Old disputes rise in debate in Congress Bitter memories of Vietnam surface

January 12, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The talk on Capitol Hill is of war and dread and the exhumation of history's bitter arguments.

On the chamber floors, in the hallways and hideaways of the byzantine Capitol complex, the past military failures in Vietnam and Lebanon haunt many members who are expected to cast ballots today on whether Congress will authorize the president to use force to free Kuwait from Iraqi troops.

"It's a grim record," said Representative Jim Leach, R-Iowa, who said he would vote today with an anticipated majority to back the White House's strategy in the Persian Gulf. "It's something most of us think very carefully about."

The last time Congress granted a president authority to deploy troops overseas, President Ronald Reagan stationed U.S. personnel in and near war-torn Lebanon. A suicide car bomb attack against the U.S. Embassy resulted in the deaths of 239 Marines stationed there.

But the last time Congress authorized a president to use force in response to an attack, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson embroiled the nation in the Vietnam War. More than 50,000 Americans were subsequently killed in Indochina, and the controversy over U.S. involvement in that struggle tore the nation's political fabric asunder.

Only 27 members of the present Congress were serving on that day in August, 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by a near-unanimous vote. Yet that vote remains a potent symbol in the current debate, and opponents of White House policy invoke the Gulf of Tonkin repeatedly as the supreme example of what can go wrong.

"I've cast 17,000 votes, and it is the one I regret," said Representative Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., who joined his House colleagues in voting for the Tonkin measure.

"I didn't grasp the importance of it," said Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif. "But after 50,000 dead people, I sure as hell did."

By the reckonings of lawmakers from both parties, Mr. Bush will win congressional permission to use force for the liberation of Kuwait -- permission he has sought even while maintaining that it is something he does not legally need.

Still, the 102nd Congress is clearly more reluctant to grant President Bush the authority that the 87th Congress surrendered to President Johnson.

Only two senators voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. By comparison, Mr. Bush is expected to prevail narrowly in the Senate, which was moving toward a possible vote today.

The House was expected to give the president a much more ample margin of victory, and Democratic sponsors of a resolution directing U.S. officials to pursue a diplomatic solution to the gulf crisis before resulting to military force openly predicted they would win no more than 140 of the House's 435 votes.

The legacy of Tonkin and the subsequent war in Vietnam are similarly apparent in the tone of continuing congressional debate.

Indeed, so vocal and eloquent was the anti-war opposition on the floor of the House yesterday that one Republican supporter of the Bush administration, Representative Robert K. Dornan of California, rose to wonder why "we don't hear more from our side."

An active anti-war movement has sprung up around the country as the alarms of conflict have been sounded.

But in Washington, its influence may be blunted, especially when compared to that of the peace activists of the early years of the Vietnam War -- in part because many lawmakers already share their point of view.

Yesterday, a band of protesters stood up in the visitors' gallery of the Senate, crying, "No blood for oil! No war for Bush!"

Police quickly hustled them out, only to find that a new group deployed elsewhere in the gallery had taken up the same chant.

Eventually, 11 protesters were arrested.

Ironically, they interrupted a passionate discourse by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who is one of President Bush's most influential and leading opponents on the matter.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.