Website of Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

Page Ten



Almon Leroy Way, Jr.


1. A Resurgence of Isolationism

As a consequence of the nature, course, and outcome of the Vietnam War, the American people were, by 1973, weary, disillusioned, and restive. Popular and congressional support for the U.S. government's policy of endeavoring to "contain Communism" had been seriously eroded and undermined. As indicated previously, the protracted character of the war and the high costs of U.S. involvement resulted in a resurgence within the U.S.A. of public opinion favoring an isolationist, or noninterventionist, foreign policy--a revival of sentiment in favor of America's withdrawal from international affairs, especially from participation in the war in Vietnam. Voices in and out of Congress were calling for America's retreat from its "imperial" role as "World Policeman" and "Protector of the Free World." This new mood of withdrawal, or retreat, was reinforced by the final defeat of the U.S.A. in the Vietnam War--"defeat" in the sense of the utter failure of the U.S. government to "contain Communism" in Indochina and prevent the Communists from overrunning and subjugating South Vietnam and Cambodia.

2. The Brewing Congressional Revolt

The new mood of withdrawal had the effect of eroding and undermining congressional sup- port for or acquiescense in independent presidential war-making. Congress was getting its back up and manifesting new found courage, moving to circumscribe the President's role as "chief architect of American foreign policy" and to curb his power as Commander-in-Chief to commit the U.S. Armed Forces to foreign combat. Brewing in Congress was a revolt against the President's virtually solo determination of U.S. foreign and military policy. Congress was seeking to reassert itself, regain power it had lost to the Presidency, and devise new means of participating more fully and effectively in the shaping and control of the nation's external policy.

At this particular moment in American political history, the inclination of Congress to rise up and challenge presidential ascendancy in foreign and military policy-making was given even greater strength--and the idea of such a political revolt made even more tempting--by the combined effects three sets of phenomena: (1) our system of checks and balances, (2) partisan politics, and (3) basic human nature.

3. The Impact of the System of Checks and Balances

America's constitutional system of checks and balances was designed by the Founders to facilitate and encourage competition and conflict--rather than collaboration or collusion-- among the three branches of the national government (legislative, executive, and judicial) and between the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and House of Representatives. As a consequence of the (1) Framers' design at the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and (2) the evolution of the American constitutional and political system over the past two centuries, three major policy-making organs of the U.S. government--Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives--are elected by different constituencies with varying and competing interests. These three major organs of government, reflecting and representing the interests of their respective constituencies, have a much greater tendency to oppose, block, and thwart each other than they have to support and accomodate one another.

Conflict between Congress and the President and between the Senate and House of Representatives has been institutionalized and is an essential feature of the national political system. Such conflict is continuous and, at times, includes power struggles between the legislature and the executive.

4. The Impact of Partisan Politics

Throughout the period of the Nixon Presidency, the partisan political situation in Washington, D.C., was one of divided government, with the titular leader of one major political party holding the Office of President and with the opposition party controlling Congress. While President Nixon was a Republican, the Democrats held a majority of the seats in each of the two houses of Congress. As was usually the case when the Democrats had majorities in both chambers of Congress during the tenure of a Republican president, the Democrats in Congress, looking after the institutional interests of their own party and seeking to enhance its chances for victory in future presidential and congressional elections, set out to thwart, frustrate, and embarass the Republican President, determined to make partisan political points at every turn and hoping to discover, investigate, and publicly expose a major scandal in the Nixon Presidency or in some other manner provoke or create a public controversy that would weaken, undermine, and possibly decimate support among voters and campaign contributors for Republican candidates in future elections.

5. The Impact of Basic Human Nature

During the Nixon Presidency, as has always been the case in the political arena, a major variable, or factor, shaping political events and developments was basic human nature--i.e., human frailty coupled with political ambition, human imperfection and moral weakness, as reflected in the bahavior of that very special class of human beings known to us as "professional politicians." The professional politicians who populate the U.S. Congress tend strongly to "play politics" with issues of American foreign and military policy, placing their own narrower partisan and personal interests above the broader interests of American national defense and security. Acting and reacting like the "political animal" he really is, each congressional politician is strongly inclined to oppose and criticize the foreign and military policy initiatives of a president of the opposing party and support and praise the policy initiatives of a president of his own party, as long as the policies of the latter appear to be popular with the voters in his state or congressional district. If the policy initiatives of a president with whom the congressional politician shares the same party label are not so popular with his state or district constituents, he is quite likely to forget about the institutional interests of his party at the national level and turn against the party's titular leader, claiming and proclaiming that he always had doubted the wisdom of and had opposed the particular presidential policies in question.

6. The Congressional Revolt in Progress

In June, 1973, the long-simmering congressional revolt against independent presidential war-making really got underway. Two different standing committees of the Senate voted to recommend to the full Senate its passage of a bill which, if enacted into law, would immediately cut off funds for U.S. bombing in Cambodia. Subsequently, the Senate passed the cutoff bill, and, on June 25, the bill was approved by the House of Representatives. Two days later, President Nixon vetoed the bill, and the bill's supporters in the House of Representatives failed to muster the two-thirds vote required of both chambers of Congress to override the President's veto and make the bill law without his signature and consent.

Although his veto of the legislation had been sustained, President Nixon realized that subsequent cutoff bills were very likely to be proposed and that, eventually, his veto would be overridden. To buy time and avoid an immediate cut off of funding, the President agreed to a compromise that had been negotiated between the Presidency and leading Congres- sional Democrats. The compromise bill, passed by the two houses of Congress and signed into law by Nixon, (1) specified August 15 as the date for cessation of U.S. bombing activities in Cambodia and (2) made congressional approval of funding a prerequisite for further U.S. military operations in Indochina.

Nixon complained that the effect of the compromise legislation, with its scheduled mandatory cut off of funds, was to deprive the President of the means to compel the Communists' compliance with the terms of the Vietnam peace agreement. According to Nixon--

    "We were faced with having to abandon our support of the Cambodians who were trying to hold back the Communist Khmer Rouge, who were being supplied by the North Vietnamese in violation of the peace agreement. The Cambodians ... could not understand why we were suddenly deserting them--especially when the military tide seemed to be turning in their favor.
    "Congress, however, was not prepared to hear any arguments and was determined to go forward despite the consequences." [Nixon, MEMOIRS, p. 887.]

On August 3, President Nixon, in a written message to House Speaker Carl Albert and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, argued that, from the congressional legislation setting the scheduled mandatory funds cut off, the North Vietnamese were likely to draw the conclusion that they were at liberty to initiate military offensives in Cambodia and other parts of Indochina. He said that the North Vietnamese Communists probably would interpret the termination of U.S. bombing in Cambodia as "an invitation to fresh aggression or further violations of the Paris agreements." [IBID., p. 888.]

As the Nixon Presidency was being critically wounded--and what remained of its support, influence, and credibility were being drained out of it--by the highly publicized Senate investigation of the Watergate scandal and Nixon's involvement in the coverup, the congressional revolt against independent presidential war-making and its underlying theory continued to roll along pell-mell. With the Presidency momentarily weakened to the point that it was unabble to put up effective resistance to and defense against the onslaught, the Democratic majority in Congress had the taste of blood in its mouth and jumped in for the kill. Restrictive measures were forthcoming.

On November 7, 1973, Congress overrode a presidential veto and enacted into law the War Powers Act, which was intended to impose strict limits on the President's war-making abilities. In 1974, Congress started reducing appropriations for U.S. aid to South Vietnam's military forces, doing so at a time when the volume of Soviet supplies, arms, and equipment being turned over to the North Vietnamese was growing.

President Nixon maintained that actions taken by Congress against his Presidency--the bombing cut off, the War Powers Act, and the reduction in U.S. military aid to South Vietnam--"set off a string of events that led to the Communist takeover in Cambodia and, on April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam." [IBID.]

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