The Indelible Stain of Congress
When the United States Congress fails in its duty to protect and defend the Constitution, the consequences are always serious. Nowhere is this truer than in matters of war. A prime example of this was an event that occurred forty years ago this week.
War hysteria erupted on August 4, 1964, when two American destroyers were fired upon by North Vietnamese warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Upon notification of the incident, President Lyndon Johnson approved an air strike that was carried out the next day. Meanwhile, the Senate scheduled a hearing in order to consider a resolution in support of the president’s actions.
On the afternoon of August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It was approved unanimously by the House and 88-2 by the Senate. It gave the president authority to use any measure necessary to deal with aggression in Vietnam. It was, in short, a blank check that the president eagerly cashed and used as a legal justification for escalating the Vietnam brushfire into a full-blown ground war. The United States would eventually send a half million troops to Southeast Asia.
Eventually the truth about the episode in the Gulf of Tonkin was uncovered. The “incident” had been manufactured. The U.S. warships had intentionally crossed into North Vietnamese waters in what amounted to a deliberate provocation. As H. R. McMaster notes in his book Dereliction of Duty, the deceptions went far beyond Tonkin to body counts and the fact that we were losing the war. In short, Americans were sent to die on the basis of lies.
In Iraq, the American people have been had again. George W. Bush twisted the truth to get us to invade that nation. Just as disturbing was the president’s refusal to submit his case against Iraq to the Congress of the United States, which alone is constitutionally empowered to issue a declaration of war.
Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution states that “The Congress shall have power…To declare war….” Here the language is simple, intentionally so. Our Founding Fathers insisted that the decision to go to war was to be made by the legislative branch of government, not by the executive. The reasoning of the Founders was simple: it is far too dangerous to place the power to wage war in the hands of a single individual.
The October 2002 resolution passed by Congress is often cited as proof that the president had congressional authority to attack Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. The resolution declared war against no nation but simply stated that the president “has authority under the Constitution to take action in order to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States….” The resolution by Congress could not, in fact, grant the president authority to declare war because the Congress cannot alter the express language of the Constitution. Only a constitutional amendment can overrule Article 1, Section 8.
Senator Robert Byrd was one of only 23 senators to oppose this resolution. In an interview with Tim Russert he said:
In the end, only 22 other members voted to oppose this despicable grant of authority…. Never in my half century of congressional service had the United States proved unworthy of its great name. What would the framers have thought? In this terrible show of weakness, the Senate left an indelible stain upon its own escutcheon. Having revered the Senate during my service for more than forty years, I was never pained so much.
In turning over to one man the decision to use military force in Iraq, the Congress voted to shift the constitutional power to declare war to the president. But the precedent had been set years earlier.
“This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again,” Senator Byrd said while the 2002 resolution was being debated in Congress. “Let us stop, look and listen. Let us not give this president or any president unchecked power. Remember the Constitution.”
Today we desperately need a return to the process prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. Congress should not allow Mr. Bush or any other president to exercise war-making authority akin to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Instead, after thoughtful debate, Congress should follow the Constitution by voting on a declaration of war if it believes such a course is warranted. In the future the Congress would do well to follow the path outlined by the Founders and not that of their failed predecessors in 1964 and 2002.
August 9, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book is Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.