Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)
Chapter 1. G.I. Joe, Ho Chi Minh, and the American Art of Fighting About Fighting
THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A LIFELONG AND HABITUAL FRETTER. He was wary of animal foods, spirituous liquors, state religion, national debt, abolitionists, embittered slaves, unelected federal judges, Yankee politicians, Yankee professors, and Yankees in general. But his predominant and animating worry was the centralization and consolidation of power—in large banks, in closed and secret societies, and, most of all, in governments: the enemy within. “There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors, that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot, but in well-defined cases,” Jefferson wrote as the Constitution of the United States was being debated. “Such an instrument is a standing army.”
His feelings didn’t much change with time. In 1792 he wrote, “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier.” In 1799 he wrote to a political friend that he was “not for a standing army in a time of peace, which may overwhelm public sentiment.”
Classicist that he was, Jefferson was apt to bolster his arguments with well-polished (if not strictly accurate) examples of early Western history: “The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies, yet they defended themselves.… Their system was to make every man a soldier and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so.”
That’s at best a loose military history of Greece and Rome—they did rely at times on standing armies. But you see where he’s going with this. Jefferson acted on his pet “unnecessary soldier” idea when he became president in 1801. He cut the standing army by a third and left the defense against foreign invasion largely to a “well-regulated militia” under the control of the various states and localities. And he remained unmoved by what he viewed as alarmist and cynical calls for a large nationalized active military. “Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon,” he warned Congress in his sixth annual presidential message, “we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place.”
Jeffersonian prudence held sway in this country for a century and a half. The professional military was an institution of limited reach and power; in times of peace we kept the regulars busy building defense works and ports and bridges. Whenever we went to war in a big way, we went to war with citizen-soldiers; the small nucleus of an active-duty army swelled with militiamen, reservists, National Guardsmen, enlisted persons, and draftees. When the United States went to war, the entire United States went to war. And no nation’s military demobilized with such verve and velocity when the fighting was over. Hell, volunteers on the battlefields were legally separating themselves from the US Army while the Mexican War still raged in 1847. The War of 1812, the Creek War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, they were all the same: the clarion call to duty, the citizens’ eager answer, the victory parades (having picked our fights judiciously, we were, by the mid-twentieth century, something like 9–0), and the return to home and hearth. Within eighteen months of the conclusion of World War I, Congress had completely dismantled the American Expeditionary Forces and reduced the active-duty military from four million soldiers back to the prewar number of less than three hundred thousand. The effect of tossing more than three million suddenly unemployed men back into an ailing job market did not have an altogether sanguinary effect on the national economy, or on the national mood … but hey, nobody ever said war was supposed to be a jobs program.
Mobilization for World War II was even larger, and the postwar drawdown nearly as dramatic. In 1945 there were twelve million people on active duty in the US Armed Forces; five years later, that number had dropped 88 percent, to just one and a half million. But that stunning demobilization had few concomitant dislocations. Call it the War-and-Peace Dividend or the World’s Greatest Stimulus Package. A country that left a Great Depression at home to confront the Axis powers overseas converted the massive government spending of the war effort into an unprecedented civilian economic boom when that war was won. Factories that had been making jeeps and warplanes and submarine engines and ammunition were now turning out new Chevrolet Bel Airs, Allis-Chalmers tractors, Cessna 170 airplanes, and Frigidaire iceboxes. It didn’t hurt our standing in the world economy that about one in five able-bodied young men in Germany and the Soviet Union had been killed in the war, and at least one in ten of Japan’s. And it didn’t hurt that the industrial cities of Japan and Germany (and much of Western Europe, for that matter) were smoking holes; of the 10.5 million cars manufactured worldwide in 1950, the United States made more than 8 million of them, and sold ’em all over the world.
We were a country that could afford to be generous to our returning veterans, and more than sixty years later we’re still reaping the benefits of that generosity. The post–World War II GI Bill assured returning vets a year’s worth of wages whether they worked or not, and paid college tuition and a living stipend, too. Nearly half of the male students on college campuses in 1948 had been to war. And it also offered low-interest government-guaranteed loans for buying a home. Housing construction and manufacturing boomed. The curve of GNP, household income, and personal spending trended up, up, and up.
The United States of America was a robust nation—a nation of means—and we rebuilt and reconfigured our institutions after World War II in a way that reflected this. Yes, the military demobilization after the war was massive and fast, but even the dramatically shrunk-down US military of 1950 was three times the size it had been before World War II—and with a big footprint. The US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, right alongside all those consumer goods, were already leading exports. We had 150,000 troops in the Far East, 125,000 in Western Europe, and a smattering in such diverse and far-flung locations as Panama, Cuba, Guatemala, Morocco, Eritrea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Samoa, and Indochina. Wary as never before of the Communist threat—now a constant “speck of war visible in our horizon”—America had come to see Jefferson’s preoccupation with standing armies and threats from inside our own power structure as a bit moldy. We were, after all, the only country still capable of keeping the planet safe for democracy.
Through the fifteen years that followed World War II, we trusted our commanders in chief—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, they’d all served!—to project our military power in measured and meaningful ways. We ratcheted up our extraordinary nuclear program, broke a Soviet blockade of Berlin with a dramatic airlift, beat the Commies back in Formosa and Thailand, fought them to a standstill in Korea, and stared down Khrushchev when our spy planes caught him red-handed putting missiles in Cuba. When President Kennedy decided to engage the Soviets in the space race, the nation’s finest military pilots were the chosen first team.
The United States military was an institution of unsurpassed public esteem, top to bottom. You could measure that regard in a hundred different ways. Take, for instance, the plaything metric. In 1964 one of the hottest new toys on the market was a doll, for boys: G.I. Joe.
There was not a whiff of peacetime, soon-to-be civilian in this toy; these were not Ken dolls in dress uniforms at the debutante ball. G.I. Joe was olive drab, M1 rifle, canned Spam, scar-faced, down-and-dirty. The hard-plastic soldiers (petroleum-based all the way) were built to take a pounding. In the spring of 1965, in GI Bill–built suburbs from Levittown, New York, to Castro Valley, California, ten-year-old boys were digging miniature foxholes and jerry-rigging Dad’s old handkerchiefs to make paratroopers out of their new dolls. Hasbro had an instant hit; G.I. Joe did close to $20 million in sales that first year. Early indications pointed to steady growth.
But sales reports later in the ’60s made for unhappy reading in the Hasbro boardroom, and by the early 1970s the toy company found itself leaning on gimmicks to sell G.I. Joe. These included fuzzy flocked hair (they called it “realistic”), a nonregulation beard, colorful new uniform choices, swiveling “Eagle-Eyes,” and a fighting hand formed into a “Kung Fu Grip” (Bruce Lee had taken off by then). Hasbro folded G.I. Joe into “The Adventure Team … ready to go wherever adventure leads.” The company was at pains to minimize the militaryness of its military doll.
You can’t blame the Hasbro marketers and their sell-side analysts for having been optimistic in those first heady months of 1964. They were sure they were riding the long wave of good feeling for US soldierdom. How could they have known that the ground under G.I. Joe was beginning to shift, even in the happy springtime of his advent?
The first tectonic tremor came from the White House in the early months of 1965 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson began the prosecution of his own hot war in Vietnam. He had campaigned in ’64 by promising, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” He’d painted his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a dangerous hair-trigger warmonger (with some help from Goldwater himself, who, in a May 1963 ABC interview, proposed dropping low-yield nuclear bombs on Vietnam to destroy supply lines and achieve “defoliation of the forests.” And why not? Among their many-splendored uses, nuclear explosions can be excellent pruners).
Yes, in 1961, Johnson’s predecessor John F. Kennedy had promised at his inauguration, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But Johnson’s promise was not Kennedy’s; Johnson promised to resist the expensive temptations of foreign wars and to build a Great Society at home instead. He promised not to escalate in Vietnam. He promised he would not allow the United States to get “tied down in a land war in Asia.” But then, despite the promises, despite his determination not to, Johnson got dragged to the conclusion that the United States needed to be fighting in Vietnam. He moved to convince the American people and Congress that he should have the authority to use military force there—the wildly exaggerated Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 would be the basis for the only congressional authorization Johnson ever sought for war. Then, with only halfhearted gestures toward trying to keep the country on board with a war he never really wanted to fight, Johnson set about trying to fight his war in a way the American people might hopefully not notice too much. “We don’t think we’ll ask for much money,” Johnson confided to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard Russell, in the summer of 1965, as he made plans to increase the ground forces in Vietnam from 80,000 to 180,000, “because we don’t want to blow this thing up.”
LBJ “tried to fight a war on the cheap,” one of the Johnson administration’s key intelligence men, George A. Carver, would say years later, “and tried to fight a war without acknowledging that he was fighting a war.”
The agonized president was trying to thread a new and difficult needle: taking the nation’s armed forces to war without taking the nation as a whole to war. And central to that effort was one crucial decision. Against the advice of his secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over the outright objection of the chief of staff of the US Army, Johnson simply refused to call up the modern parallel to those old Jeffersonian state militias, all those men living in our neighborhoods: the US Army Reserve and the National Guard. The Guard or Reserves had been called to fight in every American war in the nation’s history—even in the nonwar that was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963—but in Vietnam, Johnson hesitated. In part he was worried that a full-scale mobilization would draw the Russians and the Chinese into the war, but mostly he didn’t want to get Congress and the rest of the country all het up and asking too many questions.
“I don’t think I’ll have to call [the Reserves] up now,” he told Russell. “I think it’s too dramatic. I think it commits me where I can’t get out. And it puts me out there further than I wanna get right at the moment.… You don’t think I oughta have a joint session, do you?”
“Not as long as you don’t call up any Reserves and all I wouldn’t,” Russell answered. The six-term senator from Georgia was sympathetic to the president’s predicament. (“I never worked on anything as hard in my life,” Johnson complained to the man who had been his mentor and champion in the Senate.)
“It woulda driven me mad,” Russell told Johnson. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever hit in my life I didn’t have some quick answer to, but I haven’t got one to this.”
But the seasoned senator also reminded Johnson that failing to mobilize the Reserves would send a signal to the Soviets, the North Vietnamese Communists, and the rest of the world that we lacked will. “It adds to ol’ Ho Chi Minh’s argument that we ain’t gonna stay in there, that we gonna pull out.… Call up the Reserves, they understand that language. They understood it in Berlin. They understand that.”
“Well, if I extend the enlistments and if I put a hundred thousand out there they’ll understand it,” Johnson answered with a chuckle, though he did not mean to amuse. “And I’m gonna step up my draft calls. Double ’em.”
The draft wasn’t new for Vietnam; it had been plugging holes in the active-duty armed forces since 1917. For a president trying to flesh out a Vietnam fighting force without causing too much consternation, increasing the draft seemed a better choice than calling up Reserves. In 1965, the Guard and Reserves were the things you quietly signed up for to avoid service, and Johnson was already hearing from congressmen, who were hearing from prominent constituents, who were in nowise interested in having their sons’ Guard and Reserve units called up to fight in some godforsaken war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And Johnson agreed! This was, after all, not a major war, at least not a war with a major effect on the home front. And there was also Johnson’s hope that his war would be a US rout, soldiers in and out in a matter of months: Ho Chi Minh got anything to match this? Johnson supposedly bragged to reporters during a bathroom break.
But even as the war’s Phase II, “the preparing-to-win phase,” as Vietnam historian Neil Sheehan called it, stretched into its second and third years and then started to look like an ugly, viciously prosecuted, no-end-in-sight, preparing-to-lose phase, Johnson stubbornly refused to call up the Reserves, and stubbornly refused to come clean with the country that we—all of us—were in a real war. So from the first 3,500 combat Marines Johnson sent ashore near Da Nang on March 8, 1965, to support the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam to the 535,000 American troops who were in Vietnam at the end of his presidency, something like 1 percent would be Guard and Reserves. The active-duty armed forces shouldered the burdens of Johnson’s land war in Asia—fleshed out by draftees, chosen at random from among the ranks of young American men who were unable or unwilling to get themselves out of it.
Whether or not Johnson’s decision had any effect on the outcome of the war in Vietnam is debatable, and ultimately unknowable, but there was an enormous cost inside the United States—it tore the military from the heart of the country, and it tore the country from the heart of the military. One young company-commander-turned-novelist saw that wrenching in its inglorious entirety. Jim Webb showed himself to be an extraordinary soldier in Vietnam; he won two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and, for bravery under fire, the Navy Cross. But what really set him apart was his remarkable acuity. From the darkest jungle trenches, the twenty-three-year-old lieutenant managed to apprehend the big picture. And in his Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire, Webb distilled the national tragedy in pitch-perfect dialogue between a battle-tested regular Army NCO and a young lieutenant:
“I’ll tell you a little story, maybe it’ll make sense. When I came back from Vietnam the first time I went to the Reserve Training Center, like I said. It wasn’t really big over here yet. We all knew it would get bigger, though, and we figured Johnson would call up the Reserves. We kept telling all the Weekend Warriors that they’d better get their shit in one bag, because they were going to war. Like Korea. And it got bigger, but Johnson didn’t have the balls to call up the Reserves. Reserves can vote. And they drive airplanes for United. And they run businesses. Instead, Johnson just made a bigger draft, filled it with loopholes, and went after certain groups of kids.”
“You said yourself the kids were great.”
“It ain’t what happens here that’s important. It’s what’s happening back there. Shit, Lieutenant, you’d hardly know there was a war on. It’s in the papers, and college kids run around screaming about it instead of doing panty raids or whatever they were running around doing before but that’s it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids still go to college. It’s like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn’t touching anybody except us. It makes me sick, Lieutenant.… We been abandoned, Lieutenant. We been kicked off the edge of the goddamn cliff. They don’t know how to fight it, and they don’t know how to stop fighting it. And back home it’s too complicated, so they forget about it and do their rooting at football games. Well, fuck ’em. They ain’t worth dying for.”
The American troops’ disenchantment with the country’s civilian cohort was real, but so was civilian disenchantment with the Vietnam War, and with the military itself. And it was not confined to student activists and peaceniks. The worst of the war had been beamed into middle-class living rooms all across America—the blood and gore, the death, the waste, the atrocities. The public’s idea of the country and what it stood for had taken a holy beating. One active-duty company commander who returned from Vietnam to a job at a recruiting station in Kansas City was stung by the overriding sentiment he found among his new neighbors. “This is a horrible war and our troops are doing terrible things over there,” they’d say, “but we know you’re not like that, Paul.”
Much as the military man tried—“I am them. I am typical. I am what the Marine Corps is all about”—he never felt able to convince his civilian friends that they had a military to be proud of.
Said one veteran: “There’s a wall ten miles high and fifty miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn’t, and that wall is never going to come down.”
We’d gone to war in Vietnam in a way that we’d never gone to war before, and no one liked how it turned out. So while we did what we’d done after every war, while we dramatically drew down ground troops in Vietnam—from 510,054 in 1969 to 212,925 in 1971 to 265 in 1973—this time the brass decided it would be done differently: in the future, presidents wouldn’t have the option Johnson chose. The next time America went to war, it wouldn’t be the military out there alone, “kicked off the goddamn cliff” as Webb’s NCO would say. Officially, the post-Vietnam restructuring of the military was called the Total Force Policy; unofficially, everyone called it the Abrams Doctrine.
Creighton Abrams was the US commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, while troop strength there went from more than half a million to one-fifteenth of that number. Then he returned to Washington, where he served as Army chief of staff from 1972 until he died in 1974. And as chief, while winding down that increasingly unpopular and costly war, Abrams restructured the United States Army in a way that made it harder for a commander in chief to go to war, or at least harder to fight a war without having first sought the support of the American people for that war.
It’s hard to make the case that Abrams began his reorganization with the intent to remake the nation’s political structures, or with the express purpose of closing off options available to America’s elected officials. He certainly never talked about it that way. His overriding concern was the restoration of the institution to which he’d devoted his entire life: the United States Army. Vietnam had bled that institution dry. Its combat readiness around the world had been greatly diminished; the Seventh Army in Germany had become little more than a pricey replacement depot for Southeast Asia. The Guard and Reserves were in shambles, viewed as a haven for shirkers. And Abrams had seen firsthand how even the soldiers who had served honorably and proudly in Vietnam were demoralized. He personally knew the sting of civilian criticism: Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, had trouble hiding his contempt for Abrams. In 1971, Nixon said to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Abrams “had his shot” to win a military victory in Vietnam, “and he’s not going to get any more.” The following year, he wrote to Kissinger of Abrams, “Our military leadership has been a sad chapter in the proud military history of this country.”
As commander on the ground of a hated war, Abrams grew to love the Army and its soldiers all the more. “In a changing world, changing times and changing attitude and the various political motivations that have thrust themselves upon our country,” he told the First Infantry Division in their last hours before returning home, “[you] represent a constancy of those essential virtues of mankind: humility, courage, devotion, and sacrifice. The world is changed a lot, but this division continues to serve as it had in the beginning. I choose to feel that this is part of the cement and the rock and the steel that holds our great country together.”
Abrams’s passion as Army chief at the end of Vietnam was to manage the nation’s demobilization from that conflict in a way that protected the military. Even as wartime appropriations dried up and the size of the Army shrunk dramatically and the now-hated draft was abolished, Abrams wanted a big national investment in military readiness. He had served in three American wars, and he described how calling up an unprepared Army out of an unprepared nation meant shedding too much American blood when it came time to fight: “We have paid, and paid, and paid again in blood and sacrifice for our unpreparedness.… I don’t want war, but I am appalled at the human cost that we’ve paid because we wouldn’t prepare to fight.”
His solution was elegant in its simplicity and its financial efficiency. Under Abrams’s Total Force Policy, the Guard and Reserves would no longer be shelters to avoid service but rather integral parts of the nation’s fighting capacity. It would be operationally impossible to go to war without calling them up. Abrams wove the Guard and Reserves into the fabric of the active-duty military; he made those in-your-neighborhood citizen-soldiers responsible for functions without which we could not wage a major military campaign. And in weaving the Guard and Reserves into the active-duty military, he also wove the military back into the country.
John Vessey, who worked under Abrams during the restructuring, remembered the general’s central focus: “He thought about [the kind of nation America was] an awful lot, and concluded that whatever we’re going to do we ought to do right as we are a nation. Let’s not build an Army off here in the corner someplace. The Armed Forces are an expression of the nation. If you take them out of the national context, you are likely to screw them up. That was his lesson from Vietnam. He wasn’t going to leave them in that position ever again.”
And so the political threshold for going to war was raised. The Abrams Doctrine—the Total Force Policy—put American politicians in the position of being “designed out” of waging war in a way that was dislocated from the everyday experience of American families. Remember Russell’s advice to Johnson when the president wondered whether he’d have to address a joint session of Congress about a huge escalation in Vietnam: “Not as long as you don’t call up any Reserves I wouldn’t.” With the Abrams Doctrine, calling up the Reserves would no longer be optional, and therefore neither would that pilgrimage to Congress. The president’s hand was forced: if America was to fight a war, the life of that “airplane driver for United” would have to be profoundly disrupted, civilians would have to be pried out of their civilian jobs. What Johnson had resisted as “too dramatic” in the last war would become the political price of admission to the next one.
The loudest story of the summer and fall of 1973 may have been the Senate slowly tightening the noose of Watergate around President Nixon’s neck, but at the same time Congress was also busy writing “A Joint Resolution Concerning the War Powers of Congress and the President.” The War Powers Resolution of 1973 would be an explicit reassertion of the prerogative spelled out under Article 1, Section 8, “to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States” that Congress—and Congress alone—had the power to declare war.
The framers had been voluble in their rationale for and in their defense of Article 1, Section 8. “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates,” wrote James Madison, “that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Even that suspected monarchist Alexander Hamilton saw the wisdom of keeping the power to declare war out of the hands of a single executive. Madison, Hamilton, and their fellow framers were building structural barriers against what they saw as the darker aspects of human nature. The lures to war—personal hatreds, political glory, material spoils, and the simple atavistic enthusiasm for violence—might be too enticing for one man to resist, and might be too easy to promote “by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory,” as a later congressman, Abraham Lincoln, put it, “that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye that charms to destroy.” Madison wrote in his notes during the constitutional debates that Virginia delegate George Mason “was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but for facilitating peace.”
The framers clogged up the works by making the decision to go to war a communal one. By vesting it in the Congress—a large, slow-moving deliberative body of varied and often competing viewpoints—the Constitution assured that the case for any war would have to be loud, well argued, and made in plain view. The people’s representatives would be forced to take time and care to weigh the costs against the benefits.
This structure did not make the young United States what you’d call pacifist; we didn’t spread ourselves from sea to shining sea on high ideals and impeccable manners alone. But the wisdom of erecting high barriers to war making traveled unimpeded through early generations of Americans. In his first term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln reiterated the founding principle with a low-born frontiersman’s understanding of who pays the costs of martial élan: “The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
In 1973, the successors of that frontier congressman had just had a painful refresher course in the perils of lowering the barriers to war. They had allowed Johnson to exercise tremendous prerogative; he’d shoved more than half a million soldiers into Southeast Asia without taking his case through Congress and the American people. So in 1973, the United States Congress reasserted itself. It passed legislation to raise and reinforce the structural barriers to a president waging his own wars. The post-Vietnam Congress wanted no future president to be able to act with that sort of impunity. (As the crotchety old Justice Hugo Black would remind folks who complained about the roadblocks to criminal prosecution embedded in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights: “They were written to make it more difficult!”)
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an imperfect law. But by passing it, the legislative branch was putting the executive on notice—it no longer would settle for being a backbencher on vital questions of war and peace. If the president wanted to execute a military operation (any military operation), he had to petition Congress for the authority to do so within thirty days; if Congress didn’t grant explicit authorization, that operation would have to end after sixty days by law. The Oval Office would no longer have open-ended war-making powers.
The assertion of congressional power had strong support across party lines. When an incensed President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution, both the House and the Senate overrode that veto with votes to spare.
And the legislature didn’t stop there, especially not when the subject was once again Vietnam. In April 1975, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suspected that Nixon’s replacement, President Gerald Ford, wasn’t telling all about his latest request for financial support for our allies in South Vietnam, President Nguyen Van Thieu’s failing army. As far as the committee members could discern from the parade of witnesses sent from the White House, President Ford wasn’t willing to accept the facts on the ground: the North Vietnamese Army was about to overrun the friendly government in Saigon and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. American combat troops were long gone.
During an executive session of the committee, the senators worried aloud that the Ford administration had not made a real plan for the coming collapse of Thieu’s government. They worried that the president’s stubborn support for a failing South Vietnamese military might lead us back into a hot war there, with combat troops once again on the ground. Congress had given Johnson and Nixon too many chances, and these presidents had made too many costly mistakes and miscalculations. The Senate was not in a mood to give Ford free rein. The game was up. Ford wasn’t going to get his $722 million appropriation. He needed to understand that.
So the committee, in the middle of that executive session, dialed up and requested a nearly unprecedented face-to-face consultation with the president, and then marched en masse down to the White House and into the Cabinet Room. “We wanted to tell you our concerns and hear from you your concerns,” Ford’s fellow Republican, Sen. Howard Baker, told the new president. “We hope when we have, we will have established a new era of negotiation between the Executive and Legislative branches.”
Ford was horrified. He wrote in his memoir that the last time the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had showed up at the White House demanding a meeting was back in the Woodrow Wilson administration. Ford—having just come from the House of Representatives himself—was floored by the legislators’ presumption. He described the meeting as “extremely tense.”
And it was. The minutes show the senators pointedly suggesting that the president get control of his ungovernable and unrealistic ambassador in Saigon, that he make a real plan to evacuate the 6,000 Americans and the 175,000 South Vietnamese friendlies, and that he drop his appropriations request by two-thirds and limit it to funds for safe evacuation … or forget it. There wasn’t going to be any more open-ended aid to stand up additional South Vietnamese infantry divisions.
“If there isn’t some indication of aid,” Ford harrumphed, “the situation could disintegrate rapidly.”
“I will give you large sums for evacuation,” Sen. Jacob Javits told the president point-blank, “but not one nickel for military aid for Thieu.”
“We are not wanting to put American troops in, but we have to have enough funds to make it look like we plan to hold for some period,” Ford offered at the end of the meeting. But the senators damn sure weren’t going to get sucked into any more combat missions, even in the effort to evacuate.
“This is a reentry of a magnitude we had not envisioned,” Sen. John Glenn, the famed pilot and astronaut, told the president. “I can see North Vietnam deciding not to let us get these people out and attacking our bridgehead. Then we would have to send forces to protect our security forces. That fills me with fear.” The Senate had dug in its heels, and there was little the president could do.
Oh, but those days stuck in the craw of the inhabitants of the West Wing circa 1975. Gerald Ford’s chief of staff would still be complaining bitterly about that “congressional backlash” and the War Powers Resolution nearly forty years later. “The resolution, despite its questionable and still untested constitutionality,” Donald Rumsfeld huffed in his 2011 memoir, “undercut the President’s ability to convince troublemakers of America’s staying power.” Ford complained aloud to his cabinet that Congress had stepped in where it had no business, forcing him to become the president who would, as he put it, “cut and run,” who would “bug out” of Vietnam. Secretary of State Kissinger actually whined to Ford that a few Republican senators had been really mean to him.
But this wasn’t about mean. This wasn’t about Kissinger, it wasn’t about Ford, it wasn’t personal at all. This was about the fundamental question of American martial power and how it’s wielded.
In the aftermath of America’s decade-long tragedy in Vietnam—in the military demobilization, in the course corrections, and in the political recriminations that followed—something important happened. The new structures that grew out of that searing experience—the Abrams Doctrine, the War Powers Resolution, a newly muscular Congress—had real, fundamental, change-the-country force. Taken as a whole, they had the sort of salubrious outcome old George Mason would have cheered: they clogged up the country’s war-making apparatus.
The questions of how we provide for the common defense, how we apportion our limited resources to the military, how we prepare for war, and whether or not we go to war were back where they belonged, out in the open, subject to loud and jangly political debate.
It must be noted for the record, however, that sales of G.I. Joe remained soft, even with the Kung Fu Grip.