Congress should reclaim war-making authority
50 years ago, the Senate reasserted its power to control U.S. military conflicts
[Read the full article at the Washington Post]
The rush to war. The use of faulty intelligence. A seemingly unending conflict, with few discernible checks on the presidential use of military force.
While these ghosts of Vietnam prefigure elements of America’s wars in South Asia and the Middle East—indeed, around the globe—what’s different about the political climate then and now is that 50 years ago this week, the US Senate decided to do something about it. That effort, though late in coming, serves as a telling reminder to our Congress about its proper role—even its duty—to pronounce on when and why the president can send US forces into harm’s way and in our country’s name.
Eager to claw back some of the power it had relinquished to the executive branch as the United States ratcheted up the war in Vietnam, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), held a hearing in February 1968 on the Tonkin Gulf incidents—the murky events of August 1964 that resulted in Congress giving President Lyndon B. Johnson a “blank check authorization for further action," as Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara described it. This authorization opened the door to America’s escalation of the conflict.
In essence, Congress transferred its war powers to the president, sanctioning all levels of military activity without a declaration of war.
This fateful move came after Johnson and his aides received reports that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked a US destroyer, the USS Maddox, on August 2, 1964, and the destroyer Turner Joy and the Maddox again on August 4. To them, it suggested that Hanoi was intensifying its war against South Vietnam and its American patron. Having held his fire after the August 2 attack, Johnson responded to the apparent second incident with airstrikes, the first US bombing of North Vietnam.
Johnson then used the incident to amass sweeping authority for waging war in Southeast Asia. Maintaining that the North Vietnamese raids were “unprovoked,” the administration introduced into Congress the Southeast Asia Resolution—known colloquially as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—which authorized the president “to take all necessary measure to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” It fell to Senator Fulbright to steer the resolution through its nearly unanimous adoption by the Senate.
But questions about what actually happened on August 4, which the Johnson administration knocked down then and thereafter, nagged at Fulbright. Not only were there indications that raids on North Vietnam had provoked the engagements, but there was also suspicion that the August 4 incident had never even occurred. Fulbright’s unease only grew as the president sent American troops abroad—first to the Dominican Republic in April 1965 in an alleged effort to protect US citizens from a Communist coup, and then in considerably greater numbers to Vietnam.