How did the powers of the U.S. President and the U.S. Congress, as well as their relation, change during the Vietnam War?
For many reasons, the Vietnam War poses an outstanding chapter in the history of the United States. First, it proved to be America’s longest war, involving mass casualties (over 58,000 U.S. soldiers died during the Vietnam War) and gobbling up billions of dollars. Second, the Vietnam War is said to be the only war America ever lost. Therefore, it eroded morale within the military and influenced U.S. foreign policy for many years to come. Third and probably most important, the effects of the Vietnam War were not limited to foreign affairs, as it also had a great impact on American domestic affairs. The escalating war generated intense political criticism and social protests, as people questioned both the integrity of the South Vietnamese government and the credibility of American military claims that the war was going well (Shi, and Mayer 383-384). Moreover, the Vietnam War significantly altered the political landscape of the United States, as it, for example, caused a great change in the relation between the U.S. Congress and the presidential office. All too frequent, this aspect of the Vietnam War seems to be ignored, as people are way more concerned with questions regarding the war’s necessity and legitimacy. However, in order to get the whole story of the Vietnam War, one must also have a look at its effects on the U.S. political system. Therefore, in this essay I will examine how the powers of the U.S. President and the U.S. Congress, as well as their relation, changed during the Vietnam War, as they were significantly affected by events that took place in Vietnam.
In the United States, political power is divided into three branches, the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, as well as many other political actors like the media or lobbying groups. Therefore, many political scientists like the influential German scholar Klaus Stuewe, who has written numerous books and articles on American politics, conceive the political process in the United States as a power struggle among these different political actors, especially among the legislature (Congress) and the executive (President) (Stuewe, and Rinke 560). Therefore, over the past two centuries, there have been serious shifts in the distribution of power among these two major political institutions. In the beginnings of the United States, the function of the President was a mere administrative one. Political power almost entirely rested with the Congress, in which all major political decisions were found. But as the years passed by, the executive branch seized more and more functions and the presidential office became more and more powerful. An era in the history of the United States had begun which influential and widely acknowledged political scientist James L. Sundquist calls the “Decline of U.S. Congress” (Sundquist vii). Especially at times when U.S. national security was threatened by external forces, the presidential office was endowed with more powers in order to efficiently face those threats (Stuewe, and Rinke 552). Therefore, at such times the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branch almost always changed in favor of the President. As the Cold War posed a permanent threat to U.S. national security, this era led to a never before seen accumulation of presidential power. In this context, the Formosa Resolution (1955), the Cuba Resolution (1962), and the Berlin Resolution (1962) are of special importance, as they all endowed the President with greater war powers and weakened the Congress´ role within the U.S. political system. As Sundquist puts it: “So by this time a wealth of precedent had been established, though a dozen years of successive crises, that in the worldwide confrontation with communism it was for the president to set policy, the Congress to support. In its blank-check resolutions, the Congress agreed in advance to whatever he might do” (Sundquist 118). One has to notice here that the Congress willingly endowed the president with greater war powers and therefore deliberately weakened its own position.
In 1964, in the midst of this overall climate of congressional decline, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an U.S. destroyer patrolling in the Tonkin Gulf. As a result of this attack, President Johnson asked for congressional support in order to deal with the escalating situation in Vietnam. Again, the Congress endowed the President with greater war powers by passing a joint resolution known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It gave President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by the Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Indochina. In the resolution, it reads: “The United States is […] prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any protocol or member state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom” (Sundquist 121-122). As the stronger language used in it suggests, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution went far beyond former war resolutions like those mentioned above. Generally speaking, the Congress formally took itself out of Vietnam policymaking, thus making the Vietnam War a “Presidential War”. Only one year after the resolution had been passed, President Johnson came to the conclusion that a communist takeover in South Vietnam could be prevented only by the commitment of a large contingent of American forces to actual fighting. Yet, until the end of his presidency in 1969, there was no need for Johnson to make actual use of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, as the Congress approved all of his requests regarding the war. Sundquist calls this the “Congressional Acquiescence in Presidential War” (Sundquist 123-126). As a result of this, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam steadily increased, reaching a peak of 536,000 by the end of 1968 (Shi, and Mayer 384).
In January 1968, after the Viet Cong and its North Vietnamese allies launched the so called “Tet Offensive”, the American public became aware of the fact that things were far from good in Vietnam. Therefore, President Johnson had to deal with intensifying social protests as well as increasing political opposition, even within his own party. Antiwar Democrats like Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy gave Johnson a really hard time, and in March 1968, he announced his decision not to run for reelection. Johnson was succeeded by the Republican Richard Nixon, who was determined to continue the U.S. commitment in Vietnam, albeit applying a different strategy (Shi, and Mayer 384). With the growing public protest against the war, congressional opposition to presidential foreign policy decisions also began to increase. In 1969, the Congress gingerly took the first steps to assert control over any phase of Southeast Asia policy, when it adopted a Church amendment to prohibit the use of ground troops in Laos and Thailand. As a reaction to this, Nixon started to make actual use of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in order to override congressional opposition to his Vietnam policy, leading to a climax in the competition between executive and legislative branch which almost reached the proportions of a constitutional crisis in the early 1970s (Sundquist vii, 126). During that period, presidential power, which had steadily increased over the last three decades, was at an all time high. This led famous historian Arthur M. Schlesinger to write his classic work, The Imperial Presidency, in which he claims that the U.S. Presidency was out of control and had exceeded the constitutional limits (Schlesinger x).
However, even a powerful (imperial?) president like Nixon was not able to withstand the worsening military realities in Vietnam, which prompted increasing public protest as well as growing political opposition. During the early 1970s, the latter was more and more carried out by an increasingly confident Congress led by a Democratic majority. As mentioned above, Nixon made actual use of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution several times. His unilateral actions like the deployment of U.S. ground forces to Cambodia in April 1970 provoked public as well as congressional outcries. In December 1972, Nixon ordered what Senator Thomas F. Eagleton later called “one of the most brutal bombardments in the history of aerial warfare” on the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and its port of Haiphong (Sundquist 254). After repeated unilateral actions, this one turned out to be the final straw as it prompted a bipartisan majority to recapture the war power from the President. In March 1973, after the American forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam and the war had ended to the disadvantage of the United States, the Nixon administration was considerably weakened. The legislative branch took advantage of this situation and passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 in the November of the same year. The purpose of this resolution was to prevent future presidents from waging war without explicit congressional authorization. It read it part: “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations” (Shi, and Mayer 402). Therefore, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 marked the beginning of what James L. Sundquist calls the “Resurgence of the Congress”.
Summing, it should have become clear that the Vietnam War had great effects on the distribution of power among the U.S. President and the U.S. Congress as well as their relation. In the first place, the Vietnam War marked the culmination of a three decade process which made the President the exclusive master of foreign policy – free to wage war wherever, by whatever means, and on whatever scale he chose (Sundquist 126). This climax of presidential power was manifested in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, which was applied by President Nixon multiple times in the early 1970s. During the latter half of the 1960s, the Congress accepted the President´s leading role in Vietnam. However, this congressional support only lasted as long as things went well (Sundquist 120). Congressional opposition to President Nixon´s Vietnam policy increased, culminating in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which effectively prevented future presidents from waging war without explicit congressional authorization. Moreover, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 prompted the legislative branch to combat presidential power not only in the field of foreign policy but also at home. Invigorated by recapturing the war power, the Congress passed the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, therefore also regaining the power of the purse and significantly strengthening its position within the political system of the United States (Sundquist 255). Since then, despite minor setbacks in the aftermath of 9/11, the Congress kept its status as an once more important political actor. Hence, the Vietnam War was an essential era in the power struggle between the President and the Congress, which is vital to the understanding of the political system of the United States.