It was a vote George McGovern regretted for the rest of his life.
McGovern, a World War II veteran with a record of courage under fire, was early in his first U.S. Senate term when he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which empowered President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate American involvement in the ongoing Vietnamese civil war as well as other hostile actions in Southeast Asia.
The joint resolution, approved on Aug. 10, 1964, was intended to supposedly “promote the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia.” It gave LBJ a free hand, as “Congress approves and supports the determination of the president, as commander in chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
This decision by Congress to surrender its constitutional authority to determine if America should go to war, led to our increased involvement in Vietnam. When we finally left in 1975, more than 58,000 Americans were dead and thousands more were feeling the powerful impact of war.
McGovern knew what that was like, having regretted some of his acts as a bomber pilot during World War II when he saw bombs kill innocent civilians and witnessed other Americans he served with die in horrible ways. That’s why the World War II veteran was such an advocate for peace and an ardent foe of American intervention in the affairs of other countries.
It’s relatively easy for officials who never killed, or saw people die, to issue an order to bomb, to send in troops, to order war to commence. McGovern, like other veterans, knew the cost all too well.
We need to consider that as we edge toward war with Iran.
President Donald Trump didn’t bother to consult with Congress before launching the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds force. It was a response to increased tension that included a December attack on an American base that killed an American contractor, which led to an airstrike that killed 24 members of the Iranian militia, followed by protests on Tuesday, Dec. 31, against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The use of an MQ-9 Reaper drone to take out Iranian military leaders Friday, Jan. 3, was fully justified, Trump said.
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” he told reporters at his resort in West Palm Beach, FL. “We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war.”
Trump warned Iran not to respond in kind.
“If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary,” he said.
The targeted attack that killed Soleimani, a vicious and dangerous Iranian general, has poured a great deal of fuel onto the always-simmering fires of the Middle East. Sending in nearly 5,000 Americans, including Army Rangers, raised concerns about sparking war.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi criticized Trump for not consulting with Congress. It is in the Constitution, after all. If that matters now.
“Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America — and the world — cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return,” Pelosi said. “The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region.”
Most Democrats, while glad to see Soleimani gone, have expressed concern about escalating tensions in the Middle East.
It’s safe to assume how Republicans in Congress will vote, if such a vote is ever held. Despite whatever personal doubts they have about Trump as president, they will support him no matter what he does.
McGovern knew the feeling, voting to escalate American involvement in Vietnam to support a Democratic president.
“I reluctantly supported that resolution, because we were assured that two American destroyers operating on the high seas were attacked in an unprovoked — what was called an unprovoked attack by the North Vietnamese naval forces,” he said in a 2005 interview. “Actually, we learned within a few months of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that there was no evidence that such an attack ever occurred. Even one of the commanders of one of the destroyers said at the time, ‘Hold up, we are not really sure that there was any attack.’
“Lyndon Johnson himself said to his aides, ‘It looks like those guys were shooting at whales out there,’” McGovern recalled. “Really, he began to doubt the substance of the resolution himself. But I think, I have always thought that was a cooked-up deal. Even if there had been some kind of PT boat attack on those destroyers, it wasn’t unprovoked because those destroyers were out there harassing the North Vietnamese coastline. So that was a total fiction, totally without any foundation in fact.”
But America plunged deeply into the war after Congress wrote LBJ that blank check.
Congress has only declared war five times, during the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Presidents have plunged us into war without a formal resolution but with congressional approval numerous times, and other times, a president just sent in the troops.
Congress has stated its outrage and voted to condemn such uses of power by the commander in chief, but bullets still were fired, bombs dropped and people killed.
Such is the case again as a president has decided to use the power to wage war. Trump, and Congress, no matter how it acts or doesn’t, will be held responsible for what occurs in the wake of that decision.
The president’s Senate trial after his impeachment by the House of Representatives, is off the front pages. Evidence of his dealings with Ukrainian leaders, previously a major story, have been overshadowed by war.
We cannot judge these events, but we will someday look back and wonder why this happened, realize what it led to and wonder if it was worth the blood and treasure we are about to spend.
It’s something Congress was intended to debate and act on, but as our imperial presidency grows in power, its members join the rest of us as we wait and watch the next explosive development.
Tom Lawrence is a former managing editor of The REVIEW. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.