Has Congress ever turned down a president who asked for authorization to use military force? Sure, there was Ford’s last-ditch aid request for Vietnam in 1975, but that was for the end of a war, not the start of one. Anything else? Do the fights over funding for the contras count? I feel like I’m going to be embarrassed when someone points out some famous congressional refusal that I’ve forgotten about, but I sure can’t dredge anything up.
Drum already acknowledges the Syria non-vote last year, and expresses a sentiment I concur with:
I’d say that Obama mostly asked for authorization in the hopes of being turned down. He didn’t exactly put on a full-court press, did he?
We could only wish Nixon had felt the same way during the spring and summer of 1973.
When Congress Failed to Stop the Vietnam War
Drum mentions the conclusion of the Vietnam War with Ford’s wish to intervene amidst the Fall of Saigon, but Congress was merely reiterating a “compromise” between the legislators and Ford’s predecessor. The situation boiled over on 31 May 1973:
The US Senate has voted to cut off funds for the bombing of Cambodia.
The move is a serious blow to President Richard Nixon’s South-East Asia policy and follows a similar resolution voted in by the House of Representatives on 10 May.
The president’s special adviser, Dr Henry Kissinger, had pleaded with the senate not to rebel against the government while he was still trying to negotiate a lasting settlement in Indo-China.
He said if the communists in Vietnam realised there were divisions in Congress, he would find it impossible to hold them to the terms of the 28 January ceasefire.
Immediately someone should ask: why was the USAF still carpet-bombing Cambodia four months after the American-Vietnamese CEASEFIRE? I’ll get right back to answer that question in a minute; the political “compromise” factors into the bombing cessation in August:
In the spring of 1973 Nixon directed American military forces to continue bombing Cambodia even after the United States and North Vietnam had signed an agreement to end the war. The administration had previously defended such bombing as protecting American troops but their return had eliminated that justification.
In an effort to stop Nixon, Congress approved an amendment to an appropriations bill by Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton to prevent federal funds from being used to bomb Cambodia. Nixon promptly vetoed the measure and the House failed to override the veto.
With the end of the government’s fiscal year only a few days away, Congress was considering a continuing resolution to allow government to operate at prior spending levels and legislation to raise the debt ceiling. These routine but necessary measures became complicated when the Eagleton Amendment was added to them. Such legislation, if passed, would have allowed government programs to continue but would have precluded further bombing of Cambodia.
This legislative maneuver led to a bargain between Nixon and Congress. He agreed to sign legislation provided the bombing cutoff did not take effect until August 15. A historic Senate debate followed, splitting Democratic liberals between those, led by J.William Fulbright, who favored the compromise, and those, such as Eagleton, who opposed it.
Fulbright and his colleagues conceded that the compromise allowed Nixon to continue bombing for 45 days. They insisted that they opposed the bombing but were powerless to stop it since the House would not override Nixon’s veto.
Eagleton and his allies saw it differently. Congress had never authorized the bombing of Cambodia. The August 15 compromise gave Nixon that permission. Congress should assert its prerogatives and stop the bombing, Eagleton argued, not acquiesce as Nixon trespassed on its constitutional role of deciding when the United States was to make war. Ultimately, Congress approved the compromise, the funding measures passed and Nixon signed them into law.
The Ides of August must have been a significant date to Richard Nixon. The Economic Stabilization Act passed on 15 August 1970 and Nixon availed himself of the ESA’s authorizations to impose price controls and “close the gold window” exactly one year later. Two years to the day after suspending gold convertibility, Strategic Air Command B-52s dropped the last ordnance expended in the largest bombing campaign waged by combat aircraft up until that time…or since.
Setting Southeast Asia on Fire
Yes, the largest bombing tonnages in history struck four countries in Southeast Asia over a nine year period that ended 15 August 1973:
The United States Air Force dropped in Indochina, from 1964 to August 15, 1973, a total of 6,162,000 tons of bombs and other ordnance. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft expended another 1,500,000 tons in Southeast Asia. This tonnage far exceeded that expended in World War II and in the Korean War. The U.S. Air Force consumed 2,150,000 tons of munitions in World War II – 1,613,000 tons in the European Theater and 537,000 tons in the Pacific Theater – and 454,000 tons in the Korean War.
7.6 million tons of ordnance—arrayed against Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam. The Cambodian bombing alone was the harbinger of the political and economic calamities that were about to befall the United States during the 1970s:
A joint US–South Vietnam ground invasion of Cambodia in May and June of 1970 had failed to root out Vietnamese Communists, and Nixon now wanted to covertly escalate the air attacks, which were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (vc/nva) in the Cambodian jungle. After telling Kissinger that the US Air Force was being unimaginative, Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country:
“They have got to go in there and I mean really go in…I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”
Kissinger knew that this order ignored Nixon’s promise to Congress that US planes would remain within thirty kilometres of the Vietnamese border, his own assurances to the public that bombing would not take place within a kilometre of any village, and military assessments stating that air strikes were like poking a beehive with a stick. He responded hesitantly:
“The problem is, Mr. President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war…in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”
Five minutes after his conversation with Nixon ended, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the president:
“He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”
The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.
Perhaps in the future historians will refer to Vietnam as the Vietnam Wars–the individual conflicts in Cambodia and Laos had Vietnamese angles, but became full-fledged wars in and of themselves after Nixon took office and decided he’d rather kill everybody. In a terrible twist of fate, Cambodia, Laos and the Vietnams are not only listed in alphabetical order but in terms of most-bombed country ever:
U.S. [aircraft] dropped 2.7 million tons on Cambodia, 2.5 million tons on Laos, and 2.4 million tons on North and South Vietnam (give or take a few hundred thousand tons of explosives).
The actual Cambodian bombing tonnage was 2,756,941 tons, which is somewhat significant given that the War in Europe absorbed an almost equivalent expenditure of American, British, and Soviet explosives:
In total, Allied aircraft dropped 656,400 tons of bombs on Japanese targets, 160,800 tons on the home islands. This was much smaller than the 2,700,000 tons dropped over Europe, or even the 1,360,000 tons on Germany.
The European strategic bombing campaign was supposed to purchase Germany’s and Italy’s capitulation before American and British ground forces would invade the Continent. The bomber generals’ goals obviously weren’t accomplished—neither Audie Murphy nor Dwight D. Eisenhower would have had fame to cash in after the war should the B-17s and B-24s of the Mighty Eighth have made D-Day unnecessary; had the bomber mafia been right the Republicans might have nominated Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle (the 8th Air Force’s commanding officer) in 1952 instead of Eisenhower. The price of the European strategic bombing failure was merely the expenditure of 2.7 million tons of explosives (Japan’s capitulation remains a toss-up to this day), devastation stretching from London to Moscow with civilian dead numbering in the tens of millions, and 20% inflation during the postwar drawdown.
28 years later, 2.756 million tons of bombs purchased even less:
A single B-52D “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US official stated at the time, “We had been told, as had everybody…that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.”
Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher. The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas…scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.” Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
The bombing campaign totally backfired. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam all fell into the hands of Communist “insurgents” in 1975.
I previously posited that strategic bombing caused the fall of the Cambodian and Laotian dominoes, in a posting entitled “The Lost History of the Early 1970s.” I go into far more detail about the U.S. Southeast Asia bombing campaign, especially how it contributed to the onset of American stagflation (i.e.: warfare was the primary, almost exclusive cause of the inflationary periods before Bretton Woods finally collapsed on 19 March 1973).
The ghosts of Vietnam haunt the world to this day. Strategic bombing failed in Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Still, the Americans have a near-messianic belief in dropping ordnance from the air. Air power advocates refuse to acknowledge the hard truth–bombing alone is never effective against an enemy fighting on his own turf unless one is prepared to starve the combatant’s entire populace to death. Even if a government finds itself so callous to advocate such a strategy, the only past “successes” have been against island nations–where naval supremacy (especially with sub-surface forces) is equally necessary.
But the long shadow of Vietnam stretches further than just obstinate USAF generals and USN admirals. Considering warfare single-handedly destroyed the system of fixed exchange with not one economist or historian taking notice, the lasting economic impact of the aerial war over Indochina hangs over the world like a volcanic-ash-induced winter.