By the spring of 1975, U.S. combat troops had been gone from Vietnam for two years. But their departure had not ended the Vietnam War. About a year and a half after U.S. troops left, North Vietnam embarked on an offensive to overrun the South. Within just a few months, it was clear that the South Vietnamese forces were crumbling, and President Gerald Ford went to Congress with a request for $700 million in aid. Ostensibly, the money was to finance an evacuation of remaining U.S. personnel and some South Vietnamese allies. But Congress feared it was Ford's way of putting a foot in the door to restart the war.
In a remarkable confrontation on April 14, 1975, the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee went to the White House for a meeting with the president. The substance of the closed-door meeting was not made public at the time, but when the minutes were declassified in 1992, there was Ford in black-and-white, admitting the funding was, in fact, intended "to stabilize the military situation."
Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, warned, "This raises the specter of a new war." First-term Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., said, "I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out," but he insisted that money for evacuation and military aid for the South Vietnamese government "are totally different."
Before April 1975 was over, South Vietnam would fall. But Ford's request to "stabilize the military situation" — to try to salvage an outcome that America had sacrificed so much for — was rebuffed by those senators.
Congress knew that it was in its power to say no, and it said no. There would be no second coming of America's war in Vietnam.
There is a school of thought that if only America's war in Vietnam had been longer, bigger and bloodier, it might have ended differently. But what happened after we left makes that hard to believe.
America is big and rich enough to fight endless wars if there is the public desire and political will to do so. When the will isn't there to sustain, expand or start wars, however, that is not some inconvenient externality to be sidestepped — it's integral to our system. Under Article I of the Constitution, Congress is vested with the power to declare war. The debates of the Founding Fathers on the subject made clear Congress got that job instead of the president so that decisions about war and peace would be made not on one person's say-so but only after vigorous national debate.
Two and a half years after U.S. troops left Iraq, as we have watched Fallujah, Mosul and a swath of additional territory fall to Sunni militants, we are in need of such a debate. That is why it has been maddening to see the media seek out supposedly expert analysis from people who made bad predictions and false declarations about the Iraq invasion in 2003. Whether they are humbled by their own mistakes or not, it is our civic responsibility to ensure that a history of misstatements and misjudgments has consequences for a person's credibility in our national discourse.
On Capitol Hill, it's even worse. After meeting with President Obama last week, congressional leaders emerged in rare bipartisan agreement: All said the president would need no further authorization from Congress for new U.S. military intervention in Iraq. They may agree on that, but they're wrong: Neither the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force nor the 2002 Iraq war authorization obviously applies in this instance.
Beyond the 60-day window afforded by the War Powers Act, Obama will need overt congressional authorization for additional troops to protect the U.S. Embassy and U.S. personnel, for the several hundred military "advisers" he has just announced, for air strikes by manned or unmanned planes or for any further military intervention.
Obama is plainly reluctant to send troops back at all, let alone to contemplate a larger scale re-engagement. But that doesn't mean it's his decision to make. Concerning Saigon in 1975, Ford thought that military re-engagement was his decision, and Congress marched to the White House and reminded him that it was not. Concerning Baghdad in 2014, Congress seems determined to march in the other direction.
Obama is right to insist that he will continue "close consultation" with Congress on Iraq going forward, but Congress and the president are both wrong if they think that that consultation consists of Congress being told and not asked what should happen next. Whether we believe the Founding Fathers were right or not to give the responsibility for war and peace to the clamorous Congress, they did. It is an irresponsible constitutional cop-out to pretend they didn't.
Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show and writes a monthly column for the Washington Post.