God's Politics

God's Politics

Wes Granberg-Michaelson: Four Lessons from Vietnam

The showdown between Congress and the president this month around the funding for the Iraq war isn’t the first of its kind. We’ve been here before, and we need not walk blindly down rhetorical dead ends.

In 1970, well into the Vietnam War, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, a Republican, and Sen. George McGovern, a Democrat, introduced legislation to cut off funding by a certain date in the future for U.S. combat operations in Vietnam. The invasion of Cambodia, and the widespread anti-war demonstrations that followed throughout the country, focused political attention on the McGovern-Hatfield legislation as a means to reverse President Nixon’s Vietnam policies. A mobilization of public opinion, with TV and radio ads and a focused lobbying campaign, backed this effort.


What lessons can be learned to inform our present debate?

1) Opposition must be genuinely bi-partisan. Republican senators such as Charles Goodell, Charles “Mac” Mathias, and others joined Hatfield. And powerful Democratic senators such as John Stennis and Henry Jackson were ardent supporters of President Nixon’s policies. This meant debate on the war policy did not immediately degenerate into predictable partisan rhetoric. That allowed for more focus and examination of actual policy alternatives. Judgments on war policy had more of a chance to transcend partisan allegiance than they do today. Opposition to President Bush’s Iraq policy, as well as support, has to become more principled than a simple litmus test of loyalty to either party.


2) It’s not about supporting our troops. The McGovern-Hatfield proposal established a date in the future – from nine months to a year in various versions – when congressional appropriations for U.S. combat troops in Vietnam would cease. In the meantime, it specified that all necessary support and funding for the troops be provided. No policymaker would ever propose that we stop buying bullets for soldiers that are deployed.

Today’s Iraq debate seems framed by arguments over who can best support our troops. The president and vice-president maintain that we must continue the war in order to support our troops. But that is a non-sensible rationale for a war policy. Democrats argue that we best support our troops by bringing them home. Likewise, that’s no foundation for reversing a war policy, only a consequence.


Supporting the troops is not the issue. That’s a given. The question is whether our Iraq policy is right or wrong.

President Nixon tried hard to frame those such as McGovern and Hatfield as not backing our soldiers in the field. He even argued that we must continue the Vietnam War in order to get our prisoners of war returned – as if that would not be a part of a negotiated end to the war. That’s why the protest of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, where John Kerry entered the public spotlight, was the most threatening of any opposition to Nixon’s policies. Hippies could be dismissed, but not uniformed veterans.

3) It is about the money. Sen. Hatfield’s opening arguments on the Senate floor (this was at a time when speeches in the Senate actually seemed to matter), when he and George McGovern introduced their proposal, centered on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse regarding war. A long list of distinguished constitutional scholars agreed. Those arguments are being recycled today.


The president is right to say that Congress shouldn’t “micro-manage” the strategy and tactics of war. But that’s a clever rhetorical phrase that is largely meaningless. Congress does have the clear right to establish whether and when its support of a war, through its appropriations, will come to an end. Then it is up to the president and his military commanders to manage and implement that goal.

Other means of congressional opposition are largely empty rhetoric. Granted, the power of the purse is a blunt instrument for policymaking regarding war. But it is the constitutional avenue clearly provided, through which elected representatives can balance the power of the executive with the will of the people. Members of Congress who are convinced our Iraq war policy is wrong should not pay for it after an agreed and reasonable date. Those who believe it is right should write a blank check.


4) Political pressure eventually works. The McGovern-Hatfield amendment never passed the Senate. It first received 39 votes, then 42, and then, under the less politically volatile name of Sen. Lawton Chiles, 49 votes. Had McGovern-Hatfield passed and been adopted by the House, President Nixon would have vetoed it.

But all these congressional actions created a political environment that limited Nixon’s options. He began withdrawing troops and finally negotiated an end to the war. Despite their dire predictions of outcomes, today U.S. companies are racing to catch up with other corporations heavily investing in Vietnam’s economy.

In retrospect, we see now that successful congressional action could have ended the Vietnam War sooner, saving thousands of lives and achieving the same outcome. U.S. troops will be withdrawn, at some date, from Iraq. The question is when, and how. Congress can and should use its constitutional power to influence that outcome.

Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served as legislative assistant to Sen. Mark O. Hatfield from 1968 to 1976 and was his chief legislative strategist on Vietnam. Today he serves as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

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Mike Hayes

posted May 10, 2007 at 5:56 pm

“… But all these congressional actions created a political environment that limited Nixon s options… In retrospect, we see now that successful congressional action could have ended the Vietnam War sooner, saving thousands of lives and achieving the same outcome. U.S. troops will be withdrawn, at some date, from Iraq. The question is when, and how. Congress can and should use its constitutional power to influence that outcome…”. Yes, saving thousands of lives and achieving the same outcome. Thousands of lives, of US troops and Vietnamese civilians. May the present bipartisan effort succeed, where the 1970 effort failed. May the war in Iraq not go on for another five years, with no different result.

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Ted Voth Jr

posted May 10, 2007 at 6:38 pm

What are you going to do with an Administration that started the Iraq War in part to prove that ‘We could’ve won the Vietnam War’? We the People need to keep pressing our Congress to keep pressing ‘our’ President to end the war by a date certain, using the ancient Anglo-Saxon power of the purse. And I think we need to keep pressing our Congress to impeach Cheney and Bush and remove them from office. Soonest.

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posted May 11, 2007 at 5:41 am

This blog is proof that the hippies of the sixties are now the people called “progressives” today. Yet, we won’t know who will be their Pol Pot to set up and carry out the new killing fields, once “the Left” forces American soldiers out of Iraq. Yup, things look very much like the Vietnam war.

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Rick Nowlin

posted May 11, 2007 at 4:06 pm

This blog is proof that the hippies of the sixties are now the people called “progressives” today. It does no such thing. Yet, we won’t know who will be their Pol Pot to set up and carry out the new killing fields, once “the Left” forces American soldiers out of Iraq. Doesn’t matter — if you haven’t noticed, they’re that way already. At least when we get out we won’t be the ones being killed. And if you think we can simply use continued force to bring the “terrorists” to heel — we’ll, you’re smoking something, because it would have happened already.

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Randy Gabrielse

posted May 11, 2007 at 6:20 pm

Rev. Granberg Michaelson offers a wise comparison. He demonstrates his wisdom by BEGINNING with the need for congressional action to be bi-partisan. That would make stopping the war one of the few issues that Democrats and Republicans work together to acheive. However, I am not sure whether the Rev. noticed how he also mentioned the difference between Christians and policymakers. He said that “No policymaker would would ever consider that we stop buying bullets for the soldiers that are already deployed.” It is interestingly ironic that of all the items that comprise the military at a time we are claiming to try to help the people, the commentary highlights the item that has no other purpose than to kill or maim. This is where Christians ought to part paths with policymakers. The Christian Peacemakers were in Baghdad from before the war through the mid-2006. Because of the good will of their neighbors and Muslims, they suffered 1 death by enemies while living without weapons or any of the usual security features. When four of their members were kidnapped, the action was universally condemned by Muslim leaders. And unlike the US military, they listened to their Iraqi neighbors and stayed as long as they asked, and left when they suggested their presence had become a possible danger. Randy Gabrielse

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Jim Beggs

posted May 11, 2007 at 6:55 pm

Since the start of this conflict, the administration has disparaged comparison to the Vietnam conflict. It is clear that we have never come to grips as a nation over our “loss” of that war. I’m convinced that the bulk of the support for “victory” in Iraq comes from those who still believe that we could have “won” in Vietnam. Has there been a poll that compares the belief that we should have stayed in Vietnam with support of staying in Iraq until we achieve victory? Just as we have no articulated idea of what might comprise victory in Iraq, I’ve never heard what winning the civil war in Vietnam would have looked like. The idea of an occupying force winning a civil war seems ludicrous. It is a recipe for an endless war as the occupation itself generates opposition.

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posted May 11, 2007 at 7:11 pm

Who supported Pol Pot? Hippies, you say?The bombing of Cambodia by the US from 1969 to 1972, left 600,000 civilians dead, millions of refugees, tens-of-thousands dying from disease and starvation, and the Cambodian economy and culture in ruins. Cambodians blamed the US and the puppet regime of Lon Nol for the country’s destruction, and gradually sided with the guerrilla army of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, which finally defeated Lon Nol, and took power in April, 1975. Once in power, Pol Pot emptied the cities, forcing the people into the countryside. Virtually all educated people were killed and more than 1.5 million people perished in this “holocaust. Only when the Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnam in 1979, did the terror stop. Washington took steps to preserve the Khmer Rouge as a counter force to the Vietnamese. International relief agencies were pressured by the US to provide food and humanitarian assistance to the Khmer Rouge, which had fled to Thailand, and the US sent military aid as well. In 1982, in an effort to isolate the Vietnamese, the US forced together the three contending anti-Vietnamese groups, insisting that the Khmer Rouge be part of the negotiations. Cambodia continues to suffer from the devastation produced by both the US bombing and the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Pol Pot is considered to still be the power behind the Khmer Rouge, which has a strong presence in Cambodia today, thanks to the US.”

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posted May 12, 2007 at 4:59 am

Gol-lee, n-nurse; what are you, a computerized robot? I’ve never met anybody w/ such a grasp of what’s available online (o, wait a minute, there was that dirty-old-man in my last congregation…) I admire you. Please stop supporting your posts with facts, it gets really convincing!

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posted May 13, 2007 at 10:13 pm

Please stop supporting your posts with facts, it gets really convincing! canucklehead Sola fide does not apply to medical or nursing practice. Our justification comes from evidence. I ve just learned how to look for it. Peace!

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posted May 14, 2007 at 12:53 am

Donny The weird politico religious fear-world you live in is something you have been tricked into by people who know nothing more of God than you yourself are able to know. The dogs of war that guard your prison are phantoms. You are free to walk out and breathe the free air.Blessed are the peacemakers Blessed are the Poor Blessed are those who hunger for justice blessed are the merciful love is of God, one who loves is born of God.

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posted May 14, 2007 at 9:40 pm

I think that the conspicuous LACK of activity on this thread is evidence that a consensus has finally emerged. As you all know, the rest of the “coalition” has pretty much bailed out of this mess. We’re on our own.And the moderate republicans have FINALLY confronted Bush and his delusions. A few thousand American lives too late.

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