Debating war: 1970 and today

The Republican leadership pooh-poohed as “meaningless” the House debate on H.Con.Res. 63 condemning President Bush’s decision to deploy another 48,000 troops to Iraq. But it was 36 hours of high drama, with a bipartisan majority standing against this war. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made clear that binding legislation to end the war is next.

A historic parallel was the Senate debate on ending the Vietnam War 37 years ago. Senators George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) introduced an amendment setting Dec. 31, 1970, as the date for an end to combat operations in Vietnam, with withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the summer of 1971. The amendment was debated fiercely for months and on Sept. 1, 1970, it was rejected 55-39. “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave,” McGovern said. “This chamber reeks of blood.”

Earlier, in 1969, Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) introduced a resolution to end funding for Nixon’s “incursion” into Cambodia and Laos (with eerie parallels to Bush’s “troop surge” and threats to spread his war to Iran). After six months of debate, the Senate approved the amendment 58-37. The House voted it down 237-153. But a revised Cooper-Church amendment passed both houses Dec. 22, 1970, and became law Jan. 5, 1971, the first legislation ever to curb Nixon’s bloody war.

The senators acted in response to the enormous antiwar protests. The Vietnam Moratorium brought millions into the streets across the nation Oct. 15, 1969. A month later, half a million protesters filled Washington. On May 4, 1970, millions of students walked out of classes to protest Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Nixon called them “bums” and National Guard troops opened fire at Kent State in Ohio killing four, and Jackson State in Mississippi, killing two.

Nixon continued the Vietnam bloodbath for another five years. That must not happen again. The House has taken a historic step. With enough grassroots pressure, it will help propel similar action in the Senate. It sets the stage for Congress to use its “power of the purse” to end the Iraq war.