Congress, in its deep divisions over Central American policy, is being haunted by competing memories of the price paid for permitting, or aborting, military operations in the twilight zone between war and peace, in Vietnam and in Angola.
The Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 had direct impact on House votes Thursday against the Reagan administration's covert support for guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's government. Some of the longest-serving members of Congress believe they were duped into supporting the war in Vietnam. One former senator, J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had a wry characterization: "hornswoggled."
President Johnson for years carried in his pocket a card showing the lopsided 504-to-2 vote (Senate, 88 to 2; House, 416 to 0) for the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which he flashed to his critics. To Fulbright and others who abandoned his policy, Johnson mockingly countered, "It was a shame somebody didn't think of calling it the Fulbright resolution . . . because Senator Fulbright introduced it."
Less well-remembered in the current clash are congressional votes in 1975-76 to halt once-covert aid to anti-communist forces fighting Cubans in Angola. For the Reagan administration's policy makers and supporters, this is the truer analogy. They cite the presence of thousands of Cuban troops in Angola as an example of the price that can be paid for blocking support for anti-communists in Nicaragua.
There are several common themes in all three cases: Vietnam, Angola and Nicaragua. One is the critics' charge that the administration was not leveling with Congress about its actions and intentions. Another is that the administration was incapable of foreseeing the long-term consequences of its involvement.
Unlike the current dispute, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution whipped through Congress with minimal debate. It was indeed a blank check, which Fulbright and others never expected to be cashed. By contrast, in last week's debate over Nicaragua, an extraordinary number of congressmen already have charged the Reagan administration with violating multiple laws and treaty commitments in supporting covert operations against Nicaragua.
There were no comparable early suspicions expressed about sliding into an open-ended war in Vietnam. In what is now seen widely as a time of gullibility, Congress, believing it was responding to a wholly unprovoked attacked on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, compliantly and swiftly gave the Johnson administration everything it sought in August, l964.
It authorized Johnson "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." More sweepingly, the president was authorized "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom."
That resolution was passed Aug. 7, 1964, five days after an attack on the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, and what was reported as a second attack Aug. 4 on the Maddox and a reinforcing destroyer, the U.S.S. Turner Joy.
There still are unresolved questions about whether there was a second attack. Both were described by the United States as bolts from the blue. But before and after the first attack, South Vietnamese naval units secretly raided North Vietnamese bases in the gulf. The United States disclaimed any responsibility for those actions, while North Vietnam insisted it was the victim of provocative attacks, all under American control.
Less than 12 hours after reports of the second attack reached Washington, Johnson ordered "retaliatory" air strikes on North Vietnamese bases as a "limited and fitting" response. The nation was not informed of the American raid until U.S. bombers were returning from the mission.
In the heat of national indignation, the Tonkin Gulf resolution was immediately put before Congress, given truncated hearings, and voted into law. Not until disclosure of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 did the nation learn that the administration had a "contingency" draft of the resolution as early as May 25. That disclosure, and others, inflamed suspicions about the entire course of the war in Vietnam.
Fears of "another Vietnam," not long after that war ended in 1975, brought an outcry in Congress over covert military assistance supplied through the CIA to anti-communist factions in Angola's civil war.
In a parallel to this year's secret sessions of Congress on military operations in Central America, the Senate in December, 1975, twice met in secret on Angola. "What we are doing in Angola is unknown to most Americans," then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) said.
Opposition to the Angolan venture was led by Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa), then chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, and Sens. John V. Tunney (D-Calif.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), over the bitter objections of then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and President Ford.
The Senate, by a vote of 54 to 22 on Dec. 19, 1975, approved a Tunney amendment to ban further funds for military operations in Angola. In the House, Ford's appeals to block "a clear act of Soviet-Cuban expansion by brute military force" were rejected lopsidedly by a 323-to-99 vote on Jan. 27, 1976.
Kissinger charged that failure to check Soviet expansion in Africa struck at the heart of his entire East-West strategy. Today, as chairman of President Reagan's new National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, Kissinger is in a different role in a wider covert warfare dispute. This one, invested with much greater national emotion than remote Angola generated, again shows that recurring alarm over "another Vietnam" is little affected by the political orientation of the administration in power.