgent” Congress that ended the Vietnam War by cutting off funds over a presidential veto. While it is true that the Senate adopted several amendments from 1971 to 1973 calling for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by a date certain, none was accepted by the House. It was not until June 1973 that Congress finally barred funding for all military operations in or over Indochina by Aug. 15. Nixon signed the bill into law. That was a year after all U.S. combat troops had left Vietnam, five months after the Paris Peace Accords committed the U.S. to withdraw the remaining 25,000 troops and three months after those troops had been withdrawn.

The lesson of Vietnam is that even with public sentiment running strongly against a war, Congress will be reluctant to second-guess the commander in chief for fear of being seen as tying his hands, micromanaging the war, endangering the troops or inviting chaos. In the interim, though, Congress performs a valuable function by keeping the debate before the people, maintaining pressure for an honorable peace, suggesting options and holding the administration accountable. In the final analysis, Edmund Burke had it right: “No war can long be carried on without the will of the people.”

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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