Talk about Congress cutting funding for the Iraq war has been moving from a mumble to what I expect will be a roar before long. It brings me back to a moment in the spring of 1973 when the House voted to block military aid for South Vietnam, the first step in a series of funding cuts that brought that war to an end.
In my judgment at the time, it was the Watergate scandal that emboldened Congress to act. Then, as now with Iraq, there was public revulsion at the war. But I thought it was unlikely Congress would have cut funding if not for the scandal having weakened Richard Nixon so badly.
There’s some discussion now about what Congress can do legally—whether it can block individual budget requests, say for escalation of troops—and also what the Democrats on Capitol Hill feel would be a sound approach politically.
I don’t remember discussions of the constitutionality of cutting funding in 1973. Instead I remember President Nixon mired in Watergate when, in early May of that year, the House voted to block the funding of military aid for South Vietnam and Cambodia. It was one of the legislators’ most independent, aggressive acts since the start of the war a decade earlier.
I was writing a book on Watergate at the time. To test my theory (one that seems so obvious now), a week after the House vote I phoned William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to ask what impact he felt Watergate had on American foreign policy, if any. I didn’t mention the House action but Fulbright brought it up immediately, calling it most significant and saying it indicated a change in the role Congress would play in foreign affairs.
Fulbright went further, saying Watergate had been “a very salutary development. It is immediately painful and sad to the individuals involved. But in a broad governmental aspect, it will help readjust relations between the President and the legislature.”
In an essay for HNN, a George Mason University Web site, a writer named Lauren Zanolli goes into the Vietnam funding cuts and states that “historians have directly attributed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the cessation of American aid.”
At the time, it was a Democratic Congress that reined in a Republican president when he was terribly weakened by scandal and conducting a widely-hated war. Iraq is at least as widely hated as Vietnam was but the scandal aspect is lacking. Let’s see what happens next.